Alex Isley doesn’t speak or read Yiddish, and his colleagues at his design studio don’t either. That didn’t stop them from creating an identity that speaks volumes for the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass. — an identity showcased in a poster for Yidstock, a festival of new Yiddish and klezmer music now under way.
The poster, screen printed in four colors, is on Mohawk Superfine 130 lb Double Thick Ultra White Cover eggshell. Produced in a limited edition of 50 by Cordes Printing, it’s “an obvious nod to the original Woodstock poster, of course,” says Isley, “but incorporating the new identity that includes a goat.”
Why a goat? The klor vays tsigele — “small white goat” — is a familiar from Jewish folklore, art and literature. Marc Chagall’s paintings often feature goats, they’re present in Yiddish lullabies, and they appear in poems and stories by countless Yiddish writers. According to the Yiddish Book Center, Jews lived with goats and celebrated them: “Even the poorest shtetl family kept a goat to provide milk for the children.”
Australian artist Petra Pinn drew the goat for the logo. Isley says he based the Yiddish lettering on a hand-drawn example by El Lissitzky for the 1919 edition of a children’s book, Had gadya (The Only Kid), below, an illustrated version of a popular Passover song.
Isley’s enthusiasm for the books he’s found at the center is obvious. He describes it as “a treasure trove of more than a million early 20th-century Eastern European books and magazines. For any one who likes this type of design and illustration, it’s truly a headspinning collection — I went to the archives and plucked out a random book and the illustrations happened to be by Chagall.
“This is such an interesting assignment. I don’t know anything about Yiddish, just the list of words that Tibor [Kalman, of the legendary design studio M&Co] made for me when I first started working for him. I wish I still had that piece of paper. But I know better than to try to work them into conversation — sort of like using slang with your kids to seem more with it. You only succeed in sounding foolish.”
Isley is, however, quick to credit staff at the center for their patience in assisting with lettering, visualization and translating various aspects of the project. “I’m gaining confidence,” he says.
Listen to an audio interview with Isley about developing the Yiddish Book Center logo here.
Alexander Isley heads a firm that provides identity and communication design for ”education, entertainment and enterprise.” He serves on the advisory board of AIGA Connecticut and is past president of AIGA New York. He has been a critic and lecturer at the Yale School of Art since 1996 and is a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale. His work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Modern Art.
To learn about Isley’s redesign of the center’s magazine PaknTreger, read Steven Heller’s article here.
The Yiddish Book Center opened in 1980 and moved to its present location at Hampshire College in 1997. It includes a visitors center, exhibit spaces and exhibition areas. The center has helped establish Yiddish collections at more than 600 libraries, including Harvard, Yale, the Library of Congress, the British Library, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and national libraries in Australia, China, Japan and other countries.