Logo reading “Hotsa’at Avraham Yosef Shtibel.” From cover of Shire Anakre’on (Poems of Anacreon), by Sha’ul Tchernichowsky (Warsaw, 1920). (YIVO)

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Printing and Publishing

Printing and Publishing after 1800

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In the course of the nineteenth century, the geographical center of Hebrew and Yiddish printing shifted decisively to Eastern Europe. Demographic and cultural changes in European Jewry dovetailed with changing patterns of consumption and modes of reading. In addition, economic and technological transformations in the print industry helped to shape a new Jewish print culture. In this new environment, the premodern staples of the Jewish print corpus were joined and to some extent supplanted by Jewish versions of the media and genres common to the modern pan-European sphere.

The Rise of Local Presses

From the late eighteenth century through the time of the dramatic Russian closure of Jewish presses in 1836, Hebrew and Yiddish printing establishments sprang up in more than 50 towns (often with several to a town) in the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. This proliferation was partly spurred by a changing legal and economic environment in which state and local elites sought to restrict importation of Jewish books and encourage local production (see image below, left). More broadly, the rising regional demand for Hebrew and Yiddish texts throughout this period of demographic explosion, religious ferment, and perhaps falling book prices made this proliferation possible collectively. However, many individual publishing houses did not succeed in the long run.

Many of the dozens of printing establishments that emerged between the 1780s and the 1820s were very small, some (for example, those in Liady, Mohilev, Kopyl) publishing no more than a few books. Twenty or so, though, had substantial productions. Some of these printers issued canonical and specialized works central to elite religious practice: Talmudic tractates, responsa, halakhic codes, the classics of Kabbalah, and commentaries on biblical, Talmudic, and halakhic issues. But the economic staples of Jewish printing were texts for ritual and household use such as prayer books, Pentateuchs, Psalters, Haggadahs, and calendars; the rich Jewish ethical and homiletical corpus (musar) that required moderate Hebrew literacy; and a small stock of surefire sellers in Yiddish. Such works, which had the widest potential audience, included the Tsene-rene (the early seventeenth-century rabbinic and homiletic retelling of the Pentateuch often referred to as the “women’s Bible”), Yiddish adaptations of Hebrew ethical works, and narrative works in a homiletic vein such as Eli‘ezer Paver’s 1797 Gdules Yoysef (The Greatness of Joseph). These staples were produced on the printers’ own initiatives and sold both on order or by a traveling bookseller (moykher sforim). More specialized or expensive Hebrew books were often brought to printers by authors or “managing editors” and printed at the latter’s expense; frequently such works would be funded in advance through subscribers (prenumerantn), with the author taking responsibility for distribution.

Shefa‘ tal by Shabetai Sheftel ben Akiva Horowitz (Bilzorka: Mordekhai, 1807). This kabbalistic work was issued by one of the many small presses that emerged in the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century and is printed on the type of cheap, blue-tinted paper often used by indigent printers. The stamp at center, right, indicates that the book at one time belonged to the library of Yisroel Halevi Kitover, rabbi of Felsztyn (now Skelivka, Ukr.). (Bottom) Russian censor's stamp. (Top) Inscription by another owner of the book, "Moyshe of the village of Holvits" (Golevichi?, Bel.). (YIVO)

In terms of the range of works printed, some further distinctions among these presses have been suggested. Some, like one in Shklov (founded in 1783), focused almost exclusively on secondary genres for a larger audience with a modicum of Hebrew learning: ethical works, handbooks on the proper performance of personal commandments, edifying stories. For those presses that sought to produce more specialized, technically demanding, and expensive works (previously the provenance of great printing establishments to the west, as in Amsterdam), one means of insuring such undertakings was to secure approbations (haskamot; sg., haskamah) from respected religious figures that both “advertised” the works and forbade competing publications for a certain period or until the print run had been sold.

The most prominent printers of the era included the Shapira family of Slavuta, who between 1791 and 1835 gained fame with their three well-executed editions of the Babylonian Talmud, numerous editions of the Zohar, the commentators’ Bible, and new Hasidic works. Other notable figures among the numerous printers who worked in Ukraine were the Bers of Ostróg, Berdichev, and Sudilkov and the talented Yisra’el Bak, who created a new typeface and illustrations in Berdichev (1815–1821; Bak became the nineteenth-century pioneer of Hebrew printing in Palestine). Further west, Lwów (Lemberg) began its course of development into one of the key centers of nineteenth-century Hebrew print with the arrival in the 1780s of several printing families from Żółkiew (Zhovkva) in the 1780s; they came under orders from the new Habsburg regime. Nonetheless, Lemberg remained overshadowed by the great Viennese publishing house of Anton Schmid, a gentile, until the middle of the nineteenth century.

