Calendars were the bestsellers of Jewish printing houses — Ufimtseva

A conversation about book production on the territory of Ukraine in the last few centuries with Nadia Ufimtseva, who holds an M.A. in Jewish Studies. She is a graduate student at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and researches the history of Jewish book printing.

Vasyl Shandro: Can one say that Jewish book printing traversed a different, separate path from what was taking place generally in the lands of Eastern and Central Europe?

Nadia Ufimtseva: Jewish book printing developed in tandem with general European book production as an entirely new technology of the time, which allowed for the dissemination of thoughts and ideas among the broad masses. In this respect, Jewish book printing was no different from that in other countries, but it has its own particular features, including those that emerged in the Ukrainian lands. This is connected with the interaction within the Jewish community of a particular locality, shtetls, as well as the interaction with the surrounding Christian population — Ukrainians and Poles — and the interaction with the government. There were various events, ranging from the comic to the tragic, which were connected specifically with the printing of the books that Jewish printers encountered.

Vasyl Shandro: The beginning of book production dates back to when?

Nadia Ufimtseva: Jewish book printing began in Italy in the late fifteenth century, in 1475. We know this thanks to a colophon, a special inscription that was made by the printer. It described what kind of book it was and who printed it. Jewish book production in Ukraine began in the late seventeenth century in the city of Zhovkva. This was the first city on the territory of contemporary Ukraine where a Jewish printshop was opened. It was not launched by local Jews; a printer from Amsterdam came there in order to set up his business. It was a profitable business because there were no competitors. There was a large, open market, many potential buyers, and assistance from the government.

When I research Jewish books in the museums and libraries of Ukraine, I see copies of these first editions from Zhovkva. They were printed in Zhovkva, but the Amsterdam publishers and their publications were considered as reference points and trendy; they were printed in a special font. In order to encourage readers to buy books that were printed not in Amsterdam but Zhovkva, the word “Amsterdam” was printed in large letters on the title page, and “Printed in Zhovkva” appeared in smaller print. This is an interesting page in the research on Jewish printed books.

Vasyl Shandro: What happened next? Can we speak about a whole network of printing houses? Where and what did they print?

Nadia Ufimtseva: A huge network of Jewish printshops develops, for the most part, in Podolia and Volyn. What they printed is very interesting and coincides in time with the spread of Hasidism. Podolian and Volynian printshops, as well as those in Belarus, print numerous Hasidic works, the sermons of Hasidic rabbis, and their instructive stories. Printshops produce a lot of mystical literature because Hasidism is connected with mystical and Kabbalistic teachings. Of course, not all members of Jewish communities could read and grasp these complicated texts on Jewish mysticism. We know that calendars were the bestsellers of Jewish printshops.

Calendars did not simply indicate the months; they contained all the Jewish holidays that were difficult to enumerate. They also featured Christian holidays so that people who collaborated with them would also be au courant. They indicated where and what fairs were held; there were brief extracts from Jewish laws and rabbis’ instructive sayings. This was a data-heavy product. Interaction with the government was a very important aspect in the context of Jewish printing. Calendars contained the birthdays of the members of the imperial tsarist family. That is how they demonstrated their loyalty to the government.

Vasyl Shandro: If we are talking about the Principality of Moscow and later the Russian Empire, how did all this coexist? Were the publications different?

Nadia Ufimtseva: If we are talking about the Russian Empire, then after the Partition of Poland, it inherited the entire Jewish community that was living in Right-Bank Ukraine. Jewish printing houses develop similarly at the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, its history was more dynamic in the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire sought to control Jewish printing; censorship was introduced there. Censorship took place in various ways in various years. In 1835–1837 all previously existing printing houses were shut down. Only two were permitted: in Kyiv and Wilno [today’s Vilnius — Ed.].

Jews were forbidden to live in Kyiv; thus, the printing house was moved to Berdychiv. This was also connected with various criminal cases involving Jewish printing houses. One of the most famous was the so-called Slavuta Affair. A typesetter who worked in the Slavuta printshop owned by the Shapira brothers was found hanged in the printshop. They were accused of printing forbidden things in their books and forging plans to disrespect the government. It was claimed that the typesetter had wanted to convert to Christianity, but he was refused. The Shapira brothers allegedly killed him for this.

This is one such difficult story about relations with the government. On the government’s part, it was manifested through this kind of censorship of Jewish books; on the part of Jews, the Jewish community, and booksellers — through the smuggling of new books because two printshops were not sufficient. They continued to print books illegally.

