Making an imprint

A new Jerusalem exhibit tells the remarkable story of the pre-state printing industry, which flourished despite epidemics, riots, and publishing bans.

printing press 88 248 (photo credit: Zeev Ackerman, archive photo)
printing press 88 248
(photo credit: Zeev Ackerman, archive photo)
When Rabbi Israel Bak, a Ruzhiner Hassid whose name is an acronym for "Bnei Kodesh" (children of holiness), set up a print shop in Safed in 1832, he revived the industry in the town after a hiatus of 245 years. In the mid-16th century Safed had been the largest Jewish center in the country and home to such sages and kabbalists as Rabbi Joseph Karo and Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Holy Ari). Eliezer Ashkenazi, a qualified printer from Prague, printed six books in Safed until 1587, when an epidemic broke out. Two centuries later, Bak was born in Berdichev, where he was involved in art and printing. He came to Safed with two printing presses, tools for casting letters and bookbinding, and by 1828 had produced at least 26 books. First off Bak's press was Sfat Emet, a Sephardi prayer book, in 1832. The publisher notes on the title page that the book contains some of the kavanot (mystical statements of intentions of worship) of the Holy Ari. He indicates that prayers recited from a book printed in this holy city would be most efficacious. This was followed in 1833 by Leviticus with the commentaries of Rashi and Rabbi Haim Joseph David Azulai. No traces remain of either Genesis or Exodus, if they were ever published. It is possible that they were destroyed during the violent uprisings of the 1834 peasant revolt. The peasants rebelled against local leader Ibrahim Pasha, who represented Egyptian rule. Since they couldn't harm the rulers, the peasants went on a rampage against the Jewish community. In addition to killing and maiming Jews, the rebels destroyed Bak's press, set the books afire and cast bullets from the lead letters. Bak also printed the classic Halacha book of Rabbi Israel of Shklov, Pe'at Hashulhan, on laws pertaining to the Land of Israel. According to correspondence with Sir Moses Montefiore, who was in contact with the printer throughout the years, Bak employed about 30 people. But following a devastating earthquake in 1837, which destroyed the printing press for the second time, and the Druse revolt of 1838, which left the Jewish settlement in Safed impoverished, he moved to Jerusalem. THE ZUCKERMAN print shop in Jerusalem is usually mentioned in the same breath as Bak's, since Rabbi Shmuel Halevy Zuckerman, who had worked for Bak, eventually bought the business. Zuckerman became the manager of Bak's shop and traveled to New York to earn money after depleting his income caring for a sick daughter, who died. He stayed there only seven months. "A Jew gave him work to print on Friday," his grandson, Dr. David Zuckerman, tells Up Front. "When he insisted that the deadline be the next day, on Shabbat, Shmuel decided it was time to return home and not desecrate Shabbat." "In 1841, Moses Montefiore gave Bak a modern printing press for his new print shop in Jerusalem," Zuckerman recalls. "I remember seeing this press as a child, when it seemed very big to me. Atop the press is an eagle, and the inscription indicating that it is a gift from Moses and his wife, Judith. In addition to printing books and mizrah ornaments to indicate the eastern wall facing Jerusalem, it printed inscriptions on silk covers for halla." A small model of the press is on permanent display at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem. According to Zuckerman, his father, Rabbi Haim Ya'acov Zuckerman, gave the press to the Levin-Epstein publishers for safeguarding in 1947, along with a letter stating specifically that he had done so. Zuckerman and his older sister have visited the press in its new location in Bat Yam, which has been sold, but keeps the name of the original publisher. "The Montefiore press is now inside, in the building's entrance. It's well-maintained, compared to 12 years ago when we visited and it was in the yard. However, the sign [on it] is gravely erroneous and states that it has belonged to Levin-Epstein since 1935, when in fact it belonged to the Zuckerman family long before that - since 1883." Zuckerman hopes to meet with the Bat Yam plant's manager. "It really belongs in a museum, so more people can see it. We're trying to correct a historical injustice." REHOV TORAH Mizion in Jerusalem's Romema neighborhood is named after a monthly Torah periodical that Zuckerman published between 1887 and 1907, an innovation in the publishing world of the Old Yishuv. "My grandfather learned in New York that different cities published periodicals on their special interests. Realizing that Jerusalem excelled in Torah study and Jewish scholarship, he included in each issue of Torah Mizion articles and essays on the Bible, Mishna, responsa, Aggada and Halacha. It gave scholars who otherwise couldn't afford it a chance to publish," explains Zuckerman. Torah Mizion's chief editor, Rabbi Ya'acov Orenstein, was