Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"Israel London's Life and Work" by David Mazower

David Mazower has kindly allowed me to reprint his article on Israel London and the Marstin Press. I have been interested in the press and the man behind it for some time, but David got around to researching the subject long before I did. My own contribution to this subject can be found in the three part checklist where I have improved on David's foundation. (Parts One, Two and Three.)
Israel London's Life and Work by David Mazower

I. Discovering The Source -- the Yiddish publisher and printer Israel London (1898 - 1968) 

"What did it mean to [my father] to publish Yiddish books? It was the continuity of the Yiddish language, the Yiddish culture, the literary soul of Yiddish." (Alex London) 

In the pantheon of Yiddish creativity, alongside the celebrated novelists, poets and critics, a corner would surely have to be reserved for the Yiddish publishers and printers without whom so many important texts would never have appeared. Among those taking their rightful place would be Boris Kletskin, the legendary Vilna Yiddishist; L-.M. Shteyn, 
a tireless advocate for Chicago's modernist poets and artists; and Yisroel Naroditski, the scholarly patron of London's struggling Yiddish (and Hebrew) writers. [1] . Joining them would be another all but forgotten figure: the Yiddish publisher, printer and journalist Yisroel (Israel) London. 

As a publisher of Yiddish books, London's output was small, amounting to no more than a few dozen titles. However his distinction rests not upon quantity but rather upon the extraordinary care and craftsmanship he devoted to his books. In this respect, the series of fourteen volumes he published under the imprint Der kval ['the source; the wellspring'] in New York in the 1950s and 60s deserves particular attention. Written by some of the outstanding Jewish literary figures of the period, these books are also beautiful objects in their own right, distinguished by their attractive bindings, fine printing, and elegant typography. In addition, they showcased as illustrators many of the leading contemporary European and American Jewish artists. With Der Kval, Israel London set standards unmatched by any other commercial Yiddish publisher before or since. 

London was born in 1898 in the Polish shtetl of Hrubieszow, near Lublin. His father was a Hasidic scholar, his mother from a more worldly family involved in trade. One of at least seven children, the young London received a traditional Jewish education, and studied for a time in the yeshiva at Brisk. (His entry in the Nayer leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, presumably contributed by London himself, contains the wry sentence: "Veltlekhe limudim -- durkh aleyn-bildung," i.e. 'secular education -- self-taught'). [2] In 1914 London traveled half-way around the world to Argentina, where he worked as a proofreader on the Buenos Aires Yiddish newspaper Der tog, then edited by the writer Arn Tseytlin. However he soon returned to Poland and found work as a Yiddish journalist, starting as a newswriter on the Krakow paper Der tog. [3]

The turning-point in London's career seems to have been his move to Vienna in about 1916, where he studied printing in a technical college. [4] Vienna was then emerging as an important regional center of Yiddish literature, known in particular for a group of young Galician Yiddish writers and poets centered around the influential figure of Melekh Ravitsh. Their ranks included the writers Moyshe Gros-Tsimerman, Moyshe Zilburg, and Mendl Zinger. London worked for a time in the (mainly Yiddish) publishing firm of Hikl-farlag before joining forces with the Ravitsh group to found the Vienna Yiddish publisher Der kval. Active for about five years from 1919 in Vienna and Berlin, it published a series of volumes of poetry and literary criticism. [5] The name Der kval was presumably suggested by one of their first ventures, a series of five studies of Yiddish literature's founding fathers -- Mendele, Sholem-Aleykhem, Perets, Frug and Dinezon. The Vienna-born artist Uriel Birnbaum,
son of Nathan Birnbaum [alias Mathias Acher], designed the company's logo, a stylized image of a waterfall cascading into a pool -- the same logo used by Israel London almost three decades later when he revived the imprint in Manhattan. [6] At about this time, London spent some months in Berlin, helping the scholar Lazarus Goldschmidt to bring out his monumental Hebrew-German edition of the Talmud. [7]
In about 1921, London arrived in Paris, the city that would be his home for the next two decades. Initially he found work as a writer and journalist for the French Yiddish press. He published stories in Parizer bleter, and was employed by the newspapers Parizer haynt and Der tog. [8] By the 1930s, London was running his own printing business, the Imprimerie Centrale Cooperative in the 9th arrondissement. [9] In Paris he married a fellow Polish-Jewish emigre, Gitl Slobodskaya. Originally from Vilna, she came from a family accomplished in Jewish learning and the arts: the daughter of a cantor, she herself had been a teacher in the Yiddish school system in Vilna. (Another sister was the well-known opera singer Oda Slobodskaya). Their son Alex was born in Paris in 1930. 