In the waning days of the Polish state, the Warsaw Christian printer Johann Anton Krieger built a regional Hebrew print empire (technically centered in Nowy Dwór) that included four printshops, employed some 40 people from binders to distributors, and between 1781 and 1795 produced some 120 titles with a total run of 62,000 to 100,000 individual pieces. In Lithuania, the Romm family of Vilna cultivated an establishment that by the 1830s was able to launch a Talmud in competition with that of Slavuta, even before attaining a near monopoly over book production for the Russian Empire (excluding Poland) in 1836.

The Printing Business, Hasidism, and Haskalah

The specialized craft and business of printing made for distinctive recurrent patterns throughout the 1800s. Family ties linked many printers, and successful presses often remained intergenerational businesses. During the nineteenth century, when the Jewish world center of print moved to Eastern Europe, and the social place and function of women improved, there were 24 women active in Hebrew printing and publishing, 17 of whom were in Eastern Europe. A substantial number of printing houses came to be run by widows, the most famous of whom was the Widow (Dvoyre) Romm, who exerted substantial control over the great Lithuanian publishing house from 1860 until her death in 1903. In at least one case, a major Hebrew press, in Lwów, was founded and run from 1788 to 1805 by a woman, Yudis Rosanes, who came from the Żółkiew line of Uri Fayvesh ha-Levi. Printers repeatedly moved, expanding or reorganizing businesses; thus Shemu’el ben Yisakhar Ber worked in Korets, Shklov, and Polonoye in the 1780s, transferred his operations to Ostróg in 1794, created a branch in Berdichev in 1807, and transferred the press to Sudilkov in 1820.

An example of the Shapira family imprint from Slavuta, from the title page of Masekhet Zevaḥim, a tractate of the Talmud (1812). (Gross Family Collection)

Although the classic texts of earlier eras remained the main stock of early nineteenth-century printers, the profound cultural changes of the era generated a range of new genres and gave rise to some distinctive printing practices. Books generated by the Hasidic movement came to occupy an important place in Jewish print culture by the early nineteenth century, although the significance of the printed book in early Hasidism is much debated. Many of the presses in Ukraine, Poland, and Galicia published a fair number of Hasidic books, above all Hebrew transcriptions of homiletic teachings by tsadikim. Other Hasidic books, using the term loosely, included works of conduct literature by tsadikim and the more distinctive works of shevaḥim (hagiography) and letter collections from Hasidic masters. In the first decades of the movement, many Hasidic books were brought to press not by tsadikim themselves but by enterprising printers or manuscript collector-editors, and were roughly printed in small batches. On the other hand, by the early nineteenth century, some Hasidic leaders began to pay more attention to the printed book; increasingly, a ’s teachings might be published shortly after his death, sometimes by a son, and carry approbations by leading Hasidic figures.

The early nineteenth century also saw a second, more unprecedented family of new sorts of texts associated with the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah). Jewish enlighteners wrote in an array of “alien” genres: social criticism, poetry, popular science, philosophy, grammar, history, geography, and the journal. The more assertive works of maskilic thought were generally published in small runs, though works such as Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon’s Te‘udah be-Yisra’el (published in 1828 by Vilna’s Romm press) enjoyed an influence disproportionate to their production. The many maskilic books introducing newly discovered lands and peoples found a substantial audience and were in some cases reprinted. Maskilim also embedded such Haskalah commitments as a positive attitude toward non-Jewish knowledge into popular traditional genres like conduct literature (e.g., Menaḥem Mendel Lefin’s Sefer ḥeshbon ha-nefesh; 1808) or even classic texts, including an 1842 Vilna Tsene-rene. As with Hasidic books, general printers published most of these texts, especially, again, the Romm press in Vilna. Maskilim (rather than printers) tended to pay for printing themselves, often with presubscriptions.

(Table: Major Publishers and Printers of Jewish Texts in Eastern Europe)

Although some of the printers of this era had strong personal commitments to various streams in Jewish religious life, the overriding determinant of most publishing practice was economic. For example, Tsevi Hirsh Margaliot published the anti-Hasidic work Zemir ‘aritsim in 1772 and then the first Hasidic book, Toldot Ya‘akov Yosef in 1780. The Hasidic No‘am Elimelekh was published in Misnagdic Shklov, and Haskalah texts were often published personally by Hasidic printers in Galicia, who would, however, disguise the place of publication. Print establishments devoted specifically to a certain movement, like the short-lived press founded by Naḥman of Bratslav’s devoted follower Natan Sternhartz of Nemirov to disseminate the rebbe’s works, were few at this point. Economics may also have driven a notable shift in format. By the mid-nineteenth century, the square Hebrew type formerly reserved for sacred texts had become the norm for “low” Yiddish texts as well (instead of “Rashi script” or the related “women’s font”); some posit that many smaller publishing houses simply only acquired this one typeface.

