Feminists Object, But ArtScroll Rolls On


Walking into a room where the women’s prayer group meets at the Ramaz School, a board member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance saw about a dozen copies of “Ohel Sarah: Women’s Siddur,” by the ArtScroll imprint of Mesorah Publications.

She knew a review in last winter’s JOFA Journal said the prayerbook emphasizes the least women must do to fulfill their obligation to pray, and discourages them from doing more. According to “Ohel Sarah,” women should not lead communal prayer after meals, even if no men are present, and should not say Kaddish. Part of weekday prayer said with a minyan is omitted, suggesting that women are expected never to pray in community during the week.

“This is not the approach that we want for young women, or schools, and it has become a big bat mitzvah gift,” said Robin Bodner, JOFA’s executive director. “We’re very concerned about the approach which doesn’t take into account women’s spirituality. There’s a belittling of women’s tefillah (prayer).”

The organization last month re-circulated to its 5,500 members its review with “Warning: ArtScroll Women’s Siddur” in the email’s subject line. It also sent the review to the heads of Modern Orthodox schools. “While Art Scroll’s Women’s Siddur at first glance seems like a great gift idea, JOFA has unfortunately come to the conclusion that this siddur is inappropriate for a modern Orthodox institution or one that sees its role as encouraging women’s participation in prayer,” it said. The warning hasn’t impacted sales of the siddur, said Rabbi Nosson Scherman, ArtScroll’s general editor.

“There’s no point in responding” to the JOFA critique, he said. “They’re entitled to their opinion and obviously we disagree.”

ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications was founded by Rabbi Scherman and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz 31 years ago, when they put out a nicely produced Book of Esther just before Purim and 20,000 copies sold in two months. Located in an industrial section of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, ArtScroll is best known for its handsome, easy to read and instructional prayer books, Chumashim and volumes of the Talmud. All have become the standard in nearly every Orthodox synagogue and school in America.

Text Or Ideology?

Love them or loathe them, it seems that everyone familiar with ArtScroll’s religious books has strong opinions about them. In religious journals and on blogs, the women’s siddur, like many ArtScroll books, has been much discussed.

This blog entry, from a rabbi in Israel, typifies the critique: “They’ve created an entirely new genre, an entirely new custom for women’s prayer, and taken it upon themselves to present complex and disputed issues in a one-sided manner, ignoring age-old customs and halachic positions, and yet market the thing as though it’s something that your alter bubbe [old grandmother] davened from,” wrote Rabbi Elli Fisher, a seminary teacher in Modiin, on his blog adderabbi.blogspot.com.

In an interview, he said, “I’m not anti-ArtScroll. In many ways they do a great service. They’ve made things that were inaccessible accessible. But ArtScroll often crosses an ideological line. ArtScroll has become very proscriptive. People turn to the ArtScroll for halachic decisions, and ArtScroll oversteps a boundary.”

The company’s enormous success seems to defy its critics. While the publisher generally does not disclose sales numbers, the prayerbooks – in a variety of sizes, bindings and languages – have sold more than 750,000 copies, according to Rabbi Scherman. Its Chumash, or Bible, has sold over 300,000 copies.

With over 1,000 titles in print, Mesorah/ArtScroll dominates the Jewish publishing marketplace.

From the liturgical and primary religious texts to children’s books and cookbooks, their products are widely acclaimed as well designed and easy to use. ArtScroll’s Schottenstein Talmud is credited with making the rabbinic commentaries accessible to those unable to read them in the original Hebrew and Aramaic.

“It’s just totally revolutionized Talmud study. It has brought it to a much broader group of people than ever before. It’s absolutely unprecedented in Jewish history,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. The ArtScroll translation “is far more accessible than the earlier ones,” he said.

It is only the second complete translation of the Talmud into English, and the only one since the Soncino, which the ArtScroll has supplanted in Orthodox communiies.

ArtScroll’s audience, Rabbi Scherman says, “is the mainstream Orthodox community, right and left.”

But its products reflect a charedi, or fervently Orthodox, perspective. The original ArtScroll Siddur, for example, published in 1984, does not include prayers for the State of Israel or its soldiers. A later edition published with the Rabbinical Council of America added those prayers and a new introduction, and is widely used in centrist Orthodox congregations, including the OU’s 700 member synagogues.

Notes cue worshippers in to the choreography of the service, and provide some religious-historical context, though notes rely mostly on 19th century and earlier rabbis, ignoring modern scholarship and anything from secular sources.

In the journal “Judaism,” Reform Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf reviewed the RCA Art Scroll Siddur. “Imaginative typography and bright, rather gaudy covers do not obscure the medievalizing sensibility of the RCA Siddur or its retrograde implications,” he wrote when the prayerbook was first published. And some object to the fact that the Orthodox community has come to heavily rely on studying the Talmud in translation. As a result, says the OU’s Rabbi Weinreb, basic Talmud study skills are not learned. “To me it takes something away from the excitement, the thrill of figuring it out for yourself, and from the depth of understanding,” he said.

Well Funded

The company’s non-profit arm, the Mesorah Heritage Foundation, raised more than $8.2 million in 2005, the most recent year for which tax filings are public. That includes $407,000 in government grants, according to tax records, so the Washington lobbying firm the foundation hired for $66,000 earned its keep.

The foundation’s income has grown from $5.9 million in 2004 and $4.5 million in 2003. All told, between 2001 and 2005, the foundation raised nearly $29 million.

The men who founded and run both the foundation and Mesorah Publications Ltd. are Rabbis Scherman and Zlotowitz, who are well compensated. Between roles as foundation directors and principals of the publishing house, in 2005 Rabbi Scherman earned $303,000, and Rabbi Zlotowitz earned $377,700. The fundraising is necessary to publish religious books, says Rabbi Scherman. “One volume of our Talmud costs between $250,000 and $350,000 to put out, and the marketplace can’t cover that,” he said, when each lists for under $50.

“Fundraising is never easy, but one very good thing is that there’s a product to show. You’re not giving for some amorphous cause. You’re seeing the product of your generosity,” he said. The cost to dedicate a prayerbook or volume of holy text ranges from $150,000 to $250,000, he said.
ArtScroll farms out its printing but does its own binding in Brooklyn, and has a staff of about 50, Rabbi Scherman said.
“ArtScroll has the formula for a very successful publishing empire,” said Ellen Frankel, CEO and editor in chief of the Jewish Publication Society, also a non-profit. It produced the Conservative movement’s Chumash, Etz Chayyim, and has sold 235,000.

“I admire ArtScroll greatly,” she said. But the company has created a model that shapes the work of others in the field.

Every ArtScroll religious text has letters of endorsement from leading Orthodox rabbis reproduced in the first pages.

Frankel said that she approached someone to support JPS’s new translation of “Mikraot Gedolot: The Commentators’ Bible.” Even before opening a newly published volume, the Orthodox donor asked which rabbis endorsed it, how observant the editor was and what rabbis he had studied with.

“This donor wouldn’t even consider funding something unless he knew it was approved” by rabbis, said Frankel. “That was an interesting eye opener for me. It’s somewhat regrettable that Orthodox readers now require a hechsher (stamp of kosher approval), and it doesn’t necessarily reflect on the quality of the scholarship or writing. There are many good books being published that would not be objectionable to a traditional reader, but they won’t open them.”

As for the ArtScroll women’s siddur, it remains available to the Ramaz women’s prayer group, said Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, principal of the school. “We thought it was a nice idea for the women’s tefillah to have its own siddur. But had somebody really looked at it carefully first, we might not have bought it.”