"That I esteem the fiction real"
Through books like The Complete Works of Primo Levi and investors like Peter Thiel, Balaban Media Management has participated in some of the most consequential literary projects of recent decades. With this inaugural post about BMM’s origins we’re launching a journal to provide an inside view.
Balaban Press was the “most famous” of the woman-run, Jewish printers of the second half of the 19th century. Founded by Yehuda Leib Balaban in 1840 in Lemberg, Galicia (Ukraine), the firm published religious works throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The Balaban edition of the Talmud, the preeminent corpus of Jewish knowledge, is still considered authoritative. Other publications included the Shulchan Aruch, parts of which have been incorporated into today’s standard version, an array of Bible editions, and various prayer-books with commentary. The Balaban Press title pages bore a coat of arms that combined the letter B with the image of a standing lion.
Reflecting the threat Enlightenment-inspired movements like Wissenschaft des Judentums posed to Jewish life in the east, Yehuda Leib Balaban wrote:
"Only Moses and men of the Great Congregation are worth printing their books.
The firm ignores the modern Jewish literature and contemporary Jewish science." (Russian Jewish Encyclopedia)
Despite Balaban’s aversion to the Western cure, his descendants would include Meir Balaban, founder of the field of Polish-Jewish historiography. In Haaretz' review of Balaban’s History of the Jews of Krakow and Kazimierz, David Assaf compared him to the preeminent American historian (and BMM author) Steven J. Zipperstein, characterizing the work as "nothing short of a historiographical-cultural event", and declaring:
"There is no finer, more meticulously researched book on any Jewish community in the world."
In the 1920’s Meir Balaban took up the directorship of the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw where he came into conflict with the great religious scholar, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik (see The Soloveitchik Heritage, Shulamit Meiselman, Ktav 1995). Balaban would continue to do research and publish until he perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. R. Soloveitchik took up leadership of Yeshiva University’s seminary in New York.
My aunt, Edna Balaban, daughter of Galician immigrant, Samuel Balaban (my grandfather), was born in Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1908. When I was twelve or thirteen she revealed to me in passing:
"In the old country, we printed bibles".
Like most Jewish children growing up in the Bronx in the 1960’s, I’d been taught about the Bible’s centrality to Jewish life. A small, black, bilingual edition sat undisturbed on our living room bookshelf amidst larger more attractively bound texts.
My father, Oscar Balaban, was a member of the Yeshiva University affiliated Kingsbridge Heights Jewish Center. A self-possessed, Salem-smoking, Greenwich Village business proprietor by day, evenings saw the irrepressible soul I’ve come to refer to as “Reb Hayim Yehezkal” transformed into an insatiable bibliophile with a yen for Wouk, Bellow and Stendhal.
My mother, Lillian Balaban née Wiegan, whose days overflowed with heartfelt concern for others, similarly spent her few available minutes reading, in later years almost exclusively the works of Eudora Welty. The books passed regularly between my parents’ night-tables, and finally to the bookshelf. The Adventures of Augie March and The Winds of War stood proudly alongside The Gathering Storm and The Red and the Black. Titles of lesser import were exiled to the upper reaches of the dining room coat closet.
R. Hayim Yehezkal had survived the premature death of his own father as a teenager, the loss of a first wife and baby, and a business during the Depression. Any one of them would have been sufficient to defeat most of us. Yet by the time I came along, Reb Hayim’s imperative to amuse - after sharp intellect, impregnable humility and physical power, his most prominent quality - easily overcame tragedy’s weight. At bedtime we would go pretend-shopping for made-up concoctions, or so I thought, with impossible to pronounce names like verenikas and kartoffle, that he relished invoking because the alveolar r’s made me laugh. Later, with glint in eye, he taught me about the good-natured rivalry between the two European Jewish camps, the "cold hearted" Litvaks and our own team - the "horse-stealing" Galitzianos (I.e. Galicians). Their common fate would only become known decades later.
