Midsummer 1: "That I esteem the fiction - real"
Through titles like The Complete Works of Primo Levi, publishers like St. Martin’s Press, authors like Betsy Lerner, and investors like Peter Thiel, BMM is involved in some of today's most celebrated literary projects, yet the details of our contributions are normally hidden from view. Proposal - start an online journal to offer a small peek behind the curtain.
The subject of our first post? Our apparent forebear, Balaban Press, which JOFA Journal Editor, Jennifer Breger, identifies as the "most famous" of the woman-run, Jewish printers of the second half of the 19th century. Balaban was founded in 1840 in Lemberg, Galicia by Yehuda Leib Balaban and published religious works throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Its edition of the Talmud, the preeminent corpus of Jewish knowledge redacted in 500 C.E., is considered authoritative. Other publications included the Shulchan Aruch (first published in 1565), and an array of Bible editions and various prayer-books with commentary. Reflecting the threat that the European Enlightenment and related Jewish movements like Wissenschaft des Judentums posed to normative Jewish life in the East, Balaban’s founder 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" [emphasis mine]. (Jevrejskaja Entsiklopedija, Russian Jewish Encyclopedia)
Notwithstanding Balaban’s opposition to the new thinking, his descendants would include the founder of the field of Polish-Jewish historiography and historian of Polish and Galician Jewry, Meir Balaban. In 2003, Haaretz compared Meir Balaban to the eminent American historian (and BMM author), Steven J. Zipperstein, calling the new Hebrew translation of Balaban's History of the Jews of Krakow and Kazimierz "nothing short of a historiographical-cultural event" and adding "there is no finer, more meticulously researched book on any Jewish community in the world." Meir Balaban was director of the Tachkemoni Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw in the 1920’s where he apparently came into conflict with the leading Jewish scholar of his day, the eventual head of Yeshiva University’s seminary in New York, R. Moshe Soloveitchik (see The Soloveitchik Heritage, Shulamit Meiselman, Ktav 1995). Balaban would perish in the Warsaw Ghetto.
My Aunt Edna, daughter of Galician immigrant, Samuel Balaban, was born in Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1908. When I was twelve she said to me in passing: "In the old country, we printed bibles". I understood the centrality of the Bible to our people. We were, after all, The People of the Book. But while the Bible occupied pride of place in the Balaban household, there was also a preternatural affection for secular texts, albeit predominantly those of Jewish interest.
My larger than life, streetwise father, Oscar Balaban, was a member of the Yeshiva University associated Kingsbridge Heights Jewish Center where I attended Hebrew School. Rabbi Israel Miller, YU’s Vice President, was a close associate of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, son of the aforementioned R. Moshe Soloveitchik . Evenings after dinner saw my father transformed from a stalwart small business owner, whose window treatments shop sat opposite the old Women’s House of Detention on West 10th Street, into an insatiable bibliophile with a yen for Wouk, Bellow and Stendhal. My Mother, Lillian Balaban née Wiegan, also loved to read (in later years almost exclusively Eudora Welty), so the books passed regularly between my parents’ night-tables, and finally to the living room bookshelf. The Adventures of Augie March and The Winds of War stood proudly alongside A Gathering Storm and The Red and the Black. Titles of lesser import made their way to the upper reaches of the coat closet. When I was very small, my father, a gentle, olive skinned, sinewy survivor of wretched tragedy including a father prematurely deceased, a lost first wife and baby, and Depression bankruptcy - somehow found within himself the life force to take me on imaginary shopping trips to buy groceries with made up, tongue twister names like verenikas and kartoffle that elicited my glee. (I’d one day learn that what I’d thought to be jabberwocky were actual staples of Eastern European cookery.) He later taught me about the good-natured rivalry between the two European Jewish camps, the "cold hearted" Litvaks (i.e. Lithuanians) and our own team - the"horse-stealing" Galitzianos (i.e. Galicians.) Yet somehow, despite the palpable richness of my Jewish identity and a family culture overflowing in books, the dawn of adulthood left me completely uninterested in this newfound connection to bible printing and, increasingly, the same could be said about recollections of the old country. It was 1964.
When my brother, Stuart, left home for Harvard, the rest of us moved to a leafy, secluded section of the Bronx called Riverdale that had more driveways, doormen and “forms of Judaism” than I'd ever seen or knew existed. The example of my maternal grandfather, Abe Wiegan, who survived famine as a child in Lodz by apprenticing himself to a baker and who The New Yorker would one day call "the veritable Saint-Gaudens of bakers in our times" (see "The Artist", Brendan Gill, The February, 1945), suggested to me that the past had been overcome and the gifted had triumphed. Bronx Science and Princeton beckoned in the distance. My generation would define itself through the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the pill. So it was for no obvious reason that my Aunt Edna's simple statement of fact lingered on in my memory, survived voyages of youth, scholarship and profession, and finally accompanied an unlikely journey to the core of what she'd revealed.
