From Russia with Love: Illustrated Children’s Books in Hebrew from Omanut Press (1919-1921)

From Russia with Love: Illustrated Children’s Books in Hebrew from Omanut Press (1919-1921)

October 9, 2019 0 By Luis Garrison


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington DC.>>Ann Brener: Good morning
my name is Ann Brener and I am the area specialist
for the Hebraic section of the Library of Congress. And I’m going to be giving
a lecture today called, From “Russia with Love.” And it’s all about
illustrated children’s books in Hebrew from 1917 to 1925. So let’s begin. The world of Hebrew books is
a world of black and white. Yes, there are the exceptions,
the illuminated manuscripts, the Haggadah, the brightly
colored artist’s books. But when I am upstairs in our
stacks, amongst the rare books I am in a fairly sober world of black
and white with shades of brown and parchment for variation. So when I opened a folder
one day quite at random and found myself gazing
down at a book open to the image you see here
you can imagine my surprise. It was as though I peeked
into a nest of sparrows only to find some gorgeous brightly
plumbed bird of paradise. What was this book? Clearly a picture book for
children, but a very old one. And it was this that
surprised me so greatly. Today of course in Israel
Hebrew picture books for children are churned
out by the dozens. But this one was printed in —
and I looked back at the cover, Moscow-Odessa in a style that
stuns me by its avant-garde beauty and its width of the early 1900s. No date, no author, just a title
proclaiming it to be La-Sevivon, To the Dreidel, published by
Hotz’at Omanut, the Art Press. In other words, as I
was soon to discover, one of the very first picture
books ever published for children in Hebrew, and the story behind
its publication pretty fascinating. It all began in Moscow,
in the spring of 1917. Russia was in the throes of
revolution; there were battles in the streets, barricades
on the corners. But even that wasn’t enough to
stop a group called The Friends of the Hebrew Language from holding
their annual meeting in Moscow. Now, this was a group
made up of Jews from all across the far-flung Russian Empire and they had some very
distinguished members. Among them, several
of the richest Jews in Tsarist [assumed
spelling] Russia, and also Chaim Nachman Bialik, the
national Hebrew poet whose prestige in the Jewish world was unmatched. Their one goal, a goal to which they
were passionately committed was a revival of Hebrew as
a spoken language. Seeing it as a natural
choice for the pioneers, rebuilding the Jewish
homeland in Palestina. [assumed spelling] The meeting
was duly reported afterwards in the Jewish press. Here for example, is Hatz
Fera [assumed spelling], published in Warsaw shortly
after the meeting took place. The reading as we read,
ended in a resolution to establish new Hebrew
language kindergartens and schools throughout Russia. New publications for children in
Hebrew, evening classes for adults with Hebrew as a language
of instruction. Ambitious plans indeed. Yet the newspaper did not consider
this meeting front page stuff. No, it was buried in the back pages, page 15 in an issue
with only 16 pages. Did the editors think that
was just a lot of talk? Perhaps. There had after
all, been many such meetings over that past years, but this
time things were different. There may have been fighting
out there in the streets but the revolution was also
a time for great optimism and hopes for real change. Tsarist Russia after all had
been no friend to the Jews and the ambitious program
hammered out by The Friends of the Hebrew Language, was in
fact, incredibly successful. Now, operating under a new
name Tarbut [assumed spelling], or Culture, this group opened some
200 new schools and kindergartens across Russia and others saw
the founding of new presses for publishing books and
periodicals for children in Hebrew. One of these new presses
was called Omanut, and in today’s lecture we
will be looking at this press and at the woman behind it. Shoshana Zlatopolsky Persitz,
the 24-year-old founder of Omanut and its guiding spirit
over the years to come. Shoshana was a daughter
of Hillel Zlatopolsky, a sugar tycoon well known for his generous patronage
of Hebrew culture. And you can see him here sitting down on the left, he
looks very dignified. Hillel Zlatopolsky was for example,
one of the chief patrons of Habima, the Hebrew theater troop in
Moscow that went on to world fame. He also financed this Hebrew
magazine for children, founded right in the middle
of the Russian revolution, Stelem [assumed spelling] with this
beautiful banner on the title page. So this was Shoshana’s father. And our heroine was thus brought
up in an atmosphere of culture and of reverence for
the Hebrew book. In later years she was to recall
her parents’ home in Moscow as a meeting place for
Hebrew writers and thinkers. A place where the Hebrew
book was, as she said, something sacred, [Speaking Hebrew]. Yet even as a young girl
she realized the sense of futility these Hebrew
writers felt, their despair at not having
an audience for whom to write. So she vows for herself that one
day she would create an audience for these writers. Now, in 1917 as I have just
mentioned Shoshana was only 24 years old. She was married, and her
husband came from a family came from a family very
much like her own. That is, a very wealthy Jewish
