Monday, December 12, 2005

"Outwitting History" (more on Yiddish)

From Outwitting History:
The Amazing Adventures of a Man
Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books

by Aaron Lansky:

Yiddish (the word means "Jewish") first emerged in the tenth or eleventh century among Jews living along the banks of the Rhine River.

The more distinct their communities became, the more their spoken language differentiated itself from that of their non-Jewish German-speaking neighbors.

Not unlike Black English, it became the "in" language of a people on the outs...

It was written in the Hebrew alphabet and derived as much as 20 percent of its vocabulary from Hebrew and Aramaic. There were also words from Latin, French, and Italian, picked up in the course of earlier Jewish migrations.

By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when Jews were expelled from many of the duchies and counties of western Europe ... Jews emigrated eastward ... [and] carried Yiddish with them, picking up new influences from local Slavic languages, including Polish, Ukrainian, White Russian, and Slovak.

Lansky's Outwitting History, describing his vocation's trajectory, is quite an inspiration:
In 1980 at the age of twenty-three I decided to save the world's Yiddish books. At the time scholars believed 70,000 volumes remained. Today my colleagues and I have collected more than 1.5 million - many of them saved at the last minute from attics and basements, demolition sites and dumpsters.

I am now 49 and with few exceptions the people who entrusted me with their books in those early years are gone, and their world with them. ... More and more, as memory fades, the books we collected are all that remain."
The book tells how Lansky, an undergraduate at freewheeling Hampshire College, found a way to study Yiddish and then created a career trajectory which proceeded roughly like this:
  1. Midnight dumpster diving in the rain outside soon-to-be demolished buildings on the lower east side;
  2. Getting his ear talked off and his belly stuffed with kugel by old people about to give him their books;
  3. Becoming Czar of the National Yiddish Book Center, which is now housed in a peaceful and grand collection of spanking-new buildings in Amherst Massachusetts, adjoining the Hampshire campus.
You can wander through the Book Center's stacks there and buy any book you see for a pittance. There's old sheet music too. (These are the original volumes, of which the center has rescued many extra copies.) Scholars can study there and interns learn Yiddish and care for new acquisitions. (And maybe go dumpster-diving.)

A donation of $36 will get you the Center's publication Pakn Treger; it's a very cool magazine. At that page you can even listen to an mp3 of a story read in Yiddish.

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At 4:23 PM, Blogger Courtney said...

Thanks for coming by my place earlier.


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