Jay Saper calls his company Pashkevil Press, after the Yiddish word for a poster stuck on the walls in Orthodox communities of the past and still visible most often in Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods.
AAt 30, Jay Saper of East Lansing is an old soul. Through his art, writing and teaching, he keeps alive the beliefs and histories of progressive social / political activists, including some of his family, who came before him by generations.
We met at “Freedom of the Press”, an exhibition of printmakers at Eastern Market in early October. He sat patiently at his table, waiting for passers-by to stop to ask him questions about his work. I was curious. I saw Hebrew letters on notes. I saw an eye-catching typographic poster with a well-known statement from Pirke Avot on working to create a better world, with the word “organize”, a more modern reference to unions, subtly hidden in the background.
All of his posters are printed on traditional letterpress, using hand-crafted wood type. He calls his company Pashkevil Press, after the Yiddish word for a poster pasted on the walls in Orthodox communities of the past and still visible most often in Hasidic Jewish quarters. These posters can express political commentary aimed at those in power, convey other strong opinions or announce basic information about funerals and more.
“I honor this vibrant Jewish print culture by creating prints that engage Jewish history and texts, as well as support for social movements,” Saper said.
Yiddish is a big part of its connection to past generations. He not only learned Yiddish to keep this Old World language alive, but he also teaches it. Currently he is translating a book of Yiddish poetry by Holocaust survivor Rikle Glezer, “who jumped from the Vilna ghetto train bound for death in Ponar to take pen and gun against the fascists, recounting her life partisan through poetry ”. he says. This work, with Corbin Allardice, is supported by a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellowship in Amherst, Massachusetts.
“I am very interested in connecting with my Jewishness by adopting Yiddish, my grandmother’s mother tongue,” Saper said. “His life was in Yiddish. I haven’t heard it myself. When she passed away a few years ago, I didn’t want her to be the last in my family to speak Yiddish.
He has participated in summer programs in Yiddish in Warsaw, London and Weimar, Germany. He taught the language online during the pandemic and will soon be teaching an online course at Middlebury College, the liberal arts school in Vermont where he studied sociology.
Art is also part of his career. As the son of Nell Kuhnmuench and Roy Saper, founder and owner of the much loved Saper Galleries in East Lansing for over 40 years, he grew up around art. The gallery features many Jewish artists, including some from Israel. Since the start of the pandemic, Saper has returned to his family home, where he has set up a studio. He grew up attending Shaarey Zedek, a Reformed synagogue in East Lansing.
As I spoke to Saper, his old soul first came to light in two stories involving members of his family. Her aunt Jeri Saper grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where her synagogue and her rabbi’s home were bombed because the congregation held the first interracial service when they visited Freedom Horsemen who had been imprisoned.
“My aunt was part of the public school integration in Jackson and continued to do what was right even in the face of the violence,” Saper said. “It’s incredibly inspiring. I’m interested in what solidarity has meant historically and how we can build it today and come together with other communities with other experiences to build a better world. These stories have a lot to contribute to our present – looking back to see how to navigate the future. “
Another family story influences an art series he is working on Henry Ford. “There is a bigger story about growing up here and still being surrounded by Ford and his heritage, even though Michigan’s Jewish community has a different story. [about his antisemitism]”Saper says.” I want to create things that continue to engage those things that are protected. ”
He says that when Ford was agitated by unionized workers in Detroit, the automaker began sending parts for manufacture to various small towns. One was Manchester, Michigan, where his great-uncle stood up to Ford in those early years. This great-uncle, along with the only Jewish family in town, refused to sell his screw factory to Ford. Ford built a factory there and eventually, Saper says, the city library was built on the site of his great-uncle’s factory, with no mention of the Jewish affairs there. Saper aims to keep this heritage alive through his art.
New York years
After college, Saper studied progressive childhood education at Bank Street College in Manhattan. This was followed by teaching children from various progressive schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as involvement in organizing and political projects. He joined Park Slope Kolot Chayeinu, a progressive Jewish community.
“In addition to my job as a letterpress printer, I am also a paper cutting artist,” he says. “I created paper cutouts, a traditional Jewish folk art, to honor the remarkable and ignored stories of Jewish women resisting the Nazis. My work was published under the title “Fighting Fascists with Folk Art” in Cindy Milstein’s book There is nothing more complete than a broken heart: mending the world as Jewish anarchists (AK Press 2021). “
Another papercut project combined several of his interests. He wrote a fanzine called Radical village, a story of the Little Red Schoolhouse and Elizabeth Irwin High School (LREI) founded in 1921 in Greenwich Village, the families associated with it, and its connections to social movements over the past century. He became interested in the history of the school before working there and was drawn to its Jewish beginnings.
“LREI was a hotbed of Jewish radicalism,” he says. “The school’s first students were Yiddish-speaking immigrants from the Lower East Side. The school has served as a safe haven for politically active Jewish teachers and families who have faced state repression and violence. The school was a cultural center for experimental and progressive Jewish artists.
While digging into the history of the school, he decided to create a walking tour of Greenwich Village that highlighted some of the school’s famous students (Angela Davis, Julius’ children and Ethel Rosenberg and more), school supporters and events to school history. The zine, with its cut-out papers, has become a companion on the tour.
Now that he’s back in East Lansing, he’s restoring his traditional typography and creating wood type, teaching online, embracing Jewish cultural artistic traditions and doing his part to keep the spirit of progressive social activism so prevalent alive. in the generations of Jews before him.