family passionately devoted to Hebrew education and culture. So when her father turned 50 that year she does what
any dutiful daughter does for her father’s 50th birthday. She gave him half a million
rubles and said, daddy, let’s open a publishing
house for children’s books in Hebrew, and so they did. Thus Omanut Press was born. And there you can see their logo. It was surely no coincidence that Shoshana named her new
publishing house Omanut, Art in Hebrew. In Russia The World of Art, Mir
iskusstva [assumed spelling], was a leading periodical
for the Russia avant-garde. And here we see a few
examples from their journals. By linking her own venture
to this prestigious arbiter of taste Shoshana was
proclaiming her own commitment to the highest standards of
modern art and literature. And indeed Omanut Press
did become known for the beauty of its publications. In later years one of Shoshana’s
colleagues recalled how Shoshana would look at each new book
that came off the press, rejoicing not only in the beautiful
Hebrew of the text but also in the high quality paper, the exquisite black font,
the perfect binding. He said that watching Shoshana
look at one of those new books was like watching the rabbi back home
in his childhood village as looked at his perfect Etrog, or citron
fruit during the Sukkot holiday. Both were acts of what is known
in Judaism as Hiddur Mitzvah. That is, the sanctification
of Jewish law through deity. In creating Omanut Press
Shoshana’s goal was to make Hebrew the
natural mother tongue for the Jewish children in Russia. And she decided that the
best way to do this was by giving them the very best of
world literature for children. She wanted to give them the pleasure
that other children experienced through the wonderful books of
such authors as Lewis Carrol, Charles Dickens, Jules Verne,
but to give it to them in Hebrew. A Hebrew that would mold their
tastes and literary expectations as they grew into adulthood. And indeed it was in
the field of translation that Omanut was to become famous. But before this goal could be
accomplished tragedy struck. And when her four-year-old son
died Shoshana turned her energies for a time in another direction,
creating a series of picture books for toddlers, which she
named Gamliel, after her son. In an interview many years later
Shoshana explained her decision to create this series saying, that children of other
nations were brought up on the wonderful picture
books illustrated by the likes of Walter Crane, Arthur
Rackham, and Ivan Biliben. But Jewish children — and this is
a quote, “Have no book to their own through to enjoy similar
experience.” It was thus her personal
tragedy that some of the most beautiful Hebrew books
for children were ever created. The first three titles
in the Gamliel series of picture books were translations
of Russian books together with their beautiful
original illustrations. I think this must have
been quite a coup Shoshana, for she acquired the
publishing rights from Konnepell [assumed
spelling] Publishing, publisher of the most magnificent
children’s books in Moscow at the beginning of
the 20th century. The Library of Congress owns two of these three very,
very rare Hebrew books. One of them a translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s
The Nightingale
. Another, a swash buckling tale of adventure calledThe
Enchanted Ship
with illustrations by Dmitry Mitrokhin, a
well-known Russian artist. Now, although none of the books in
this series is dated I tend to think that this, The Enchanted
Ship was the first one, and that’s because
of the image here. This image appears on the other side
of the cover and it is full page. When I first aw this picture I
just saw logo for the series, a stylized plant with the name
Gamliel there at the bottom. But now it seems to
me more than that, I now see it as stylized
tree of life. And the name Gamliel nestling there
so tiny at the root of the tree, it turns it into a more memorial
to the publisher’s infant son, the one whose sudden death prompted
this series of Hebrew picture books. This picture was commissioned by
Dmitry Mitrokhin, the same artist who created the illustration for
the Russian edition of the book. And so, far as I know it
does not appear in any of the other books from
the Gamliel series. To get back to the
first three books, before Shoshana could
actually publish any of them the Russian
revolution caught up with her with the Bolshevik’s
nationalizing the press and taking over her equipment. So just a year after opening and before a single book was even
published Omanut closed its doors in Russia — in Moscow and
moved to Odessa, a bustling port on the Black Sea located
in the Ukraine and as yet untouched by the revolution. It was in Odessa therefore that
the first three books were printed, and that was only the beginning. Odessa was a flourishing
center of Jewish culture, home to such luminaries of
modern Hebrew literature as Mendele Mocher Sforim
and Chaim Nachman Bialik. But the events of 1917 sent
even more Jewish writers and artists pouring in. With such a stable of local
talent from which to draw Odessa to prove fertile ground
indeed for Omanut. Bialik’s self-created
the text for at least two of Omanut’s subsequent books, one of them a beautiful rhymed
version of a medieval fox fable. This is a wonderful book. If you look closely at the bottom
