The following essay discusses the collection’s historical background, places of publications, as well as artists and illustrators.
In the European milieu, the turn of the twentieth century is often called “The Golden Age of Illustration”.1 In those golden years, a child could curl up with a collection of fairytales illustrated by the likes of Walter Crane, Ivan Bilibin, or Kay Nielsen, and sail off into the magic kingdom of childhood on the wings of the language he or she knew best: English, Russian, German, French.
But throughout this period, Jewish children had no such books of their own. Shoshana Zlatopolsky Persitz, the 24 year-old founder of Omanut Press in Moscow, 1917, and publisher of the first picture-books for children in Hebrew, (Part II, nos. 13-18),2 gave poignant expression to the concern this raised in a newspaper interview many years later:
In those long-ago days of my youth, I felt this burning sense of shame, [thinking]: “Here we are, the People of the Book, yet millions of Jewish children in Russia have no books of their own.” They had no books they could grow up with, and I was afraid that if those children weren’t given Hebrew books in their childhood, they would be lost to Hebrew forever.3
Reading material there was, both in Hebrew and Yiddish, but these were largely short stories and poems, either original or translated, published in series or in anthologies, or in the children’s periodicals just making their first appearance (see Part IV). Illustrations, to the extent that they existed at all, consisted largely of black-and-white prints borrowed from European-language books and were generally of poor, grainy quality. The gorgeous covers of Ha-Shahar (Part IV, no. 53) were a notable (and highly colorful) exception to the rule. All these publications were valuable in introducing young people to world literature and to the growing cadre of writers in Hebrew and Yiddish, but they were still unable to compete with the kind of books the non-Jewish world could offer. It was time for something new.4
The moment for change came with the Russian Revolution in February, 1917. In Russia, the end of czarist rule not only swept away the centuries-old Pale of Settlement and the restrictions on Hebrew and Yiddish publishing (in place since World War I), but also inaugurated an unprecedented period of creativity. As though on cue, or obeying some unwritten rule of internal combustion, the February Revolution unleased an enormous amount of creative energy within the Jewish community in literature, in the theater, and in the arts.
Children’s literature was one of the first to reap the rewards of the new order, or more correctly, perhaps, the new creative disorder as Socialists, Zionists, Bundists, Hebraists, and Yiddishists all jockeyed for position under the new regime. Whatever the arguments across the political spectrum of the Jewish community – and these were many - one and all saw the creation of a new children’s literature as the necessary foundation on which to build the new society they envisioned just over the horizon. The question was: in which language should that literature be written? In which language should Jewish children be taught and educated? For some, the answer was Yiddish, the language of the masses, spoken by almost all the Jews of Russia and the Ukraine in daily life; for others it meant Hebrew, the language of ancient Jewish splendor and of the pioneers now rebuilding the Land of Israel. For still others it meant Russian and the desire to remain in Russia as full-fledged partners in the soon-to-be Russian utopia.5
Out of the maelstrom of competing philosophies and goals came two of the most important cultural institutions of the period: the Hebrew-language Tarbut (“Culture”) centered in Moscow; and the Yiddish-language Kultur Lige (“Culture League”) centered in Kiev. Both figure prominently in the Finding Aid below, the Kultur Lige as a publisher in its own right; Tarbut via presses such as Omanut (“The Art Press”), a direct offshoot founded in Moscow in 1917 by the above-mentioned Shoshana Zlatopolsky Persitz.6
Tarbut and the Kultur Lige began life more or less at the same time – Tarbut in April 1917 in Moscow; the Kultur Lige towards the end of that same year in Kiev – but their paths soon diverged, as a glance at Parts II and III of the Research Guide will demonstrate. The October Revolution marked the beginning of the end for the Hebrew center in Moscow, with the Bolsheviks confiscating the Hebrew presses in March 1918. Omanut Press was forced into exile less than a year after opening and before it had even had time to publish anything except Shetilim (“Saplings”), its Hebrew-language journal for children (Part IV, no. 56). Omanut therefore published its first children’s books only in Odessa in the Ukraine, where the Revolution had not yet arrived (Part II, nos. 13-18); then in Germany, when it did (Part II, no. 20); and finally, from 1925 on, in Tel-Aviv (Part II, no. 27). The destruction of the Hebrew centers in Moscow and Odessa also sent other important Hebraists into exile, such as Hayyim Nahman Bialik, whose peregrinations enriched Hebrew children’s literature first in Berlin (Part II, nos. 21 and 24) and then in Tel-Aviv (Part II, nos. 25, 28-29). Yet another important exile from Odessa who settled in the Land of Israel was Yehiel Hailperin. Opening his own press in Jerusalem in 1925, Hailperin proceeded to create some of the most beautiful Hebrew books ever printed for young children (Part II, nos. 30-33), two of them using illustrations he brought with him from Odessa.7
Yiddish children’s literature traced a very different path. Unlike Hebrew, Yiddish was not forced to take up the wanderer’s staff, for the Bolsheviks provided state support to Yiddish culture in general and to the Kultur Lige in particular throughout the period in question. For this reason, the majority of Yiddish books listed in this Research Guide were printed in Russia and the Ukraine, and many of them indeed in Kiev where the Kultur Lige was originally founded.
One place where Hebrew and Yiddish did meet up again was in New-York, home to many of the Jews who left Russia and the Ukraine both before and after the Revolution. Here one finds children’s books and periodicals written and illustrated by many of the same creative giants who also published in Russia and, in Hebrew, in the Land of Israel. Indeed, one is struck at just how very interwoven all these centers were throughout the period, though there tends to be little crossover between the two languages, Hebrew and Yiddish.8
The Russian Revolution caught Moscow in the throes of a “half-refined, half-wild Russian Futurism,” to quote one influential critic from the period,9 and freed from czarist repression Jewish artists plunged right into the heady mix. Some, and among them the young El Lissitzky (1890-1941), dreamed of creating a distinctly Jewish art even in the years before the Revolution. Inspired by the ideas of Mir iskusstva10 - the “World of Art Group” so influential in Russia at the turn of the century– these young artists sought to attain this goal by mining the themes and forms of Jewish folk-art. But now the goal was to meld these elements into the new artistic idioms of the Avant-Garde and thus create not only a Jewish art, but a modernist one.11
Yet the Avant-Garde was not the only thing going in children’s books during these years. Art Nouveau, long past its heyday, was still the style of choice for several of the artists represented here, sometimes quite unexpectedly. Joseph Tchaikov (1888-1979), for example, best-known as an exponent of Cubo-Futurism, chose to illustrate Yiddish children’s books largely in Art Nouveau style, as in the case of the charming Temerl (Part III, no. 36). Art Nouveau is more prevalent in the books illustrated by artists who lived in Jerusalem, where the Bezalel School of Art reigned supreme. Bezalel was founded in 1906 by Boris Schatz (1866-1932), former court sculptor to Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria, and his Orientalizing vision of Jewish art is well-represented through the illustrations of Ze’ev Raban (Part II, nos. 22, 32, 35) and M. Gur-Arieh (Part II, no. 33).12 But on the whole, both in Hebrew and Yiddish the Avant-Garde carried the day, and in the hands of artists such as El Lissitzky resulted in masterpieces of book-art through the integration of text, typography and page design (Part III, nos. 38, 42, 56).