Books for the Masses: The Amsterdam Yiddish Book Industry, 1650-1800

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Abstract

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Amsterdam functioned as the European printing centre of Yiddish books. Texts in the Ashkenazi vernacular were published in the city for the benefit of the local reading public, and these books were also distributed throughout the Ashkenazi diaspora, in central and eastern Europe. Two basic guidelines directed the work of Yiddish book agents in Amsterdam: printing was considered a service to Ashkenazim and their communities: nevertheless, printing of Yiddish books also needed to be a commercially sustainable project. Therefore, books dealing with religion, tradition and didactical literature comprised the majority of the printed output. These were considered as practical (printed in Yiddish for the benefit of the masses who could not read Hebrew) and thus their production also included a commercial logic. Between circa 1650 and 1800 more than 500 Yiddish books were published, including texts in various genres. The modernization process that encompassed Jewish communities in Western Europe also signalled the downfall of Yiddish book production in Amsterdam, and the end of a period of Yiddish literature composed and published in West Yiddish, a dialect that was pushed aside by the emerging Eastern European, modern, Yiddish.

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The first arrival of Sephardi Jews in Amsterdam at the beginning of the seventeenth century and of Ashkenazi Jews in the 1630s was immediately followed by the establishment of a Jewish printing industry that aimed to supply the local demand for Hebrew as well as Spanish, Portuguese and Yiddish books. (1) Situated in a city that had become one of the key book centres on the European continent, Jewish printers soon emulated non-Jewish practice and made Amsterdam a centre of book printing for Jews throughout Europe. (2)

Yiddish books have been printed regularly since early in the sixteenth century. Two locations developed into centres of activity: Northern Italy and Poland. (3) In the course of the century, books were printed in other locations, in Prague and several cities in Germany. Nevertheless, by the end of the century both the Polish and the Italian centres had collapsed. In Italy, the Ashkenazi reading public had turned to Italian books and within a short period these had replaced Yiddish; in Poland, by the middle of the seventeenth century political and economic turmoil brought an end to local activity in the Ashkenazi vernacular. Dutch printers were able to expand their businesses and to fill the resultant void, and Amsterdam maintained a prominent position until well after 1750.

Later, with the rise of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), Yiddish came under concerted attack in Western Europe. Dutch Jews were deeply influenced by these modernizing tendencies. Moreover, in Eastern Europe new printing houses opened which began to print books in the local East European dialect of Yiddish, creating legitimacy for a new literary style. These books gained popularity with the local public who had trouble understanding the earlier printed books written in a West Yiddish that was different from their spoken vernacular. Amsterdam was forced to bow to the new political and cultural realities and Yiddish ceased to play a significant role in the local Jewish book industry. Between 1644, the year in which the first Yiddish book is known to have been published in Amsterdam, and 1800, some 500 printed Yiddish texts appeared in the city. (4) At first glance, it seems that Amsterdam's Yiddish book industry was limited in scope. With an average of three or four books a year over a period of 150 years, it seems to have been a rather marginal phenomenon. Indeed, a superficial survey of bibliographies of publications using Hebrew letters shows that Hebrew texts were by far the majority: they represent around ninety percent of all published material. There was no separate Yiddish book industry; Yiddish books formed a secondary branch of activity of the Hebrew publishing business. …