I 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:
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.
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