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The Misadventures of the Printer Israel Bak

The 19th-century pioneer of printing in Palestine didn’t have an easy life. But his role in the development of Hebrew-language culture was enormous.

by
Alan D. Abbey
June 14, 2024
The press that Montefiore sent to Bak, and which printed scores of books and newspapers in the 19th century, now sits in the lobby of the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at Reichman University in Herzliya

Tablet Magazine

The press that Montefiore sent to Bak, and which printed scores of books and newspapers in the 19th century, now sits in the lobby of the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at Reichman University in Herzliya

Tablet Magazine

Unlike other 19th-century figures who pioneered the newspaper and publishing industries in Palestine, such as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the printer Israel Bak has remained under the radar. As far back as 1936, his lack of notoriety was noted in the Hebrew newspaper Davar: “In vain you will try to find his name in the Jewish reference books … and even in the books devoted to the history of the Land of Israel. They pass over him a little in silence.”

But Bak was a pivotal figure. He returned printing to the Land of Israel after an absence of 250 years. He pioneered Jewish farming colonies in the Galilee. He pleaded on behalf of Palestinian Jews accused of blood libels and Arabs who had lost their land in local uprisings before representatives of Imperial Ottoman Turkey. He probably saved the life of an ailing Egyptian pasha who liberalized religious practice in Palestine. He became a leader in Jerusalem’s Hasidic community and established and printed Ottoman Palestine’s second Hebrew language newspaper. A synagogue that carries his son’s name in the Old City of Jerusalem is under redevelopment. Single pages of Bak’s beautifully printed prayer books and religious tomes sell for thousands of dollars on international auction sites.

Israel Bak was born in Berdichev, Ukraine, in 1798. The lively shtetl was known as a center of Hebrew printing, and Bak established his own printing press at the age of 17. He designed striking Hebrew fonts and published prayer books and volumes on Hasidism, Kabbalah, and Halacha.

As a Sadiger Hasid, Bak likely dressed in that community’s regal garb (as this 2020 Tablet article describes) both at home and again in Palestine.

After 17 years developing his skills in Berdichev, Bak made the unlikely decision to move to the Land of Israel. Facing bankruptcy from lawsuits from other printers and the forced conscription into the czar’s army of his only son, Nissan, Bak trekked more than 2,000 miles to Safed, high in the Galilean hills in 1832, after financing his trip by building a clock for the tower of Berdichev’s Catholic church. He brought with him his son, some of his assistants, and the first printing presses in the Land of Israel since an itinerant printer had produced six volumes back in 1587.

Bak was a religious lover of the Land of Israel, who followed his rabbi, Avraham Dov Auerbach of Avritch, who had been imploring him to make aliyah. Like other Jews who emigrated to Ottoman Palestine in the mid-19th century, Bak sought to remain traditionally observant in the face of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, which was spreading through Europe. He wrote:

From the day that I left my native land and ascended to join the inheritance of the Lord of hosts … (I went) to serve and guard, to please the creator of Genesis, to be his eternal servant, to bear the burden of the Torah and to do work with it, the work of holiness in truth and sincerity. … I did not come here to … cut a cord but to fulfill the article of the Sages, their memory is a blessing, and God forbid that my strength and the strength of my hand should fail, because everything is from Him.

What Bak could not have known was the extent of the risks, dangers, and misadventures that would befall him in the coming years.

The mystical lights of Safed had dimmed by the first part of the 19th century. No longer was it the center of Jewish mysticism, as it had been 200 years prior. As a European pilgrim described it and other Jewish communities at that time, Safed was “the unhappy remnant of a fallen people [who] still hover round the graves of their fathers.”

Upon his arrival, Bak hoped that Hebrew books published in the Holy Land would find favor in the Jewish diaspora. He inscribed his first publication, a Sephardic prayerbook, with a bit of advertising. He noted that the press’s workers were religious Jews, and that the prayerbook contained Kavanot, the mystical “intentions” of prayer devised by Safed’s Isaac Luria, which, if recited from that volume, would prove to be effective.

But shortly afterward, presaging the many hardships he would face, the volumes of Psalms that Bak had produced sank in a ship en route to the Jewish community in the Ottoman city of Smyrna. Next, in June 1834, Arab peasants rioted in Safed in a revolt against Ibrahim Pasha, the Egyptian leader whose armies had swept the Ottomans from the Holy Land three years earlier. Even before the rebels reached Safed, Bak must have been worried. Leaders of the uprising knew he was a favorite of the Egyptian leader, who had stayed at Bak’s home and had admired his printing press. Bak, who was also a feldsher, a traditional community healer, had treated Pasha for numerous ailments.