During the 1930s, London's publishing and printing business issued a wide range of books and other Yiddish publications. They include what is almost certainly the first comprehensive Yiddish guidebook to Paris, with a fine cover montage by the Polish-born artist (and prolific illustrator of Yiddish books) M. Bahelfer. There was also a short-lived weekly newspaper, Pariz, to which London himself contributed. And, indicating the esteem in which he was held by colleagues, London was entrusted with the printing of one of the most ambitious projects in the entire history of Yiddish scholarship -- the multi-volume general encyclopedia for Yiddish readers, conceived and developed by the Dubnov Foundation in the early 1930s. Beset by travails well before the Holocaust destroyed the majority of its potential readers, the Algemeyne entsiklopedye nevertheless stands as a monumental achievement. [10] Israel London printed the first four volumes, published in Paris between 1934 and 1937. In 1950 in New York, when the project had switched from a general reference work to one focused specifically on Jewish life, London printed the well-illustrated Yidn daled volume. (The encyclopedia project counted five general and seven "Yidn" volumes). 

From his earliest days in Paris, London was drawn into the vibrant and cosmopolitan Paris art world, centered around Montparnasse. A keen art lover, he wrote on painting and sculpture, and became close to many of the leading figures of the extraordinary constellation of Jewish emigre artists now known under the label School of Paris. "You name a Jewish artist in Paris and he knew them," his son recalls, "because they were always together. Either he bought them lunch, or he bought them breakfast. In those days you sat in the cafes in Montparnasse where many of the artists used to live, many Jewish immigrants from Russia or Poland or Rumania. You have Kremegne, and Feder, and Menkes, and Mane-Katz, Soutine ...there was a whole group of Yiddish painters, as well as writers." [11] 

The London family home was located in the heart of this artistic community. Their fifth-floor apartment at 114 Boulevard Montparnasse was right opposite the Cafe du Dome, the unofficial headquarters of the city's intellectual and artistic life. London was now well-placed to pursue one of his other passions -- the accumulation of a collection of art by his Parisian friends and contemporaries. One of the paintings in his collection (by the Lithuanian Jewish artist Arbit Blatas, a close friend [12] ) shows him in the company of the artists Soutine, Kikoine and Kremegne, and the critics Adolph Basler and Chil Aronson,AskART Artist 
 in the Cafe du Dome. Eventually amounting to over two hundred works, London's collection of School of Paris art would become one of the finest in private hands. It included paintings and sculpture by Chagall, Leger, Kisling, Pascin, Mane-Katz, Jacques Lipchitz and Osip Zadkine -- many of whom were lifelong friends of London. In 1961 the collection was given a special exhibition at New York's Jewish Museum, the first (and only) time it was put on public display. [13] 

By the late 1930s, London's business affairs were prospering. "My father was expanding right before the war" according to his son Alex, "he almost got into a very large printing plant in Strasbourg, with big rotary presses, and they were going to merge." [14] But with the German defeat of France in 1940, followed by the Nazi occupation, survival became the only thing that mattered. London remained in Paris until 1941, then managed to get himself and his family to Marseille. Unable to get permission to enter the United States, he was briefly put under house-arrest in the small town of Uzerche, before finally succeeding in obtaining visas for himself and his family to go to Cuba. After an overland journey through Spain and Portugal, they boarded a converted banana boat in Lisbon and traveled by way of Casablanca, the Azores and Bermuda. 

