In Jewish publishing, there will always be a market for basics like the Bible and associated commentary, but Jewish books are also beginning to reflect a renewed interest in Jewish studies from those outside the Jewish community. Additionally, new writers are trying to make sense of the rise in anti-Semitism.
Schocken Books, a division of Penguin Random House that specializes in Jewish literary works, often focuses on evergreen topics. For instance, Robert Alter's The Hebrew Bible: A New Translation With Commentary is among Schocken’s bestsellers. In light of the increasing number of anti-Semitic acts in the U.S. and abroad, however, Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt's Antisemitism: Here and Now (2019) has over 27,000 copies in print, according to the publisher.
"We’re about to go back for a fourth printing,” says Altie Karper, editorial director at Schocken. “We’d had high expectations for the book, but constantly unfolding current events have certainly given it a boost."
But most ripped-from-the-headlines books on anti-Semitism haven't yet been released. "What’s more indicative of trends, I think, is in the submissions I’ve been getting," says Karper. "A lot of them are indeed on the subject of the recent rise in anti-Semitism. And, interestingly enough, I’ve also seen an uptick in Holocaust memoirs and histories, with authors saying that the rise in contemporary anti-Semitism has been their motivating factor.”
In January, Schocken is publishing To the Edge of Sorrow, a novel by Aharon Appelfeld that follows Jewish escapees from a Ukrainian ghetto during World War II who hide in a nearby forest and rescue others from trains headed toward concentration camps. Coming in April, Filled with Fire and Light: Portraits and Legends from the Bible, Talmud, and Hasidic World by Elie Wiesel collects the late Nobel laureate's lectures on personalities from Jewish history.
Books published by New York University Press, which has extensive offerings in American Jewish history, have begun to reflect a "deliberate widening" of scholars' approach to Jewish topics, according to Jennifer Hammer, senior editor at the press. "[Jewish scholars] are no longer content to be in conversation only with those specifically in Jewish studies, and aim to engage with and contribute to the field of religious studies more broadly," says Hammer.
"Books like Shari Rabin’s Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America (2017), which illuminates how mobility helps to shape patterns of religious life, and Jessica Cooperman’s Making Judaism Safe for America (2018), which shows how ideas about pluralism influenced both the development of American Judaism and the American religious landscape more generally during the era of World War I, both take this approach."
In a similar vein, NYU will publish an examination of how death and burial practices influence the living in Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Death and Burial in New York by Allan Amanik (Dec.). Also releasing in December, Feasting and Fasting looks at the role food plays in Judaism. The book was co-edited by Jody Myers, Jordan Rosenblum, and Aaron S. Gross.
At the Jewish Publication Society, Barry Schwartz is beginning his tenth year as director. Though JPS has sometimes defined itself as a 120-year-old startup because it has to constantly change with the industry and the economy, it counts on classic religious texts to stay in business. "Those books stand the test of time and we feel that's what sustains us," says Schwartz.
It's core educational materials, and a decision during the recession to become a "content-only" publishing house—with the University of Nebraska Press handling production and distribution—also helps JPS survive with a bare-bones staff, Schwartz added. Half of JPS's sales—more than a half a million dollars' worth—is from the JPS Tanakh, an English translation of the Hebrew Bible. Consequently, in 2018, JPS published a 20-year translation into English of what's called Miqra’ot Gedolot, the classic medieval Jewish commentary that surrounds the Bible. It's used as a teaching tool and has become an "instant classic for JPS,” according to Schwartz.
In September, JPS will publish The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust by Rafael Medoff, which uses recently discovered documents to explore FDR's private and public sentiments toward Jews during the Holocaust.
You can't talk about Jewish books without also addressing those aimed at children. According to Jewish children's book publisher Michael Leventhal, there are interesting Jewish stories being told outside the English-language market. He launched Green Bean Books in March to try and pluck some of those gems from their native languages. The press publishes around eight books a year.
"There are so many excellent foreign language publishers, especially in Israel—but also elsewhere in Russia, Germany, and Italy—and many of those works are not being translated," says Leventhal.
Green Bean recently released The Heart-Shaped Leaf by Shira Geffen with illustrations by David Polonsky, who also did the illustrations for a graphic novel version of The Diary of Anne Frank. "I was nothing short of astounded that such an impressive work hadn't been translated into English before," said Leventhal. In September, Green Bean is publishing Signs in the Well by Shoham Smith and illustrated by Vali Mintzi, which tells the story of Rabbi Akiva, one of Judaism's most famous scholars.
Overall, with renewed interest in Jewish issues and histories, translations of existing work for an English readership, and the old, timeless standbys, Jewish publishing appears to be widening its scope even as it sticks to what has always worked in the past.
Correction: This article initially stated that Alana NewHouse's The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List was published by Schocken. It is an Artisan title.