Session: “A Morning with Aaron Lansky” – Sun. Jan. 13, 8:00-9:00 a.m.
As part of the Midwinter Meeting Sunrise Speakers series, Aaron Lansky, founder of the National Yiddish Book Center, addressed attendees Sunday morning. As a graduate student studying Yiddish literature in the 1980s, he came up against a problem: it was very hard to find books in Yiddish. Very few were still in print, and most Yiddish books that did exist were in basements, attics, and libraries of people’s homes. So Mr. Lansky decided to do something about this: he took what he expected to be a two-year leave of absence from school in order to seek out and assemble a collection of Yiddish literature. Almost 30 years later, he’s still doing this.
Mr. Lansky tells the stories of this experience in his 2004 book, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. In his speech, Mr. Lansky told some of these stories–hilarious ones and poignant ones–which exemplified that his mission is about more than just preserving pages and words. “Yiddish was the major language through which Jews encountered the modern world,” he said, and by rescuing these books from the garbage heap (in some cases quite literally) he is now able to pass on the wisdom, perspectives, and unique experiences of this culture.
Mr. Lansky believes making these books accessible is very important. To that end, the National Yiddish Book Center partnered with film director Steven Spielberg to digitize the center’s entire collection of more than 21,000 discrete titles. These will soon be made available through the Open Content Alliance. Mr. Lansky proudly noted that what was once one of the most endangered bodies of literature in the world will now be the most universally accessible.
The center, located in Amherst, Massachusetts, houses not only the collection but also a learning center with popular summer education and internship programs. There are plans to begin an expansion next Spring which will add a climate-controlled repository and space for a “Yiddish University” where, Mr. Lansky says, “students can learn about not only Yiddish but the whole spectrum of Jewish culture.” This focus on education, as well as action, is an important part of the center’s mission. Mr. Lansky ended his speech with this summary of his message: “Books matter. And working together we can change the world.”