ArtScroll facing challenge from Modern Orthodox


NEW YORK (JTA) — For decades, Mesorah Publications has towered over the English-language Jewish publishing world like a Goliath.

The Orthodox publishing firm’s siddur, produced under the ArtScroll imprint, is the most common prayer text in American Orthodox synagogues, and its myriad translations of religious books — most notably its groundbreaking English version of the Babylonian Talmud — have made a vast trove of Judaic literature available to English speakers.

But two new initiatives are posing a fresh challenge to the ArtScroll dominance.

In May, Koren Publishers Jerusalem will release the first English edition of its popular Hebrew siddur featuring a commentary and translation by the chief rabbi of England, Sir Jonathan Sacks. And the Orthodox Union has launched a new publishing arm, which its backers describe as filling a “niche” in the Orthodox world, principally through the publication of the writings of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the leading thinker of Modern Orthodoxy.

“It is almost like the ArtScroll siddur is a household word,” said Carolyn Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council. “The Koren siddur is really remarkable, but it’s going to take a long time until they meet the marketing expectations that ArtScroll has already achieved.”

ArtScroll declined to comment for this article, but there are signs it is concerned.

The company has taken ads in various Jewish media offering steep discounts in exchange for the worn covers of Hebrew-English siddurs “from any publisher,” an offer one Koren spokesperson described as a “bizarre pre-emptive strike.” ArtScroll also has approached the O.U. about publishing a forthcoming siddur based on Soloveitchik’s writings, according to O.U. officials.

ArtScroll, which was founded in the 1970s and is headquartered in Brooklyn, may be right to be concerned.

Despite its command of the prayer-book market among a wide range of Orthodox English speakers, the ArtScroll siddur is written from a fervently Orthodox perspective and, at least in its main edition, eliminates the prayer for the State of Israel that is a mainstay in most Modern Orthodox congregations. (A special edition is available that does include the prayer.)

While leaders across the spectrum of Orthodoxy uniformly praise the company’s invaluable contributions to Jewish literacy, there are early signs of some willingness to consider alternatives. Major Modern Orthodox synagogues such as Kehilath Jeshurun in New York and Shaarei Shomayim in Toronto already have purchased the Koren siddur.

“The new Koren siddur has wonderful notes, comments and essays by the chief rabbi which reflect a Modern Orthodox, Zionist point of view, a point of view which we absolutely share,” said Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Kehilath Jeshurun. “It also contains prayers that are related to the State of Israel and the soldiers of Israel as part and parcel of the book itself.”

The Koren siddur was introduced in Israel in 1981 by Eliyahu Koren, a German-born typographer and graphic artist who immigrated to prestate Israel in the 1930s. Both the siddur and the Koren Bible, produced in 1962, are celebrated for their textual accuracy, aesthetic appeal and Israel-centric sensibility.

“We feel these values have not been adequately served to the American Jewish public,” said Matthew Miller, Koren’s publisher.

While the desire for a more explicitly Zionist and contemporary siddur gives Koren obvious advantages over ArtScroll among the Modern Orthodox, leaders of the Orthodox Union, whose logo appears on the spine of the Koren siddur, are vague on the specific reasons why the organization decided to launch its imprint. Insiders say it is principally to serve as a vehicle for publishing Soloveitchik’s writings and is motivated in part by concern that ArtScroll may be sluggish in marketing Modern Orthodox titles.

“The last thing I would have wanted is a Haggadah among the 20 or plus different Haggadahs that ArtScroll puts out,” said one OU official familiar with the issue, referring to the Soloveitchk Haggadah, which was the first offering by  O.U. Press. “I have no interest in having the 21st Haggadah be by the Rav. You flood the marketplace.”

Among the other projects the O.U. Press is said to be working on is a siddur influenced by Soloveitchik’s writings on prayer. Lookstein and others have lamented that ArtScroll fails to reference many writings of Modern Orthodox figures in its commentaries, a complaint that Rabbi Nosson Scherman, ArtScroll’s general editor, responded to in a 2007 interview with the Jewish Press.

“It’s not a question of trying to include as many names as you can for the sake of popularity,” Scherman said. “It’s a matter of trying to clarify the material.” 

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