Bak fought to protect his printing press and 30 workers from the rampage. But he was stabbed multiple times in his left foot, his books were burned, his printing equipment was destroyed, and his lead type forms were melted down to make musket balls.

Others were attacked, too, in the Arab riot. Town elders and rabbis, including Rabbi Israel of Shklov, author of Pe’ath HaShulchan, were beaten. Houses and other property were destroyed, including 13 synagogues and as many as 500 Torah scrolls. Bak would write years later: “And they destroyed my house and the printing house and there was nothing left. We were thrown out in the open for days, left naked, and there was nothing left for us, and they waited for me to die. Had it not been for the grace of God (blessed be He), I would not have remained alive.”

It was not just the grace of God that helped Bak survive. Despite now being crippled, he and his family fled Safed for the nearby, friendly Arab village of Ein al-Zeitun, where they stayed until Pasha put down the rebellion. Though the strain of the uprising and the harsh life in the impoverished area took its toll (his young wife, Baila, died later that year), Bak rebuilt his presses and got back to printing.

Three years later, disaster struck again. On Jan. 1, 1837, as damp cold radiated up from the stone floor in Safed’s tiny Avritch synagogue, deep in an alley off HaAri Street, Bak and others waited for evening prayers rather than walk home in the chill and gloom. Suddenly, the shul began to shake. Tremors rippled up, down, and across the old building. Cracks appeared in the stones. Some men raced for the door, out of fear the shul would collapse.

Rabbi Avraham Dov Auerbach’s soft voice cut through the clamor: “Whoever wants to live, come and stand next to the Torah,” he said, in what has become a famous story repeated to tourists who visit the shul, which still stands. The remaining men lurched toward the Aron Hakodesh. Rabbi Avraham threw himself on the ground and began begging God for forgiveness, safety, and life. His prayers were punctuated by tears. It was as if Rabbi Avraham believed he could calm the earth with his physical presence.

The title page of Bak's first volume, 'Avodat Hakodesh,' by Rabbi Hida in 1841
The title page of Bak’s first volume, ‘Avodat Hakodesh,’ by Rabbi Hida in 1841

Wikipedia

As the temblor tapered off, the men saw that most of the building had collapsed. Outside, broken stones and glass, smoldering fires, and spiraling smoke filled the town. Screams and cries rang through the debris. Somehow, the Holy Ark of the Avritch shul had survived. Bak made it home and found his family alive. Their house, however, lay in ruins. In a scene repeated hundreds of times on Safed’s steep hillsides, it had slid into another house, and been crushed. Bak would later say of the earthquake that “the hand of God touched Safed.” At least 3,000 Jews and 1,000 Muslims had been killed. More than 80% of Safed had been erased.

Once they cleared the wreckage, Bak and his workers rebuilt his presses a second time, and returned to the task of bringing holy words to light for the Jewish residents of the Land of Israel. The hardships they faced were tremendous. As one foreign visitor described them:

We passed throughout the whole quarter and found the poor Jews still wandering amid the ruins, among which we could scarcely wend our way. Many of them were employed in digging among the rubbish, each apparently before what had once been his dwelling.

More destruction was on its way. In July 1838, Safed was sacked again, this time by Druze clans retreating from their own uprising against Ibrahim Pasha. It was a virtual repeat of the peasants’ revolt four years earlier. Only the clamor of oncoming hooves, the cavalry of Ibrahim Pasha, sent the attackers fleeing.

In response to the attack, Bak unsuccessfully attempted to recoup Safed’s looted property by appealing directly to the Egyptian leader. He wrote: “I will go … to Alexandria of Egypt, to come and beg before the minister who is the governor of all Egypt, that he may grant us our plunder. I lingered there in the midst of the moon, and did not do anything, because he rejected me, and returned.”

Though this effort had failed, Pasha granted Bak a parcel of land on the slopes of nearby Mount Meron. There, Bak and 15 other Jewish families, with the help of residents of the nearby Arab town of Jermak, created the first Jewish farming settlement in the Land of Israel in hundreds of years. Bak wrote of the endeavor:

I was forced to come to the land that God had given me (but) I built houses to live in, I made gardens for myself, I sowed fields, and in that year, I ate to my heart’s content from the seed of the land. In the second year I had cattle and sheep, six sheep and six goats. I also kept the mitzvot that depend on the land in a lofty, gross manner. The Lord was open to all my actions.

While Bak was farming in Jermak, British businessman and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore and his wife, Lady Judith, braved a cholera epidemic in May 1839 to travel to the Holy Land. Montefiore’s secretary wrote that Safed “looked very beautiful, being situated on the summit of the mountain, which was crowned with beautiful olive trees of immense growth and great age.” Up close, however, the town of 5,000 was so poor its residents “could ill afford to keep a pair of oxen to till the ground.”

