The Book Res­cuer: How a Men­sch from Mass­a­chu­setts Saved Yid­dish Lit­er­a­ture for Gen­er­a­tions to Come

Sue Macy (auth.), Sta­cy Innerst (illus.) 

  • Review
By – October 31, 2019

The Book Res­cuer is both infor­ma­tion­al and inspir­ing, explain­ing to young read­ers how one imag­i­na­tive Amer­i­can Jew named Aaron Lan­sky deter­mined that he would res­cue the Yid­dish lan­guage and make it a liv­ing tes­ta­ment to the dwin­dling cul­ture of mil­lions of Euro­pean Jews. Lansky’s com­bi­na­tion of per­sis­tence and inno­v­a­tive think­ing allowed him to car­ry the rem­nants of a cul­ture and lan­guage, from base­ments and dump­sters to an out­stand­ing research insti­tu­tion built to house them and open their pages to the world.

Macy begins her nar­ra­tive by invit­ing the read­er to Kum aher. Sit down. I want to tell you a sto­ry.” At first, it may seem as if roman­ti­cized fam­i­ly mem­o­ries will pre­dom­i­nate as we learn that Lansky’s immi­grant grand­moth­er was told by her broth­er to toss her suit­case full of use­less items from the past into the Hud­son Riv­er. It soon becomes clear that this poignant anec­dote is only the begin­ning, as the woman’s grand­son retrieves the cul­ture lost in that suit­case; Macy and Innerst empha­size the ordi­nary nature of this all-Amer­i­can boy” grow­ing up in a small Mass­a­chu­setts town. Although the cul­tur­al relics depict­ed in Innerst’s por­trait may be dat­ed the vision of child­hood as a time of unlim­it­ed curios­i­ty is not. Soon Aaron’s love of read­ing and sense of con­nec­tion to his family’s past becomes a con­sum­ing passion.

Chil­dren will iden­ti­fy with the obsta­cles which Lan­sky con­fronts in the form of skep­ti­cal estab­lish­ment fig­ures who have lit­tle patience for his mis­sion. When he calls on the lead­ers of the biggest Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions in the coun­try” to warn them that Yid­dish books are being tossed in the trash by those who no longer see a use for them, the response he receives would dis­cour­age any­one less focused.

Innerst describes in an Illustrator’s Note” how the influ­ence of Cha­gall helped him bring Jew­ish cul­ture to life. Some of the book’s scenes are direct homages to that artist while oth­ers rep­re­sent a sub­tle response to his vision. One incred­i­ble two-page spread shows a styl­ized mod­el of the Jew­ish world in all its mul­ti­ple set­tings, from shtetl build­ings to the palm trees of the Mid­dle East. The ground” on which these fea­tures stand is a col­lage of pages filled with Yid­dish print, form­ing a foun­da­tion for the world above it. Innerst’s art­work is a com­plex inter­play of Chagall’s world and that of late twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. He cap­tures the tran­si­tion between gen­er­a­tions, as the book collector’s tremen­dous ener­gy meets the qui­et dig­ni­ty of old­er Jews ready to pass on their tra­di­tion. One pic­ture shows two elder­ly hands giv­ing a Yid­dish book to Lansky’s youth­ful ones; the book is enti­tled sym­bol­i­cal­ly chai (life). The silence of this image is fol­lowed by a much dif­fer­ent one, fea­tur­ing the vibrant activ­i­ty in the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter where Lansky’s dream has become a reality.

The Book Res­cuer is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed not only for chil­dren but for old­er read­ers who are inspired by the revival of Yid­dish cul­ture, as well. It includes an After­word” by Aaron Lan­sky, an Author’s Note,” an Illustrator’s Note,” a Yid­dish glos­sary, and a list of addi­tion­al sources.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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