For writers looking to get their work out, the choices can seem stark: either try to get published by one of the “big four” (e.g. Harper Collins or Penguin Random House), or self-publish, with little chance of respect or support.
That may seem a bit reductive — there are many small presses publishing books of a very high quality. But it’s also fair to say that the middle ground has shrunk.
The good news is that three trends seem to be happening simultaneously: first, that artists and writers are taking matters into their own hands by designing, publishing, and distributing new works. Second, new presses are democratizing the publishing process and taking creative risks. And third, we’re seeing an expansion in the idea of the book — it can be a deck of cards, or an online collection of essays, or a traditional print object with a digital component, like the soundscape accompanying a Tu B’Shevat poster, or a mixed tape, available on both cassette and Soundcloud, accompanying a printed zine.
For CANVAS Compendium readers, what’s also fascinating to note is how many of these new iterations are by Jewish creators on Jewish themes.
Ayin Press: An Artist-Run Shuk
One of the most exciting new organizations is Ayin Press, founded in 2019 by two artists and Asylum Arts alumni, Eden Pearlstein and Tom Haviv.
Ayin was started foremost out of their love for physical books. In an algorithm-driven world, Eden said that he finds “holding a book in my hands to be re-grounding…the multi-sensory experience of the book registers in the body, from the spine cracking to the smell of the pages.” Their books, like In/Flux, reflect this commitment with thoughtful design and the interplay between art and text throughout the pages.
They also saw a missing piece in the Jewish publishing landscape. While the online space abounds with journalism on Jewish topics, they saw a need for a different sensibility, one deeply rooted in Jewish text, identity, history, or experience that also appeals to secular or non-Jewish readers.
Clearly there’s an audience for their catalog, which includes a children’s book and a full-color catalogue from a multimedia art show at Brooklyn’s Ortega y Gasset. They’ve already sold out of the first book in their Speculative Theology series, Rabbi Jill Hammer’s, Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreams. (Undertorah’s February 27 launch celebration will include other artists and musicians.)
Eden explained that in addition to print books, “we wanted to create an online platform that was more like a virtual gallery of works.” The inaugural issue of Tardema, Ayin’s online journal, features luminous poems by Yosefa Raz, an Israeli; works by multi-disciplinary artist Canupa Hanska Luger, a New Mexico resident; and two songs from the Constellation Chor.
Ayin Press is thus an “artist-run publishing platform, production studio, and research collective rooted in Jewish culture and emanating outward,” with more than 60 contributors across its annual journal, book projects, and two new online initiatives, Folio and Columns.
Their three pillars — Speculative Theology, Radical Aesthetics, and Political Imagination — are meant to weave together creators and audiences who may otherwise be disconnected from each other. Eden said, “A lot of what we do as publishers is to provide raw materials and open spaces within which conversations can occur, more like a swap meet or a shuk than a megastore.”
Anne Germanacos’s Firehouse Press: “The group is the book.”
That same sense of community and sacred creativity is what inspires Anne Germanacos, a Bay Area-based artist and writer.
Germanacos has published her short stories in literary magazines and her books with respected small presses like BOA Editions Ltd and Rescue Press. After reaching the point where she was no longer looking for some kind of acceptance, she realized she was free to do whatever she wanted, both artistically and increasingly as a funder. (Germanacos is the main funder of LABA East Bay. LABA is also a CANVAS grantee.)
One of her more inventive projects is MergEmerge, a “book” of small square cards that readers can “play” to create new work, by arranging the images and sentences of each card into a longer sequence.
Her book Not Upon You: An Experiment in Collaboration was born out her 2015 stint as artist in residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts. She began to create a “written, collaborative bridge between funder and fundee,” soliciting random sentences and images from people whose work she admires and supports through her Firehouse Fund. Sixty-eight people’s contributions are represented in Not Upon You, and the result is a fascinating collage that leaps between ideas about art-making, partnership, support, and more.
In that same vein of partnership, Germanacos has been gathering several groups of people, one of which met previously in person at San Francisco’s shul-without-walls, The Kitchen, and now online. The groups are a mix of educators, writers, filmmakers, rabbis, doctors, psychologists, activists, artists of all kinds, and students from all over the world, with Germanacos providing prompts.
