Outwitting History

Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky Read Free Book Online

Book: Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky Read Free Book Online
Authors: Aaron Lansky
might be another copy at the McGill library. The rest of us loaded up with change and resigned ourselves to hours at the coin-operated Xerox machine—a recourse so common it once caused Ruth’s brother, David Roskies, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, to lament that “We are no longer
Am hasefer,
the People of the Book; we are now
Am ha-kseroks,
the People of the Xerox.”
    There was an alternative. There were still many individuals in Montreal with excellent Yiddish libraries of their own. As time went on, we figured out who they were and began ringing doorbells, asking to borrow the books we needed for class. People were remarkably forthcoming: They gladly provided them, as well as hot tea, cookies, and impromptu reviews. When we returned the books the following week we were served more tea and cookies and then examined on what we had read. The arrangement worked well enough in Montreal, with its large Yiddish-speaking population, but I couldn’t imagine what students were doing in Austin, Madison, Berkeley, Ithaca, or other, more far-flung communities where Yiddish was by then being taught.
    Then I received a letter from Kathryn Hellerstein, the graduate studentwho used to visit me with Malka Heifetz Tussman at the carriage house in California. She wrote that she had just returned from a visit to her home city in Ohio, where the local rabbi informed her that he had been given a nine-hundred-volume Yiddish library from the estate of a recently deceased congregant. He tried to donate the books to various schools and libraries, but no one wanted them, so, he told Kathryn, there was nothing else to do but send them to the junkyard to be sold as scrap.
    I was incredulous. Dispersed and landless throughout most of our history, Jews venerated books as a “portable homeland,” the repository of our collective memory and identity. As a child I had been taught that if a book fell on the floor—it didn’t matter whether it was the Rambam or Norman Mailer—I was supposed to pick it up and kiss it. So how could a rabbi, of all people, throw books out?
    A month later, while visiting my parents in New Bedford, I stopped by the local shul to chat with the rabbi, Bernard Glassman, a kind, scholarly man who had just published a work on the persistence of anti-Semitic stereotypes in England during the centuries of Jewish expulsion. I found the book intriguing, and was just settling down in his study for a leisurely conversation when, out of the corner of my eye, I spied a fruit basket filled to the brim with what appeared to be old Yiddish books! On the top of the pile I could make out the
Collected Works
of Mendele Moykher Seforim, about whom I was then writing my dissertation.
    “Excuse me, Rabbi,” I inquired, “but what is Mendele doing in a fruit basket on the floor?”
    “Oh, we’re going to bury him,” the rabbi answered nonchalantly.
    “You’re gonna
what
?”
    “Bury him. We bury all our old religious books when they’re no longer of use. We have a bunch of old
siddurim
(prayer books) to bury, so we’ll just throw these in at the same time.”
    I gasped. As a sign of respect it was traditional for Jews to bury
shames,
worn-out religious books that contained the name of God. But these were modern, secular
Yiddish
books. I jumped out of my chair and began rummaging through the basket.
    “Look, Rabbi, here’s Mendele!” I exclaimed. “And beneath him, here’s . . . Avrom Reisen! And Karl Marx—
Karl Marx
in Yiddish translation! Do you really think the members of the congregation want you to be burying
Das Kapital
together with the old siddurim,
l’havdil
(you should make a distinction)?”
    The rabbi could see the point.
    “Listen,” I said, still crouched beside the fruit basket and exaggerating slightly, “I know
millions
of people who are looking for Yiddish books! There are all sorts of students who could use them. . . .”
    The rabbi was a scholar in his own right. He had

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