Vasyl Shandro: Was there any conflict with or bad attitude toward printers? Essentially, they were taking away the livelihood of those who recopied books.

Nadia Ufimtseva: At the outset of Jewish book production, there were disputes on the part of text copyists, as this affected their livelihood. However, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rabbis got together and decided that printing was a good thing because it helped disseminate books throughout the world. They decided that texts could be printed, but some texts must always remain in manuscript form if they are used in religious ceremonies in synagogues. These were Torah scrolls, the Pentateuch (it could be printed for home use, but in the synagogue, only a handwritten text was used), and mezuzahs (small scrolls that are affixed to the front doors of houses). That is how they divided up the spheres of influence.

Vasyl Shandro: How were books sold?

Nadia Ufimtseva: There were very few bookshops in the current sense. Such shops were usually located in towns, shtetls, or cities where printshops existed. For the most part, books were distributed by traders who traveled from town to town. There is a famous Jewish writer named Moykher-Sforim; his pseudonym means “bookseller.” It was a separate profession, people who specially dealt with this. Printshops could order and sell books to the community directly.

Vasyl Shandro: In what languages did Jewish printshops produce books?

Nadia Ufimtseva: If we are talking about Ukrainian lands, then the languages were Hebrew and Yiddish, for the most part. If we are talking in general about printing in the world, then in all the languages that Jews spoke — from Jewish Persian, Jewish-Arabic to Ladino, etc. Everywhere that Jewish communities resided, from the Iberian Peninsula to Baghdad, they spoke their own language, and they printed books in that language.

Vasyl Shandro: Jewish books and printing — what are they?

Nadia Ufimtseva: There is no single answer to this question. It cannot be said Jews exclusively were engaged in printing, or for Jews, or about Jews, or that they printed religious literature exclusively. We know of printing houses that emerged all over Europe. When we recall the beginnings of Jewish printing, we must mention the famous printer, Daniel Bomberg. He was a Christian, but he printed magnificent Talmudic treatises. They were greatly esteemed and in high demand. Jewish printers could print Christian literature. Jews and Christians could be cofounders of a printing business, own a single print shop, and publish books together. Here we see great diversity in this type of cooperation and interaction between various communities.

Vasyl Shandro: You mentioned farcical stories and some that were not, which were connected with the publications and work of Jewish printshops and book production.

Nadia Ufimtseva: I mentioned the business in Slavuta. This is one of those tragic and very revealing cases that is connected with Jewish printing in the Russian Empire in the Ukrainian lands. The farcical ones are about conflicts between Jewish communities. They published the sermons of famous Hasidic rabbis. But Hasidism had its opponents. The representatives of traditional Orthodox Judaism said that Hasidism is heresy and that this literature should not exist. There were cases where Hasidim and their opponents would purchase each other’s literature and burn it because such things should not be printed. Sometimes a famous Hasidic rabbi published a book of sermons, but the book turned out to be expensive, and it could not be sold. He would ask his followers to buy up the print run, using his levers of influence on his followers.

Vasyl Shandro: How many printing houses were there? How many books were published?

Nadia Ufimtseva: The number of books depended on the printing house. There were some that could publish only one or two titles, that’s all. We can say for sure hundreds of thousands of books, especially with regard to the late nineteenth century, when many books were produced. The smallest publishers issued between 300 and 1,000 to 1,500 copies of a single title. There could also be reprints. Everything depended on the genre of the book, the demand for it, and the author’s prestige. Very many of these publications are no longer extant; books were lost or destroyed.

In Ukraine today, there are large collections, but they are represented in several copies of each print run. These are in state libraries and museums. The largest collection is in the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. There are large collections in the Lviv libraries. I am researching one collection: books held in the Kamianets-Podilskyi Historical Museum and Preserve. It contains quite a large number of books from local synagogues and prayer houses. When we talk about book collections in Ukraine, it is interesting to see how these books were published, how they were eventually read, who read them, who the readers were, and what they did with the books apart from reading them.

Vasyl Shandro: Was every Jewish family supposed to own books?

Nadia Ufimtseva: In the nineteenth century, wealthy people could afford many books. For the price of a single book, you could buy a fine cow. A book was expensive. People bought calendars and prayer books. For women, special copies of the Pentateuch were published with interpretations, explanations, and quotations from great authorities; teachings; and inserts,

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization.  

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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