Author shares story of Aaron Lansky and his quest to rescue the world’s precious Yiddish books
By Stacey Dresner
AMHERST – Some might call Aaron Lansky a Yiddishkeit superhero.
In his quest to save more than a million Yiddish books since 1980, he helped to preserve Yiddish culture and history that could have been lost to the world forever. Today the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, which Lansky founded, is a headquarters for Yiddish books, language, culture and educational programs, and a growing digital library of its Yiddish offerings and is visited annually by visitors from around the globe.
And now Aaron Lansky, who, arguably, helped save the Yiddish language from extinction, is the hero in a new children’s book, The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come by author Sue Macy.
Macy will talk about her book on Sunday, Oct. 6 as part of Literatour, the Springfield Jewish Community Center’s celebration of Jewish books at 2 p.m. at Lansky’s own stomping ground, the Yiddish Book Center. The event, presented in partnership with the YBC, is free and open to the public.
Sue Macy, a former editor for Scholastic and the acclaimed author of many books for young readers, lives in Englewood, N.J.
She recently talked about The Book Rescuer with the Jewish Ledger.
JEWISH LEDGER JL): How did you first learn about Aaron Lansky and his mission to rescue Yiddish books?
SUE MACY (SM): Although the idea of writing The Book Rescuer didn’t develop immediately, the seed was planted a long time ago. My parents were always philanthropic, especially when it came to Jewish causes, so I first learned about the Yiddish Book Center because they donated money to it. It was easy to relate to the Center’s mission. My great uncle founded the Limited Editions Club and the Heritage Press, which published artistic editions of English-language classics, so the love for books is in my blood. Growing up I was surrounded by book cases full of my uncle’s books. Those books were part of our family’s legacy, valued possessions like the Yiddish books Aaron collects.
JL: What was it about Lansky’s story that appealed to you?
SM: I was raised in a Conservative Jewish home, but while I strongly identify as Jewish, I am not religious. Aaron talks about Judaism being more than just a religion. His work is about preserving Jewish culture – literature, poetry, music, history – and sharing it with the world. In Hebrew school, my Jewish education was solely focused on religion and ancient history, both of which seemed alien to me. Writing about Aaron’s work has made me feel more connected to my Jewish heritage.
JL: Had you been to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst and if so, what were your impressions of it?
SM: I’ve been there three times and it feels extremely haimish. The setting is beautiful, with the gardens dedicated to various Yiddish writers and a forest in the back that’s just gorgeous in the fall. The grounds are very peaceful and inspiring. Inside it’s as if a public library were redecorated by a Yiddish design team. There are Hebrew letters hanging from the ceiling in the children’s area; there’s a printing press from the Jewish Daily Forward; there are front pages of Yiddish newspapers commemorating important moments in history. It’s part library and part museum and I feel right at home.
JL: What was Aaron Lansky’s reaction when he learned you were writing a children’s book about his work?
SM: When my editor gave me the go-ahead to pursue this story, I contacted the Yiddish Book Center and spoke to Lisa Newman, the director of communications. I didn’t want to write the book unless I had their blessing. So I sent her another book I had written and she was able to envision what this book might look like. Lisa was the one who ran it by Aaron, so I don’t know his initial reaction. But she reported that Aaron would be willing to be interviewed and that the Book Center would cooperate with my efforts. He also ended up writing an afterword, which was a wonderful addition to the book.
JL: What sources did you draw upon to write this book? Was Lansky’s book Outwitting History among them? Did you have the opportunity to interview Aaron Lansky?
SM: Aaron was kind enough to meet me for lunch and an interview when I was working on the book, and I’ve met him a few times since. I was pretty nervous the first time we got together, but he put me at ease. He’s so passionate about what he does and I was so interested in his story that my nerves fell away. He was very generous with his time and his support for this project throughout.
The illustrator of The Book Rescuer, Stacy Innerst, and I visited the Yiddish Book Center this past April, when they were holding a workshop for authors of Jewish children’s books. We were invited to talk about our book. That was the first time Aaron saw the printed pages of The Book Rescuer – before they were bound. It was exciting to see him feast his eyes on them. He seemed happy, and we let out a collective sigh of relief when we saw that.
Also, Outwitting History is a fantastic book and it definitely gave me a lot of insight into the work Aaron has done. In telling his story for kids I needed some information that’s not in that book, such as what Aaron was like when he was a kid. He told me about loving Star Trek and being a Boy Scout, which helped me paint a picture of who he was. But he also shared some of the Yiddish Book Center’s story since he wrote Outwitting History 15 years ago. That was very helpful.
JL: What is your own personal connection to the Yiddish language?
SM: My grandparents all immigrated from Eastern Europe and my maternal grandmother was a frequent presence in our lives. Although she went to night school to learn English, she often spoke Yiddish to my mother. My mother, in turn, would use Yiddish expressions in everyday life. Phrases like fardrey zukh deyn kop (go mix up your own head) and words like baleboste (a good homemaker) and kokhlefl (literally a cooking spoon; slang, a busybody). We seemed to know a lot of kokhlefls. I guess she did that more than I realized because when I was writing The Book Rescuer I found that I knew more Yiddishisms than I thought.
JL: Stacy Innerst’s illustrations in the book are beautiful. Why do you think they work so well with your text?
SM: Stacy’s illustrations bring a level of emotional depth to the text and make the story three-dimensional. You can read my words, and hopefully feel Aaron’s passion and dedication, but the art, especially some of the more emotional pieces, makes you feel the story in your bones. There’s an old-world feeling to his work that’s perfect for the story we wanted to tell.
JL: What message do you hope the young readers and their families will take away from it?
SM: This is the account of the enormous impact one person can have on the world. Aaron started looking for Yiddish books on his own, then realized that unless he spread the word and worked quickly, an entire body of literature would be lost and with it, vital information about the lives Jews led. His story restores one’s faith in the power of the individual to effect change. I hope kids who read this will realize that they, too, can make a difference.
I also hope The Book Rescuer will lead people to reconsider the importance of books. In the digital age, it’s tempting to think of actual three-dimensional books as dusty artifacts rather than treasures. As someone who grew up surrounded by exquisite volumes of classic stories, I value the experience of opening a book and turning the pages. While digital books and audiobooks definitely have their place, there’s nothing that can replace the experience of literally having your nose in a book.