Dr. Noam Sienna, a historian and calligrapher, has a bone to pick with modern Hebrew fonts.
“Here in the United States, if people need to put Hebrew on something, they basically just type it up on their computer with…the equivalent of Helvetica,” he said. “We’ve lost some of the appreciation of what the artistry of Hebrew letters can be.”
Hebrew as art is often seen as a hand-drawn endeavor, with Torah scrolls and ketubot, or marriage certificates, written by scribes and calligraphers like Sienna. But before computers, most Hebrew text was printed by lining up wooden or metal blocks carved with letters (called “type”), putting ink on the type, and pressing it onto paper.
“In the age of digital printing, we have become removed from what the process actually was for hundreds of years,” Sienna said.
But now, Hebrew and Yiddish printing as art is making a comeback, thanks to a new Hebrew wood type commissioned by the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. (Yiddish uses Hebrew letters.) It’s the only Hebrew type in the U.S. made specifically for public use, and the MCBA is celebrating it by running a series of programs about the printed word in Judaism called “History in the Making.”
One of those programs, an artist panel about working with Hebrew and Yiddish type, will be held on May 18 from 7-8:30 p.m. over Zoom. The event is supported by a range of Jewish organizations like Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council, the Lerner Foundation, and Jewfolk, Inc.’s JCreate initiative. (TC Jewfolk is a product of Jewfolk, Inc.)
Printing is intertwined with Jewish history, said Sienna, who will be on the upcoming MCBA artist panel.
“Think of the classic page of Talmud that has the text of the Talmud in the center, and the commentaries around it in the margins,” he said. “That layout was created in the 1500s in a printing shop in Italy.”
The Italian print shop was owned by a Christian, but the workers were a mix of European and North African Jews who collaborated with the owner on Jewish book designs.
They “created this page layout that was…so popular that it was copied for hundreds of years,” Sienna said. “It’s still the standard way the Talmud pages are printed today.”
Printing became even more essential to Jewish life in the 19th-century explosion of political ideals, activism, and literature. Workers’ rights organizations like the Jewish Labor Bund; Zionism, the movement to create an independent Jewish state; and the work of Yiddish authors like Sholem Aleichem were all facilitated by a healthy network of Jewish newspapers and publishers.
Zionism “was largely created and sustained through people printing letters and documents and proposals and sending that off to various Jewish newspapers,” Sienna said. “All throughout the 19th century, you have this conversation that’s connecting Jewish communities around the world being mediated through print.”
That history is also a personal matter for Sienna, whose paternal great grandfather spent 50 years working in printing shops both in Eastern Europe and after immigrating to Canada.
“We talk a lot about Jewish books by referring usually to the people who wrote them, and sometimes to the people who read them, but we don’t often think about the people who made them,” Sienna said. “My great grandfather…must have printed tens of thousands of books.”
For Sienna, MBCA’s new Hebrew wood type is a way to reconnect with his great grandfather’s legacy.
“He was deeply immersed in the world of Jewish culture and literature, but he engaged with it by making it, and I feel like recapturing that,” Sienna said, “by having the ability to work with Hebrew type and work with…what it means to produce a book by setting the text.”
Hebrew type is rare to find in the U.S., with much type thrown away or melted down in the later 20th century by Jewish publishers as printers and newspapers went out of business. That makes MCBA’s investment in new type all the more important, Sienna said.
“I hope that what attendees [of the artist panel] will come away with is the appreciation and the excitement that the MCBA is sitting at the intersection of the historical legacy of Jewish printing and Jewish letter art and the future expression of Jewish creativity through Hebrew” and Yiddish, he said.
“Artist Panel: Working with Hebrew and Yiddish Type” will be held on May 18 from 7-8:30 p.m. over Zoom. You can sign up by clicking this link.