However, ideological commitments and conflicts did influence printing practice. With few exceptions, the publishers of Misnagdic Lithuania did not publish Hasidic books until the latter half of the nineteenth century, though they also generally avoided anti-Hasidic books (some of the most vitriolic anti-Hasidic works of the turn of the century were printed by the non-Jewish Zawadzki publishing house in Warsaw). Growing opposition to Haskalah in the Jewish community (including by some printers such as the Shapiras) led many printers to refuse to publish some or all Haskalah books. Although some of the flagship critical Haskalah texts did find printers and even haskamot in Eastern Europe, many maskilim published their more fiery works in Vienna, Prague, or Germany by both choice and necessity. Thus, Galician maskilim, facing severe Hasidic opposition, published in Lwów, Żółkiew, or Tarnopol only sporadically (and generally only in such mild genres as popular history); at the same time, some chose to publish in the pro-maskilic Vienna publishing house of Anton Schmid. Some maskilic texts simply could not find a publisher in the first half of the century; this fate befell the Yiddish satirical novels of Yisroel Aksenfeld because it was feared that Hasidim would boycott the Romm press.

Government Control and Censorship

The development of Jewish printing in Eastern Europe coincided with the tsarist and Habsburg conquests in the region. Both these powers and the autonomous kingdom of Russian Poland aspired to exert some control over the production, distribution, and content of Jewish books as part of larger censorship and Jewish policies. Each applied censorship to Jewish texts, banned the printing and importation of certain categories of books, and sought to constrain the actual production of Jewish books by controlling the licensing and location of Hebrew presses. The policies gained teeth successively in Galicia from the second decade of the nineteenth century, Congress Poland in the 1820s, and the rest of the tsarist empire in the 1830s. Habsburg authorities banned books with “superstitious content”—meaning Hasidic and kabbalistic books—and all Yiddish books. Polish censors both before and after the 1831 uprising advocated a similar ban, even aspiring to ban Hebrew and Yiddish publishing altogether, and tried to limit imports from less stringently policed presses in Lithuania and Ukraine. Finally, suspicion of Hasidism and “Jewish fanaticism” fueled similar policy proposals in tsarist Russia proper (where the vast majority of the East European Jewish presses were found) in the 1820s.

An example of a haskamah from Nivḥar me-ḥaruts: Kitsur sefer ha-‘ikarim (Żółkiew, 1722). (YIVO)

It is, however, unclear what effect these policies had. Certainly the relatively few Jewish presses in Galicia were no longer able to publish Hasidic and kabbalistic texts freely, though it seems clear that some simply published such works illegally with falsified bibliographical information. Such books were suppressed across the few printing presses in Congress Poland (several in Warsaw, one in Jozefów), but efforts to constrain the flow of books from the Pale of Settlement were hampered by the fiscal interests of the kingdom’s finance commission, which taxed these imports. More generally, these efforts provoked rampant smuggling of banned books into Galicia from Ukraine and Poland.

A far more decisive act was the tsarist government’s decision in 1836 to shut down the dozens of Jewish presses in the realm with the exception of Romm in Vilna and a second approved press that was opened in Zhitomir in 1847 by the rival Shapira family, whose printing history had begun in Slavuta. Although this action choked off the production of Hasidic and some kabbalistic books, several factors limited the impact of even this measure on Jewish print culture. First, the regime exerted little coherent influence over what the remaining houses published, and Romm and the press in Zhitomir published much the same canon of traditional genres (including the Romm Talmud of 1835–1854, the first of several increasingly definitive versions (for the Romm imprint from the 1883 edition, see image at left]); not the Jewish presses but the Ministry of Enlightenment itself began to publish reformatory Hebrew textbooks in Saint Petersburg in 1847 under the maskil-cum-official Binyamin Mandelstamm. Second, Habsburg and to some degree Polish constraints began to let up in the 1840s, allowing printers in Lwów and Warsaw to produce kabbalistic and Hasidic classics such as the Zohar and No‘am Elimelekh. It seems likely that such books now flowed back into Russia via smugglers; the famous Shapiras of Slavuta themselves established a press in Congress Poland.

It also seems that regime restrictions encouraged the flourishing of Hebrew presses in Prussian Posen (Pol., Poznań) primarily for illegal export to Russia. Thus, the Krotoszyn printer Dov Ber Monash produced the Zohar four times between 1835 and 1858 while otherwise producing mostly staple books, as well as productions of biblical texts with German translation presumably directed westward rather than eastward (he later produced the standard edition of the Jerusalem Talmud). In sum, it seems that state policies in the early nineteenth century had an impact on the geography and proportions of Jewish publishing but had little effect on its generic character. The complicated question of the effect of textual censorship on individual texts that were not banned outright is beyond the scope of this article.

