LONDON (Reuters) - Aaron Lansky is determined to use 21st century technology to revive a Jewish language and culture that has barely survived the oppression, persecution and murder of the 20th century.
Lansky’s U.S.-based Yiddish Book Center has saved a million Yiddish books from destruction and aims to provide global access to a lost Jewish culture on the Internet.
Yiddish, a mixture of medieval German and Hebrew, was the spoken language of millions of European Jews for 1,000 years. It became the creative vehicle for Jewish playwrights, poets, writers and musicians in the early 20th century when many of Europe’s Jews became secularized.
But the Nazi Holocaust, which killed six million Jews, Soviet persecution and mass emigration led to the demise of Yiddish as the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jewry originating from Europe.
Lansky has spent the last 30 years rescuing Yiddish books from garbage cans, cellars and synagogue basements around the world with fewer Jews able to understand the language.
While Yiddish words such as chutzpah, meaning gall or nerve, schmaltz, meaning sentimentalism, and schlepp, meaning hauling something or someone across distances, have entered the English language, the richness and depth of Yiddish culture still remains lost to most people including many Jews.
Books rescued included long lost memoirs of life on a Yiddish speaking commune of socialist ostrich farmers in Africa and Jewish accounts of Cuba before Fidel Castro’s revolution.
“The idea of saving something from the ashbin of history is something that is quite literal for us,” Lansky said.
The Yiddish Book Center also aims to promote interest in the Yiddish language and culture by sharing the books online.
“We now stand as guardians of the largest collection of Jewish books ever assembled. How to open up these books and how to share the content — that is a bigger challenge,” he said.
Lansky said apart from educational projects, the Center has put 11,000 books online, which people can read for free at www.yiddishbookcenter.org/yiddish-books .
“There is a certain irony in all of this that, proportionately speaking, Yiddish is now the single most accessible language on the planet. So there is a vindication.”
Lansky said anecdotally that those downloading the titles included many people from eastern Europe.
“As the world begins to embrace multiculturalism, Jews suddenly can begin to discover what until now has been a largely missing side of their identity,” he said on a visit to London.
Lansky said many of the disintegrating books salvaged were from the early 20th century.
“It’s creative literature, novels, volumes of poetry, plays, short stories, a lot of memoir literature,” he said.
“It’s also political economy, social theory, ethnography, folklore and everything linguistic — it’s the whole gamut of civilization.”
Lansky’s travels have taken him to Cuba, Uruguay, Europe and across the United States building up supporters along the way including film director Steven Spielberg who is among the Center’s donors.
In one instance a rabbi in South Africa volunteered to collect a consignment of books from a synagogue basement in the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo.
“About 6 months after those books arrived we received an email telling us that the synagogue had burned to the ground,” he said. “Had they not been removed they would have been lost — so it just underscores the urgency of it,” he said.
Editing by Paul Casciato