Judaica Dreams

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.

32 comments on “Judaica Dreams

  1. I completely agree w/Chana that a lot of this is an issue of funding. I’ve worked with a Jewish newspaper, and we simply couldn’t do the same things that most big papers do. We were a small staff with limited funding, and it was hard to get people to events, press conferences, etc (esp. since there are several every day around here). Also, if there had been more funding, the paper could have hired people with a bit more professional experience (ie not me).

    OTOH, after working there I have a lot less respect for the major newspapers than I used to. The style of writing might be good, but they often rely on very dubious sources.

    In general, I think we need to remember to compare Jewish writing to writing in general, not only to good writing. It’s true that most Jewish authors aren’t exactly Dostoevsky, but neither are most non-Jewish authors. For every decent book put out, there are hundreds (probably thousands) of generic and often quite bad horror novels, sappy romances, etc. The ratio of good to mediocre/bad writing is low everywhere, not just in Jewish bookstores.

  2. I’m gratified to hear someone tackling this subject. What about the current explosion of Jewish womens magazines chock full of advertising and pulp fiction written on a fifth grade level. Except for seforim in the original there is simply nothing to read for a literate college graduated BT or mitchazek. As to the reasons–I’d say that money is part of the problem. The publishers either can’t or aren’t willing to invest in their writers and the Jewish magazines pay near-volunteer wages thus discouraging the writers who feel that their craft is undervalued from investing the hours and hours it can take to produce quality material. The end result–a dumbing down of Yiddishkeit, nothing that I can show to my secular relatives accustomed to the New York Times and the New Yorkers without cringing in shame.

  3. I’m of the opinion that 3 times out of 4 when someone drops a Hebrew word into an English sentence it is not really needed. Even more so in a book for beginners.

    I remember some years ago when I was in College I was reading a book on Brachot in the Beit Midrash. It made some point that I found interesting, so I went to look at the footnote, well the footnote was in Hebrew (the book was in English). I turned to the guy sitting across the table from me and asked him to look at it. He wasn’t able to figure it out ether as it was a reference to some book that was not clearly identified.

  4. Transliteration opens up another can of worms, particularly when the editor has to chose between Ashkenaz or Sephardi. If I ran the world (or at least Artscroll), I’d offer both the original Hebrew and the transliteration, let the reader chose which they’re more comfortable with.

    Another aspect about the bios of the Gedolim… You would think that Rebbes would encourage their young talmidim to absorb these, cover to cover. However, some Yeshiva Ketana Rebbes find that they can have the exact opposite result – that a young boy reading them can figure “well, I’m not a prodigy, I didn’t learn Shas by the time I was Bar Mitzvahed”, etc., and therefore feel discouraged that the only ones who achieve greatness (of any degree), started out with superior capabilities. Personally, I find these bios inspiring (but then again, I’ll read almost any bio, I love the genre). However, I can see what the Rebbes were getting at.

  5. Can I propose a rule:
    IF a book is in a language then footnotes and technical terms should be in that language as well. If you *REALLY* need a hebrew word then at least transliterate it and explain why it is different from the English word.

  6. I sometimes do Technical review of computer books for a major computer publisher (O’Reilly) I also write articles for them sometimes. O’Reilly which is one of the biggest names in computer books sends every book out to a bunch of reviewers who are expected to go over it in detail and say exactly where things don’t make sense or need to be fixed up. (And they pay the reviewers to do this) Now the book I am working on now is quite good, and has been threw several rounds of editing before It gets sent to me, but I still find things I think are problems. They will be fixed by the time the book hits the shelves.

    On books aimed at beginners this is doubly important. They really need to do this and get some newbies to review it. Its one thing if a Rosh Yeshiva understands it, but if the book is aimed at a new BT will he understand it?

    Also if the book is in English please make the footnotes and such in English. My other pet peeve is when a text is in English but one key word is in Hebrew, artscroll footnotes do this a lot.

  7. In the same frum newspaper referred to above was an article announcing a soon-to-be-offered course on how to write Jewish literature in advanced-placement-English. He made the valid point that those raised in the yeshiva system have minimal exposure to literature written by anyone other than the fellow frum, subsequently resulting in the same limited expression (even lack of exposure to TV, and movies cuts back on opportunities to learn to express oneself).
    And as to pictures of only men engaged in home-making activities, it reminds me of an advertisement someone sent me from an Israeli- chareidi source. It was encouraging membership at a separate-hours-for-men-and-women swimming pool. The accompanying picture not only showed boys completely clothed diving and swimming in the pool, but a bearded man complete with hat, suit,and tie also enjoying a cool dip in the pool. The caption added by an amused reader said: “In case you were wondering about proper attire for the pool…what, they don’t dress like this at your pool?”

