Through titles like The Bridge Ladies, publishers like W.W. Norton & Company, and investors like Peter Thiel, BMM is involved in some of today's most celebrated literary projects, yet the details of our contributions are discretely hidden from view. Proposal - start an online journal to provide an occasional peek behind the curtain.
The subject of our first post? BMM's forebear, Balaban Press, which Jennifer Breger of the Jewish Women's Archive called the "most famous" of the woman-run, Jewish printers of the second half of the 19th century. Founded in 1840 by Yehuda Leib Balaban in Lemberg, Galicia (now the Ukraine), Balaban published "seforim" throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Its edition of the Talmud, the preeminent corpus of Jewish knowledge, is considered authoritative although it was eventually supplanted by the Vilna edition. The company's coat of arms featured a lion, symbol of the Hebrew tribe of Yehuda, its capital Jerusalem, and reference to the founder's name.
Balaban's descendants would include the venerated historian of Polish and Galician Jewry, Meir Balaban. Comparing him to contemporary historian (and BMM author) Steve Zipperstein, Haaretz wrote that the recent Hebrew translation of Balaban's History of the Jews of Krakow and Kazimierz was "nothing short of a historiographical-cultural event" and that "there is no finer, more meticulously researched book on any Jewish community in the world."
My aunt of blessed memory, Edna (Itah) Balaban, daughter of Galician immigrant, Samuel (Shmuel) Balaban, z"l, was born in New York's Lower East Side in 1908. When I was 12 years old, she said to me in passing: "In the old country, we printed bibles". Having attended Hebrew school, I understood the centrality of the Bible to the Jewish people. We were called "the People of the Book" and there seemed to be a preternatural affection for books of all kinds in the Balaban household. Yet this newfound familial connection to bible printing per se didn't seem especially interesting to me, and the same was the case for recollections about life in the "old country." It was 1964. The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, the New York World's Fair had opened, and two American destroyers had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. My grandfather, Abe Wiegan, New York's preeminent baker ("the veritable Saint-Gaudens of bakers in our times." Brendan Gill, New Yorker, February, 1945) and survivor of starvation in Lodz, Poland, was living testament to the horrors of history, the American redemption and above all, the survival of the gifted. The Bronx High School of Science, Princeton and the MIT Media Laboratory beckoned in the distance. 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 ask - what possible relevance could a bible printing business that flourished in the unmanicured boondocks of Stefan Zweig's World of Yesterday** have to your literary activities today? If memories of Zweig, "the most translated author in the world" who called Europe his "spiritual home", whose death was reported on the front page of the New York Times and who remains the urtext for generations of Jewish-American literary celebrities - had faded 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 master Harold Bloom and his ratios of revision, it was less of a stretch than a swerve, and our own modest publishing venture illuminates Balaban's incontrovertible albeit subversive relevance. At the most prosaic level, developments in copyright law affected the activities of both ventures (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 largely remained the same since Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1454, they shared the same operating model. BMM's press published secular works, exploited digital and had de minimis impact or tenure compared to its forebear, but both engaged in curation, editing, publishing, marketing and distribution.
More essentially, Balaban's timeless editions continue to define BMM's values, beliefs, and creative process - hence our presence in Jerusalem. With all due respect to the Viennese bourgeoisie (and their descendants), our interests leap far beyond emasculated Zweigism and the cured eastern at Zabar's. Bloom admirers though we may be, we locate our "canon" in the Lion of Yehuda, its range in the breathtaking Emily Dickinson poem from which this journal takes its name. To the master's bluster from New Haven that Judaism is "a very strong misreading of the Hebrew Bible", we'd simply respond that absent the sacred Jewish texts reproduced by Balaban and others in an unbroken chain over the course of millennia dating back to the biblical prophets, and the relationship with the truth they uniquely enable, humankind would be bereft of its map and compass. Based on two "worlds", the one a corridor to the other, a needle that points to its Creator, and lovingly sent from reaches that Dickinson acutely describes as "beyond my limit to conceive", this transcendental topology bears no resemblance to Mr. Bloom's projection.
Behold the expression on Zweig's face in his 1941, Manhattan double decker photograph (above). A mix of power, pose and terror, it intimates that today's most forgotten author, finding himself conveyed idol-like down a broad thoroughfare of Puritan inspiration in their "just crazy enough to be true" Second Hebrew Republic, may have realized at 23rd street that he'd mistook a knockoff emancipation for the original, which go figure, was biblical and definitive. His suicide in Brazil would soon follow. Our good master, Mr. Bloom, the Goliath of American letters, and the merciless battering ram of imperial modernism he championed, were toppled by 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.
As for the Balaban Press editions themselves and a certain boy's heart-in-mouth journey beyond the unnatural confines of the Ivy League, below is 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
** Generously loaned by R. Meiselman