The Expanding World of Jewish Publishing

Constraints on Hebrew printing in Russia were eliminated in 1862, though censorship continued. Jewish printing presses once again sprang up in the Pale. Yet by the 1860s, the geography of Jewish printing in Eastern Europe had shifted. Lower import taxes on Jewish books from Congress Poland into Russia in the 1850s spurred Warsaw’s development. Veteran presses such as that of Lebenzon and Shriftgiser, joined by other ambitious printers including the Orthodox pillar Me’ir Yeḥi’el Halter, the maskil-Polonophile Yitskhok Goldman, and the noted Polish patriotic printer Samuel Orgelbrand began to compete with Vilna’s Romm. Alongside the standard texts, they produced impressive editions of rabbinic texts, including a Talmud by Orgelbrand. At the same time, Lwów became not only a regional center but also an exporter to the Balkans. In 1863 alone, Lwów’s printers such as Madfes, Kugel-Levin, and Shtand produced 112 Hebrew or Yiddish books including halakhic, Hasidic, and kabbalistic texts, Jewish historiography, and Haskalah poetry. Hebrew print centers developed in Saint Petersburg and Odessa (whose presses also increasingly published the religious literature of the Crimean Karaites after the brief flourishing of separate Karaite printing in Evpatoriia from 1834). In the Pale, Vilna retained its prominence. Romm, joined by several competitors such as the Matz press, remained potent; taking advantage of new stereotype technology and with more than 100 workers, correctors, and overseers involved, it published the definitive edition of the Babylonian Talmud with commentaries, between 1880 and 1886.

Title page of Masekhet Shavu'ot, a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud (Vilna: Widow and Brothers Romm, 1883). (YIVO)

Outside formerly Polish territory, the situation was also changing. Prague, which had enjoyed a brief revival early in the century and produced books ranging from maskilic works to a biography of the Gaon of Vilna, now faded. Southward migration by growing numbers of Galician Jews generated new regional print centers in Bucovina, Moldavia, Walachia, and the Hungarian lands. In Czernowitz, the non-Jewish firm of Johann Eckhardt brought in Jewish print specialists and began in 1835 to produce not only ruml-sforim, standard texts for religious uses, but also rabbinic, Hasidic, and kabbalistic texts, including an ambitious line of biblical commentaries. In Hungary, even as rapid Magyarization saw Jews attain a growing role in Hungarian publishing, the consolidation of potent Hasidic and Orthodox communities to the east allowed the flourishing of such traditionalist presses as Blayer’s press in Munkács, which specialized in responsa and halakhic commentaries, biblical and aggadic works, Hasidic books, and new sorts of Orthodox literature and biography. Key ideological texts of Hungarian ultra-Orthodoxy also issued from Lwów, Pressburg, and later Bardejov.

Alongside standard-setting productions of classic text assemblages such as the Romm Talmud, the Krotosyzn Jerusalem Talmud (1866–1867), or the of Lwów’s Madfes house (1858–1861), the second half of the nineteenth century saw the appearance or stabilization of newer types of Jewish texts. The Hasidic stream in Jewish publishing witnessed a twofold change. First, books of Hasidic teachings began to appear in larger, better-printed editions. Second, the 1860s saw the appearance of collections of hagiographic tales about Hasidic leaders that circulated orally in Hasidic circles; these collections, brought to press in Lwów and elsewhere by both Hasidic true believers and entrepreneurs such as Mikha’el Levi Rodkinson, enjoyed great success and constituted a major new genre by the 1870s.

Haskalah or post-traditional Hebrew publishing enjoyed a more modest but substantial expansion. Maskilic printing was eased somewhat by stipends from the OPE and a growth in the market for nontraditional Hebrew art and literature. These factors went hand in hand with the rise of the modern Hebrew novel and the expansion of the Hebrew periodical press to include newspapers published on the Prussian border (Ha-Magid), in Vilna (Ha-Karmel), and most importantly in Odessa (Ha-Melits) and Warsaw (Ha-Tsefirah).

The typology of Yiddish texts changed even more dramatically. In the 1850s and 1860s, Vilna’s Romm and Warsaw’s rising printers produced a flood of cheap Yiddish popular writing—moralistic and potboiler fiction, historical romances, biography, and pseudo folk-stories—by writers such as the Vilna maskil Ayzik Meyer Dik. In the 1860s and 1870s, a more liberal Jewish environment allowed publication in Odessa, Warsaw, and Vilna of more openly modern Yiddish satiric fiction by newcomers such as Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim) as well as veterans like Yisroel Aksenfeld. The late 1870s then saw a second metamorphosis of Yiddish popular fiction: beginning in 1876, the writer Shomer and a host of imitators in Eastern Europe and the United States began to produce a flood of popular romances, known pejoratively as shund (trash), which by the 1880s dominated the Yiddish book market. Finally, sporadic efforts to create a Yiddish newspaper press in various parts of Eastern Europe reached their apex in Odessa’s epochal Kol mevaser (1862–1869), where much of the new Yiddish satirical fiction appeared. But the general unwillingness of the Russian state to license Yiddish newspapers from the 1870s until 1903 artificially retarded this development for its largest potential market.