Despite the palpable richness of my Jewish identity and a home decorated with books, the dawn of adulthood left me completely uninterested in my connection to bible printing. When my brother, Stuart, left home for Harvard, we moved to a leafy section of the Bronx that had more driveways and kinds of Judaism than I knew existed. My own bookshelf would soon be graced with the works of Salinger and Dostoevsky.
Quietly informing my worldview was the odyssey of my maternal grandfather, Abraham Wiegan. According to family lore, he’d narrowly escaped famine in late 19th century Lodz (Poland) by abandoning heder (Jewish elementary school) and apprenticing himself to a baker. Like the Balabans, the Wiegans had emigrated to Manhattan’s Lower East Side where Abraham married my grandmother, Rivka (Becky) Shlumshuk, an unusually loving aviphile. In making the journey as a teenager to New York, Becky had left behind her parents in Maramarosh Segit (Hungary.) The Carpathian Mountains that had sheltered her family had previously harbored the Baal Shem Tov and the great Hasidic dynasties. Abe and Manhattan’s tenements would now have to suffice.
After a turn on the Yiddish stage alongside the luminous Thomashevski, Abe Wiegan returned to baking and rose through talent and love of craft to Duff Goldman-like celebrity status. In 1945, the New Yorker anointed him “the veritable Saint-Gaudens of bakers in our times” - in reference to the renown American sculptor. Brendan Gill's touching profile, "The Artist", described a particularly stupendous cake Abe erected in honor of the 27th birthday of the Red Army, detailing how he built the massive confection intending to send its only slightly less stupendous leftovers to the mentally impaired children at Halloran Hospital. Describing his "feelings about baking and life", the artist confesses:
"In the first place, there is nothing too big for a man if he loves it enough.
Always I am in love with baking.”
- Brendan Gill, New Yorker Magazine, February 24, 1945, “The Artist”
Grandpa’s celebrity, recently mentioned in Eater, offered tangible proof that in coming to America, the treacherous Jewish past had been overcome and that among the most highly prized possessions in the world was the gift of artistic talent. And as if foreordained, on the drizzly morning we interred Grandma’s final parakeet in the woods overlooking Spuyten Duyvil, the Bronx High School of Science, New York’s hothouse for gifted children was already beckoning in the distance. A two year flirtation with Neurobiology at Princeton came to a fitting end when a live performance of Bela Bartok’s 2nd String Quartet by the Tokyo String Quartet, from which I literally fled afterwards, made it apparent that my own muse would be music composition.
Which is all to say that it was for no obvious reason that Aunt Edna’s simple statement of fact - “in the old country we printed Bibles” - should have lingered on in my memory, survived voyages of youth, scholarship and profession, and accompanied me on a journey to the very core of what she’d revealed.
The uninitiated might ask: “How could a religious books business that flourished in the unmanicured boondocks of Stefan Zweig's enchanted World of Yesterday pertain to your activities today?” And to sharpen the point: “If memories of the great Zweig, once the world’s most translated author, had faded to ‘little more than a name’ as the New Yorker recently observed (New Yorker, Aug. 27, 2012), whither the anachronistic Jewish religious texts he disdained? By suggesting they remain relevant, aren’t you stretching credulity?
To borrow literary critic Harold Bloom, exponent of “revisionary ratios” and author of The Western Canon, my discovery of the ongoing relevance of Balaban Press was less of a stretch than a hard, extended Swerve. And I can think of no better comparison to help explain why than the comparatively modest press BMM launched in 2013 with the help of Peter Thiel.
At the most prosaic level, developments in copyright law affected the activities of both publishing companies (see discussion of Balaban Press vs. Madpis in "From Maimonides to Microsoft: The Jewish Law of Copyright Since the Birth of Print", N. W. Netanel, Oxford University Press, 2016). And because the fundamentals of the publishing business haven’t changed one iota since the advent of printing, they even shared the same operating model. But this is where the similarities end. For seen from the vantage point of the early 21rst century, where publishers rely on a “backlist” of evergreen titles still in print to sustain profitability, Balaban Press and her cohorts achieved something remarkable by anyone’s measure. They published a canon that was timeless by nature.
