A trip into a Jewish bookstore is really a stunning experience these days. They’ve got everything! Things you’d wished they’d have written when you were first starting — in translation; in transliteration; in syncopation. Every topic, every major thinker — well, most of them; it’s quite interesting which ones remain shrouded in mystery despite the explosion in Judaica publishing. But it is an explosion.
Not every explosion is caused by a smart bomb, mind you. It’s not just that there’s more out there than you could ever read, or afford, or fit on your bookshelves. But there seems to be some engine that just gets books out there regardless of quality. Evidently, someone out there can read them, or afford them, or fit them. The economic justification of these books seems way out ahead of the editorial. Either that, or there are a lot of people out there dying to get their names in hardcover print and will knock out material for whatever little recompense they’re offered. (I contrast this with those who write for frum newspapers and use such adorable noms de plum as “Brocha Goykadosh” on their journalistic jottings. They, and the anonymous letter writers who gobble up the column inches in the frum papers, evidently fear putting their monickers where their mutterings are — but this is deserving of another article entirely.)
But a lot of these works are written by very sincere, very able people. Unfortunately, however, Judaica publishers seem to take their market for granted, for sincerity and even knowledge are not the same as quality. Writing a book is hard; I’ve written a few, none of them best sellers, but at each juncture my manuscript was only the beginning of the process between word processor and Barnes & Noble. There are editors, copy editors, in some cases agents in the mix. Stuff should not come out in book form until it’s worked over “but good.” It appears, however, that desktop publishing is taken quite seriously in the frum world, and as baalei teshuva whose are used to higher quality, perhaps we should be demanding it — or publishing it ourselves.
There are several strains of problems. One is the “almost perfect” author — one of the best known frum writers out there, and one of us (a BT). He is deservedly acknowledged for his fine work. Unfortunately, it is so good that it is quite clear that no attempt is made whatsoever at editing his sometimes purple prose or convoluted thoughts, which in Judaica publishing is taken for just plain profundity. (I am very sympathetic.) Perhaps there’s no one good enough to edit him? I doubt that. Many great editors freely acknowledge they are not great writers. It is a different skill. But there’s no money to be earned turning what is already the best into even better. That would require pride over what you put out into the market — a commodity, unlike logorrhea, which is unfortunately in disappointingly short supply in this environment.
Then there’s the passionate but hopeless author. One wrote a book about one of the greatest roshei yeshiva in our lifetimes, full of stories from his life that had never been published before. The writer is clearly a committed and accomplished ben Torah of the highest caliber — and an execrable writer. His book, thick enough to choke any kosher animal, is utterly unreadable, from page one. Sentence structure, style, punctuation, block letters, Yiddish, Yinglish — they’re all chucked into the word processing version of the old “Bass-O-Matic” and just poured out in a chunky, gucky mess between the covers. What shocked me about this book is that it is published under the imprint of one of the oldest and most respected Jewish publishers. I literally felt as if nearly $30 had just been stolen from me. Despite my guilty appetite for hagiographic biographies of gedolim, to this day I have not been able to finish the book.
I was doubly disappointed when that same publisher sent out preview pamphlets of a new “learn this at your Shabbos table book” that promised to solve an old problem — finding that broadly age-appropriate devar Torah for the Shabbos seudos. It was beautifully produced, and the promised bound version looked — as all these sets do now — just like an Artscroll Gemora, fake brown pleather and everything. My first hit was not unexpected, but the insult to my intelligence was still a disappointment: I noticed that all the drawn illustrations depicted only men. Men mopping floors; men buying groceries; men baking challos. I don’t know whose chumra this is, but I would say if you can’t make realistic pictures of Shabbos activities undertaken by the people who actually do them, skip the pictures. (The men, of course, also had very long beards, peyos and hasidic style clothing. All the major Jewish publishers pretend there are no clean-shaven orthodox men in illustrations today — otherwise the illustrations could not be used, I gather, in Israeli editions aimed at charedim.)
That was bad enough, but the substance broke my heart, too. As usual, the English text is surrounded by “rich” Hebrew footnotes which offer additional explanations, sources and other material. The text, in this case, referred to a pasuk about Shabbos observance I’d never seen before. I looked at the Hebrew footnote — and it referred me to a sefer that describes the principle involved, and, presumably, associates the pasuk with the principle. Very nice. But it never told me where the posuk was to be found! This is inexcusable — and in a free preview pamphlet! Think I’m going to drop $30 or $40 a volume on this gazillion-volume set?
I mostly return to my bookshelf full of 1980’s, and earlier, Judaica. They don’t make them like they used to, I guess. Not a terrible thought for our kind of religionists, I guess, but not much of a compliment for people in the Judaica publishing business.
What’s the moral of the story? Don’t judge a Judaica book, any more than any other book, by its cover. The growth of the Judaica book market bespeaks a great willingness, especially among English speakers desperate to get information and inspiration, to buy whatever comes out. But we are entitled to demand quality, intellectual honesty, and some degree of editorial effort. Not only BT’s demand this, by a long shot — but we, at least, should.