Jews also played an expanding role in non-Jewish publishing. In the early nineteenth century, individual Jews, including the Warsaw University printer Nosn Meyer (Mikolaj) Gliksberg, had played important roles in Polish publishing in centers such as Warsaw and Vilna, often for patriotic reasons. Manis Romm produced numerous publications in Russian, mostly for the government. By mid-century, similar Jewish publishers of Polish texts (including Orgelbrand) were joined by Jewish publishers of Russian, Romanian, Hungarian, and even Lithuanian texts. As of 1874 in Vilna, 12 of 13 publishing houses were owned and staffed by Jews. Among them, these presses did much of the general Russian and Polish publishing in the area; the large Sirkin press produced the local newspaper Vilenskii vestnik, Russian textbooks, and Lithuanian liturgical texts. In Saint Petersburg, the Jewish printer Il’ia Efron coproduced the Brockhaus-Efron Russian encyclopedic dictionary (1889–1907), as Warsaw’s Orgelbrand had earlier produced the flagship Polish encyclopedia.

At the same time, Jewish printers also began to produce books of Jewish content in these languages. Both specialists in non-Jewish books and primarily Hebrew–Yiddish publishers produced such works; thus, Efron published the Evreiskaia entsiklopediia (1908–1913) while the Romm press’s Russian publishing arm published works on Jewish history and perhaps the first Hebrew–Russian prayer book in 1879. Warsaw, Odessa, and Saint Petersburg printers also produced the Russian- and Polish-language Jewish journals such as Voskhod and Izraelita, which constituted a key vehicle of expression for the newly acculturated elites.

The 1860s introduced new business, technical, and labor trends. Some larger printers, including Romm and its competitors, took steps toward a more modern publisher model by initiating contracts with moneymakers such as Shomer and Dik. Printers also began to seek outside investors and new means of distribution, including proprietary bookstores. The introduction of machine print in the 1860s greatly accelerated book production. Larger shops (though most Jewish print establishments continued to be small) and rising production also meant a growing, skill-stratified labor force. Major presses such as Romm (one source estimated its permanent staff at 30 by the year 1850 and it certainly rose thereafter) employed educated setters and proofreaders as well as larger groups of manual laborers and apprentices. By the turn of the century, women were also employed at Romm. Working 12 to 14 hours a day officially, and ostensibly paid hourly wages, workers were actually expected to work for even longer hours at given times and to perform piecework. Shop-place culture was notable for learned religiosity. At the same time, print workers in both Vilna and Warsaw seem to have been disproportionately open to labor organization and even strikes by the 1870s.

The Rise of Secular Jewish Letters and Political Publishing

The period from the 1880s to World War I consolidated some of these developments and brought still more profound changes to the ecology of Jewish print. In the 1880s, a new generation of secularized writers produced a growing nontraditional corpus of belles lettres and scholarship. This emergent modern literature initially encountered marketing troubles: its most important vehicle of the 1880s, thick literary anthologies such as Naḥum Sokolow’s Ha-Asif (Warsaw 1884–1893) and Sholem Aleichem’s foundational Yiddish anthology Di yidishe folks-bibliotek (Kiev, 1888–1889), proved unsustainable. Conversely, some self-published works, including Yankev Dinezon’s Yiddish sentimental novel Even negef (1889) or Warsaw-based periodical anthologies of literary and practical texts such as H. (Heshl) Epelberg’s long-running Varshever yudisher calendar, apparently tapped a new middlebrow market.

Insignia of Boris Kletskin’s publishing house in Vilna. From Briv fun Ester-Rokhl Kaminski (Letters from Ester-Rokhl Kaminska; Vilna, 1927). (YIVO)

Partly in response, the 1890s saw the creation of the first full-fledged Hebrew publishing houses that themselves solicited, published, and distributed works. In 1893, the Hebrew writer and publisher Avraham Leib Shalkovich, whose pen name was Ben-Avigdor, and a circle of Zionist activists founded the Aḥi’asaf publishing house in Warsaw; as the publishing house of the Bene Mosheh society of Odessa, its aim was to provide the new type of modern Hebrew literature that Ahad Ha-Am and fellow members of Bene Mosheh envisioned. Practically, Aḥi’asaf produced few books. Ben-Avigdor, who was not happy with the elitist policy of Ahad Ha-Am and Bene Mosheh, resigned and then founded a second Warsaw publishing house, Tushiyah, an enterprise that became the most important modern Hebrew publishing house in the first decade of the twentieth century. Tushiyah published hundreds of titles of new modern Hebrew books, divided into different series, and written and designed for a popular audience.