picture you can see that the chicken who is talking with the fox — or the rooster rather,
has some crutches. This rooster is crippled, and
this poor rooster has hanged back from the rest of the crowd. But it is this crippled
rooster who saves the day and saves the other
roosters from this wily fox. Zalman Shneur, another famous
novelist’s book in Hebrew and in Yiddish wrote the poem for To
the Dreidel, the book which we saw at the beginning of this lecture and
home to that darling goat we all saw at the beginning of this slideshow. Another book created in
Odessa was a translation of Asher Ginzberg renowned
Zionist thinker, better known by his
penname Ahad ha-Am. And here we have a Hebrew
version of a Russian version of what I think is an
Arabic or Persian folktale. It’s that wonderful folktale
where the father and son go out on the donkey and everyone
who comes up to them tells them who should be riding the donkey,
either the father or the son. So in the end just trying to
please everyone they both get off and they both carry the donkey off. It’s one of those situations where no matter what you do
you can’t please anybody. So we have Chaim Nachman Bialik,
Zalman Shneur, and Ahad ah-Am, that’s quite a constellation
of writers for Shoshana. It was also in Odessa
— it was also Odessa that provided the beautiful
illustrations accompanying these and half a dozen other
books in Gamliel series. These illustrations were all
created by Jewish art students in the Odessa school of art, a group
of four young men in their early 20s who signed their name
collectively as Havurat tsayarim, A Group of Painters in Hebrew. Here we see their motto as it
appears on the cover of the books, if you follow the arrow it’s
there in the left hand corner. And here we see it
enlarged and translated. History with a capital H
then stepped in once again. And as Bolsheviks advance on
the Ukraine Shoshana relocated, this time to Frankfurt-am-Main
in Germany. There she republished the
beautiful picture books illustrated by the young art students in Odessa. It was also in Frankfurt that she
began publishing the polished Hebrew translations of world
literature for children, by which the press
was to become famous. Although published in
Frankfurt the translations came, needless to say from
Russia with love. One day as Shoshana was
to relate years later — and I’m quoting, Aris Mirtiksky, the
editor in chief came to Frankfurt from Russia, and as he plunked
his suitcase down in front of us we all crowded around him. Out of that suitcase came nothing
less than 60 Hebrew translations of the finest books for children
that world literature could offer. Robinson Crusoe, Alice
in Wonderland, the tales of Oscar Wilde,
and the list goes on and on. In 1925 Omanut left
Europe all together, establishing itself once
and for all in Tel-Aviv. Yet the end of Omanut’s odyssey
was also to prove something of a beginning for
Shoshana, whose contributions to Jewish education were
quickly recognized by the leaders of the emerging Jewish state. For years she played a key
role in the Tel-Aviv department of education, and in 1949 she
was elected to the first Knesset. That is the first parliament of a
new established state of Israel, sharing the committee of
education and culture. That she did not become the minister
of education was due to the fact that religious designer’s party
objected to having a woman serve as minister, and that
was her own party. But Shoshana seems to have accepted
that decision very graciously. Nevertheless, I think that
the incident finds an echo in a story written just a few
years later by Shai Agnon, the great Hebrew novelist
who was to go on and win the Nobel Prize
for Literature in 1967. The story was written
on the occasion of Shoshana’s 50th birthday. And in such a moving tribute to
this remarkable woman that I would like Agnon’s words to you know
in a very abridged translation. I always think its sacrilege
translating Agnon, but, here I am committing sacrilege so that I can bring you
this beautiful story. Once upon a time, there
was a woman who loved to study the words of
our ancient rabbis. But when she would go into the house of study the young men
studying there mocked her. This is no place for
women, they would jeer. But still she came every day, chose a book from the
shelves and sat down to study. One day the young men decided
to play a trick on her. They got up a large book with empty
pages, wrote, The Wisdom of Women on the spine and on its
cover and then placed it on the shelf alongside
the other books. When Shoshana came the next
day she spied this new book on the shelf and her eyes lit up. “Finally,” she said to herself, “finally a book honoring the
wisdom and knowledge of women.” But when she opened the book
all she found were blank pages. She looked up and saw the
young men laughing at her and her eyes filled
with tears and she wept. When she got home her children
saw that she had been crying so they began crying too. She filled their hands with nuts
and sweets, but still they cried. So finally she said,
“Look, if you’ll be good and stop crying I’ll
tell you a story.” So they dry their eyes
and listened to the story and forgot their sorrows. And because she loved her children
she wrote these stories down, taking care to use the finest paper,
and the most beautiful black ink, and a flowing hand that was careful
of the grammar and the spelling. And when the children saw how