  8. I agree that the dearth in good English-language Judaica is disturbing. I must, however, admit that since the ‘explosion’ there is so much more that I find if I look hard enough, I’m sometimes able to find something readable beyond the 6th grade level, an accomplishment that was near impossible in the early 90’s even. So I applaud those trying to write English Judaica well. That said, I find much of the even passable writing to be below the standard the rest of the world accepts, but that may be the BT bias. We’re just used to a higher standard. I found glaring errors of fact in a few Jewish novels, and occasionally a biography or other Jewish article or book frustrates my basic sense of grammar to the point I can’t read any further. And I LOVE to read, nearly everything I can get my hands on. The answer? Probably encourage more educated BT’s to write! And our house strongly agrees with the comment that Jewish books don’t usually have an index, which most decent books of this type should. For a highly notable exception, we do adore all the hard work put into the index by Rabbi Dovid Ribiat in his 39 Melachos 4-volume set. Now THAT’s a usable index!

  9. I had to laugh. Do you think our “newspapers” are better? I work for a well known jewish organization [hence the “anon”] and went to established newspapers to cover an event we were running. They said: “just send us an article and we’ll put it in – if you take out an ad”…..how’s that for objective journalism…! Reporters on staff? Common, that’s so not our style. Believe me when I tell you that the event we ran was incredible and brought 170,000 Jews closer to Torah and Yiras Shomayim. Checks can be sent to….

  10. Fortunately for me, I don’t look at English books on Torah all that much. I typically peruse those that have something unique to offer in the English edition, such as biographies or Rav Aryeh Kaplan’s translations (worth it for the footnotes alone!).

    Having said that, I have been appalled at times by the poor writing and worse editing. I can’t help but think that some educated, erudite folks must be turned off by this; and rightly so. Someone like Rav Soloveitchik (Rav Aharon or Rav YD) would never have tolerated such poor presentation. My own students always knew that I wanted to see good English in English, and good Ivrit in Ivrit; not some pitiful mishmash of both or either.

    I never followed up on this, but my impression over the years was that Ashkenazi hachamim often wrote more poorly than Sefardi hachamim. I noticed this several times over the years when reading teshuvot. I think that Sefardi culture placed a higher value on language in general, and I think some of those differences reflect in the predominantly Ashkenazi preparation of books for English publication. I have no quantifiable substantiation of this; but I wonder if anyone else has ever noted such trends?

  11. “Personally, I appreciate a well written sefer or book and a well organized shiur that have a beginning, middle , end and summary of the ground covered ”

    I enjoy that also – I’m just not makpid if it’s in that exact order

  12. This can all be categorized in the same way as we’ve discussed kosher restaurants in other threads, ie, the “it’s Jewish and kosher, you expect it should be good too” phenomenia. For me, the current glut of “frum novels” falls into this realm. The stories are ridiculous, but the women are dressed tznius and are rushing home to make Shabbos. I think I’ll stay with genuine novels when I’m in the mood.

    However, there was one element not mentioned here that I found very useful in the very early days – the glossaries found in the back of many English language seforim.

    If we were going to rate authors here, I’d be voting for Rav Frand. His editor has captured the feel of his tapes, and therefore, it’s as readable as his shiurim are listenable.

  13. Bob Miller-I think that you have hit the proverbial nail on the head. Too many people think that sounding yeshivish means that you are either frum or an authority. Personally, I appreciate a well written sefer or book and a well organized shiur that have a beginning, middle , end and summary of the ground covered as a means of aiding my understanding of the subject matter.

  14. YM introduced the concept of “the use of grammar as is expected in the secular world”.

    Is this meant to imply:

    1. That the use of proper grammar indicates that the writer has a secular or quasi-secular approach?

    2. That frum people regard proper grammar as unnecessary? As objectionable?

    3. That a reader should expect a frum book to contain grammatical lapses or even to show an unawareness of grammar?

    If I can find a way to decode a poorly written book, does that excuse the poor writing? What about the needs of other readers who lack decoding skills?

  15. I noticed that all the drawn illustrations depicted only men. Men mopping floors; men buying groceries; men baking challos.

