1892 – 1986
Bracha Peli was unique among the literary community of pre-state Palestine, inasmuch as she created what was probably the most successful and dynamic publishing house in the country at the time, stressing distribution and sales rather than the content and editorial aspects which are the usual focus of publishing aspirations and inspiration.
Bronya Kutzenok was born in 1892 in Starovitzky, a village in Tsarist Russia (today Ukraine) to a family of devout hasidic Jews, adherents of the Admor (title given to hasidic rabbis) of Chernobyl. She was the first girl of seven children—five boys and two girls. Her father, Shmuel Kutzenok, was a wealthy lumber merchant whose main trade was providing timber for artillery wagons for the Russian army. Her mother, Sarah, who kept the village general store, was less observant and had a mostly secular Russian education.
Bronya learnt to read Russian at an early age and was exposed to a wide range of books, from her father’s religious works to her mother’s collection of classic and modern Russian novels and periodicals. Since there was no school in the village, a tutor was hired to teach the boys Bible, Talmud and Hebrew grammar. Her own early education was gained by listening to her brothers’ lessons; by the age of six she had her own tutor for reading and writing and was soon able to read Hebrew and Yiddish fluently, in addition to Russian.
In 1905 she persuaded her family to allow her to continue her education and left for the gymnasium in Kiev. Three days later, caught up in the early days of the Revolution and in a pogrom in the town, she was forced to return to the village. Returning to Kiev in 1907 at the age of fourteen, she was accepted into the sixth grade and graduated three years later. Intending to enroll at the city’s ancient St. Vladimir University, her eye was caught by the adjacent College of Economics and on the spur of the moment she enrolled there instead (one of only two women). She graduated three years later with a final paper on “The History of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.”
Meanwhile, her mother was stricken with tuberculosis and Bronya took her first to San Remo and then to the Tyrol. None of the treatments helped and the women eventually returned to Starovitzky where her mother died at the age of forty-eight. The outbreak of World War I found Bronya back in the village, where her life was turned upside down with the arrival of Meir Pilipovetsky as a young tutor for the local Jewish children. Meir was born in 1894 in Didovshina, a small Ukrainian shtetl. A member of a Zionist youth movement, he dreamt of settling in Palestine. Meir and Bronya fell deeply in love but marriage was strongly opposed by her family because of the perceived gap in class, academic accomplishments, wealth and—especially—the two-and-a-half-year age difference. Nevertheless, they determined to marry and did so with no guests or ceremony in October 1914. Their first son, Alexander, was born in Kiev in 1915.
That year, on the way to a dental appointment in the small town of Malin, near Zhitomir, Bronya happened to notice a large empty building. On the spur of the moment she decided to open a gymnasium (high school) for Jewish boys. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, many Jewish families had sought refuge in Ukraine, and four hundred students signed up for the first year—the first time Bronya had actually worked for a living. However, the fighting between the Red and White factions eventually reached Malin and the family had to flee back to the village. As “capitalists” (Meir had opened a factory manufacturing cloth bags for sugar), they could not return to Malin after the Bolshevik victory.
With no source of income and under the constant threat of pogroms, the young couple’s thoughts increasingly turned to Palestine, although they knew virtually nothing about the living conditions there. While taking a trainload of sugar to Odessa, Meir had met the Zionist leader Menahem Ussishkin (1863–1941), who offered him a place on the Russlan, an immigrant ship sailing to Jaffa. In July 1921, totally penniless, the young family arrived in the new town of Tel Aviv, which had been founded only twelve years earlier. Even in Starovitzky, Bronya had dreamed of establishing some sort of literary enterprise or a cultural journal, and in this young town she quickly found herself part of the emerging cultural and social milieu, together with Hayyim Nahman Bialik, David Ben-Gurion, Yizhak and Rahel Yanait Ben Zvi, Berl Katznelson, Yehoshua Rawnitzky, Eliyahu Golomb, Dov Hos, Hanna Rovina and others. In 1922, Sarah, the Pelis’ first daughter, was born.
Desperate to make her own mark, Bronya (who had by now Hebraicized her name to Bracha) contemplated several projects: opening a workers’ restaurant, establishing a people’s university, launching a literary journal for women. Eventually, she established Tel Aviv’s first lending library. Originally called Ahiever and then Moriah, the library opened its doors in August 1922 in two rented rooms on Rothschild Boulevard, with the help of a loan of thirty pounds from a local bank The first consignment of books, in Russian, Hebrew and German, was ordered from Berlin. In addition to the lending library, Moriah began to distribute books to the few bookshops in the country at the time and shortly also began to act as an importer and distribution agency for books in the sciences, agriculture and engineering.
By 1924 Moriah had become a central meeting place for Tel Aviv’s intellectual, cultural and literary community and one of the main retailers and wholesale suppliers of imported and locally published books throughout the country. The first to introduce revolutionary new sales methods such as payments in installments, Bracha Peli (the surname was changed from Pilipovetsky at the initiative of her son Alexander) opened branches in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tiberias and Petah Tikvah. In 1923, at the urging of members of the League for Protection of the Hebrew Language, Bracha organized an exhibition of Hebrew books, which eventually became the celebrated annual Hebrew Book Week, which exists to this day.
