The Typewriter Mystery

This month’s entry is brought to you by Rick Garber, a volunteer at the Ottawa Jewish Archives.

It was a dark and stormy night… Well, not quite – a sunny afternoon in the Ottawa Jewish Archives – but mystery was in the air… My name is Rick Garber – technically Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Garber, CD (Retired).  I am a veteran of the Canadian Army, and from Canada’s Public Service, from which I retired a year and a bit ago.  My government service began in the Intelligence Community – where every day, every intercepted message held the promise of a new mystery to be solved, a spy to be unearthed, a terrorist plot to be foiled.  OK, somewhat hyperbolic – but I did enjoy the challenges of solving problems.

The transition from 80 hour work weeks as an executive has left me with a bit of time on my hands – time quickly being filled with volunteering stints at the Canadian War Museum, the Brockville Rifles Regimental Museum, various committees at my shul and the Archives in Ottawa’s wonderful Jewish Community Centre.

It is here in the JCC that my latest mystery has emerged.  Sitting in front of a computer monitor in the JCC is not so different from that in my previous government offices – the best part of the “job” being the interactions with wonderful colleagues.  What IS different is the eclectic surroundings of an archive – not quite a museum – but filled with knickknacks, Judaica and Hebraica.

Perched above my corner of the Archives is a typewriter.  Yes, I’m old enough to not only recognize one but to have used several – my first being a cumbersome beast that I lugged into the field as a young soldier – picture Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly from the magnificent TV series M*A*S*H. That was me. Manual typewriter, boxes of paper, carbon paper (ever wonder where CC on your emails came from?) and in my case, gallons of liquid paper to correct my mistakes…

Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I took a look at the this little old Remington typewriter to see if it was similar to the one I learned to type on back in Cote St. Luc, Quebec . It definitely is NOT! For the first time I was face-to-face with a Hebrew typewriter. Or was I? The Yiddish language was once so vibrant – the Lingua Franca, as it were, of Jews around the world – of Sholem Aleichem, of Isaac Bashevis Singer, of my grandparents…

Hence the mystery – how to determine if this is a Hebrew or a Yiddish typewriter – is there even such a thing as a “Yiddish” Typewriter? Here my Intelligence background failed me, as did my multiple degrees in Military History. I was out of my element, but surrounded by the full range of research tools available in a modern library and archives I did what all the cool kids do and turned to Google.

And in a flash, Google saved the day.  Amongst the early hits to my search was a blog written by a professional translator, Dr. Nick Block, https://translations.nickblockphd.com/blog/culture/history-yiddish-typewriter.html/nggallery/page/1 .  Thanks to Nick, all has been revealed! Yes, the Yiddish typewriter is indeed distinct from Hebrew versions, with a different history, and a slightly different keyboard design.  Nick’s excellent blog is a joy to read.  He methodically shares his years of research on this issue and provides insight into differentiating the two, similar families of typewriters.

So, the answer to the question you have all been waiting for… what is the machine sitting in Ottawa’s JCC Archives?  A Yiddish typewriter!  But how do we know?  We follow Dr. Block’s hints to look at tell-tales in the keyboard layout – double vowels being the giveaway!


A bit of further snooping identified a database showing the dates of Remington typewriters, derived from their serial numbers, but unfortunately the precise serial number of this typewriter isn’t there –just an age range of the early 1940’s. https://typewriterdatabase.com/remington.42.typewriter-serial-number-database is helpful – but not perfect.  More research may someday yield additional evidence – maybe even where the machine was sold and to whom… So, your intrepid amateur archivist – with the help of Google and a number of other bloggers – has solved the mystery. The wonderful old typewriter hidden in Ottawa’s JCC was built to produce Yiddish text sometime around 80 years ago contemporaneous with the  formation of the State of Israel and its decision that Hebrew not Yiddish would become the common language of the Jewish peoples: as Wikipedia – a reasonable initial source for the general researcher puts it: “After the founding of the State of Israel, a massive wave of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries arrived. In short order, these Mizrahi Jews and their descendants would account for nearly half the Jewish population. While all were at least familiar with Hebrew as a liturgical language, essentially none had any contact with or affinity for Yiddish (some, of Sephardic origin, spoke Judaeo-Spanish, others various Judeo-Arabic languages). Thus, Hebrew emerged as the dominant linguistic common denominator between the different population groups.”

Thus, Hebrew overtook Yiddish within a couple of decades of the computer overtaking the typewriter – making the death knell for the production of the Remington Deluxe Model 5 Yiddish typewriter –now gathering dust in a corner of the Ottawa JCC – a device whose time has come and gone – but based on the web pages and blogs I read – is not quite forgotten…

Should this blog have spurred your curiosity, there is more to be found on the web, including a fascinating January 2019 podcast from the Amherst Massachusetts-based Yiddish Book Center:  https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/language-literature-culture/the-shmooze/208-shraybmashin-brigade-search-yiddish-typewriters .

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