December 8, 2019

People of the Book

Just try to sidle your way to the counter at the 613 Mitzvah Store on Pico Boulevard to pay for your purchases. You’ll have to be patient and agile, since the 1,300-square-foot store is neatly jammed from floor to ceiling with all manner of Judaica: kiddush cups, havdalah trays, a case full of mezuzah covers for every taste and budget, and, oh yes, about 7,000 books. Also, you’ll likely bump elbows with other customers. Business has continued to burgeon in the decade since Rabbi Shimon Kraft and his wife, Elizabeth, opened the 613 Mitzvah Store. There is rarely a slow time in the shop.

The growth of the Mitzvah Store mirrors that of other longtime local Judaica stores. The House of David in Valley Village operated out of an 800-square-foot storefront for nearly 50 years. But three years ago, owner Moshe Gabay spread out into a 1,800-square-feet space to better accommodate his bursting inventory and the growing appetite among Los Angeles Jews for more and better Jewish texts and literature. And Brenco, located on Beverly Boulevard near La Brea, recently took over the storefront adjacent to theirs, a space that they have dedicated solely to book display.

"Since I took over this store 11 years ago, the number of books I carry has multiplied about 30 times," Gabay estimates. "And many customers are coming because they have questions and they want answers. They may be Jewish but not have studied Judaism when they grew up. When they have children, they want to give them something. They want to educate themselves."

Never has that prospect been easier. In the last 25 years, there has been an explosion in the world of Orthodox Jewish publishing. The pioneer among these traditional publishers has been Mesorah Publications in New York, whose Artscroll library has rescued the genre from its tired, unimaginative and staid condition and introduced a classy, expertly designed and edited series that has captured the attention of thousands of Jews from every point on the religious spectrum.

Artscroll editor Rabbi Nosson Scherman notes that its highly successful Stone Chumash (the five books of Moses annotated with commentary) has more than 300,000 copies in print.

"This was an idea whose time has come," Scherman says of the series. "Orthodoxy in America had been moribund for many years after World War II. There were very few yeshivas, and fewer girls’ schools. When Orthodoxy began to have a rebirth in the late 1970s, there was a need for titles that looked good and were well written and edited."

Artscroll’s elegant design and sophisticated editing also help it appeal to a broader audience. "The Orthodox are sometimes thought to be like cave men who have never acclimated to modern society," Scherman says. "When people see books like this that look good and read well, it enhances the image of Orthodoxy."

No one, least of all Scherman, could have predicted the enthusiasm with which the series caught on. It began with a single volume of the Book of Esther, brought out to honor the memory of a close friend of Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, now chairman of Mesorah Publications. The name "Artscroll" came from Zlotowitz’s own art gallery, and the book was meant to be a one-shot. But it went through five printings, and a phenomenon was born. Artscroll, which in its first few years published 10 to 15 titles a year, now publishes about 50 a year. Overall it has about 700 titles, including various commentaries on the siddur, the High Holiday machzor and other texts, as well as children’s books, adventure novels, biographies, and self-help titles.

Artscroll’s most ambitious project has been its publication of the Schottenstein Talmud, distinctive not only because it was one of the first such English translations, but also for the comprehensiveness of its translated commentaries.

Fifty-five of the projected 73 English volumes in this series have been published so far, along with 15 volumes in Hebrew. The publisher expects to finish the brisk-selling English series in four years. (Plans are also underway for a French translation of the Talmud and a Spanish translation of the daily siddur.) Because each of the Talmud volumes costs more than $250,000 to produce, Mesorah Publications sells dedication pages in many of its books to offset the cost. Among the major benefactors of the series are James Tisch, president of Loews Corporation, who, though not Orthodox, is a member of Mesorah Publications’ board of trustees, and Jay Schottenstein, for whom the Talmud series is named. Not for the Orthodox only, the Schottenstein Talmud is also used at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and Reform’s Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

"Thousands of people who have never studied Talmud before can now do so because of our work," Scherman says. "They’ve been able to reconnect."

What else accounts for this surging demand for texts published by traditional Jewish voices? Rabbi William Cutter, professor of education and modern Hebrew literature at HUC-JIR, admits, "The Orthodox writers have a certain appeal. People moving into Jewish life intensively want to know these opinions." Cutter himself has edited 27 books for Behrman House, a Jewish publisher not affiliated with any movement, and owns an Artscroll siddur, which he sometimes refers to for its commentary.

"We live in de-anchored times," Cutter says, "even though a lot of that is for the good. We seek things that center us, and the strictness gives us a benchmark. I have a lot of respect for it."