In 1929, following the Wall Street crash and its worldwide repercussions, credits and payments virtually ceased and Moriah, in common with many Palestinian companies, found itself on the brink of bankruptcy. In a desperate attempt to salvage the situation, Meir entered into a partnership dealing in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, land purchase, building and insurance, called Peless. Bracha meanwhile kept the book distribution business open while trying to dispose of the remaining book stocks. Despite the recession and the virtual cessation of publishing in the country, and despite all advice to the contrary, Bracha decided to embark upon what was to become the crown of her life’s work, the creation in September 1932 of a new Hebrew publishing house, Massadah. In her memoirs she wrote that at the back of her mind was a famous Hebrew phrase, Sheinit Mezadah lo tipol (Masada shall not fall again, a line from the epic poem “Massadah” by Yizhak Lamdan, 1899–1954).
The first book to be published was The General Encyclopedia, edited by Professor Joseph Klausner (1874–1958). Originally planned as one volume, it was eventually published in six (the final volume in 1936), with contributions by many of the leading academics of the contemporary Jewish community. The encyclopedia was sold by original selling methods, unknown in the country at the time, which subsequently became the hallmark of the company—such as countrywide door-to-door selling, sales to institutions and workers’ committees, etc. The encyclopedia continued to be sold for fifteen years, until it was voluntarily withdrawn in favor of the new Encyclopaedia Hebraica. The General Encyclopedia was followed by a number of multi-volume series, including the noted Bible with commentary by Samuel Leib Gordon (1965–1933), an encyclopedia of psychology, a history of European music and the Aviv Encyclopedia for youth (the first to be printed in color). Thus a firm basis was established for Massadah, making it, in time, one of the largest and most successful publishing houses in Palestine and subsequently in Israel.
Massadah took over several other publishers, such as Stiebel, a distinguished Hebrew publishing house established in Russia before the revolution. Peli also embarked on a series of co-publishing ventures, especially with the Bialik Institute, owned by the World Zionist Organization, which led to the publication of such monumental works as Wars of the Jews and Jewish Antiquities by Flavius Josephus, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and a series of full-color art albums—the first in the country—including volumes on Leonardo de Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo.
After World War II, a period when book publishing in Palestine came to a virtual halt, Bracha Peli launched another “first”: a book club offering a new book every month, and bonus offers of theater tickets, literary events, movies and lectures for subscribers—as well as participation in a monthly lottery for monetary prizes. All these efforts opened a window to a whole new range of Hebrew readers, eventually reaching a subscription list of over forty thousand people, when the Jewish population of the country was only about six hundred thousand.
In 1944 Meir left Peless and rejoined Massadah, taking over the distribution activities to leave Bracha free to concentrate on publishing. Meir Peli died of lung cancer in 1958. Their son, Alexander, played an increasing role in the business, moving to Jerusalem and founding Massadah Press, to publish co-editions with foreign publishers of books in English and other languages. In 1943 the Pelis’ daughter, Sarah, had married Yizhak Barash (1920–1971), the son of Asher Barash (1889–1952), a distinguished Hebrew novelist who was literary editor of Massadah. The Pelis decided to create a new and modern printing establishment, Peli Press Enterprises, which under the direction of Yizhak Barash and, after his death, his son Yoav Barash, was to become one of the leading printers and binders in the country and one of the largest in the Middle East.
After World War II Massadah embarked upon what was to become one of the most complex and ambitious publishing projects in Jewish history. Under the direction of Alexander Peli, planning began in 1946 with the preparation of the index volume for what was to become the monumental Encyclopaedia Hebraica. Originally planned to consist of sixteen volumes to be published over five years, it eventually reached thirty-eight volumes, the last of which was published in 1996. The Encyclopaedia Hebraica reached some 140,000 subscribers. The rights to the Encyclopedia were acquired in 1997 by Racheli Edelman of Schocken Publishers, who are in the process of editing it for eventual re-publication.
In 1986, at the age of ninety-four, Bracha Peli died in Tel Aviv, the city of which she had been one of the cultural and literary pillars. As she wrote in her autobiography, published two years earlier, “The bequest (of Massadah) is passed on to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
After effectively retiring from the company after her ninetieth birthday, Peli had divided Massadah’s assets into two. The Encyclopaedia Hebraica, Massadah Press and the English publishing division went to Alexander, while the Hebrew publishing division and the printing press were bequeathed to her grandson, Yoav Barash. However, the two enterprises were so closely intertwined that it became impossible to unravel them and neither side was prepared to sell to the other. As a result, all the assets of both parts were sold. Only the name Massadah was retained and under that imprint Yoav Barash continues to publish some five to eight books a year, mostly of an academic nature in various spheres of education.
Hayyim shel Bracha (“A Life of Bracha” or “of Blessing”—the title is a Hebrew pun). Tel Aviv: 1984.