David Zvi and Josh’s excellent bentscher adventure

David Zvi and Josh’s excellent bentscher adventure

How two friends came to craft Seder Oneg Shabbos, a book of Grace and beauty

David Zvi Kalman, left, Joshua Schwartz, and friends created the new bentsher.

Much of our aesthetic today is reflected in Apple.

It’s clean, sleek, and spare. It understands the elegance of white space and the rapture of restraint. It implies but does not promise. It does not hector, it does not natter at us.

It is cool, and it also is cold.

So maybe you’re finishing Shabbat dinner. It’s winter outside but warm in the dining room, full of family and friends and wine and challah and chocolate and song. Or maybe it’s a wedding of good friends, and you’ve eaten well if not wisely, and danced every calorie away.

It’s time to bentsh, to say the Birchat Hamazon – the long blessings after a meal that observant Jews often say to themselves quickly after ordinary meals but might sing loudly together at the end of more festive ones.

It’s time to bring out the bentsher. That’s usually a small book, often more really a booklet, that contains the Birchat as well as Shabbat songs. It often also includes the seven blessings that are said at a wedding, both under the chuppah and during the blessing after the meal, and then during the rest of the couple’s first week of marriage. When it is used at weddings and bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, it often has a personalized cover on top of the standard interior.

There are many worthy versions available, but none felt right to friends David Zvi Kalman and Joshua Schwartz. So they devised their own, with their own translations, transliterations, design, and typography.

The new bentsher, “Seder Oneg Shabbos,” is many things, but sleek is not among them. It is, instead, overstuffed, full of life, full of joy, full of the unexpected, full of the inexplicable. It is aimed at the whole Jewish community, both the Orthodox and the liberal. Its translations are an unusual mix of the nearly archaic and the gender-neutral, but the archaic is not stilted but instead stuffed full of words; and gender neutrality is reached by using noun after noun, word after word, instead of the he/she business that makes its point but leaves the heart cold.

“We are making something that matches what you eat on Shabbos,” Josh said. “It is warm, dribbly, and full of stuff. It is very Jewish. It is words rubbing against words, images finding themselves next to images that they never would have thought they’d find themselves near.

“There is the delight and the pleasure – the beating heart of any Shabbos.”

So that is a lot of possibly overheated rhetoric. What is this bentsher?

Both Josh and David Zvi are graduate students – Josh is working toward a doctorate in Jewish mysticism at NYU and David Zvi in Jewish law, Islamic law, and the relationship between religious law and technology at the University of Pennsylvania.

When David Zvi got married, he had to use a bentsher that was adequate but no more. When Josh was engaged, they decided to work together to create one they liked better. They worked with three other people – Sarah Wolf and Yocheved and Yudis Retig. (Sarah had been Josh’s fiancée; they did not get married but they remain colleagues.) Between them, they knew Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, art, design, and layout. “The bench ran deep, with a lot of knowledge and passion,” Josh said.

Josh and David Zvi researched the history of bentshers. “They are very old,” David Zvi said. “They have been made for half a millennium; the first one was printed in 1514,” less than a century after Gutenberg invented the printing press. “A lot of them were commissioned, and hand-made,” he continued. “But they have become less beautiful in the last 100 years.

“Weddings were the worst thing that happened to bentshers. Mass production and the need to be competitive on price meant that they became a staple, figuratively and literally.

“The covers often are nice, but often the inside has been neglected.” The paper often is flimsy, the type tends to blur, and there are few images. “They cram in as much text as they can.” There is a good reason for that – it is good to make them affordable – what they make up in affordability they lose in beauty.

“Seder Oneg Shabbos” is larger than the average bentsher. The paper is parchment-colored and thick, with ragged edges. The print is sharp and clear.

“We both come from the academy, so for both of us our instinct is to construct the bentsher using the same guiding principles that we use for our research. That meant doing research about historical books and designs and historical typefaces.” The bentsher has many typefaces, all jumbled up together, in a way that breaks all the modern rules but works here. The fonts are based on old ones. The name of the company that Josh and David Zvi formed to produce and sell the bentshers itself is an old one. “My father used to make bentshers for weddings,” David Zvi said. “The name of his company – and our company – is Print-O-Craft.”

The translations were done in the same spirit. “It’s chock-full,” Josh said. “It is the vocal rhythm, the verbal ebullience, that is in the design as well. ”

Some examples.

The cover is all text, shaped like a wine glass; the type is the deep red of wine. In prose that borrows old-fashioned typographical conventions – almost every noun begins with a capital letter – it lays out the book’s function: it is “all for the purpose of inspiring Joy, Gladness, and other Pleasant Feelings, as if befitting a Celebration with our holy Shabbos Queen.”

“We wanted something heimische,” David Zvi said. “We wanted something that felt warm and welcoming and traditional and that really played out in terms of the design.

“Older Jewish books are like cholent. They are chock-full of all these little details, things to take real pleasure in.”