“Each group is in and of itself a kind of book,” Germanacos said, “and these groups are my most cherished books.” She’s compiling writing from these gatherings into books she will soon publish through her own Firehouse Press.
Firehouse Press typically does print runs of several hundred books, which are available through Small Press Distribution (SPD).
Danielle Freiman: The Intimacy and Immediacy of Zines
Danielle Freiman, another Asylum Arts alum, is no stranger to the “swap meet” feel of DIY publishing. She makes zines—handmade, self-published magazines—from her apartment in San Francisco.
The format has had a strong underground following for decades due to the ease of making, transporting, mailing, and trading. Freiman herself was first drawn to zines over a decade ago due to their intimacy and tangibility.
“I felt like we were sharing secrets with each other, and I wanted to be a part of that,” Freiman said.
Her own first zine was Good Habits, created in 2015 — a small collection of photography, screenshots, some writing, and her grandma’s biscotti recipe.
Soon, Freiman brought more intimacy to her work, writing about crucial topics like anxiety, depression, and chronic pain with her one-sheet zine, Pocket Panic. The zine has six volumes, from “Grounding Yourself” to “Quarantine Snacks”. This is a completely solo operation, with Danielle making, folding, and mailing out the zines on nights and weekends.
Making zines isn’t always a solo endeavor. This past July, Danielle felt a need for “spaciousness,” so she put out a call for submissions on that theme. With this zine, Actual Favorite Meadow, she wanted to make a “tangible, comfortable object” that readers could return to, likening it to the Jewish concept of gathering the four corners of the tallit: “It felt very sacred to be able to get everyone in one place and to meditate on spaciousness together.”
Actual Favorite Meadow features work from nearly 30 artists. It’s a beautiful, full-color object with writing, photos, and illustrations, curated and hand-bound by Freiman. You can also purchase an accompanying cassette featuring field recordings, sound compositions, and original songs by 11 artists.
Although Actual Favorite Meadow has a limited print run—40 zines and 30 tapes total—her other zines reach far and wide. Her shop Small Supply carries the buttons, manifestos, and other print objects she publishes, and now she sells Pocket Panic wholesale through Faire, which means that thousands of copies are available in boutiques, bookstores, and online shops around the world.
Freiman’s zines are lovingly hand-crafted objects that convey a sense of intimacy and spontaneity, which explains how these seemingly modest booklets create a sense of community.
“Things like anxiety and depression and chronic pain can be very isolating,” Freiberg says. “To see someone sharing their story does make it feel less isolating.”
The Jewish Zine Archive
Chava Shapiro is another Jewish creative inspired by zines—in fact, zines brought them back to Judaism.
Shapiro “fell out of love with Judaism” with a bat mitzvah, and later in love with zines through punk music and anarchy, which both have rich subcultures of zine making. Now, many years later, Shapiro is bringing Judaism and zines into conversation with each other.
Making connections and creating new work is at the heart of Shapiro’s work with the Jewish Zine Archive (JZA), which they started in 2019.
“I wanted to explore zines as a Jewish ritual object,” Shapiro said. “As part of my curatorial work at the Jewish History Museum in Tucson, I came into contact with other Jewish zine makers and thought, wouldn’t it be so great if there was a publicly accessible collection of Jewish zines?”
Another one-person operation, the JZA is a physical and digital collection of about 120 zines (like this one) housed in the Blacklidge Community Collective in Tucson, an experimental autonomous community center that is home to other archival-based projects, as well as mutual aid and harm-reduction groups.
Shapiro explained, “The best way to combat antisemitism is to lean into solidarity and movement-building. I wanted the archive to be in a place where a lot of other people meet.”
In addition to preserving the archival art and writing captured in zines that often can’t be found online, the JZA supports the present-day creation of new Jewish zines through workshops. When Shapiro’s meme, “Haggadot are the original Jewish zines” took off last year, it spurred a partnership with Lilith Magazine to host a Passover-related zine-making workshop, which will happen again this year.
With all these initiatives and a lively Instagram presence, the JZA is part of the renaissance of Jewish artists, creators, and writers not only taking publishing into their own hands, but also the archival and documentation processes.
Taken together, these artists, archivists, writers, and publishers are adding to the conversation about Jewish arts and culture in imaginative ways. At the same time, they’re creating a healthy expansion of our conceptions of books themselves—a trend both deeply encouraging and deeply Jewish.