Montefiore distributed Spanish dollars to Safed’s Jewish residents and rose from a sickbed to travel two hours to Jermak to serve as godfather for a baby born to one of the farmers in Bak’s colony. As Montefiore prepared to leave for Tiberias, he hoped his donations would comfort the town’s residents:

Their sufferings during the last five years must have been truly deplorable. First the plundering of the inhabitants, then the earthquake, and finally the attack by the Druses, to fill the cup of their misfortune. … The ruins of the town present an awful spectacle of destruction; the few miserable hovels they have erected are for the most part little better than caves, more fit for the beast of the field than for human beings.

Montefiore came away from his meetings with Bak and his son convinced that they were “clever and enterprising men,” and promised to send Bak a printing press. But it was two years before he fulfilled his promise. By then, Pasha had been deposed and the Ottomans had returned. The residents of Peki’in, who had lost their land in Pasha’s revolt, rushed to take back their land in Jermak, and Bak’s farming commune collapsed.

Having lost everything—“naked and destitute” in the words of historian Yaakov Yaari-Polskin—Bak moved his family to Jerusalem.

Poverty was rampant there, even as the neglected city was on the cusp of change. One survey found that out of 1,751 Jewish households, only 257 earned their livelihood from physical labor and crafts. The remainder were supported by halukkah, charity from overseas. The city’s few European visitors—archeologists and religious pilgrims—who had come with visions of angels and revelation, were disappointed by the city’s decline. American biblical scholar Edward Robinson, who identified the remnants of a great arched walkway to the Old City’s Temple Mount (which is now named after him) wrote of Jerusalem:

She has sunk into the neglected capital of a petty Turkish province. … The cup of wrath and desolation from the Almighty has been poured out upon her to the dregs; and she sits sad and solitary in darkness and dust.

Nonetheless, a decade of Egyptian rule had brought modest change and modernization. Pasha, seeking to gain favor in Europe, had abolished discriminatory taxes and given Christian communities equality with Muslims. Christians and Jews were permitted to participate in regional advisory councils. Jerusalem Governor Ahmed Duzdar told Montefiore in 1839: “You know the age when it was said, ‘This is a Christian, and that a Jew, and there is a Mussulman!’ But now ... these times are past. Never ask what he is: let him be of whatsoever religion he may, do him justice, as the Lord of the world desired of us.”

The increasing religious freedom for Christians led them to proselytize Jews and Muslims. Faced with what they saw as a threat to the Jewish community, Jerusalem’s Sephardic leaders implored Bak to start a printing press to produce Jewish material to combat it. Shortly afterward, Montefiore remembered his promise and finally shipped a printing press, fonts, and a Torah scroll to Bak. For once it seemed, Providence, or at least timing, had swung in his favor.

Bak was back in the printing business. He produced his first volume, Avodat Hakodesh, by Rabbi Hida in 1841—with exclusive rights to run a Jewish press granted by the Sephardic community council and printed in the book’s front pages. Among his other titles were Strengthening Faith, a book used to counter Christian missionary activity. The Watch of the Covenant followed, so Jews “would know how to distance themselves” and be different from Christians. In 1847, Bak’s work culminated in the monumental printing of Bat Ayin, a tract written by Bak’s Safed rabbi, Avraham Dov Auerbach. Bak printed 130 volumes over the next 30 years.

Beginning in 1863, Bak’s Jerusalem publishing house also produced Havatzelet, the second Hebrew newspaper in Palestine, which bolstered the city’s Hasidim, and competed with the rival newspaper HaLevanon, which was aimed at Sephardim. Bak may not have had the kindest intentions in starting the paper, because he was in a legal fight with HaLevanon’s publishers, whom Bak felt had trampled on his printing monopoly.

Havatzelet lasted for more than 40 years and overlapped with the advent of HaZvi, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s paper, and the rise of Theodor Herzl, the journalist who envisioned Israel and created the political Zionism that led to the establishment of the Jewish state.

Bak may have come to the Land of Israel to retain a traditional lifestyle, but it isn’t a far stretch from him to Ben-Yehuda and Herzl. Those two pioneering Zionists carried on many of Bak’s traits—fervor, advocacy, and resilience. You can even see his heritage in today’s Israeli media, which is opinionated, “activist,” patriotic (or jingoistic, pick one), and competitive to the point of litigiousness.

Today, the press that Montefiore sent to Bak, and which printed scores of books and newspapers in the 19th century, is enshrined in the lobby of the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at Reichman University in Herzliya.

Alan D. Abbey is a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He’s had a 40-year career in newspapers, internet, and media in the United States and in Israel.

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