Not only do the Balaban editions constitute the source of our own way of life, but the same can properly be said of the megatherium influence of the Jewish canon, in its various editions over the course of millennia, on the lives of countless millions. Nothing on the Viennese bourgeoisie and their fleeting generations, but the interests of the present generation of Balabans leap way beyond emasculated Zweigism and the cured eastern at Zabar's. Amused Harold Bloom readers though we may be, we locate our canon in the Lion of Yehuda, its range in the exquisite Emily Dickinson poem from which this journal takes its name.
Apropos our good master Mr. Bloom and his idea that Judaism is "a very strong misreading of the Hebrew Bible", we'd humbly offer that without the unbroken continuum of sacred Jewish texts reproduced by Balaban and other Jewish printers and scribes dating back to the biblical prophets, and the relationship with the truth they uniquely enable, humankind would be bereft of its only reliable map and compass. Lovingly bequeathed from realms Emily Dickinson acutely labelled "beyond my limit to conceive", they show two "worlds", the one a corridor to the other. Traversed by means of the physical world with a compass that registers Polaris but points with “black fire on white fire” to her Creator, this transcendental tapestry bears no practical resemblance to Bloom's academic projection.
As if to underline the Bible’s benighted status in the academy today, and with no disrespect to Yale University's Sterling Professor of Humanities, Mr. Bloom got away with publishing his observations about Judaism without possessing the bare minimum credentials the academy normally insists upon for publishing on any other subject, including mastery of the pertinent languages, source materials and relevant literature. Indeed, one can think of no better example than the lavishly unmoored talent of the world’s foremost literary critic in arguing for the liberalization of today’s academy to include normative Jewish scholarship at a level comparable to Israel’s leading yeshivas.
Behold the expression on Stefan Zweig's face in his 1941 Manhattan double decker photograph above. A mix of power, pose and terror, it intimates to me that today's most forgotten author, finding himself conveyed, idol-like, through the canyons of the Puritan’s “Hebrew Republic”, was chewing on the deeply unsettling notion that the very survival of the civilized world was now hanging by a biblically-woven American thread, perhaps even entertaining the more disturbing possibility that his forbears had exchanged a thirty three hundred year old cosmic emancipation for an eponymous French poème. With the same deplorable angels he'd once dismissed now gleefully plowing under his manifold fictions, the question once beyond the pale was now anything but - had strange fruit emerged from covenantal betrayal? Zweig’s suicide in Petropolis would shortly follow.
Yale’s Golya of modernism was finally confronted by novelist and literary critic, Cynthia Ozick in Commentary in 1979 with this slingshot:
“The notion of “‘undoing’ the precursor’s strength” has no validity in normative Judaism. Jewish liturgy, for instance, posits just the opposite; it affirms recapturing without revision the precursor’s stance and strength when it iterates “our God, and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Nearly every congeries of Jewish thought is utterly set against the idea of displacing the precursor. “Torah” includes the meaning of tradition and transmittal together. Although mainstream Judaism rejected the Karaites in favor of a less restrictive interpretive mode, interpretation never came to stand for disjunction, displacement, ebbing-out, isolation, swerving, deviation, substitution, revisionism.
Transmittal signifies the carrying-over of the original strength, the primal monotheistic insight, the force of which drowns out competing power-systems. That is what is meant by the recital in the Passover Haggadah, “We ourselves went out from Egypt, and not only our ancestors,” and that is what is meant by the Midrash which declares, “All generations stood together at Sinai,” including present and future generations. In Jewish thought there are no latecomers.
Consequently the whole notion of “modernism” is, under the illumination of Torah, at best a triviality and for the most part an irrelevance. Modernism has little to do with real chronology, exept insofar as it means to dynamite the continuum.
Modernism denotes discontinuity: a radical alteration of modes of consciousness. Modernism, perforce, concerns itself with the problem of “belatedness.” But modernism and belatedness are notions foreign and irrelevant to the apperceptions of Judaism. Modernism and belatedness induce worry about being condemned to repeat, and therefore anxiously look to break the bond with the old and make over, using the old as the governing standard—or influence—from which to learn deviation and substitution.
