Keeping current in Amsterdam. Reb Moushe and the oldest Yiddish newspaper in the world

This is an article on the subject of my dissertation Arranging Reality. The Editing Mechanisms of the World’s First Yiddish Newspaper, the Kurant (Amsterdam, 1686-1687). I defended the dissertation at the University of Amsterdam on June 27, 2014. You can read the entire dissertation in digital form by clicking here.

Dit artikel gaat over het onderwerp van mijn proefschrift Arranging Reality. The Editing Mechanisms of the World’s First Yiddish Newspaper, the Kurant (Amsterdam, 1686-1687). Op 27 juni 2014 heb ik mijn proefschrift verdedigd aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam. Je kunt het complete proefschrift in digitale vorm lezen door hier te klikken. 

 

David Montezinos, book collector and librarian of Ets Haim, the library of the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, was always looking for rare books. One day sometime in the 1880s, while standing in the street watching a fire consume an Amsterdam theater, he was approached by a peddler. The peddler showed him something extraordinary: a book containing about 100 issues of an old Yiddish newspaper, the Dinstagishe un Fraytagishe Kuranten – the Tuesday and Friday Newspapers (literally “currents”, as in Hartford Courant) – published between August 1686 and December 1687. Without hesitation, Montezinos bought the book, and so became the owner of the oldest Yiddish newspaper in the world.

Leafing through the volume Montezinos noticed that though the Kuranten had had two different publishers, both used the same compositor, referred to in Hebrew – as Hebrew was pronounced in Amsterdam in those days – as horav rebbe Moushe bar Avrom Ovinu. Let’s call him Reb Moushe.

The first surviving issue of the Dinstagishe un Fraytagishe Kuranten (which may not be the first produced) probably dates from August 9, 1686. The first page and the date are missing, but it reports news up to August 7. Reb Moushe had come to Amsterdam not long before, probably from his hometown of Nikolsburg in Moravia (now Mikulov in the Czech Republic), a mainly German-speaking city that was the center of the Moravian Jewish community. As his name, bar Avrom Ovinu, indicates, he was a ger, a convert to Judaism. In 1680, apparently after he converted, he married a Jewish woman.

In 1686 Reb Moushe worked as a compositor for the Ashkenazi printer and publisher Uri Faybesh Halevi (1627-1715), whose family came from Emden. His grandfather was among the first Ashkenazi Jews in Amsterdam and is believed to be the first to have taught Jewish rules and traditions to Sephardi Jews who had escaped from Spain and Portugal. Uri Faybesh Halevi worked as a printer from 1658 onwards and became one of the leading Jewish printers in Amsterdam – and in the entire world, as Amsterdam in those years was the center of Hebrew and Yiddish book printing. He published Hebrew and Yiddish books, mainly but not exclusively religious texts.

Publication of Yiddish books was a growing business. At the beginning of the seventeenth century there were only a few Ashkenazi Jews in Amsterdam, but after the Thirty Years’ War broke out in 1618, greater numbers of Ashkenazi Jews from Germany arrived in the city. In general they were poor and unsophisticated people, especially compared with the Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Pogroms inflicted by Chmielnicki’s Cossacks (1648 to1650) caused an additional stream of Ashkenazi refugees from Poland, and in 1655 Polish and Lithuanian Jews began fleeing from the Swedish invasion. By 1690 an estimated 8,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands, about 6,000 in Amsterdam. Three thousand were Ashkenazim.

The Sephardim were more prosperous than the Ashkenazim, but the few wealthy Ashkenazi merchants needed to know what was going on in the world. Average people were also interested in international news, because of their relatives or coreligionists in other regions. As most Jews were unable to read the local Dutch newspapers – the leading papers were the Amsterdamse Courant and the Oprechte Haarlemse Courant – a Yiddish newspaper was required. The Dinstagishe un Fraytagishe Kuranten, published by Uri Faybesh Halevi, filled the need.

The Kuranten printed mainly international news, which was organized geographically. The paper appeared on Tuesdays and Fridays, except for the period between December 6, 1686 and February 14, 1687, during which it was published only on Fridays.

We do not know whose idea it was to publish the Kuranten. From the earliest issue of the 101 papers left, only the last two pages survived, lacking any statement of purpose or introduction. But it is by no means sure that this issue was the very first. Probably Uri Faybesh Halevi himself initiated the Kuranten, while Reb Moushe may have played an important role. Although he was initially referred to as hamesader – the compositor – it is likely that he also served as editor.