    Can someone send some of these men over to mop my floor? My back is sore after having to re-mop my floor after an accident and now it is dirty again!

    And while they’re at it, I need them to stop by two grocery stores also. :)

  16. Ron, I know exactly the second book you refer to, and I disagree. The book may not be written with the use of grammar as is expected in the secular world, and it may not be organized in a linear manner, but is still entirely understandable and provides the reader with the understanding of the subject’s greatness. Toward the end of the book, where he narrates a lecture that the subject gave to teachers about how to teach chumash, is very worthwhile and I recommend it.

    If you can read and understand the book, then anything beyond that is secular bias.

  17. The other issue that this post hinted at but IMO didn’t discuss completely was what can only be called a glut of Seforim and English language Judaica that none less than R Y Belsky believes are very substandard in quality of their presentation of the subject matter,

  18. How true. The worst part is reading something whose Torah scholarship I respect, and struggling to not look down on him because of his apparent poor command of English.

    Of course, editing really is the issue. I once read a self-published book by a best-selling author (of other books) and it was unreadable. And that was with an editor, just not a very good one.

  19. For out-of-print Jewish books, you can try the various used book stores on the Web.

    Also, there are sometimes smallish local Jewish book stores (in your area or other areas) whose stock has a slow turnover. A phone call can tell you if they have an out-of print item.

  20. As someone who has edited a few “jewish” books (both paid and gratis), I can tell you that writing styles and acumen vary widely. It is most likely true that there are many individuals who think that writing a book simply entails putting one’s thoughts on paper. There is a vast difference between knowing something, teaching something and expressing something in the written word. It is, indeed, unfortunate that there are books out there that clearly have never been seen by an editor while there are many well written texts that never get published. It seems that there is not enough money in the process to hire a scrupulous editor (trust me, I know what they pay and if I didn’t enjoy the work and the relationships, I would never do it).

    As to Rav Hirsch’s commentary on Tehillim, try this link http://nehora.com/category.cfm?Category=404

  21. Any over-the-counter remedy for logorrhea? Here’s something that’s bothering me – Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Psalms has been out of print for a long while. It’s an incredible book. With the tremendous amount of publishing that’s going on, what a shame this important book is unavailable.

  22. Please correct or offer offsetting insights if this is incorrect.

    I believe it was Artscroll’s translation of Shir HaShirim that was at the receiving end of much criticism due to heavy reliance on Rashi for determining P’Shat which ultimately was the English translation.

    While this might appear at first glance to be a less than sound approach it begs the question “what are the plausible alternatives and options” when something is primarily allegorical? Balance it with other Rishonim?

  23. About translation: translation is a fine art. Merely changing the words doesn’t cut it, for obvious reasons. Even poor translators realize this, which is why they’ll write “Moses said” for “Va-yomer Moshe” (reversing the words, instead of “Said Moses”), but inexperienced translators don’t take this far enough and end up writing Hebrew with English words. Or they won’t know what to do with idiom, they won’t realize that Hebrew has a smaller vocabulary than English, and therefore words needn’t be translated the same each time (thus, sometimes “Va-yomer Moshe” might mean “Moses exclaimed,” rather than always slavishly translating as “said.”

    This isn’t a great chiddush, but it is at the root of the problem.

  24. Now about translations:

    Is it written somewhere that translations from Hebrew should read no more smoothly than the telephone book?

    I normally find translations by authors hailing from the UK to be more readable than the rest. Someone must be teaching them English.

  25. Ron is right about the lax editing or non-editing of so many Jewish books. I’d be happy to see less gaudy covers and typefaces, and more quality control.

    I have found:

    1. Strange spellings of names and places
    2. No usable index
    3. Wrong use of words
    4. Padding in the form of redundant words, large type, and many spaces between the many short chapters
    5. Nothing to support statements about history
    6. Cliches
    7. No coming to grips with ideas of past or present sages opposing (or appearing to oppose) the author’s thesis
    8. Idea that the author’s own subgroup contains and has done all good, while the other groups are barely worthy of comment

    On the other hand, I’m free to buy whatever Judaica I want and can afford. Still a pretty good deal!

  26. Much of the Jewish “literature” out there is “self-published” even if it is under the imprimatur of some of the “respected names in Jewish publishing”. If you have the money to print (or can raise it from supporters), they are willing to make a deal. No, there are no editors involved – unless the author pays for one. Does this shed some light on the topic?

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