Bak in Jerusalem

By BATSHEVA POMERANTZ
April 16, 2009 09:42
3 minute read.

A new chapter began for Rabbi Israel Bak, a printer from Safed, upon his arrival in Jerusalem at a time when missionaries were very active. Seeking to undermine their proposal of establishing a printing press and thus preventing the distribution of propaganda in Hebrew and Ladino, Rabbi Daniel Alkalai asked Bak to found a printing press of his own. Bak demanded exclusive printing rights, and Alkalai accordingly obtained approbations from the Sephardi and Ashkenazi rabbis stating that no one else would be entitled to establish another press in the city during Bak's lifetime. In 1841 Bak printed the first book printed in Hebrew in Jerusalem, Rabbi Haim Joseph David Azulai's Avodat Hakodesh. In the preface, he related his misfortunes in Safed. Bak produced some 175 books in over 40 years in Jerusalem, books that echoed the Jewish community's needs and also served as anti-missionary material. His nearly unbroken monopoly of two decades ended in 1863, when partners Yoel Moshe Salomon and Michel Hacohen returned to Jerusalem from Konigsberg, where they had studied lithography. The pair opened a lithographic press, assuming that Bak's monopoly didn't apply to this printing method. Their first production depicted Palestine's holy places. Salomon tried to circumvent Bak's printing monopoly by publishing a Torah periodical, arguing that Bak's rabbinical approbations were valid only regarding books and typography. Bak took Salomon and Cohen before a rabbinical court when they published a book by lithography, but when he couldn't produce the original texts, the court decided against him. Newspapers joined the fray, and highlighted the rivalry between the disciples of the Vilna Gaon from Lithuania (known in Palestine as perushim) and the hassidim, led by Bak. Yehiel Brill joined Salomon and Hacohen and began publishing the newspaper Halevanon in February 1863, an indirect encroachment on Bak's turf. According to Hacohen's son-in-law, Haim Michel Michlin, it was Bak who had proposed that the three partners join him in publishing the newspaper at his press, with him as editor, probably to eliminate competition. Nothing came of this project because all three men were perushim and would not join the hassidic Bak. But the idea of putting out a newspaper appealed to them, and they began publishing Halevanon on their own press. Halevanon's goal was to publish news from the Yishuv and neighboring countries, as well as to disseminate information concerning Jewish communities in the Diaspora. The newspaper publicized the positions of members of the various Orthodox movements on the issues of the day. Initially, Halevanon waged a battle against Hevrat Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, which steered Jews toward manual work and agricultural settlement. The paper argued that Jews in Eretz Yisrael should devote themselves to religious study alone. Not missing a beat, Bak's competitive newspaper, Hahavatzelet, appeared a few months later. In 1881, Halevanon underwent a shift in its editorial policy, expressing support for the Hibbat Zion movement and encouraging aliya and Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael. Following an order from Istanbul, Halevanon and its press were shut down. The newspaper was last published in Jerusalem in December 1863, and then abroad, intermittently, until 1886. The same month Halevanon was forced to close, local Turkish officials also shut down Hahavatzelet and Bak's press, which reopened in 1865. In 1870, Bak's son-in-law, Yisrael Dov Frumkin, revived Hahavatzelet and edited it until it closed again in 1911. Until Hebrew language revivalist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda started publishing, Hahavatzelet was the chief newspaper and sometimes the only means of transmitting news of events in Palestine. Ben-Yehuda had joined Hahavatzelet's staff upon arriving in Palestine in 1882 and later joined Hatzvi, which had been printed since 1884 by Hirschenson print shop, founded by Rabbi Ya'acov Mordechai Hirschenson. The paper's name hints at "Hirschenson" - "hirsch" being the German for "tzvi" (deer). Hatzvi began with only four pages, but soon became popular, especially among Jerusalem's enlightened residents. When Ben-Yehuda took over as editor, Hatzvi disseminated his renewed or newly coined Hebrew words, in addition to becoming the mouthpiece of the New Yishuv or Zionist outlook. Ben-Yehuda's weekly was more news-oriented and featured fewer opinion pieces.


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