The job of an editor was, in the first place, to assemble and select news items. He had to know the Roman alphabet and be able to read Dutch and other languages. Although most Ashkenazi Jews understood Dutch quite well, only a few were able to read it. Since Reb Moushe was a former Christian from Nikolsburg, his mother tongue was most probably German, which would have made it comparatively easy for him to read Dutch. In order to convert to Judaism he had to learn Hebrew. And through his contact with Jews, first in Nikolsburg, which had a large Jewish community, and later in Amsterdam, he learned Yiddish. Reb Moushe was clearly able to translate into Yiddish at the time the Kuranten appeared, as demonstrated by his Yiddish translation of Yeven Metsula, a famous report of the Chmielnicki massacres, originally written in Hebrew by Natan Nata Hannover (Venice 1653) and printed by Uri Faybesh Halevi in 1686.

Despite the demand for news among Ashkenazi Jews, publishing a Yiddish newspaper was a risky business. As far as we know, no one had tried it before. To be sure, there was another Jewish newspaper, the Gazeta de Amsterdam, printed in Spanish and intended for a Sephardic readership. The oldest known issue dates from 1672, and it existed at least until 1702. The economic potential for the Gazeta was much greater because of the wealth of the Sephardic community and, since the Gazeta appeared in Spanish, it could also be read by non-Jews. In contrast, most Ashkenazi Jews could not afford to buy newspapers and may have read the Kuranten in the synagogue or borrowed copies from others. Uri Faybesh Halevi may have thought this wouldn’t pay in the end; in any event, he stopped publishing the paper on June 6, 1687. His financial position had become far from sound after he published a Yiddish Bible translation, a project that took him three years (1676-1679).

The printer of the Gazeta, David de Castro Tartas, took over the publication of the Kuranten. His parents were ‘New Christians’ who escaped from Portugal to the city of Tartas in southern France. Later they came to Amsterdam, where they once again started living as Jews. David de Castro Tartas began his career in the oldest Jewish printing house in Amsterdam, that of Menasseh Ben Israel. In 1662 he founded his own business and in his first years published prayer books in Hebrew and Spanish. These were followed by popular Yiddish books, including an adaptation of Arthurian legends. He became known especially as a printer of newspapers, not only of the Spanish Gazeta but also of Italian and French papers which were apparently not intended for Jewish readers.

Reb Moushe was part of the deal. In the Kuranten published by De Castro Tartas his name is still mentioned at the end of every issue, but without the title hamesader. Though De Castro Tartas made some changes in the layout – the heading became larger, the Amsterdam city arms were added – the style stayed the same, another sign that Reb Moushe was responsible for editing.

De Castro Tartas initially maintained the publication on Tuesdays and Fridays, but on August 5, 1687, it was announced that the paper would appear only on Fridays until 1 Nisan (March), “because the Tuesday edition sells poorly.” As the last known issue dates from December 5, we do not know whether the paper was published twice a week again after 1 Nisan, as promised. Or, for that matter, if it appeared at all.

The leading Dutch newspapers, the Amsterdamse Courant and the Oprechte Haarlemse Courant, collected their own news and used correspondents to gather news from abroad. Neither Uri Faybesh Halevi nor David de Castro Tartas had the means to hire reporters, so Reb Moushe had to resort to these Dutch newspapers for his main – and probably only – sources of information.

But by no means did he copy all reports. He had to choose strictly, because he had less space at his disposal – four octavo pages, where the Dutch papers used two quarto pages – and he used a larger typeface. He selected text not just by shortening, but also by his choice of subject. He included, for instance, all reports about wars. First and foremost, he ran news of the war between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and like the Dutch newspapers he sympathized with the Habsburg side. The only difference was that he did not write about a victory of “the Christians,” or “our side,” but simply spoke of “the imperials.”

Another popular subject was the plight of the Huguenots, for whom Reb Moushe showed at least as much sympathy as did the Dutch papers. To the extent that the Dutch reported on Jews, Reb Moushe followed them, his tone usually as detached as theirs. In one case, however, he added a “Jewish accent,” when he wrote about three Portuguese Jews who were burnt at the stake in Lisbon after refusing to renounce their faith. While the Dutch papers stressed the cruelty of the punishment, the Kuranten emphasized the fact that the three men decided to die as Jews, adding a prayer about the divine punishment awaiting those who carried out the sentence.

