Redesigning the Past: A Magazine Helps Save a Dying Language

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How the former art director of SPY turned the Yiddish magazine Pakn Treger into an inspiring mix of Jewish history and modern design

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Yiddish is a dying language and magazines are a dying medium. Yet through the recent efforts of dedicated aficionados, Yiddish music, theater, and literature have made significant comebacks. And in a counterintuitive way, Pakn Treger, a magazine published by The Yiddish Book Center for supporters and donors, has just received a 21-century design makeover.

First a little about the Yiddish Book Center, located in Amherst, Massachusetts. Its mission is to rescue Yiddish books and modern Jewish books and make them available to the world. It was founded by MacArthur "genius grant" recipient Aaron Lansky in 1980, who realized that thousands of priceless Yiddish books—books that had survived Hitler and Stalin—were being discarded and destroyed. An entire literature was on the verge of extinction.

Lansky and a handful of co-workers went on the road, rescuing Jewish books from cellars and attics. Today they claim to be the world's only comprehensive supplier of Yiddish books. The Yiddish Book Center helped establish Yiddish collections at more than 600 great libraries, including Harvard, Yale, the Library of Congress, the British Library, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and national libraries in Australia, China, and Japan. In 1998, the Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library made high-quality reprints available on demand. The Center also placed the full texts of 11,000 Yiddish titles online through its Digital Yiddish Library.

Pakn Treger (roughly translated, a wandering book peddler who traveled from shtetl to shtetl in Eastern Europe bringing books and news of the outside world) was redesigned by Alex Isley, the onetime art director of SPY magazine. "Our assignment is to convey the mission of the Center—one of outreach and the celebration of culture—in a way that recognizes history but is not just of the past. Nothing was to be musty," he told me recently. "Their mission is about reaching out and taking the knowledge of the past and putting it to work for the future. I liked this. Their needs fit in with my not-so-hidden agenda of trying to make things that provide information, reward curious readers, and make them hungry to learn more."

Isley's new Pakn Treger format was inspired by The Yiddish Book Center's breathtaking collection of early 20th-century Eastern European books and periodicals, which includes design and illustration that will make most designers' heads spin. "I picked up a random book and the illustrations were by Marc Chagall," he says. "We were inspired by what we saw, but we didn't want to make our work look overly historical. From the formal point of view, we wanted the magazine to be about words and storytelling, which sounds pretty obvious, but a lot of these types of publications consist of short pieces cobbled together, and if you're not careful the result can be without a focus or center."

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Pakn Treger's layout grid is based on classic book proportions, with wide margins that may seem like wasted space, but actually allows Isley a lot of flexibility. "We decided to see if we could design a magazine that uses only black text, allowing the more colorful photographs and illustrations to stand out," he adds. "This approach was a nod to the printing techniques and constraints of the day. In a further effort to make the narrative experience consistent, we chose to use one principal type family, Malaga, created by Xavier Dupré. The selection of the type was an important choice, as so much of our design is word-focused. One might think a relatively modern, Emigré font to be an odd choice, but it works well. I like the way some of the characters allude to the characteristics of Hebrew lettering without being cartoony."

Much of Pakn Treger is presented in a language that is unfamiliar to Isley and his team. This proved a huge challenge. "We weren't sure how we'd address the details that are so important," he says. "How do you deal with line breaks, how do you convey nuance? I can pretty much tell right away if an 'e' is drawn well or not, but I am not confident evaluating Hebrew letterforms." In every issue there is a "translation" section that was a particular difficulty: "Yiddish reads back to front, to our eyes, and English the other way. How can you compare passages, place them on the same spread, and not have a complete mess? We found an old multilingual bible that gave us the key to our approach."

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Fortunately, Lansky and Lisa Newman, the editor, assembled a smart, thorough, and patient staff to help decipher the text. Isley also works with a specialty typesetter to help him craft the Yiddish passages. "I'm gaining confidence," he says.

Still, the printed magazine is not a futuristic medium, and online potentials are so rich as to make many obsolete. "A good printed publication can work in concert with a good web site, and each can serve a valuable, and different, role," Isley argues. "It does not have to be either/or. For conveying a lot of information in a way that can be quickly updated, and in an easily accessible format, nothing beats having an online presence."

The Yiddish Book Center has a good site in place. "But magazines inspire passion and loyalty in a way that I have yet to experience with a website," Isley says. "Being able to hold—and to look forward to getting the next issue of—a physical expression of spirit is something that makes printed publications valuable."

Images: Courtesy of Alex Isley

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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