The uninitiated might well ask: “of what possible import could a bible printing business that flourished in the unmanicured boondocks of Stefan Zweig's regal World of Yesterday** be to your activities today?” And to put a finer point on it: “if memories of Zweig, ‘the most translated author in the world’, the celebrated Austrian Jew who called Europe his ‘spiritual home’ and whose death made front page headlines in the New York Times, had nevertheless faded over the course of half a century to ‘little more than a name’ (New Yorker, Aug. 27, 2012), wasn't it an even greater stretch from the anachronistic religious texts he disdained?”
To borrow literary critic Harold Bloom, author of The Anxiety of Influence and exponent of “revisionary ratios”, belatedly recognizing the significance of Balaban Press was less of a stretch than a Swerve, and perhaps even a Clinamen. Our own e-publishing company, launched in 2013 with Peter Thiel’s backing, sheds light on the continuing relevance of its 19th century predecessor.
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 publishing has largely remained the same since the Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1454, they shared the same operating model.
Most importantly, in a 21st century publishing ecosystem where publishers rely on a solid backlist of older books still in print to sustain profitability (think The Catcher in the Rye), Balaban and her cohorts achieved something remarkable by anyone’s measure - they printed works that are timeless. God’s backlist, as it were, constitutes the source of our deepest values and beliefs, so too our way of life in all its sublime detail, and the same can properly be said about the influence of these extraordinary works on the lives of countless millions over the course of millennia. With all due respect to the Viennese bourgeoisie and their fleeting generations, our interests today leap beyond emasculated Zweigism and the cured eastern at Zabar's. Avid Bloom readers though we may be, we locate our own 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 faintly familiar idea that Judaism is "a very strong misreading of the Hebrew Bible", we'd point out that without the continuum of sacred Jewish texts reproduced by Balaban and others 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. Bequeathed from realms Dickinson acutely labelled "beyond my limit to conceive", it shows two "worlds", the one a corridor to the other. Traversed through the physical world with the help of a compass of utterances that register Polaris but point unerringly 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 Hebrew Bible's benighted status in Western academia today, and with no disrespect to Bloom, Yale’s “Sterling Professor of Humanities" was able to publish his generous observations bereft of the minimum credentials the academy normally insists upon for publishing on any other subject, such as proficiency in the language, source materials and familiarity with the relevant literature. One can think of no better example than the uninformed genius 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 "on the avenue" in the just-unlikely-enough-to-be-possible "Second Hebrew Republic" to which the Puritans aspired, may have been chewing on the thought that the survival of civilized society was now hanging by a biblically-woven American thread, and perhaps wondering if his Austrian-Jewish forbears had traded a thirty three hundred year old cosmic emancipation for an eponymous French poème. With the same European “deplorables” he'd once dismissed plowing under his fiction, 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 ebullient Goliath of imperial modernism was finally taken to task 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, except 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 pebble may well have stunned the "infernally erudite" Bloom and shed sobriety on his 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 now eighty-eight year old, self-described Litvak as something of a defender of the faith against modernism, this talented daughter of Pumbedita by way of the Bronx Public Library is probably lost in the same stygian stacks as her fellow alumnus of the Bronx. For at the end of the day, Bloom and Ozick both worship at the altar of the literary imagination, and without judging these gloriously gifted and entertaining soulmates, they give every appearance of standing naked of offerings before the immeasurable priority Judaism assigns to the revealed word. It’s a cardinal distinction, obviously lost on atheists, but unequivocally affirmed and expounded by the renown 16th century Jewish scholar and Kabbalist, Rabbi Yehuda Loew (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 resurrected World of Yesterday, she perversely offers: "Life is that which interrupts”.
Which leads us to humbly suggest that despite the many gifts Ozick plunders "for the sake of humanity", her admirable desire to "emulate the precursors stance" and the Jabba-esque satisfaction of America’s “newspaper of record”, the business of Jewish faith defending might be better left to the less literary likes of a Sarah Shenirer. For while Zweig was soaring to fame, and Ozick and Bloom were yet to be born, it fell to an unagented child of the Belz hasidic dynasty, a young seamstress from Krakow who’d tasted Vienna and understood its mortal implications, to teach the daughters of the so-called "Orthodox" (a modernist appellation) during the blink of the eye that preceded their distinctly unreported genocide, how to engage with the revealed word and create a palace for its Author amidst vital quarantine and seeming deprivation; to spurn the Paro of blind, self abnegated self expression and leave 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 cultural 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, 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 Bible. Printed in 1863 by Ms. Pessel Balaban - it’s made of light.
* Graciously provided by Jeff Ballabon
** Generously loaned by R. Meiselman