beautiful the books were inside and out their hearts
longed for these books and immediately wanted to read them. She therefore made many such books, so many that their titles alone
would fill up the blank pages of that Wisdom of Women book
back in the house of the study. And when the young people grew
up they praised this woman for all she had taught them
and applied to her the verse from Proverbs saying, “Many
women have done excellently but you have succeeded them all.” By the time Omanut
Press closed its doors in 1945 its books had
become a staple of education for several generations of
Israeli youth, introducing them to such world class
authors as Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Charles Dickens. I can attest to this
from personal experience. Just a few weeks ago two
Israeli generals came to visit our reading room, and when
they asked me what I was working on at present I mentioned
this program for children’s books
and Omanut Press. Neither of them was familiar
with the name Omanut Press but when I mentioned
their translations, the Hebrew version Robinson Crusoe and Jules Verne’s Captain
Hatteras their eyes lit up. They had grown up on those books
and they started comparing notes about their favorite childhood
heroes right then and there. They were not familiar however
with the exquisite picture books with which my own odyssey
into the remarkable career of Shoshana Persitz began. And indeed that’s not surprising, these beautiful picture books were
apparently never reissued in Israel and they remain almost
completely unknown, even to dedicated bibliophiles. I would like to give the audience a
taste of this wonderful literature that we’ve been talking about. So today we’re going to have
a dramatic reading of one of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poems. It’s a translation from the
Russian Tom Thumb into Hebrew. It’s a classic in Israeli
children’s literature still today, it’s a beautiful work. And it was first printed
in a children’s magazine that was printed in Warsaw in 1911. I’d like to show you the cover
because it’s absolutely exquisite. Isn’t that incredible? I mean there was nothing like
it until the time, Warsaw 1911. It only came out for seven
months and it’s extremely rare. And most places that you do find it
in the world in the great libraries, say the National Library of Israel
or the Saint Petersburg Library in Russia, it’s missing
this beautiful cover. Because it was so beautiful
people just ripped it off and kept it for themselves. So you open it up and all you have
is this black and white cover. But the Library of Congress, with its wonderful collection is
fortunate in having all seven months of these issues with
the beautiful cover. So Bialik published
this Hebrew Version of the Tom Thumb inside
this beautiful periodical, Shachar Had which means The Dawn. And here is a picture
on the right hand side, and you see a little
photograph of Bialik himself, and then the Hebrew
version of Tom Thumb. So I’ve made a translation
in English, which I hope captures the rhyme
scheme and something of the — I hope it captures something of
the playful spirit of original. The image that you see here
comes from the second edition ofTom Thumb, which was published
by Omanut Press itself in 1923. And I will be taking
the part of Tom Thumb, I’m the one riding the
grasshopper outside the window. And my colleague, Abdulahi Ahmed,
is the eight-year-old child that you see jumping up
for joy in the picture. So without further ado,Tom
Thumb
, by Chaim Nachman Bialik.>>Abdulahi Ahmed: Who are
knocking at my windows? Come — why, it’s a boy,
no bigger than my thumb. Tell me child, what’s your name? The name of your parents
and whence you came?>>Ann Brener: I have no country. Nor yet a mother, father,
sister, aunt, nor brother.>>Abdulahi Ahmed: Where
do you mean to go my child?>>Ann Brener: To wander
through the forest, wild.>>Abdulahi Ahmed: Have you
a crust on which to feed?>>Ann Brener: Oh, for that? No need, no need. All the Earth is mine, is mine. I sip from flowers,
on dew drops dine. On a beetle’s back I ride the land,
a cobweb form I reign in hand. Golden bees, embroidered fleas
bring me mana whenever I please. And from my glory a butterfly sews
a many colored suit of clothes.>>Abdulahi Ahmed:
But when it’s dark and the snow lies deep how
will you lay down to sleep?>>Ann Brener: I mushroom’s
cap will keep me warm. Under its roots I will
be safe from harm. An acorn shell all snug and tight
will be my bed to sleep at night. Folded hands to pillow my head, a
soft green leaf to cover my bed. And to keep me safe all night
a firefly will shine its light.>>Abdulahi Ahmed: When
morning comes how will you wake?>>Ann Brener: Why, when the
dawn just starts to break. With the kiss of the sun’s
golden ray I’ll open my eyes and start the day. I’ll get up and wash and
start to chase the bees and the fleas all over the place. I’ll peer into every hole I see,
nothing can be kept from me.>>Abdulahi Ahmed: Come
in my lad and sit with me, we will have some cake
and a spot of tea.>>Ann Brener: Oh no, no. I can’t, my child. I must go flit around a while. We’ll meet tomorrow,
since you entreat. Make sure there’s something
good to eat. So shalom for now,
I have much to do. Shalom, shalom. Peace unto you.>>Abdulahi Ahmed: Shalom, shalom. Peace unto you.>>Ann Brener: Thank you.>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at LOC.gov.