In the early 1980s Harold Bloom noted about his experience of decades at Yale University that “[t]here is a profound falling away from what I would call ‘text-centeredness” among the current generation of American undergraduates, Gentile and Jewish alike. I can detect still some difference between Gentile and Jewish students in this regard, but it is not a substantial difference, and it seems to be diminishing.”
Bloom was on my mind after having read the stirring memoir by Aaron Lansky, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. The subtitle is negated by Lansky’s own accounts of the many people—his own generation and those much older—who contributed to this undaunted retrieval of books. About text-centeredness, Isaac Bashevis Singer, the only Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature, once imagined, “I’m sure that millions of Yiddish-speaking ghosts will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be, ‘Is there any new book in Yiddish to read?’”
Lansky states early on in this tale of recovery that “[t]he books we collect are the immediate intellectual antecedent of most contemporary Jews, able to tell us who we are and where we came from. Especially now, after the unspeakable horrors of the twentieth century, Yiddish literature endures as our last, best bridge across the abyss.” After all of the envisioning, phoning, hustling, dumpstering, driving, loading, unloading, shelving, fund-raising, and refusing to give up, an institution arose, the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.
Why did Yiddish matter so much to Lansky, who didn’t grow up in a Yiddish-speaking household? Here’s one reason: “If you read enough of Peretz and the countless Yiddish writers who followed, a deeper vision begins to emerge: of a Jewishness infinitely more interesting, more challenging, and more relevant, rooted in tradition, shaped by marginality, fueled by a relentless dialectic, and unafraid of the inextricability of art and action. If anything, Yiddish books are more of a counterculture today—more of a challenge to mainstream values—than they were when they were written.”
I can attest to the vision of one Yiddish writer whom I read in translation, from Joseph Leftwich’s anthology, Great Yiddish Writers of the Twentieth Century. Melech Ravitch’s essay, “Why Not Canonize a Second Book of Books?” has this passage: “A Bible is not an anthology, nor a history, nor a collection of documents. It is all of these together. The most important thing in a Bible is the bold, courageous, manly, human idea—the flowing line, not the precise dot. And the line is that man is good, and that absolute justice does exist, and that it will one day prevail; and that the Jews work for it and suffer for it, and though they often suffer more for it—for absolute justice— they don’t stop working for it, work more for it, in fact.”
In a recent article “What I Wish People Knew about Yiddishists,” Rokhl Kafrissen writes, “Learning Yiddish was the key that made so much of my own life make sense and provided me with a deep connection to history that hadn’t been part of my Long Island childhood.” Her articles are an inspiring and galvanizing introduction to and exploration of “dynamic Yiddishkayt” in communities coming together over texts, music, and theatre.
Emmanuel Levinas commented on his teacher, Shoshani (who was also significant in Elie Wiesel’s life): “[he] didn’t teach piety; he taught the texts. The texts are more fundamental—and vaster—than piety.” The texts Levinas had in mind likely did not include Y. L. Peretz. Nevertheless, the projects of Lansky and younger generations are contributing to the possibility of some people reconnecting to a vast (counter)cultural wealth. And for many, it may start, as Rokhl Kafrissen urges, with the alef-beys.
Aaron Lansky, Outwitting History (2004).
Harold Bloom, Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (1983).
Joseph Leftiwch, Great Yiddish Writers of the Twentieth Century (1969).
Isaac Bashevis Singer: Conversations, edited by Grace Farrell (1992).
Emmanuel Levinas, Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas, edited by Jill Robbins (2001).