The mainstream Jewish sense does not regard a hope to recapture the strength, unmediated, of Abraham and Moses as a condemnation. Quite the opposite. In the Jewish view, it is only through such recapture and emulation of the precursor’s stance, unrevised, that life can be nourished, that the gift of the Creator can be received, praised, and fulfilled.
Jewish thought makes much of its anti-antinomian precursors as given, and lacks both the will and the authority to undo or humble or displace them, least of all to subject them to purposeful misprision. A scribe with the Torah under his hand will live a stringent life in order not to violate a single letter. There is no competition with the text, no power-struggle with the original, no envy of the Creator. The aim, instead, is to reproduce a purely transmitted inheritance, free of substitution or incarnation.”
Ozick's perfect shot may have stunned the "infernally erudite" Bloom and cast doubt on his seductive conflation of the Western spirit with "Kabbalistic Judaism". "Cleaned his plow!" claims Esquire fiction editor, Gordon Lish. But for all the eloquence of Giles Harvey’s recent consecration of the self-described Litvak in the Times as something of a defender of the faith against modernism, this talented daughter of Pumbedita by way of the Bronx Public Library may ultimately be lost in the same stygian stacks as Bloom.
For at the end of the day, the fact remains that Bloom and Ozick both worship at the altar of the "literary imagination". Both gifted souls stand naked of public offerings before the infinite priority Judaism assigns to the Bible. It’s a cardinal, unavoidable distinction, unequivocally expounded by the Maharal of Prague in his indomitable treatise Tiferet Yisrael. With Bloom, Ozick "lives for nothing else beyond literature." As if secreted together in a Pelham Bay candy store reading her beloved Violet Fairy Book, Adam and Eve of a transplanted World of Yesterday, Ozick perversely offers:
"Life is that which interrupts”.
Which leads us to offer that for all the gifts Ozick plunders "for the sake of humanity", her intention to "emulate the precursors stance", and frontal assault on the Golya of modernism, the business of Jewish faith defending might be better left to the counter-cultural likes of a Sarah Shenirer. For while Zweig was soaring on the Continent, and the souls of Ozick and Bloom were yet to descend to the East Bronx, it fell to an unagented child of Belz who had visited Vienna and grasped its implications, to educate the daughters of the so-called "Orthodox" in the brief span that preceded their barely reported murder. Defying the panzers of "sophisticated Phillistines" that Wall Street Journal critic, Edward Rothstein recently decried in "Biblical Illiteracy Equals Cultural Illiteracy", Shenirer’s pedagogy of resistance centered on engaging with the revealed word, creating a transcendental palace for its Author amidst vital quarantine and seeming deprivation, spurning the Paro of absurd, self-abnegated self-expression, and leaving the West's latest poem to the West.
And so it should be no surprise that what the Times wryly calls Ozick's "crusade" did nothing to halt the culture genocide that actually merits that appellation - the crusade of triumphant modernism. Harvey opines that: "[Ozick's] commitment to Judaism... inoculates her against the dubious allure of the universal" offering that she "lives out of time altogether" and "stands at a kind of belletristic Sinai". And then, as if unable to resist the imperative or irony, he places the weapon of Bloomsian "revision" in Ozick's own hand:
"It's tempting to see in [Ozick's fictional protagonist] Edelshtein's tragi-comic day-to-day efforts on behalf of Yiddish, a bitter self-parody of Ozick the practioner-critic, Ozick the elegist of a vanished cultural past".
Which finally brings us to the Balaban Press editions themselves and a certain young man's heart-in-mouth journey beyond the unnatural confines of the Ivy League. Behold the title page of the Balaban edition of the Bible, printed in 1863. You can’t see it with your eyes, but it’s made of light.
* Graciously provided by Jeff Ballabon
** Generously loaned by R. Meiselman
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright c 2018, ELLIOT BALABAN.