Thereafter, Hebrew and later Yiddish publishing ventures proliferated and came to play an increasingly dominant role in book production. Not coincidentally, the pioneers of modern Hebrew and Yiddish publishing were also activists in the larger ideological revolutions of the day, promoting Jewish nationalism, especially Zionism; various forms of Jewishly oriented social radicalism; and the project of secular-national Jewish culture and identity wedded to Hebraist and later Yiddishist linguistic ideologies. Aḥi’asaf attempted, but Tushiyah succeeded, in providing a stable basis for the development of Hebraist and Zionist writing. They and other publishing ventures such as Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik’s Moriah house (founded in Odessa in 1901–1902) or the Yiddishist equivalent, Boris Kletskin’s publishing house (founded in Vilna in 1909–1910), gave critical support to the growing ranks of Hebrew and Yiddish belletrists and also helped form key genres in the new corpus of secularized Jewish culture, producing children’s books, translation series, and recastings of classical Jewish works such as Moriah’s Sefer ha- (1908–1911). They also sponsored many Hebrew and Yiddish journals—for example, Aḥi’asaf’s Odessa–Warsaw monthly Ha-Shiloaḥ (1896–1926) or Kletskin’s Di yudishe velt (1913–1915)—which displaced Russian Jewish journals like Voskhod (1882–1906) as the chief vehicles of post-traditional Jewish national culture. Smaller publishing houses such as Kiev’s Yiddishist Kunst-farlag (founded in 1910) produced avant-garde works for a still narrower market. Many of these publishers operated with little hope of profit, seeking rather to produce literary and scholarly works for the sake of the new culture itself.

Two other types of Jewish publishing houses paralleled these ideologically driven publishing ventures. The stabilization of a growing market for modern forms of writing (especially belles lettres) induced other publishers, among them the Vilna–Warsaw Sh. Shreberk, Warsaw’s B. Shimin, and veteran Hebrew publishers the Brothers Levin-Epstein, to produce similar work in Yiddish from primarily economic motives. In 1911, the first two of these publishers, along with Yakov Lidsky and the Hebrew writer and publisher Ben-Avigdor, established a Warsaw-based syndicate for Yiddish publishing called Tsentral.

Other presses oriented their work in part or wholly toward one of the new political currents in Jewish life. Thus, Warsaw’s Farlag “Progres” (arguably the first Yiddish publishing house), founded at the turn of the century by Yakov Lidsky, a publisher who had cut his teeth on popular novels in New York, initially specialized in popular scientific and literary works of a socially radical cast, though he also published highbrow art literature in the years before the war, such as Avrom Reyzen’s journal of translations Eyropeishe literatur. Zionists and socialist parties such as the Bund and PPS also had founded their own presses (often illegal) to produce political journals, pamphlets, and handbills. The parties recruited heavily among print workers and could often call on them to carry out illegal (and dangerous) printing tasks, but persecution by the Russian state induced both socialists and Zionists to produce some of their party literature in Central Europe and elsewhere. Some presses, among them the Bund’s Di Velt or Po‘ale Tsiyon’s Der Hamer, published not only party literature but also popular scholarship and belles lettres.

The Explosion of Yiddish Mass Culture

These developments did not displace already established genres and institutions. Much production remained in the hands of commissioned printers, ranging from the numerous aksidents-printers, who specialized in nonbook commercial printing, to such famed craftsmen as Kraków’s Joseph Fischer, a favorite of Hebrew and Yiddish belletrists (1878–1914). Religious publishing of traditional staples and more specialized texts continued, apparently in increasingly direct contradistinction to the productions of the new publishers. Some printing houses continued to print only “kosher” texts, while others, including Halter’s establishment in Warsaw (1859–1915) distinguished themselves as informal centers of an increasingly self-conscious Orthodoxy. The confrontation between religious and secular book production was evident in genre and even at the level of conflicting formats.

A printer in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now in Slovakia), ca. 1935–1938. Photograph by Roman Vishniac. (© Mara Vishniac Kohn, courtesy the International Center for Photography)

But from the turn of the century, two other types of texts loomed larger than both secularist and religious productions: the sensational novel and the Yiddish newspaper. The genre of sensational novels (shund-romanen) achieved greater distribution in the 1890s in the form of cheap serial novels, many of which were produced in New York and exported to Eastern Europe. This genre then found its most important vehicle in a still more decisive development in print culture, the Yiddish mass daily.

In part because of Russian state suppression of the Yiddish periodical press, the Hebrew newspaper culture born at mid-century continued to develop and even briefly flourished at the turn of the century. New, high-quality dailies such as Warsaw’s Ha-Tsofeh (1903–1906) and Vilna’s Ha-Zeman (1903–1915) attracted writers with substantial honoraria and achieved respectable circulations of thousands of subscribers. But the far larger potential market for a Yiddish daily (especially in Russia) did not remain untapped. In 1903, the Russian state allowed the publication of Russia’s first Yiddish one, Saint Petersburg’s Der fraynd. Its comparatively massive success was overshadowed in turn by a daily press that flourished in Warsaw in the wake of liberalized censorship laws after Russia’s 1905 Revolution. Warsaw’s dailies of this period, among them Haynt (founded in 1908) and Moment (founded in 1910) dominated the East European Jewish press scene along with Russian- and Polish Jewish newspapers affiliated with Jewish parties. By 1912, Haynt enjoyed a circulation of 100,000.

The newspaper was one of the chief means, and for many readers the only means, by which new forms of literature and nationalist publicistics penetrated Jewish life on a mass level. At the same time, these dailies carried serial sensational novels, and the Warsaw newspaper world became the chief locus of sensational fiction production. Although some papers were published by established printers (Romm printed both Ha-Zeman and the Bund’s Der veker), newspapers themselves increasingly set up print facilities that undermined such printers as Warsaw’s Halter.

