"That I esteem the fiction real"
Through titles like The Complete Works of Primo Levi and investors like Peter Thiel, BMM (Balaban Media Management) has been involved in some of the world’s highest profile literary projects, yet knowledge of the details of our contribution has heretofore been reserved for the stakeholders. Proposal: start a journal to offer a peek behind the curtain, write the first post about the origins of our firm, and with a favorite Emily Dickinson poem in mind, call the journal Midsummer.
Balaban Press was the “most famous” of the woman-run, Jewish printers of the second half of the 19th century (see Jennifer Breger, editor of the Journal of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.) It was founded by Yehuda Leib Balaban in 1840 in Lemberg, Galicia (present day Ukraine) and published religious works throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Balaban’s edition of the Talmud, the preeminent corpus of Jewish knowledge, is considered authoritative. Other publications included the Shulchan Aruch, an array of Bible editions and various prayer-books with commentary. The title pages of the Balaban books often bore the family coat of arms which featured the image of a lion, symbol of Jerusalem and the tribe of Yehuda from whence the word “Jew” comes.
Reflecting the threat the Enlightenment and movements like Wissenschaft des Judentums posed to 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."
- Yehuda Leib Balaban (Russian Jewish Encyclopedia)
Despite Balaban’s disinterest in modern Jewish literature and science, his descendants would include Meir Balaban, founder of the field of Polish-Jewish historiography. In Haaretz' review of the Hebrew translation of Balaban's History of the Jews of Krakow and Kazimierz, David Assaf compared Meir Balaban to the eminent American historian and BMM author, Steven J. Zipperstein, characterizing Balaban's work as "nothing short of a historiographical-cultural event" and adding:
"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 apparently came into ideological conflict about the seminary’s pedagogy with the great religious scholar, R. Moshe Soloveitchik (see The Soloveitchik Heritage, Shulamit Meiselman, Ktav 1995). Rabbi Soloveitchik would emigrate to America where he would take up the leadership of the seminary of Yeshiva University in New York. Meir Balaban would continue to do research and publish until he perished in the Warsaw Ghetto.
My aunt, Edna Balaban, 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".
Like any Jewish kid growing up in New York in the 60’s, I’d been taught about the land of Israel and the centrality of the Bible. A small, black, bilingual edition sat undisturbed on our living room bookshelf, amidst the larger, more attractively bound texts that reflected my parents' devotion to reading.
My father, Oscar Balaban, z"l, was a member of the Yeshiva University affiliated Kingsbridge Heights Jewish Center. A sinewy, self-possessed, Salem-smoking, Greenwich Village shopkeeper by day, evenings after a subway ride back to the Bronx saw him transformed into an insatiable bibliophile with a yen for Wouk, Bellow and Stendhal.
My mother, Lillian Balaban née Wiegan, z"l, whose days overflowed with concern for others, and whose piano repertoire consisted of a single work, Voice of the Heart, similarly spent her few available minutes reading, in later years almost exclusively the works of 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 dining room coat closet.
My father had endured the premature death of his own father as a teenager, followed by the loss of a first wife and baby, and then finally his business during the Depression, yet when I came along his desire to amuse a toddler pushed aside the emotional residues of tragedy and he would take me on imaginary shopping excursions to buy my grandmother's groceries. Each night from my father's bed we would shop together for made-up concoctions, or so I thought, with exotic names like verenikas and kartoffle that my father relished invoking as much out of sentiment for the old foods as because the alveolar r’s made me laugh. Later 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).
Yet despite the palpable richness of my Jewish identity and a family culture bursting with books, the dawn of adulthood left me uninterested in my newfound connection to bible printing. When my brother left home to attend Harvard, the rest of us moved to a leafy section of the Bronx that had more driveways and kinds of Judaism than I knew existed.
Quietly informing my still inchoate perspective on life was the odyssey of my maternal grandfather. As a child in Lodz, Poland at the end of the 19th century, Abraham Wiegan had survived famine by running away from heder and apprenticing himself to a baker. After emigrating with his family to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, marrying an unusually loving aviphile from Maramarosh Seegit, and an abbreviated career on the Yiddish stage, he quickly rose to Duff Goldman-like celebrity baker status, with the New Yorker anointing him “the veritable Saint-Gaudens of bakers in our times” - a reference to the renown American sculptor. Brendan Gill's profile of my grandfather, "The Artist", focused on a particularly stupendous cake he had erected in honor of the 27th birthday of the Red Army, and how he built the massive confection with the intention of sending its only slightly less stupendous leftovers to the mentally impaired children at Halloran Hospital. Exploring my grandfather's "feelings about baking and life", Gill quotes him as follows:
"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”
Certified by my parents’ near reverance, Grandpa’s celebrity, cited most recently in Eater, left little doubt in my mind that our treacherous European past had been overcome and the “gifted” had certainly triumphed. On the rainy morning we interred my grandmother's last parakeet in the woods overlooking Spuyten Duyvil, the Bronx High School of Science was already beckoning in the distance. Music composition and neuroethology would be the muses of my own ardor.
Which is all to say that it was for no obvious reason that my Aunt Edna’s simple statement of fact should have 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 ask:
“How could a religious books business that flourished in the unmanicured boondocks of Stefan Zweig's sophisticated World of Yesterday have any relevance to BMM's activities today?” And to put a finer point on it: “If our collective memory of ‘the most translated author in the world’ whose death made front page headlines in the New York Times had already faded to ‘little more than a name’ (New Yorker, Aug. 27, 2012), whither the anachronistic Jewish religious texts he disdained? A bit of stretch, isn't it?”
To borrow literary critic Harold Bloom, exponent of “revisionary ratios” and author of The Western Canon, embracing the significance of Balaban Press was less of a stretch than a Swerve, and the publishing company we’d subsequently launch with Peter Thiel’s backing makes for an interesting comparison.
At the most prosaic level, developments in copyright law affected the activities of both publishing firms (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 business haven’t changed since the advent of printing, they 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 solid “backlist” of evergreen titles still in print to sustain profitability, Balaban Press and her cohorts achieved something remarkable by anyone’s measure. They published works that are timeless. Not only do the Balaban editions constitute the source of our own beliefs, values and way of life today, but the same can properly be said of the megatherium influence of these works on the lives of countless millions over the course of millennia. So with all due respect to the Viennese bourgeoisie and their fleeting generations, the interests of the present generation of Balabans leap beyond emasculated Zweigism and the cured eastern at Zabar's. Appreciative 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 provocative if faintly familiar 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 Harold Bloom, Yale University's Sterling Professor of Humanities 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 “second Hebrew Republic”, was chewing on the unsettling notion that the very survival of the civilized world was now hanging by a biblically-woven American thread; perhaps entertaining the even more disturbing possibility that his forbears had traded 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 perfectly aimed pebble may have stunned the "infernally erudite" Bloom and uprooted 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 now eighty-eight year old, 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 her literary colleague and fellow borough alumnus.
For at the end of the day, the fact remains that Bloom and Ozick both worship at the altar of the "literary imagination", and stand naked of public offerings before the infinite priority Judaism assigns to the Bible. It’s a cardinal distinction, unequivocally expounded by the the Maharal of Prague in his indomitable treatise Tiferet Yisrael. Together 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 despite the divine 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 Ozick and Bloom were yet to descend to the East Bronx, it fell to an unagented child of Belz in Krakow who had visited Vienna and grasped its implications, to educate the daughters of the so-called "Orthodox" in the span that preceded their degradation and 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, 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