Some of the images are unex­pected. The front page of the seder Havdalah – the ritual that marks the end of Shabbat – shows Sir John Tenniel’s white rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (The image is safely in the public domain.) As he did so often, the harried rabbit is looking at his watch.

The gentle jokes in this image are multilayered. First, there is the obvious one. Time matters. Shabbat may be a palace in time, but just like a building has walls, Shabbat has boundaries. Soon it will be over, and the real world will begin again.

Beyond that, there is the joke that it is traditional to use images of hares at this point in a bentsher. It comes from the order in which the elements of havdalah are used. The pneumonic device for that order, in Yiddish, sounds very much like the German words that mean “hunt the hare.” That’s why “there is a long tradition of images of rabbits and rabbit hunting there,” David Zvi said. “It is a very old pun.

“Not everything is apparent, and certainly it is not apparent right away,” he continued. “There are secrets in the bentsher that you really have to figure out.

“Books are technology,” he continued. “A very old one.” Just as computer technology has so-called Easter eggs – a hidden delight that you stumble on but cannot find on purpose (there are more technical definitions for that, but this one will have to do here) – so too does “Seder Oneg Shabbat” have its own hidden delights, little jokes that will catch you unaware and make you giggle.

Josh and David Zvi wanted the language to be clear and powerful rather than genteel. Psalm 137, the well-known “By the waters of Babylon,” is said before Birchat on weekdays. Often the line that describes what the Edomites said as they pillaged Jerusalem is translated as “they destroyed it until the foundation was revealed.” In “Seder Oneg Shabbos,” “We translated it instead as ‘BURN, BURN IT TO THE GROUND.'” It’s not a direct translation, Josh said, but “it’s not that much of a stretch. It is a kind of phrasing and locution that grabs you. What was motivating us was making prayer language evocative.”

Those words are set in upper-case letters in the bentsher as they are here. “It was a great moment, when David Zvi was typesetting, and he set that line in caps,” Josh, who did the translation, said. “It was like ‘You get it!’

“It should seem like you are calling out to God, and God is calling out to you,” he continued. “It should be immediate. I find that a lot of English prayer is descriptive in a way that removes me from the prayer.”

The bentsher is LGBT-friendly. “Otherwise, it’s like some people are left outside, watching a warmly lit Shabbat meal,” David Zvi said.

Both Josh and David Zvi are deeply committed Jews. Josh and his wife are shlichim for Mechon Hadar, the egalitarian yeshiva in Manhattan; they use that term, with its echoes of Chabad, purposely. David Zvi also has been a student at Hadar. “If you were to meet us in person, what you see are two bearded Jewish men, who wear tzitzit,” Josh said. Both have been involved with both the Orthodox and the Conservative worlds – they met as staffers at Camp Ramah – but neither will define himself as belonging to any one world, except the egalitarian one.

“When I was in high school, I remember thinking that I wanted to be someone with the critical acumen of a Jewish Theological Seminary student, the passion for justice of Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Reform movement, and the sacred love for all of Israel that Carlebach had,” Josh said. “I identify as radical, and I want a fully committed, fully compelling relationship with tradition and with my principles.

“I believe in the radical embrace of tradition and in commitment to the ethical principle of egalitarianism.”

All of that was funneled into “Seder Oneg Shabbos.” Along with everything else, “I wanted a bentsher with the mystical in it,” he said.

What will the two do next? “It’s a good question,” Josh said. They put a blurb on Print-O-Craft’s website, shabb.es (yes, read it and groan), asking for manuscripts. As a result, “it looks like we will be a publishing company,” Josh said.

“This is not a good time for publishers, or for Jewish organizations in general, but we are doing this as a small side thing, and there is a niche for religious texts that also are beautiful. There really aren’t a lot of avenues for that.”

The two are among the founders of Open Quorum, a website (www.openquorum.org) that describes itself as “a platform creating, curating, and promoting Jewish ideas and creative expression, primarily by means of online audio production.”

They think that there is a real market for their work; they want to make at least some money from it, although they resist the idea of being market-driven. They believe that Jews are hungry for beauty; they would love to “make Jewish things for people to love.”

“In a way, the fact that this is for-profit is a helpful motivation,” David Zvi said. “We are making a product that people actually want to buy. It’s not because they are taking pity on us, but because they like it.

“It is a helpful way of operating a Jewish venture.”

“There a lot of ways in which non-Orthodox organizations are based on compulsion and guilt,” Josh said. “You know – ‘We have invested so much in you – and you never call! You never write!’

“But that’s not the way to organize a community of love. A community not just of consumers but of producers, of people who want to show up in a minyan and make a Jewish family, or just have their own relationship with the Kodesh Boruch Hu. As a passionate, engaged, somewhat quasi-professional Jew, I want to make sure that I am not just shadowboxing, but responding to a need.

“We are trying to meet that need. We have put a lot of energy and care into this because we care about it. It’s for ahavat hazibur” – love for the community – “that we are investing in this product. We are not giving up on the future.”

Representative pages from “Seder Oneg Shabbos.”
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