One serious Yiddish belletrist was able to match these genres in terms of market success, the prodigious Sholem Aleichem (Shalom Rabinovitz). By the count of the Yiddishist activist Moyshe Shalit, writing in the landmark 1913 anthology of Yiddish studies Der pinkes, more than one-third of the 236 works of Yiddish literature published in 1912 were penned by Sholem Aleichem. Published in print runs of 3,000–4,000, the market for these stories and for other less lasting but nonetheless substantial works of melodrama suggests the stabilization of a “middlebrow” market for Yiddish fiction by the era of World War I.

Publishing in Interwar Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union

During World War I, economic dislocation coupled with draconian suppression by the Russian state devastated Jewish printing and briefly pushed what remained into such unlikely centers as Moscow and Kiev. Moscow saw the creation of the famed Stybel Hebraist literary publishing house in 1917, and the Hebraist Omanut publishing house, founded by Shoshanah Persits (1893–1969). Specializing in Hebrew books and journals for children, Omanut moved to Odessa in 1918 and continued to support Hebrew writers there even after the Bolsheviks took the city and Soviet Yiddishists suppressed Hebrew publishing (see image at left). Its founders left Odessa at the end of 1919 for Tel Aviv but subsequently refounded the press in Germany. Kiev saw the brief, explosive flourishing of several avant-garde Yiddishist publishing houses such as the Folks-farlag and the Kiever Farlag which, under the aegis of the Yiddishist umbrella organization Kultur-lige, produced foundational works of Jewish modernism such as Leyb Kvitko’s and Dovid Hofshteyn’s first books and El Lissitzky’s illustrated Khad gadye.

From La-Sevivon (To the Dreydl), by Zalman Shneour (Frankfurt, Moscow, Odessa: Omanut, 1922). Illustration by Ḥavurat Tsayarim be-Odes (Group of Artists in Odessa). This Hebrew children's book was prepared in Odessa in 1918-1921, but issued in Frankfurt a year later, after the repression of Hebrew culture in the Soviet Union made its publication there impossible. It is believed to have been illustrated by one or more members of a group of four students from the Odessa Art Academy, who may have needed to remain anonymous for fear of persecution. (Gross Family Collection)

Communist repression and the increasingly unbearable political and economic conditions of the Civil War era brought much of this Hebrew and Yiddish publishing efflorescence in Russia and Ukraine to an end. Communist authorities, spurred on especially by Soviet Yiddishists, suppressed Hebrew publishing almost entirely between 1918 and 1920 and brought Yiddish publishing under party-state control. The leading Hebrew publishers of the region, joined by those Yiddishist publishers and activists unwilling to compromise with the new Soviet order, refounded their publishing ventures in a variety of centers, including Warsaw, Tel Aviv, and New York, and, in the early 1920s, Berlin. Berlin offered economic conditions initially superior to those in newly independent Poland or Palestine and briefly became a gathering point for a wide variety of refugee Hebrew and Yiddish activists and authors. The Hebraist publishing houses active in 1920s Berlin included Moriah (now merged with Devir, founded by Bialik during the war as a writers’ cooperative), Omanut, and several new houses such as ‘Ayanot, founded by the scholar Shim‘on Rawidowicz, and Eshkol, founded by Naḥum Goldmann and Ya‘akov Klatzkin as heir to Ben-Avigdor’s Tushiyah; Yiddishists formerly affiliated with Kiev’s nonsocialist Folks-farlag continued some of their ambitious work in the Berlin Klal-farlag, founded in 1922. By the late 1920s, this Berlin interlude came to an end; the Hebraist houses moved to Palestine, because of both the economic and political situation in Germany and new opportunities that had opened with the third Aliyah, which significantly enlarged the Jewish population.

In Eastern Europe, the postwar era saw the resumption of prewar trends, inflected by the new political and economic geography of Eastern Europe’s successor states. In independent Poland, which in 1923 produced 258 Yiddish titles (some 70% of world production) and supported in 1931 some 6,000 Jews in printing, Warsaw continued to strengthen its dominance at the expense of Vilna, sustaining dozens of Yiddish and (to an ever-decreasing extent) Hebrew establishments and drawing such Vilna stalwarts as Kletskin. Smaller printing centers both within and beyond the borders of Poland ranged from older centers such as Kraków to such smaller sites as Piotrków, which boasted six print establishments between the wars (one of which printed only religious books, while another printed the illegal Communist literary journal Literarishe tribune), or the Slovakian town of Bardejov, in which two active Hebrew presses from 1900 to 1938 produced rabbinic and Hasidic books for Hungarian and Galician markets. Jewish printing establishments remained disproportionately small: one source calculates that 68 percent of Polish printshops with no wage workers were Jewish-owned by the year 1931. Conversely, those with larger workforces saw ever-sharpening labor disputes as printers radicalized and formed potent (though politically divided) unions.

