The Book Rescuer

The Book RescuerI have had The Book Res­cuer on my desk for sev­er­al months. I imme­di­ate­ly knew I want­ed to write about it because I feel such a strong attrac­tion to this sto­ry (a true sto­ry) but I had a hard time putting into words how deeply I am moved by the actions of this book hero.

The sto­ry begins this way:

Kum aher. Sit down. I want to tell you a sto­ry. It starts a long time ago, when Aaron Lansky’s six­teen-year-old grand­moth­er left East­ern Europe for the Unit­ed States. She didn’t bring much with her. Just a card­board suit­case with some pre­cious items from her old life. … And a few books in Yid­dish, the every­day lan­guage of East­ern Euro­pean Jews.”

When Aaron’s grand­moth­er reach­es Amer­i­ca, her broth­er comes to meet her on the boat. And this is what happens:

illustration from The Book Rescuer
illus­tra­tion from The Book Res­cuer, copy­right © 2019 Sta­cy Innerst;
book writ­ten by Sue (A Paula Wise­man Book / Simon & Schuster)

I have gasped out loud each time I see that spread in this book. Her broth­er threw her pre­cious books over­board. “He said it was time to break with the past — and think about the future.”

The next illus­tra­tion we see is of a lit­tle boy sit­ting on his bed­room floor, hold­ing a mod­el ship, a race­way beside him, a mon­ster on the shelf, and a poster of Spock (Leonard Nimoy spoke Yid­dish) on the wall.

Point made. Do we give up our cul­ture sim­ply because we are mov­ing into the future?

I am an emphat­ic believ­er that our his­to­ry, and the his­to­ry of oth­er cul­tures, gives us con­text. We learn lessons from the past that our ances­tors would want us to car­ry for­ward. They wouldn’t want us to live through their try­ing times again and again. So when lit­tle Aaron grows up to res­cue Yid­dish lan­guage books from the trash, that res­onates loud­ly for me.

Any one of us who loves books will under­stand Aaron Lan­sky being com­pelled to save the books he does … but when you add the lay­er of the knowl­edge, writ­ings, his­to­ry, and lan­guage of a cul­ture on top of that, this book is quite moving.

Aaron felt so strong­ly that he trav­eled the world over to res­cue Yid­dish lan­guage books. “Aaron said Yid­dish books were the ‘portable home­land’ of the Jew­ish peo­ple. … ‘Books are big enough and pow­er­ful enough to define and con­tain identity.”

What an ide­al dis­cus­sion starter. What do our books mean to us? What if print books are all thrown away? What if a com­put­er virus wipes out all the books stored digitally?

At age 24, Aaron Lan­sky found­ed The Yid­dish Book Cen­ter, now in Amherst, Mass­a­chu­setts, a repos­i­to­ry for more than 1.5 mil­lion books as well as a web­site with online resources. The Cen­ter con­tin­ues to trans­late books so mod­ern read­ers can enjoy the his­to­ry and the lit­er­a­ture. The MacArthur Foun­da­tion award­ed him with a “genius grant.”

Lan­sky began by trav­el­ing to meet with peo­ple who owned Yid­dish lan­guage books but were think­ing of giv­ing or throw­ing them away. What if he hadn’t done this work? What would have hap­pened to the Yid­dish lan­guage? Do your stu­dents know some­one who speaks Yid­dish? Some Yid­dish words that have become main­stream in our every­day con­ver­sa­tion are includ­ed with­in the text and as a glos­sary for the book.

The gray, blue, ochre, and brown palette in which Sta­cy Innerst cre­ates this world of tra­di­tion and hon­or and respon­si­bil­i­ty works well. There’s a good deal of move­ment and tex­ture in the art … always some­thing to look at over here and then again over there. The last pages are an homage to Marc Cha­gall, by whom Sta­cy Innerst was inspired. So rich in cul­ture and emotion.

I am deeply affect­ed by the sto­ry­telling … of a true sto­ry … each time I read this book. It gives me goosebumps.

High­ly recommended.

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

writ­ten by Sue Macy
illus­trat­ed by Sta­cy Innerst
Paula Wise­man Book / Simon & Schus­ter, 2019

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Jonathan Roux
Jonathan Roux
3 years ago

Thank you for your review! The book title is on my “need to read” list!

Lynne Jonell
3 years ago

Thank you, Vic­ki– this book is now on my library queue. Can’t wait to read it.

April Halprin Wayland
April Halprin Wayland
3 years ago

Wow, Vic­ki ~ I’m for­ward­ing your review to my sis­ter and her daughter!
~ April

David LaRochelle
3 years ago

Looks fas­ci­nat­ing! Such a great top­ic, and as you said, what a great con­ver­sa­tion starter.