related by marriage to the Zuckermans. The Zuckerman print shop, which served all communities of the Old Yishuv, printed thousands of books and tens of thousands of other items. Shmuel Zuckerman never accepted material that was contrary to religion and tradition, though in his private life he was not an extremist. One of the publisher's many visitors was Theodor Herzl, who purchased books as a souvenir. The press later moved from the Old City to Rehov Hanevi'im in the new city. "My father, Rabbi Haim Ya'acov Zuckerman, continued with the business until the War of Independence, when he became sick, probably from lead poisoning. The Zuckerman print shop existed until 1947. It printed in Hebrew, and occasionally Arabic and Bukharan translations in Hebrew letters. The books it printed were distributed throughout the country and to London and New York." After becoming ill, Haim gradually sold the print shop. He moved to Tel Aviv and became the rabbi of the Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue. Coincidentally, "Tiferet Yisrael" was also the name of a famous synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City known as the "Nissan Bak shul" for its founder, a leader of the hassidic community and son of none other than printer Israel Bak. The most outstanding feature of the Nissan Bak shul, located near the print shop, was its dome. A well-known story has it that when Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary visited Jerusalem in 1870, the city's Jews gave him a royal welcome. When the ruler saw the yet-unfinished Nissan Bak shul, he asked where the dome was. One of his escorts diplomatically replied: "Your Highness, even the synagogue wishes to pay tribute to you by removing its hat." The flattering remark succeeded in eliciting from the emperor a generous sum to complete the dome, which served as a Jerusalem landmark until it was destroyed in a Jordanian attack during the War of Independence. The A.L. Monsohn print shop was also located near the Nissan Bak shul. It started out with lithography and later moved to offset printing. Founder Avraham Leib Monsohn traveled from Jerusalem to Frankfurt to learn lithography, the most advanced printing method of his time. He also studied painting and drawing. In 1892, he and his brother opened the print shop in the Old City and increased capacity to 1,000 copies a day in 1894. Monsohn initially printed postcards of Jerusalem's new neighborhoods, Rosh Hashana cards and receipts for donations to yeshivot. After purchasing a larger press, he began to print half-galleys. These colorful and decorative prints were often drawn in Art Nouveau style - used mainly for mizrah drawings and yahrzeit plaques. Artists like Ze'ev Raban, who taught at the new Bezalel School of Art, designed commercial labels for Monsohn. When Bezalel opened in 1906, its first prints were made at Monsohn's shop. Over the years, Monsohn drummed up business by visiting factories in Haifa and the then-developing city of Tel Aviv. With the technology to print in several colors, including gold, factories like Elite and Dubek preferred Monsohn - despite the distance - because of its high quality. He printed wrappers and labels for Havilio halva, Tepperberg and Ginio wines and Sidis candies. Chocolate bar wrappers depicted heroes and leaders like Trumpeldor, Balfour and Rothschild. A series of fruit juice labels in English appealed to German Colony residents. A collection currently on display at Jerusalem's Old Yishuv Court Museum was loaned to the museum by Monsohn's grandson, Shimon Barmatz, who died in February at 87 and was buried on the Mount of Olives on the night of the exhibition's opening. Barmatz had worked in the print shop since he was 15. A Yakir Yerushalayim, he was a Lehi and Irgun member. In 1949, Barmatz was released from the IDF to print 2 million ration booklets during the austerity period (tzena), since only Monsohn's technology assured there would be no forgeries. The posters published by Monsohn convey similar messages to today: "Save Water," and "Caution - The Enemy Is Listening." His innovative methods and team of artists laid the foundations for modern advertising. He was working on the exhibit's colorful catalogue until shortly before he died. Barmatz explains his grandfather's wariness of missionaries in the city in the catalog: "It was so difficult to make a living running a print shop that grandfather received special permission from Rabbi [Shmuel] Salant to print for Christians and Muslims, on condition that the work would not be in Hebrew, so that they would not use the results for missionary activities." Salant, the beloved rabbi of Jerusalem for more than six decades, refused to have his photograph taken. Therefore Monsohn would draw him from memory, and the rabbi was portrayed with his eyes closed. The exhibit "A.L. Monsohn Print 1892-1992, Barmatz - from Lithography to Offset" is open until the end of April at the Old Yishuv Court Museum in the Jewish Quarter. (02) 627-6319 Hours: Sunday-Thursday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.