Family ties that bind

Aliza Huberman Erez keeps her father’s and grandfather’s bookbinding tradition alive at a Galilee museum.

Bookbinding (photo credit: Courtesy Aliza Huberman Erez and Tal Milner Huberm)
(photo credit: Courtesy Aliza Huberman Erez and Tal Milner Huberm)
Aliza Huberman Erez never intended to inherit the bookbinding business her father had inherited from his father, who learned the trade in Poland. In fact, she never gave much thought to what would happen to the business once her father retired. But one sentence in a book commemorating the contribution of the printing industry to the city of Haifa made her realize that the profession that had been in her family for generations was on the verge of extinction. And that sparked her into action.
“My great-grandfather, Efraim Huberman, owned a printing and bookbinding establishment in Warsaw,” Erez says. “He had 10 children; they all helped out in the business. The oldest and the youngest were girls. My father’s father, Jaccob, was one of the eight boys in between.”
Born in 1885, Jaccob was an ardent Zionist, active in Poalei Tziyon, the Labor Zionist Jewish worker’s circle (of which David Ben-Gurion had been a member at the University of Warsaw). In 1907 Jaccob traveled to Palestine, fell in love with Haifa and determined to live there one day. Back in Poland, he fought with the Polish Legion in Finland during World War I, married and had children. In 1921, he made another trip to Palestine and worked for a short while as a bookbinder for the Ottoman Bank.
On his return to Poland, Jaccob stopped off in Vienna where he bought used machinery from a printer who was about to retire, and had it shipped to the port of Jaffa. In 1922, he moved to Haifa permanently, and with his imported equipment he opened his own business printing, bookbinding, selling stationery products and manufacturing cardboard boxes. Soon after Jaccob’s wife and four children joined him in Palestine, she and the youngest child, a baby, died. Jaccob was left with three young children and a new business. Needing help, he did what anyone would have done: he brought his parents over from Poland.
Jaccob remarried and had two more children. The youngest, Erez’s father Azrikam, was born in 1929. In the next few years, Jaccob also brought seven of his siblings over from Poland, where he helped establish them in similar businesses, in Haifa and Tel Aviv. Only his oldest sister and one brother stayed in Poland, to be wiped out in the Holocaust.
Jaccob’s business, “Kidma,” was located in a rented building, in the lower city of Haifa, on Ha’atzmaut Street (then called Kingsway). In 1946, Jaccob received a letter informing him that the building was being requisitioned by the British Police. He had 10 days to vacate the premises. All of his equipment was moved, temporarily, into a warehouse too small to set up shop in. Erez has the letter Jaccob wrote to the District Commissioner of Haifa, explaining his concern about not being able to provide for his own large family and for the families of his five employees, and his worry over the loss of his customer base.
One year later Kidma reopened, minus the printing press.
“Jaccob died a few years later, in 1949. He was 64 years old,” says Erez. “My father had just finished his army service in the Palmah. Israel was a new country then.”
At the encouragement of his uncles, Jaccob’s brothers, young Azrikam Huberman, just 20 years old, stepped in to run his father’s business.
“As a child, I would help my father at work, so I had learned the basics,” says Huberman. “But there was a lot I had to learn through experience.”
In 1955 “Huberman’s” moved to new premises at 44 Jaffa Street in Haifa. Huberman ran the bookbindery out of that location for the next 53 years. His children continued the family tradition of helping out in the family business.
“It was our summer camp. My brothers and I would help my father do stuff like remove staples or fold paper,” Erez says. “He had a lot of work.”
Fifty years ago there was high demand for bookbinders. Everything from books to balance sheets for accountants to prescription pads for doctors to legal pads for lawyers had to be bound, and Huberman’s customers included large companies such as the Baha’i Gardens, the Electric Company and the clothing manufacturer ATA, located in nearby Kiryat Ata. But in recent years, the printing industry has gone through mindboggling transformations.
In today’s world, where the manufacture of printed materials is highly automated and the introduction of e-books is squeezing out printed material, bookbinders mostly repair books. And books aren’t brought in for repair unless they are considered to be valuable. Bookbinding is definitely a vanishing art.
As his work load diminished, Huberman began thinking about retirement. But what could he do with the equipment? He was afraid it no longer had any use, other than as scrap metal. Around that time, he was interviewed for the book Printing Arts in Haifa: Generations Recount One Hundred Years of Printing in Haifa, 1904-2004 (in Hebrew), by Shabtai Gal-On and Yair Safran, published by the Haifa Association of Art Printers in 2004.
WHEN ALIZA Huberman Erez, an energetic mother of three in her forties, read the interview with her father, one simple sentence struck close to her heart. The author noted that each of Azrikam’s three children has chosen other professions and there will be no continuation of the family business. That made her sad. The thought that the work her father had invested, and the knowledge and experience he had accumulated over the years, would just be thrown away did not sit well with Erez.
She talked about it with her family. Erez’s sister-in-law, a preservation architect, briefly considered taking the machinery, but neither of Aliza’s brothers had any interest. Aliza decided it was up to her. She told her father she would like to work with him and have him teach her the art of bookbinding.
“He thought I was delusional,” she says, laughing.
“I didn’t want Aliza to even start learning. Bookbinding is not a profession with a future,” says her father. But Erez insisted. One day a week, over the period of a few years, Erez joined her father in the shop in Haifa. There was a lot to learn.
“Most of the work was done by hand; all of the cutting and the gluing. And the pages are all sewn together by hand.”
She found it was an invaluable opportunity to spend time with her father.
“Really, I heard more stories than I actually worked. Not only did he tell me everything there was to know about the business and about bookbinding, but I heard stories about everyone in the family. Besides my father, I think I know the most about our family history,” Erez says. Because of her father’s stories, she has been in contact with many of the Huberman relatives, and has met some of them in person, too. And Erez soon thought of a way to continue the family business.
S\he decided to keep the equipment and maybe do a bit of bookbinding. Her husband, Alon, liked the idea. With her father’s retirement imminent, they suggested to him that they move everything closer to their home.
“My mother never worked in the business but she took part in the discussion and planning the move. She liked the whole idea,” says Erez. In 2008, the 100- year-old machinery was moved into a studio space on Moshav Ya’ad, in the Lower Galilee, and set up as sort of working museum.
“The move was hard work,” Erez says, and laughs. “There was 50 years’ worth of dust accumulated in the Jaffa Street shop. We hired a mover, of course. Most of it is the same equipment my grandfather shipped over from Vienna, and it’s heavy. There were also lots of tools and paper and cardboard. We took everything.”
And what did she name the new place? “Jaffa 44,” of course.
When you enter, it’s hard to picture the dust. There are about 10 large machines, all clean and attractively presented, marked with signs explaining their various uses. The walls are hung with tools; colored paper and cardboard used to make the hard-covered books are stacked neatly on the side, as if they’re waiting to be chosen by a customer.
At first, Erez did the occasional bookbinding job, but not anymore.
“We’re open by appointment only. People hear about us by word of mouth. They come and I tell them the stories.”
She gets bus tours but there are also small groups and individuals who are interested in antique machinery and in the traditional methods of bookbinding.
“And it turned out to be a solution for my father,” Erez says. She laughs. “My father tells people, ‘Aliza has made a monument of me.’”
“I don’t look back,” Huberman says. “I’ve moved on.”
Even so, he readily admits he’s pleasantly surprised by what his daughter has done. Huberman’s will survive into the future, though not in the way anyone would ever have imagined.