A Tale Of A Mensch From Massachusetts Who Saved Yiddish Books

Oct 8, 2020

The story of how thousands of rescued Yiddish books became the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, has been told a few times. Now, it’s an illustrated children's book. 

"The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come," wraps up our annual Books for Young People series.

Author Sue Macy begins her book when Book Center founder Aaron Lansky was a young boy.

“I thought this would be a great book for kids, because it's about the importance of books, the power of one person to change the world — which you don't have many examples of,” Macy said.

The book leads off with a narrator who presumably knows some Yiddish:

“It starts a long time ago when Aaron Lansky's 16-year-old grandma 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,” the book reads.

Macy's picture book gives readers a slice of young Lansky’s life growing up in southeastern Massachusetts, and going on to study Jewish history.

From "The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come" by Sue Macy.
Credit Stacy Innerst / Simon and Schuster / Paula Wiseman Books 2019

In graduate school, Lansky began to rescue Yiddish books from people who didn't want them anymore, even once out of a dumpster. He wrote his own book about all of this — but Macy said he left some things out. 

“I know one thing about writing for kids is they want to know about the subject's childhood,” Macy said.

Lansky gave her some choice details, like as a kid he loved "Star Trek." He went to Boy Scout camp, and that’s where he learned how to fix the truck he used to haul around books.

“I like that I got to fill in some of the back story for him,” Macy said, “because what he did as an adult was amazing, but how did he get to that point?”

What Lansky achieved in his life came about because of the persecution of Jews — not a topic easily explained to young children. While it takes up just a couple of sentences in the book, Macy said the Holocaust is central to Lansky’s story.

"The reason Yiddish speakers started disappearing was the Holocaust," she said. "But [I] don't go into a long description, and if it's used in a school setting, the teacher can add to that — or parents can add to that. Or not, because it's really about a man who's collecting books."

From "The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come" by Sue Macy.
Credit Stacy Innerst / Simon and Schuster / Paula Wiseman Books 2019

"The Book Rescuer" is also about language. It notes that during the early 20th century, as many as 13 million people globally spoke Yiddish.

But Macy and Lanksy both grew up in families where Yiddish wasn't spoken regularly, and only certain words peppered their converstations. 

Now, those Yiddish words have entered the English language.

Macy details them in a glossary.

“We know things like schmutz or glitch or mazel tov or schlep,” she said.

Macy has written several books for young readers,  and every paragraph or two in a picture book needs an image she said — inspired by the words.

Illustrator Stacy Innerst said that after he read Macy's manuscript, Marc Chagall’s swirling paintings depicting Jewish life came to mind. They inspired how he depicted a really difficult subject for children.

“In the case of the Holocaust image, [Chagall] did these paintings of large groups of people, and every face is telling a story,” Innerst said.

Human faces have always pulled Innerst into art, he said, and he imagined young readers of “The Book Rescuer” will look at those faces for answers.

From "The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come" by Sue Macy.
Credit Stacy Innerst / Simon and Schuster / Paula Wiseman Books 2019

Parts of the book take place in the distant past. Innerst painted those illustrations in mostly black and white. More color comes on the pages with tales of a more recent past, he said.

“The picture I did of Aaron when he was a child — I kind of use 70s colors. So I threw a Stingray bicycle in there and, you know, the Boy Scout uniform and Mr. Spock,” he said.

And he and Macy apparently took some poetic license with Lansky’s childhood.

“I included a cat in a lot of these images. He’s in the pile of books. There’s one on the dumpster,” Innerst said.

Problem is — Aaron Lansky is allergic to cats.

But in “The Book Rescuer,” he told Innerst and Macy, he doesn’t really mind they’re there.

Check out more of NEPM's Books for Young People series.