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From Russia With Love: Illustrated Children’s Books in Hebrew

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(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.)

"La-Sevivon" ("To the Dreidel"). Omanut Press, ca. 1921.
“La-Sevivon” (“To the Dreidel”). Omanut Press, ca. 1921. Original poem by Zalman Shneur. 

Imagine that some brightly plumed bird-of-paradise has flown in amongst your backyard warblers, and you’ll probably know how I felt upon discovering a beautifully illustrated book in the vaults of the Library of Congress. Nestled between ancient Hebrew treasures – the huge volumes of Talmud, the thickly bound Bibles, the time-worn prayer-books and commentaries – I found myself gazing down at a book open to the image you see here to the left.

What was this book? Clearly it was a very old picture book for children, which is what surprised me so greatly. Today, in Israel, Hebrew picture books get churned out by the cartloads, but this one was printed in “Moscow-Odessa” and in a style that stunned me by its avant-garde beauty and its whiff of the early 1900s. No date and no author – just a title proclaiming it to be “La-Sevivon” (“To the Dreidel”), published by Hotz’at Omanut (“Art Press”). In other words, as I was soon to discover, the volume was one of the very first picture books ever published for children in Hebrew. And the story behind its publication proved fascinating.

It all began in Moscow, in the summer of 1917. Russia was in the throes of revolution and even established presses were finding it hard to obtain supplies or even get their workers past the street battles raging just outside their doors. It was hardly the most auspicious time to be launching a new publishing venture. That it got published at all was due to one woman – Shoshana Zlatopolsky Persitz, the 24-year old founder of Omanut Press and its guiding spirit over the years to come.

Persitz was the daughter of Hillel Zlatopolsky, a sugar tycoon well known for his generous patronage of Jewish culture in early 20th-century Russia. Like her father – and indeed like many of the Jewish intelligentsia in Russia and elsewhere – Persitz was passionately committed to the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, seeing it as the natural choice for the pioneers rebuilding the Jewish homeland in Palestine. Ever the educationalist, Persitz wanted Jewish children to acquire a love for the Hebrew language while young. Yet, to her dismay, there were no beautiful picture books in Hebrew with which to instill this love. While the children of other nations were brought up on the wonderful children’s stories illustrated by the likes of Walter Crane, Arthur Rackham and Ivan Biliben, Jewish children, as Persitz was to recall many decades later, “had no books of their own” through which to enjoy a similar experience. And thus Omanut Press was born.

It was surely no coincidence that Persitz named her new publishing house Omanut, or “Art” in Hebrew. In Russia, the “World of Art” (“Mir iskusstva”) was the leading periodical for the Russian avant-garde and by linking her own venture to this prestigious arbiter of taste, Persitz proclaimed her own commitment to the highest standards of modern art and literature.

"The Roosters and the Fox." Omanut Press, ca. 1921.
“The Roosters and the Fox,” by Chaim Nachman Bialik. Omanut Press, ca. 1921.

Unfortunately, the Russian Revolution soon caught up with Persitz’s best-laid plans, with the Bolsheviks nationalizing the press and taking over her equipment. A year after opening and before a single book had even been published, Omanut closed its doors in Moscow and moved to Odessa, a bustling port on the Black Sea located in the Ukraine and as yet untouched by the Revolution. Odessa was already a flourishing center of Jewish culture, home to such luminaries of Modern Hebrew literature as Mendele Mocher Sforim and Chaim Nachman Bialik. But the events of 1917 sent even more Jewish writers and artists pouring in.

With such a stable of local talent from which to draw, Odessa was to prove fertile ground indeed for Omanut. Bialik himself created the text for one of the books: a beautiful rhymed version of a medieval fox-fable. Zalman Shneur, famous novelist in Hebrew and Yiddish, wrote the poem for “To the Dreidel.” Another book was a translation by Asher Ginzberg, renowned Zionist thinker better known by his pen name Ahad ha-Am.

"To Please Everybody." Omanut Press, ca. 1921. Russian folktale adapted by Tolstoy; translated into Hebrew by Ahad Ha-Am (Asher Ginzberg).
“To Please Everybody.” Omanut Press, ca. 1921. Russian folktale adapted by Tolstoy; translated into Hebrew by Ahad Ha-Am (Asher Ginzberg).

It was also Jewish art students at the Odessa School of Art that provided the beautiful illustrations accompanying these and half a dozen other books published by Omanut. The group of four young men in their early 20s signed collectively as “Havurat tsayarim” or “a Group of Painters” in Hebrew.

As the Bolsheviks advanced on the Ukraine, Persitz relocated again, this time to Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany. There she republished the beautiful picture books illustrated by the young art students in Odessa and also began publishing the polished Hebrew translations of world literature for children by which the press was to become famous.

In 1925, Omanut left Europe altogether, establishing itself once and for all in Tel-Aviv. Yet the end of Omanut’s odyssey was also to prove something of a beginning for Persitz, whose contributions to Jewish education were quickly recognized by the leaders of the emerging Jewish State. For years she played a key role in the Tel-Aviv Department of Education, and in 1949 she was elected to the first Knesset (“Legislative Assembly”) of the newly established State of Israel, chairing the Committee of Education and Culture.

By the time Omanut closed its doors in 1945, its books had become a staple of education for several generations of Israeli youth, introducing them to such world-class authors as Victor Hugo, Jules Verne and Lewis Carrol. The exquisite picture books, however, were apparently never reissued and remain almost completely unknown even to dedicated bibliophiles.

On Tuesday, Dec. 15, at noon, Ann Brener gives an illustrated lecture on the legacy of Shoshana Zlatopolsky Persitz, including a rare opportunity to see these and other exceptional children’s books. More information can be found here. The presentation will be taped and will later be accessible here

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