In Havana London opened a store selling industrial thread for the clothing industry. He also wrote articles for the local Yiddish newspaper, Havaner lebn, and involved himself in the communal affairs of the local Jewish community, swollen by the exodus of refugees from Europe. In 1943, he finally got permission to enter the United States. 

Within months of his arrival, London had set himself up in business in New York. "He found someone who was selling a printing plant" his son Alex remembers, "and my father made a deal. I don't know how he did it, but he was a very brilliant character, he really was, and he was able to buy it with almost no money." [15] The company that London took over in 1944 was called the Marstin Press, located at 228 E 45 St between 2nd and 3rd Avenue. It was in the heart of Manhattan's old printing district, an area full of newspaper presses, printers, typographers, and engravers. 

Over the next twenty-five years, Israel London built up the Marstin Press into a successful medium-size commercial printer, employing up to a dozen staff. The bulk of his work was English-language printing, with the United Nations a long-standing client. But from the earliest months, Yiddish printing also came his way. The first Yiddish book printed by the Marstin Press in New York appears to have been Amerike in der yidisher literatur [America in Yiddish Literature], a volume of essays by his near-contemporary Yitskhok-Elkhonen Rontsh [Isaac E. Rontch] (1899 - 1985), published in 1945. London soon established a reputation for printing high-quality illustrated Yiddish books; in 1949 the Marstin Press printed Yoysef Rubinshteyn's Nakht oyf nalevkes and Nokhem Bomze's A khasene in harbst, with its delicate sinuous line drawings by Yude Tofel [Jehuda (Jennings) Tofel]. Both books already show key elements of London's later trademark Yiddish imprints: the two-tone covers, boldly embossed spines, and clear, unfussy, spacious layouts. 

Like Kletskin and L.-M.Shteyn, Israel London was a passionate and serious enthusiast for Yiddish literature. He was also a lover of poetry, and numbered among his friends many of the leading Yiddish poets. The artist and Yiddish writer Yoni Fayn remembers how "Izzie London invited us to a Peysekh seder and (Yankev) Glatshteyn was there, and (Itsik) Manger, and others....he understood poetry and he was ready always to help a poet with publishing, gratis, their books." [16] 

Alex London also recalls how "my parents and the Glatshteyns rented jointly a house in Seagate, a small community where a lot of writers used to go....and I remember Mani-Leyb very well -- we stayed with him in the summer a few times; (Mordekhay) Shtrigler came here during the war, and Yankev Pat...and Shnayderman was here all the time with his wife...this house, it was a salon kind of experience." [17] A gregarious and extrovert character, with a penchant for dressing in bright primary colours, London would also preside over regular evening gatherings at Manhattan's Russian Tea Rooms, next to Carnegie Hall. There, Halina Shnayderman told me "he had his regular corner and he liked to have around him painters and writers and he treated everybody." [18] The artist and silversmith Ilya Shor 
 Ilya Schor Working 1940s.jpg 
was another close friend; in addition to designing London's own ex libris bookplate, he also made him a large ring, and a pair of heavy gold cuff-links, one featuring a klezmer clarinettist, the other a fiddler. 

This circle of Yiddish-speaking immigrant-intellectuals, almost all from Poland and linked by common memories of pre-war Europe, was central to London's Yiddish publishing ventures of the 1950s and 60s. In 1954 he issued two luxurious volumes, both written by friends of his: Yitskhok Berliner's Gezang fun mentsh, and Hirsh Rozenfeld's translation of the Finnish folk epic Kalevala [see The Mendele Review, vol.1, no. 008]. It is inconceivable that either publication could have been a commercial proposition, especially in view of the lavish treatment they received from London. Berliner's poems were printed on heavy cartridge paper in a two-tone yellow and blue cover with matching blue page edges. The recently-arrived Polish Jewish artist Yoni Fayn was commissioned by London to produce a title-page drawing and chapter headings using a variety of stylized alphabets inspired by the poems. Kalevala is an even more intricate production. The book is bound in brown and cream cloth with bottle-green endpapers and purple page edgings. The text is cleanly arranged in double columns with clear headings, enhanced by drawings from Khayim Gros (Chaim Gross), 
Leo Mikhelson and Y. Shlos and additional calligraphy by Alex London. Both authors end their introductory remarks with heartfelt words of thanks for London's efforts, summed up in Rozenfeld's words: "Gants bazonders vil ikh danken mayn fraynd yisroel london far zayn zorg un mi aroystsugebn dos bukh azoy vunderlekh sheyn." ('In particular I want to thank my friend Israel London for all his devotion and hard work in making sure that this book appears in such a wonderfully beautiful edition'). [19] 

