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May 22, 2019 11:06 am

Now Museum Pieces, Yiddish Typewriters Tell the Story of a Once-Vibrant Culture

avatar by Ben Cohen

‘Rise of the Yiddish Machines’ tells the story of the Yiddish typewriter and its impact on Jewish life and literature. Photo: YIVO Archive.

Not long after the first models appeared on the market in the 1870s, the typewriter began its century of dominance over written communications across the world. Writers used typewriters for manuscripts, accountants used them for invoices and inveterate newspaper readers used them for letters to the editor.

Typewriter manufacturers adapted their keyboards for various alphabets, including Hebrew and Yiddish (though both languages rely on the same alphabet, Yiddish contains letter combinations and vowels that are not used in Hebrew). According to Eddy Portnoy — the curator of a new exhibition in New York City that celebrates the Yiddish typewriter — over the years, between 80- 100,000 of these machines were built, sold and used with enormous devotion, along a Jewish nexus that connected New York in the west with Siberia in the east, touching London, Warsaw, Moscow, and other points in between.

Ultimately, it is to this culture that “Rise of the Yiddish Machines,” the exhibit thoughtfully assembled by Portnoy at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in downtown Manhattan, pays tribute.

By the second decade of the twentieth century, the typewriter was an established fact of life among Yiddish speakers. When The Algemeiner paid a visit to the exhibition late last week, Portnoy highlighted an article from a New York Yiddish newspaper in 1914 that remarked on how typed letters to the editor were beginning to arrive in large numbers.

“That suggests the ordinary people were buying typewriters and using them,” Portnoy said. Like most forms of technology, he explained, typewriters became cheaper and more accessible as their use spread. In 1905, a Yiddish typewriter would have set you back $100 — nearly $3,000 in today’s money. By the 1930s, you could buy a decent model for $35 — under $700 today — and be confident that it would last you a lifetime, as long as you serviced it regularly.

Many of the writers whose letters and other manuscripts are showcased at the exhibition were emotionally invested in their typewriters, Portnoy observed, in a relationship between human and machine rendered obsolete by computers that are upgraded every couple of years. On display are the poems of Malka Lee, a leading Yiddish writer who considered her typewriter “the medium through which she communicated her poetry,” said Portnoy.

“Malka Lee’s daughter once told me that her mother was very attached to her typewriter,” Portnoy said. “I don’t think people necessarily feel the same way about their computers.”

Other Yiddish manuscripts on view include excerpts from the autobiography of Marc Chagall, the famed Russian-Jewish artist, and the works of Chaim Grade, a key Yiddish writer of the post-Holocaust period. With a drama that is almost theatrical, visitors can see Grade’s final typewritten words upon a page on his own machine.

“I imagine that this is the last thing Grade ever wrote,” Portnoy said. He quoted the text: “Already in the mild spring he went out without a coat, carrying a soft hat in one hand and a worn briefcase in the other.” Grade’s wife is said to have packed up the typewriter exactly as she found it after his death.

A potentially dangerous gift for ‘relatives in the Soviet Union.’ Photo: YIVO Archive.

The exhibition projects a powerful sense of Yiddish as a global language, rooted in Europe but spoken on different continents. One English-language advertisement from the 1930s assured readers that their “Relatives and Friends in the Soviet Union will appreciate the most practical New Year gift” — a Royal typewriter with a Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish keyboard, available from a company operating from Park Avenue.

Such a gift, of course, was also a potential curse under the Soviet regime. “Typewriters in the Soviet Union had to be registered with the authorities,” Portnoy said. “They needed to know who was typing — and what it was that they were typing.”

“Rise of the Yiddish Machines” is on view at YIVO in New York City until Dec. 31.

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