Aaron Lansky, founder and president
Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1955, Aaron Lansky grew up in a Jewish home where books were valued and where Yiddish was mostly a "secret language" spoken by his mother and grandmother when they wanted to keep something hidden from him and his two brothers. It wasn’t until 1973, when as a student at Hampshire College he took one of the first courses ever offered on the Holocaust, that Aaron developed a passionate interest in the culture the Nazis had sought to destroy. "I was 19 when I began studying Yiddish," he recalls. "Suddenly an entire universe opened up to me. It was like discovering Atlantis, a lost continent, a treasure trove of Jewish tradition and culture, sensibility, wisdom, and passion, all locked up in this amazing modern literature."
After graduating from Hampshire College in 1977 with a B.A. in modern Jewish history, Aaron enrolled in a graduate program in East European Jewish studies at McGill University in Montreal. There he discovered that large numbers of Yiddish books were being destroyed—not by anti-Semites, but by Jews who could not read the language of their own parents and grandparents. Convinced that someone had to save those books, Aaron, ignoring the cautions of experts who considered the task impossible, left McGill and started what he then called the National Yiddish Book Exchange.
In 1980, when Aaron issued his first public appeal for old Yiddish books, it was estimated that only 70,000 Yiddish volumes were extant and recoverable. He rescued that many within six months. Today the Yiddish Book Center’s collection totals more than a million volumes, with the core collection stored in our state-of-the-art repository and 12,000 titles available online from our Virtual Yiddish Library. The Center also sponsors public events, internships, and a wide range of cultural and educational programs designed to open up the treasures of Yiddish culture for a new generation.
Aaron’s work has been featured on National Public Radio and network television and in articles in Time, Smithsonian, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and countless other publications. In 1984, Esquire magazine included Aaron on its list of "The Best of the New Generation: Men and Women Under 40 Who Are Changing America." He has since received numerous awards and recognitions, including a National Jewish Book Award, honorary doctorates from Amherst College and the State University of New York, and a 1989 "Genius Grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. His first book, Outwitting History, published by Algonquin Press in 2004, has been called a “rollicking, readable account” of the Center’s founding and has received numerous awards. Aaron lives in Amherst with his wife, Gail, and their two daughters, Sasha and Chava.