NEW YORK, June 14 (JTA) — An untimely death led to the creation of one of the world’s most prolific Jewish publishing houses.
In 1976, a friend of Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, then the director of a graphic arts studio in New York, passed away in his sleep a few months before Purim.
Zlotowitz, his colleague Rabbi Nosson Scherman says, “wanted to do something meaningful in his memory — something more meaningful than planting a tree or putting up a plaque.”
With Scherman’s help, Zlotowitz published an edition of the Book of Esther, along with commentary.
“Both of us had our own separate careers and thought it was a one-shot thing,” says Scherman, then the principal of a Brooklyn yeshiva.
They were wrong. The book’s first edition sold out its 20,000 copies — which was “unprecedented in Jewish publishing,” the affable, bearded Scherman says.
The story of Purim was just the beginning. In its 25 years, Artscroll, as their partnership was named, has published more than 700 books.
Artscroll’s headquarters take up almost a complete block in a warehouse district of Brooklyn.
On a recent gray day, small placards advertising phone sex swirled in the air. Inside the building, some of Artscroll’s 45 employees were binding sacred Jewish texts.
Artscroll has published books on a wide variety of topics, beginning with Songs of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Ruth, and moving on to the Torah, Prophets and numerous Passover Haggadahs.
It’s currently in the midst of its largest project yet: publication of the entire Talmud. About three quarters — or 56 volumes — of the 73-volume Schottenstein Talmud in English translation have been published, along with 16 of the Hebrew volumes.
More than 70 scholars in the United States and Israel are working on the Talmud series alone.
The books’ main customers are Orthodox Jews, but Artscroll texts reach a wide audience. Most sales are conducted through Jewish bookstores, Scherman says.
Some 300,000 copies of Artscroll’s Stone edition of the Chumash are in circulation; its siddurim, or prayer books, have sold more than 800,000 copies.
“You go on a plane and you see people who don’t exactly look Orthodox, and they’re reading the Schottenstein Talmud,” says Scherman, who is Artscroll’s general editor.
What accounts for the imprint’s success?
Up-to-date graphics — most of them computer-generated — get some of the credit. Artscroll books are known by the distinctive lettering on their covers.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. People do judge a book by its cover,” Scherman says. “If the contents of a book aren’t good, then the most beautiful presentation won’t sell it. But the outward appearance of a book does help sell it.”
Timing is another reason. Artscroll’s rise coincided with a well-documented thirst for Jewish knowledge among both religious and less observant Jews.
With their concise translations and insightful commentary, the Artscroll editions give a wide audience easier entree into dense, complicated texts.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Artscroll’s English version of the Daf Yomi — or daily page — a seven-year method of studying the entire Talmud that has gained in popularity in recent years.
Publishing many of its books in English helped Artscroll appeal to a younger generation of yeshiva students, “people who have gone to yeshiva, who could read Hebrew but whose native tongue was in English,” Scherman says. “For the first time, people had parts of the Bible they could curl up with and feel comfortable with.”
Artscroll would not have been able to print its books were it not for the nonprofit Mesorah Heritage Foundation, which raises the money and pays for the labor-intensive scholarship, Scherman says.
With the help of this fund-raising, Artscroll has expanded in recent years to publish books about spirituality — including some by leading Jewish self-help author Rabbi Abraham Twerski — and novels.
Recent Artscroll novels include “The Judge” — about a Baltimore criminal who stalks the family of an Orthodox judge who sent him to prison — and “The Mission,” a cloak-and-dagger story about an American Jew who gets involved with the KGB in Moscow while trying to locate a lost set of tefillin, or phylacteries.
The company also is publishing textbooks in English about secular subjects for use in both Jewish and secular schools, hoping to counter books that employ gender-neutral language or present gay and lesbian lifestyles in positive ways, Scherman says.
But strictly religious texts remain the firm’s bread and butter. They’re also where Artscroll has generated the most controversy.
Some Jewish academics say Artscroll’s yeshiva-trained scholars are not aware of some linguistic nuances — and, more importantly, reject more modern interpretations that do not square with their fervently Orthodox orientation.
B. Barry Levy, the dean of the religious studies faculty at McGill University in Montreal, says that not only are major non-Orthodox scholars such as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel excluded from Artscroll texts, but leading modern Orthodox thinkers — such as Nechama Leibowitz, a biblical scholar — are left out as well.
“Despite their claims to be presenting the tradition, what they’re presenting is very skewed,” says Levy, who received his rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy.
Levy adds that Artscroll’s Talmud volumes are better than the publisher’s biblical texts, because yeshiva learning focuses more on Talmud.
Another leading Orthodox scholar, who asked not to be named, says Artscroll refuses to publish any negative comments about any Jewish figures, preferring to create hagiography rather than history.
Artscroll’s Scherman is unapologetic about his publishing house’s point of view.
“We present the Torah and Scripture as they were traditionally studied over the past 2,000 years in the academies of Europe, the Middle East and the United States,” he says. “We make no bones about it.”
There’s nothing wrong with presenting a particular, “traditional” interpretation of Jewish texts, says David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs of Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox group.
The reliance on fervently Orthodox interpretations gives “their series some coherence. You know exactly where they’re coming from. They don’t hide or pretend that they’re presenting anything but a traditional body of work — and that these are their sources,” Zwiebel says.
The Artscroll texts have “opened the eyes of so many of their Jewish brothers and sisters that there is a remarkable body of learning and scholarship that has emerged from the traditional body of Jewish learning,” Zwiebel adds.
Despite the controversy — which reflects an increasingly vituperative schism between modern Orthodox and fervently Orthodox Judaism — even Levy grants that Artscroll has been successful in its mission. Many of his McGill students, he says, walk into class carrying Artscroll texts.
“When historians look back to the latter part of the 1990s and trace what has become an extraordinary explosion of Jewish learning in the Orthodox community and beyond, a lot of that has been attributable to Artscroll,” Zwiebel says.
That success has surprised Scherman.
Asked how he would have reacted 25 years ago to a prediction that Artscroll would be so successful, he replies, “I have a sense of humor. I would have said that that was very funny.”