Israeli publishers seek U.S. niche by turning to local authors

by Abigail Klein Leichman

From Bibles to novels, English-language Judaica from Israel accounts for much of the inventory on American Jewish bookstore shelves.

A case in point: For the first time in his 27-book run, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has chosen to work with an Israeli publisher: Gefen will produce the Englewood writer’s forthcoming book, “Kosher Jesus.”

Shoppers at the Feb. 5-26 Seforim Sale at Yeshiva University, the largest Jewish book sale in North America, will find Israeli publishers well represented.

Rabbi Yaacov Haber, a former Monsey pulpit rabbi and co-founder of the year-old Mosaica Press in Jerusalem, says there are practical and emotional reasons for this trend.

“Israel has become like the Jewish India: If you want to get something done professionally for much less money, you go to Israel, where everything is more reasonable from printers to editors to writers,” he said.

“A consumer will pay 20-30 percent less for a book published in Israel, and the level of scholarship, from research to proofreading, is very high. So if somebody in the U.S. has written a book, the right thing for him to do is look for a publisher in Israel. That’s the business side of the issue. The spiritual side is that Torah should come from Israel.”

In addition to “Kosher Jesus,” due out next week, the newest books by North Jersey notables rolling off Israeli presses include “Mitokh HaOhel: The Haftarot,” edited by Teaneck’s Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman; “The Laws & Concepts of Niddah,” by Bergenfield’s Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky; “Seven Steps to Mentschhood,” by Ben Porat Yosef (Paramus) school administrator Stanley Fischman; and “The Elephant in the Room,” by Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman of Passaic, among others.

Brooklyn native Matthew Miller acquired Koren Jerusalem, a venerable 50-year-old Israeli publishing company, in 2005. It now has an American warehouse and sales team, and partners with the new book divisions of Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union. Some of its latest titles are particularly hot: The first printings of (British Chief Rabbi Jonathan) “Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” and “Mesorat HaRav Siddur with Commentary by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik” quickly sold out.

“We weren’t selling sifrei kodesh [sacred texts] in America five years ago,” said Miller. “Demand has increased massively. We [now] have two home markets: Israel and North America.”

Koren’s Toby Press imprint for translated Hebrew literature can barely keep up with customers snatching up Yehuda Avner’s “Prime Ministers,” for which Koren has signed two movie contracts as well.

Tzvi Mauer of Urim Publications, also in Jerusalem, said the increasing number of books produced in Israel by English-speaking authors is partly a natural outgrowth of “a wide circle of teachers and scholars of very high caliber” having relocated to Israel from English-speaking countries. Many of them teach in post-high-school yeshivas and seminaries for English-speaking teens.

“If they want to go into writing or editing, they may find they understand the audience and the content better in their native language,” Mauer said.

Thus, Torah study books in English by teachers at Yeshivat Har Etzion, a well-known institution with a track for post-high-school students from overseas, “are doing extraordinarily well,” according to Koren’s Miller.

“Israel is becoming a stronghold of Torah learning worldwide,” said David Kahn, general editor of Feldheim Publishers, which has a large network of stores in Israel and New York selling its books for an Orthodox readership. “If you’re looking for the most knowledgeable men and women, you’ll find a large reservoir of them in Israel. You have well-known personalities such as Berel Wein, Shira Smiles, and Jonathan Rosenblum.”

Wein, formerly a pulpit rabbi in Monsey, is typical of North American scholars and rabbis who retire to Israel and “finally have the time and wealth of experience and information to sit and write,” said Mauer. “The authors we publish each year are generally divided up pretty evenly between those living in the U.S. and olim [immigrants] living in Israel, with a small percentage of authors in Canada, the U.K., Australia, and South Africa.”

Haber said this niche has become a specialty of Mosaica’s. “A lot of [older] rabbis, particularly pulpit rabbis, have a lot of books in them from all their experiences and Torah learning. When you organize their ideas and insights, they can get their message out in a way that is relevant to readers, and that’s a service we’re open to doing for rabbis — many of them from the Jewish Standard’s area of readership.”

Eisenman, spiritual leader of Passaic-Clifton’s Ahavas Israel congregation since 1997, included “very down-to-earth observations, on everything from Gilad Shalit to the Brooklyn child murderer, that will make you laugh and cry” in “The Elephant in the Room,” released at Chanukah time. “We expect it will sell thousands of copies,” Haber predicted.

“We publish many books by New Jersey rabbis,” added Ilan Greenfield, CEO of Gefen Publishing. Some of Gefen’s recent offerings include the “Unlocking the Torah Text” series by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood; “Bringing the Prophets to Life,” by Rabbi Neil Winkler of Fort Lee; and “A Prophet for Today,” by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck.

At the Seforim Sale, Urim will debut “Majesty and Humility,” a new work on the teachings of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik with input from local scholars including Rabbi J.J. Schacter of Teaneck, along with “Torah Conversations with Nechama Leibowitz.” by Rabbi Benjamin Yasgur, former rabbi of Cong. Beth Tefillah, Paramus.

Kahn notes that at least 70 percent of Feldheim’s English-language books are bought by women. Accordingly, this publisher’s offerings for the North American market favor cookbooks, diet books, and “kosher” novels. Its newest is “The Bais Yaakov Cookbook,” edited by Batsheva Weinstein.

Though Israeli publishers do produce e-books, market research shows that Judaica consumers prefer the feel of an actual book, especially one they will use for prayer or Torah study. Miller said Koren’s consistent top-sellers are prayer books, and its Maggid imprint for Jewish thought is doing well with both older and newly issued works by philosopher-educator and Talmud translator Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.

“Jews are readers,” said Miller, stating the obvious.

This NJ Jewish Standard post appeared online.


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