Israel London's mission in reviving the imprint Der kval was summed up by one of his favourite sayings: "Vos iz kinstlerishe literatur on kinstlerishn druk un vos iz sheyner druk on hoykh-kinstlerisher literatur?" ['What's the use of artistic literature without high-quality publishing, and what's the use of fine publishing without high-quality literature?'] [20] The fourteen books published by Der kval between 1956 and 1966 are remarkable on both counts. In terms of literary merit, the series begins with Bashevis' famed memoir Mayn tatns bezdn shtub [My Fathers Court]. The list is also notable for three of the most important translation projects in modern Yiddish literature: Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, translated by Meyer Shtiker; A Simple Story by the Hebrew Nobel Prize Laureate S.J.Agnon -- the first of his books to be translated into Yiddish; and Kafka's The Trial, translated by Meylekh Ravitsh. There are also significant collections by some of the leading contemporary Yiddish poets, including Glatshteyn, Leyvik, Leyeles and Sutskever. 

Most of the volumes in the series are also embellished with specially-commissioned illustrated and other decorative elements. Perhaps the most remarkable graphics are the four full-page illustrated by Leonard Baskin for The Old Man and the Sea, a book that won an award from the New York Printing Association. Two close friends from the Paris years also produced some of their finest work in this medium for London: Artur Kolnik's series of intricate woodcuts for the Sutskever volume, and Ben's semi-abstract and metaphysical drawings to accompany Leyvik's poems. Also outstanding are Moses Soyer's [photo below] watercolours for Shtiker's slim volume of poetry,
and the expressionist painter Binyomin Kopman's series of yellow pastel and grey wash illustrations to Glatshteyn's book -- the only Der kval volume illustrated in colour. The other particularly noteworthy graphic feature in many of the volumes is their bold use of Yiddish calligraphy on front covers, title-pages and chapter headings. Some of these are clearly the work of the main illustrators, e.g. Kopman's lettering for the Glatshteyn volume, and that of Baskin (a noted calligrapher) for the Hemingway book. In other cases, the artist is unacknowledged, e.g. the superb title-page for Khayem Hazaz's novel Der taykh geyt [The River Flows]

Complementing his positions as literary and artistic editor of the series, London's final contribution to Der kval was his role of publisher / technical director and his insistence on the highest standards of design, printing and binding. There are all the hallmarks of London's earlier books: the thick paper with brightly-colored edges, the use of contrasting type fonts, the clear page lay-outs, and prominent use of page numerals. Once again, too, London's trademark colored bindings are much in evidence: red, black and gold for Leyvik; blue, green, red and gold for Glatshteyn; brown, cream, red and gold for Sutskever, and so on. Finally, all the books were given a transparent glassine cover to protect the binding from wear.

London's pride in his craftsmanship is evident in the meticulous way he records the size of many of the editions: The Old Man and the Sea, for example, was published in an edition of 1,005 copies. As each volume went to press, he would also print a handful of copies on deluxe paper which were then specially bound for his personal use; to the best of my knowledge, none of these copies was ever made available for sale. [21] 

