Ta shema! Come and listen!
Los Angeles, 2014. I was intrigued. As a graphic designer, I had read extensively on the history of design and typography, and as a Jewish day school alumnus, on the history of the Jews. Yet, it wasn’t until very recently that I discovered there exists a history of Jewish typography and books. (I say Jewish typography instead of Hebrew typography to include works in Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino, and other languages used by Jews.) I absorbed everything I could find on the subject, which seemed to consist entirely of highly specific academic papers and museum exhibition catalogs. I emailed the illustrious Scott-Martin Kosofsky to ask if there was a more comprehensive book on the subject. He said there wasn’t. That upset me. This is my attempt to fill that void.
Join me on a journey from the origins of writing and the earliest Jewish texts in the deserts of the Middle East, through the invention of books and the printing press, to birth of modern Hebrew and the digital age. This inquiry will focus on the physical forms of Hebrew letters and Jewish writing and how they affected and were affected by culture and religious practice. I will discuss issues of literature and content only as they relate to the objects themselves.
In doing so, I want to combat two failures of oversight I’ve witnessed. Throughout high school Jewish history courses and innumerable books and lectures since, I noticed a tendency to talk solely about the history of the Jews and never the history they existed in. It’s almost as if Jewish history and world history were two wholly distinct subjects.
More broadly, people take the objects they interact with for granted. Think about your socks. Socks come from the store. End of story, right? Have you ever considered the manufacturing process of socks? The history of footwear design? The politics of fashion? The development of fabrics and of sock production technology? The contributions of generations of people, named and nameless, who populate those stories? Fonts, likewise, come from our computers. The siddur at the synagogue has existed in that form since time immemorial. Or at least it often seems that way. We read and write daily, and yet the history of writing—the wars and death and revelation and hope—escape us. That goes for books, and socks as well.
My aim is to place this part of Jewish history in context and bring attention to the people, events, and technologies that have shaped our world. I hope to impress the following ideas in telling this story. First, man-made things are made by people. Those people lived in times and places and circumstances that shaped how they thought about their craft, and those times and places and circumstances also affected the evolution and dispersion of those craft technologies. Second, technology changes everything. The impact of inventions extends far beyond their industries, fundamentally changing not just how we live but how we relate to our surroundings. Third, design is a window into culture. It expresses the ideals we venerate, and exploring design history reveals much about people and their values.
With the invocation “Ta shema,” the Talmud invites us to consider new ideas and stories. I hope this history inspires you to question the history of other “ordinary” things and find an appreciation for the heritage that surrounds you.
Where to begin? Let’s start at the beginning—the beginning of writing itself.