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Typing in Yiddish

A 1929 practical method for typing in Yiddish, on display at YIVO, is a keyhole into a little-known world of printing machines, and the pipe dreams behind their invention

Eddy Portnoy
May 03, 2019

What sort of typing instruction manual includes a practice sentence like, “Better a terrible end than terror without end?” Better yet, what kind of typing manual offers, also as practice texts, excerpts from Pirke Avot, stories from the Talmud, quotes by Goethe, and the writings of Khaym Zhitlovsky, the grand theorist of Yiddishist socialism?

The answer is a Yiddish typewriting manual—the Praktishe metode far der yidisher shrayb-mashin, or Practical Method for the Yiddish Typewriter—a 50-page instruction book that teaches its readers how to touch-type in Yiddish. Published in 1929 by Tobias Jonas, the manual was created to fill the gap for the many people for whom touch-typing in Yiddish would be an important skill. By the time Jonas’ manual appeared, Remington and Underwood Yiddish typewriters had been on the market for decades, as had machines produced by lesser-known companies like Blickensderfer and Hammond, among others. Jonas’ manual and original typescripts of Yiddish writers, as well as a working vintage Yiddish typewriter, are part of a new exhibit at the YIVO Institute in New York, Rise of the Yiddish Machines.

At the time of the arrival of Jonas’ guide, Jews were pumping out five Yiddish daily newspapers in New York City alone, in addition to hundreds of weekly and monthly periodicals there and elsewhere. Add to that the hundreds of Landsmanshaftn (Hometown Societies), many of whose meetings were held in Yiddish, as well as the hundreds of other Jewish organizations that might need legible documents in Yiddish, and you can begin to see the need for a Yiddish touch-typing manual.

Throw in regular folks who may have wanted to send a neat, legible letter to their friends, relatives, and business associates, instead of missives proffering semilegible scrawls dotted with ink splotches. As early as 1914, one New York Yiddish daily, Dos yidishes tageblat, noticed that readers had begun to mail in letters that had been typewritten, an indication that average Jews were not only buying these machines, but using them. In addition to numerous Yiddish typewriters, the archives of the YIVO Institute contain thousands of letters, novels, poems, and random invoices, among many other kinds of documents, all typewritten in blocky, easy-to-read Yiddish print.

In many ways, Jonas’ manual is similar to English-language touch-typing manuals of the day. He includes schematic drawings pointing out the working parts of Yiddish Remingtons and Underwoods, explanations of how to properly sit at the machines, and how one should position one’s fingers on the keys. Like most early-20th-century typing manuals, it provides examples of how to write and format business letters.

But where the Praktishe metode stands out is in its choice of practice texts. Tobias Jonas wasn’t just a typing teacher, he was an aficionado of great literature and philosophy, Jewish and otherwise. Included among his touch-typing practice texts are excerpts of works by Anatole France, Oscar Wilde, and Israel Zangwill. Unwilling to give typists run-of-the-mill Yiddish versions of “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” Jonas wanted to inform and to edify his readers as they learned to type. Among his instructions, for example, is a demand to type the following phrases, among numerous others, five times for practice:

The struggle for the development of Yiddish is the struggle for a normal, free, comprehensive, rich, and fruitful culture of the Jewish people; The struggle is for its life and development, for its honor and worth. —Khaym Zhitlovski
Knowledge is the greatest sovereign, not the people. If tens of millions of people say a foolish thing, it does not cease to be a foolish thing. —Anatole France
According to the Talmud, a man’s character becomes clear in three moments: when he has to pay, when he drinks, and when he gets angry. —Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers)

Jonas includes other practice texts, from Goethe, Spinoza, and Dickens (all translated into Yiddish, obviously), to the Yiddish poet, Morris Rosenfeld. Even if you’re learning a skill as tedious and mundane as typing, Jonas thought, you also shouldn’t be a dope.

So who was this mysterious teacher of Yiddish touch-typing and deliverer of practice proverbs? Tobias Jonas wrote no other books and does not appear to have produced anything other than this typing manual. He was not, as might seem, a Yiddish pedagogue or writer at all. Quite simply, he was a businessman and a real estate developer who together with his brother Max built out a number of neighborhoods in Brooklyn, among them Flatbush, Bensonhurst, and Dyker Heights. The Jonas brothers were savvy businessmen who understood that expeditious communication was good for business.

In fact, the very reason Jonas decided to write his Yiddish typing manual stemmed from a significant correspondence he was required to maintain in Yiddish to his business partners in Poland. When he started this correspondence, he purchased a portable Yiddish Corona and began typing letters using the classic two-finger pecking method in which he used only his index fingers to type. When he found this to be too slow, he signed up for a three-month class in touch-typing in English, hoping it would help him improve his Yiddish typing.

Jonas applied his newfound English speed-typing skills to his Yiddish machine. But, he thought, why shouldn’t every Yiddish typist be able to avail themselves of such skills? And so he wrote his manual, encouraging his students with quotes like, “with dedication, a strong will, and a little patience,” anyone can learn to touch-type in Yiddish.

In spite of his good intentions, Jonas was too clever by half. Touch-typing on the standardized Yiddish typewriter keyboard, which was nominally based on the QWERTY layout, wasn’t fast enough for him. He wanted to type faster, to be able to bang out his letters and invoices with even more speed.

He therefore concluded, even before August Dvorak and William Dealey created the more logical Dvorak Simplified Keyboard to improve the speed and accuracy of English typists, that a new keyboard must be devised, one that allowed Yiddish typists to excel. So Jonas developed the ultimate, built-for-speed Yiddish keyboard:

Jonas had two Yiddish typewriters—one Remington and one Underwood—modified to accommodate his new keyboard. He then wrote his manual, basing it entirely on his improved setup. There were, however, two problems: No one else had a typewriter with the Jonas keyboard, and Yiddish typewriter manufacturers didn’t appear interested in producing them. Jonas’ amazing Yiddish touch-typing manual turned out to have only one possible customer: Jonas himself.

Without the existence of typewriters that matched Jonas’ unique keyboard, it seems unlikely that any use could be made of his instructional booklet. Sadly, the first and only Yiddish touch-typing manual turned out to be based on a fantasy of thousands of Yiddish typists blazing away at their machines, producing business letters and invoices, expressionist poetry, and the next great Yiddish novel. A metaphorical episode of building a synagogue that no one would go to, his failed manual nonetheless stands as a testament to his desire to improve the Yiddish condition.

Eddy Portnoy, the Academic Adviser and Exhibitions Curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, is the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press.