Books for the Masses

The Amsterdam Yiddish Book Industry, 1650–1800

in European Judaism

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Amsterdam functioned as the European printing centre of Yiddish books. Texts in the Ashkenazi vernacular were published in the city for the benefit of the local reading public, and these books were also distributed throughout the Ashkenazi diaspora, in central and eastern Europe. Two basic guidelines directed the work of Yiddish book agents in Amsterdam: printing was considered a service to Ashkenazim and their communities: nevertheless, printing of Yiddish books also needed to be a commercially sustainable project. Therefore, books dealing with religion, tradition and didactical literature comprised the majority of the printed output. These were considered as practical (printed in Yiddish for the benefit of the masses who could not read Hebrew) and thus their production also included a commercial logic. Between circa 1650 and 1800 more than 500 Yiddish books were published, including texts in various genres. The modernization process that encompassed Jewish communities in Western Europe also signalled the downfall of Yiddish book production in Amsterdam, and the end of a period of Yiddish literature composed and published in West Yiddish, a dialect that was pushed aside by the emerging Eastern European, modern, Yiddish.