While religious-use texts remained a standby in interwar print culture, the mass daily and the sensational novel won an increasingly greater market share. Respectable Yiddish dailies were joined in the 1930s by “penny” papers specializing in sensational serial novels. Jewish political movements also sustained a robust press, ranging from the Bundist Folks-tsaytung (Warsaw, 1921–1939) to the Polish-language Zionist Nasz Przegląd (Warsaw, 1923–1939). Conversely, certain forms of secular cultural publishing faced a grave crisis, especially in Hebrew (though this was partially offset by and indeed partially due to the rise of a Hebrew center in Palestine) but also in Yiddish. Even as cultural enthusiasts continued to produce a rich array of secular(ist) books and journals (some issuing from such unlikely locales as Radom, Będzin, and Stanisławów), Yiddishist and Hebraist publishers struggled to find a market against the combined force of accelerating Polonization and Depression-era impoverishment. From the mid-1920s, market-oriented publishers offered worsening terms to writers; publisher-patrons such as Stybel and Kletskin went bankrupt.

A different and unprecedented situation unfolded in the Soviet Union. There, Jewish publishing was radically reshaped by state support for certain kinds of sufficiently secular and radical Jewish writing, the virtual elimination of the market-driven press and popular literature, and the outright suppression of virtually all Hebrew and religious publishing. In centers such as Moscow, Kiev, and Minsk, publishing houses operated within the party-state system to produce textbooks for Soviet Yiddish schools, newspapers like Moscow’s Der emes, a rich though increasingly regimented cross-section of contemporary Yiddish literature, and important works of modern Jewish scholarship. The dismantling of state-supported Yiddish culture in the 1930s, coupled with galloping Russification, reduced Soviet Yiddish publishing, punctuated by periodic state-permitted publishing at politically expedient moments.

The Post-Holocaust Period

The destruction of most of East European Jewry meant the destruction of Jewish print and publishing as it had taken shape since the 1780s. In Communist Eastern Europe, Jewish printing, despite some activity in Poland before 1968, was generally kept to a minimum of state-supported literary and scholarly publishing. Postcommunist Eastern Europe has seen some specialized Jewish publishing (literary translations, scholarship, journals, and primers on Judaism) primarily for Jewish consumers in Russian, Polish, and other national languages, as well as a trickle of Yiddish publishing.

Suggested Reading

Genrikh Agranovskii, Stanovlenie evreiskogo knigopechataniia v Litve (Vilnius, 1994); Natan Cohen, Sefer, sofer ve-‘iton: Merkaz ha-tarbut ha-yehudit be-Varshah, 1918–1942 (Jerusalem, 2003); Glenn Dynner, Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewry, 1754–1830 (New York, 2006); Dmitrii Arkad’evich El’iashevich, Pravitel’stvennaia politika i evreiskaia pechat’ v Rossii, 1797–1917: Ocherki istorii tsenzury (St. Petersburg, 1999); Zeev Gries, Ha-sefer ke-sokhen tarbut: Ba-Shanim 460–660 (1700–1900) (Tel Aviv, 2002); Zeev Gries, “The Writing and Printing of Hebrew Books circa 1905,” in The Book in the Jewish World, 1700–1900, trans. Jeffrey M. Green (Oxford, 2007); Viktor Efimovich Kel’ner and Dmitrii Arkad’evich El’iashevich, eds., Literatura o evreiakh na russkom iazyke, 1890–1947: Knigi, broshiury, ottiski statei, organy periodicheskoi pechati; Bibliograficheskii ukazatel’ (St. Petersburg, 1995); Israel Klausner, Vilna Yerushalayim de-Lita: Dorot aḥaronim, 1881–1939, 2 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1983); Yitshak Yosef Kohen, Pirsumim yehudiyim bi-Verit ha-Mo‘atsot, 1917–1960: Reshimot bibliyografiyot (Jerusalem, 1961); Yitsḥak Kornfeld-Dagani, “Le-Korot hotsa’at ha-sefer ha-‘ivri be-‘ir Varshah,” Perakim: Bit‘on ha-Akademyah ha-‘Ivrit be-Amerikah (1966): 347–363; Hayim Liberman, Ohel Raḥel, 3 vols. (New York, 1980–1984); Raphael Posner and Israel Ta-Shema, eds., The Hebrew Book: An Historical Survey (New York, 1975); David Roskies, “Ayzik-Meyer Dik and the Rise of Yiddish Popular Literature” (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1974); Jacob Shatzky, Geshikhte fun yidn in Varshe, 3 vols. (New York, 1947–1953); David Shneer, Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture, 1918–1930 (Cambridge, 2004); Yeshayahu Vinograd, ed., Otsar ha-sefer ha-‘ivri (Jerusalem, 1993/94); B. Weinryb, “Zur Geschichte des Buchdruckes und der Zensur bei den Juden in Polen,” Monatsschrift fuer Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 77 (1923): 273–300; in addition, the bibliographic journals Kiryat sefer and the Journal of Jewish Bibliography contain much useful material.