Through uncommon titles like Betsy Lerner's The Bridge Ladies, publishers such as Liveright, and investors like Peter Thiel, Balaban Media Management is involved in some of today's most consequential literary projects. Yet the details of our contributions are usually hidden from view. Proposal: start a BMM journal to provide a discrete peek behind the curtains.
The subject for our first post? BMM's forebear, Balaban Press - the "most famous" of the woman-run, Jewish printers of the second half of the 19th century. Founded in 1840 by Yehudah Leib Balaban in Lemberg, Galicia, Balaban published and distributed authoritative religious titles throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Its coat of arms featured a lion, symbol of the Hebrew tribe of Yehudah - and Jerusalem.
My aunt of blessed memory, Edna Balaban, daughter of Galician immigrant, Samuel Balaban, z"l, was born in New York's Lower East Side in 1908. When I was 11 or 12 years old, she said to me in passing: "In the old country, we printed bibles". While it's true there was a preternatural affection for books in the Balaban household, for a certain kind of Jewish child growing up in the Bronx in the second half of the 20th century, book printing per se wasn't as interesting as biology or Beethoven. The Bronx High School of Science, Princeton University and the MIT Media Laboratory beckoned in the distance and there were more glamorous, if equally remote, relatives "in movies" whose claim on my imagination far outpaced the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But for no good reason I can think of today, Aunt Edna's simple statement of fact lingered on in my memory, surviving voyages of youth, scholarship and profession, and finally accompanied a journey to the ineffable core of what she'd revealed.
The uninitiated might well ask - how could something that flourished in the unmanicured, far eastern regions of Stefan Zweig's "world of yesterday" be meaningful to you? Interest in Zweig himself, radiant Viennese urtext for a generation of Jewish-American literary celebrities, "the most translated author in the world", has faded to his being "little more than a name" (New Yorker, Aug. 27, 2012). Isn't it a far greater stretch from publishing the arcane, religious texts Zweig was content to ignore, to launching a journalism-focused, e-publishing company, as you and Suzanne did, in the 21st?
To borrow Harold Bloom, it was less of a stretch than a swerve - and our own, Peter Thiel-backed, publishing venture really does make for an interesting point of comparison with Balaban Press. For one, developments in copyright law affected the business activities of both entities (see discussion of Balaban 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 basically remained unaltered since 1454 (when the Gutenberg Bible was printed), the two publishing companies, despite being more than a century and ocean apart, shared identical operating models. The e-publishing company exploited digital to the hilt, but both engaged in curation, editing, publishing, marketing and distribution.
On a less mundane level, Balaban Press and its timeless publications, informed BMM's values and beliefs from inception. Nothing on the Viennese bourgeoisie and their American spawn, but our interests leap beyond common Zweigism and the not-too-fatty Eastern at Zabar's. Ardent Harold Bloom devotees we may be, but we locate our canon in the Lion of Yehudah, its range in the great American poem from which this journal takes its name. Without the works printed by Balaban and others over the course of millennia, and the relationship with the truth they make possible, we'd lack the map and modalities we use to assist our author and publisher clients.
As for the Balaban editions themselves and a certain boy's heart-in-mouth journey beyond the common confines of the Ivy League, behold the title page of Kedushas Levi, a commentary on the Bible, written by the 18th century Hasidic master, Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev. Printed in 1884 by Ms. Pessel Balaban, it's made of light.
* Graciously provided by Jeff Ballabon