12 February 2013

33rd IAJGS Conference Keynote Speaker: Dumpster-Diving Genius

Well, if one wasn't excited before about the 2013 International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Conference in Boston (August 4-9, 2013), one ought to be now. The keynote speaker will be MacArthur Foundation Fellow (aka the genius award) Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.

While a college student in the 1970s, Aaron became interested in learning Yiddish and in studying Jewish culture. He found, however, that many of the Yiddish language books he sought were out of print. As he and friends scoured resources to locate Yiddish literature he found that many personal Yiddish libraries were in danger. Those who could read Yiddish were dying out and their books were too often relegated to the trash bin.

The story of his developing mono-mania (trying to friends and relations) to rescue Yiddish books is entertainingly told in his book Outwitting History.* The invaluable byproduct of his quest has been a growing appreciation of Yiddishkeit (Jewishness or Jewish culture) that he ably shares with us in his book. He started his work, more than 30 years ago, at a time when many native Yiddish speakers were still with us. He developed lasting friendships with fascinating people for whom Yiddish was central.

Today, the non-profit Yiddish Book Center houses more than one million Yiddish books. But they are more than just a book warehouse. Their overall goal is to find ways to share Yiddish language content and culture. Their Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library (in coordination with the Internet Archive) allows online access to more than 11,000 titles, searchable in Latin or Hebrew/Yiddish characters. Their blog regularly posts news about newly digitized texts. To keep Yiddish literature accessible, they are translating many books into English. They are conserving and preserving Yiddishkeit with oral recordings and histories. 

I will be excited to hear Aaron speak at the IAJGS Jewish Genealogy Conference in Boston. I highly recommend Aaron's book. It's an easy read and a wonderful chronicle of how a great idea may take over ones life. For Aaron, and all of us, thank goodness it did. It's amazing what one may find in a dumpster.

* Lansky, Aaron. Outwitting History. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2005.

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