In a short survey such as this, it is impossible to dwell on other aspects of London's involvement in Jewish communal affairs. (He was, for example, the host of a weekly Yiddish radio program on WEVD, in which he interviewed many of the Yiddish writers whose books he published, including Bashevis and Manger.) But it is for his five decades as a Yiddish printer and publisher that he would surely wish -- and deserves -- to be remembered. The crowning achievement of this remarkable career was undoubtedly the series of books published under the label Der kval in the 1950s and 60s. Like many of the best publishing endeavors, they reflect one individual's personal vision and passions -- for Yiddish literature, art and design, and for books as beautiful objects in their own right. In a field where readers traditionally expected little by way of aesthetic appeal, the books of Israel London are instantly recognizable, lending a unique dignity to the Yiddish printed word and constituting a glorious chapter (and, sadly, perhaps a closing one) in the history of modern Yiddish book publishing. Acknowledgements I am especially grateful to Alexander London and Dorothy London who welcomed me into their home and patiently answered all my questions. I also had the pleasure of lengthy phone conversations with Yoni Fayn and Halina Shnayderman [Shneiderman]. Thanks also to the staff of the YIVO Institute and the National Yiddish Book Center. The idea of researching Israel London's Yiddish publishing career was suggested by Leonard Prager, a wellspring of ideas and inspiration in his own right. 


1. On Naroditski (born Zhitomir, 1874; died London, 1942), see Sanders and Aptroot: Jewish Books in Whitechapel / A Bibliography of Narodiczky's Press (London, Duckworth, 1991). On L.-M.Shteyn [Stein], pseudonym of Yitskhok-Leyb Fradkin (born Berislav, 1883; died 1956), see Sarah Abrevaya Stein: "Illustrating Chicago's Jewish Left: The Cultural Aesthetics of Todros Geller and the L.-M.Shteyn Farlag," Jewish Social Studies, Vol 3, no 3, Spring/Summer 1997, pp. 74-110.

2. Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur [hereafter LNYL], vol. 4 (New York, 1961), pp. 424-5.

3. Ibid.

4. See London's biographical entry in Who's Who in World Jewry (New York, 1965), p. 614.

5. London's entry in the LNYL suggests Der Kval was active from 1916 to 1918; however, the books themselves bear dates between 1919 and 1924/5.

6. See Israel London's preface to Bashevis's Mayn tatns bezdn shtub (New York, 1956), pp. 5-6.

7. Der Babylonische Talmud, translated and annotated by Lazarus Goldschmidt, Berlin, S. Calvary and Co., 1897 - 1935.

8. LNYL entry, see note 2.

9. Located first at 23, rue Richer, and later at 13, rue de la Grange-Bateliere, both in the 9th arrondissement.

10. For more on this project, see the article by Lori Ilana McGlinchey and Neal Zagorin, "Buried Treasure / Literary Finds from the CJC Basement" in the National Yiddish Book Center magazine Der pakn-treger [The Book Peddler] (Spring 1993), no. 18, pp. 20 - 25.

11. Personal interview with Alex London, 28 April 2001. Pinchus Kremegne (1890 - 1981), Adolphe / Aizik Feder (1887 - 1943), Zygmunt Menkes (1896 - 1986), Mane-Katz (1894 - 1962) and Chaim Soutine (1893 - 1943) were all well-known Jewish artists in Paris.

12. Blatas was born in Lithuania in 1908 and died in New York in 1999.

13. See the Jewish Museum exhibition catalogue Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings by contemporary artists from the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. Israel London, May-June 1961 (New York, The Jewish Museum, 1961). The catalogue commented on the high quality of many of the works, singling out "a superb portrayal of a woman and a poetic still-life [by Moise Kisling], some of the most interesting works of Maurice Utrillo and Giorgio di Chirico, and a particularly delicate gouache by Pierre Bonnard."

14. See note 11.

15. Ibid.

16. Telephone interview with Yoni Fayn, 12 May, 2001.

17. See note 11.

18. Telephone interview with Halina Shnayderman, 7 June 2001.

19. See p. 22.

20. Mentioned in Meylekh Ravitsh's obituary for Israel London in the newspaper Der Veg, 1 November 1968. 21. Following Israel London's death, his son Alex London sent a set of these deluxe copies to the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen. [We hope to gain access to some images of that collection in the future: Henry]

[copyright 2002 David Mazower, with some changes to the formatting as it appeared on the Mendele list and a few photos added in, but no changes in content, by Henry Hollander, 2014]

A checklist of items published by Martin can book found in three parts, beginning here

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