The Kuranten also had room for shipping news, items about pirates, and reports about natural disasters and epidemics. It featured sensational stories: for instance, a detailed description of the birth of what we now would call Siamese twins, or the story of a woman whose breast was struck by lightning while she was feeding her baby (mother and child survive, but the woman loses her breast).

Equally interesting are the subjects Reb Moushe left out. Elements that were not Jewish or were considered uninteresting to Jews were not included – news about Western European royal families, for example, of which the Dutch papers were quite fond. (The adventures of the king of Poland, however, were given some attention: King Jan III Sobieski was popular among Jews.) On the other hand, no attempt was made to carry news from other sources on Jewish subjects. News about Jewish community life in Amsterdam is completely absent, which may be understandable: as the community was still small, the Amsterdam Jews probably didn’t need a paper to know what was going on. But some international reports had interesting Jewish aspects that were not mentioned, simply because the Dutch papers left them out.

For instance, the Kuranten wrote extensively about a fleet of river barges that supplied the Habsburg forces during the siege of Budapest in 1686, but failed to mention that this operation was entirely organized by Samuel Oppenheimer, a Jew of the German court. Oppenheimer obtained his goods from, among others, the well-known Amsterdam businessman Cosman Gompertz, a member of the only really influential Ashkenazi family in Amsterdam, and a son-in-law of memoirist Glikl Hamel (Glückel of Hameln). The Gompertz family traded in jewels and army supplies, and had ties with German Court Jews and the Elector of Brandenburg. Clearly, while adapting Dutch reports of international news for Jewish readers, Reb Moushe did not aim to create a “Jewish newspaper.”

There are no indications in the December 5, 1687, installment of the Kuranten that this was the last issue, but of later issues any trace is missing. Not so of Reb Moushe. In 1688 he started working for Cosman Gompertz, who was a printer as well. In 1690 Moushe took over Gompertz’s printing house, but he went bankrupt within a year and the business reverted to its former owner. Reb Moushe didn’t give in easily and in 1694 gave it a second try; shortly afterwards, though, he left for Germany.

By way of Berlin, Frankfurt an der Oder and Dessau, Reb Moushe ended up in Halle, where he became the university printer and (with the help of his ten children) set up his own printing house. While still in Berlin, he published a Hebrew translation of the New Testament. His magnum opus was Telaot Moshe (or Teloes Moushe, 1711), which is considered the oldest book on geography in Yiddish. The text was taken from two sources, the Hebrew Igeret arkhot olam by Avraham Farissol (Venice 1587) and the German translation (1612) of the Latin Tabularum Geographicarum Contractarum (1600), by the Dutch Christian geographer Petrus Bertius. The way Reb Moushe adapted the non-Jewish source for a Jewish readership has much in common with the way he adapted Dutch news for the Kuranten. He shortened the text and removed striking Christian elements, but maintained the essentially Christian point of view and refrained from adding specifically Jewish elements.

In 1714 Reb Moushe printed a collection of homilies that was said to contain anti-Christian slander. He was arrested by the authorities, and though he was released soon afterwards his printing house was confiscated. Once more he became a university printer. There are no known publications of his after 1714, but his name is mentioned occasionally in the publications of his children, who produced mainly religious books. He appears to have died in 1733 or 1734.

The first printer of the Kuranten, Uri Faybesh Halevi, left Amsterdam in 1691 and started a firm in Żółkiew, Poland, where as an experienced printer from Amsterdam he was received with open arms. In 1705 he returned to Amsterdam and left the printing house to his grandchildren, whose descendants stayed in the business until the twentieth century. In 1710 Halevi wrote a history of the Sephardim; he died in 1715 and was buried in the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk.

David de Castro Tartas, Halevi’s successor, stayed in the business until 1697. Then he sold his printing tools and left Amsterdam for an unknown destination.

David Montezinos donated his collection, including the volume containing the Kuranten, to Ets Haim in 1889. After his death in 1916 the book stayed in the library and survived World War II, but sometime in the 1970s, when it was being transferred with many other books from Ets Haim to the National and University Library in Jerusalem, it disappeared without a trace. What remain are photos, microfilms and photocopies.

 

Hilde Pach is writing a Ph.D. dissertation on the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Yiddish press in the Netherlands at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands. She is also a translator of modern Hebrew literature (into Dutch) and a freelance journalist. 

 

Dit artikel verscheen oorspronkelijk in PaknTreger 50 (Spring 2006). Je kunt het hier als PDF lezen.

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