Spreading the word

J'lem's English-language publishing industry is a success, but few outlets exist for fiction writers.

books 88 (photo credit: )
books 88
(photo credit: )
On a recent cool Thursday night in Baka, some 100 people gathered at Yedidya Synagogue to celebrate the launch of Arc 19, the new edition of an annual journal of English short stories and poetry. As journal contributors, backdropped by photographs and etchings by local artists, took turns reading aloud their pieces to a captive Anglo crowd, the synagogue transformed into a literary salon. Arc 19 is one of the few established outlets for English-language writers to get their poetry and short stories published and distributed locally. It was started in 1982 by the Israeli Association of Writers in English with a rotating editorship as part of the association's goal to promote English writing in Israel. "Loads of Anglo-Saxons who write come to Jerusalem. There are three or four ongoing groups where people meet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to work on writing or to develop writing," says Judy Labensohn, the coordinator for Bar-Ilan University's Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing, which was launched in 2002 to nurture Jewish writers. "Jews read and write. We're the 'people of the book.' Writing is one way of dealing with all the excitement of being in Jerusalem - the emotions, the associations," she adds. For most of the writers at the launch party, however, Jerusalem is not the place to look for a broad platform to publish their original fiction. "I think most people writing fiction in English probably try to get published abroad. I certainly do," says Mordechai Beck, this year's co-editor of Arc 19 with Jeffrey Green. Authors writing non-fiction about Torah, Judaism and Jewish spirituality, on the other hand, can easily find local outlets for publication. Jerusalem is home to close to a dozen publishers of English-language books specializing in Jewish interest non-fiction, including Feldheim, Gefen, Mazo, Simcha and Urim. Educational institutes, such as the Shalem Center, Yad Vashem and Hebrew University, also operate presses that publish English books and journals in scholarly fields. The size of Jerusalem's English publishing industry owes its strength to the influx of olim from English-speaking countries. "There is a whole creative world of English writing in terms of editing and publishing in a city that is really a foreign country," says Stuart Schnee, a Jerusalem-based book publicist and book "shepherd" who guides aspiring authors through the writing and publishing process. "There is always a new title coming out of Jerusalem." Still, "I see less fiction than I do of other things," he adds. "It doesn't mean there aren't 25 writers now pumping out great fiction. It could be that in Jerusalem there is so much going on that inspires non-fiction - politics, news, etc." The proliferation of Jewish publishers in the capital of the Jewish world may have some sociological roots. Jews in general are known to read more than other cultures, explains Hebrew Union College Prof. Steven M. Cohen, who specializes in Jewish social policy. Cohen attributes this trend to Jewish communities' emphasis on education and their drive to advance culturally to overcome their sense of exclusion from the larger society. Religious Jews in particular are known bibliophiles, he adds. "Just as religious Christians are noted for their high rates of book-buying, so too do religious Jews have a special added interest in reading, be it explicitly for religious-oriented learning or as a leisure activity on Shabbat or holidays." Publishers of Jewish or religious-oriented non-fiction generally have to look no further than Israel's borders to find manuscripts. "In Israel there are more authors of the kinds of books I can publish in English than in America," says Yaakov Feldheim, semi-retired president of Feldheim Publishers, which annually publishes some 30 "true Torah" English titles about Jewish law, Orthodox Jewish life and biblical commentaries. "Anybody who's religious, who really wants the utmost religious experience, will come to Israel sooner or later," says Feldheim. "I'm at the hub of the renaissance of Judaism in the world." Feldheim's father founded the publishing house in New York in 1940 to meet a demand for English books catered to an Orthodox audience. He created the Jerusalem branch in 1967, a few years after making aliya. Today Feldheim Publishers exports about $5 million worth of books a year and last year opened three retail bookstores in Jerusalem, one in Bnei Brak and one in Beit Shemesh to cater to the local English-speaking market. Among Feldheim's authors are American-born Rabbi Baruch Finkelstein and his wife Michal, co-authors of B'sha'ah Tova: The Jewish Woman's Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth and The Third Key: The Jewish Couple's Guide to Fertility. Currently residents of Beit El, they sought out publishers in the US, but decided to go with Feldheim "because they have a good name and it was convenient that we're here. We could work with them easier," says Baruch Finkelstein. The immediate accessibility to the Hebrew-speaking religious market has been another advantage of publishing in the Jewish homeland, with B'Sha'ah Tova's Hebrew version enjoying 40 percent more in sales than the original English. "ORIGINALLY, 95 percent of our authors came from Israel," says Simcha Publishing director Yaacov Peterseil. "In the last two years we decided to branch out and we put ads in the US. Now we're inundated." As more authors are being pooled abroad, more readers of Jewish titles in English are emerging in Israel. "Until around 2004, we kept only between 5-7 percent of the books we printed here in Israel. Ninety percent went to the States mostly," continues Peterseil. "Now things have changed. We're printing larger quantities in the first print run, but more importantly we keep 20% to 30% of print runs because of the growth of the English-language book market in Israel." According to Ilan Greenfield of Gefen Publishing House, 5,000 sales for a Jewish book is a success. Many of his top sellers are considered "sleepers," trend-defying books that sell consistently over the course of several years. Founded in 1981, Gefen publishes about 30 English titles a year, covering Judaism-, Zionism- and Israel-related subjects for Jews across the religious spectrum, as well as for Christian Zionists. "We believe the Christian market is a very large market for books about Israel, the Holy Land and Judaism as well," says Greenfield. Still, Gefen rarely ventures into fiction. "It's a different ball game," explains Greenfield. "There's much greater competition in the American market. The Jewish market is not big enough for that. We publish a very wide variety of books on the one hand, but sometimes you have to limit yourself and not do certain things. We think there are other publishers that do that better." One such example, says Greenfield, is Toby Press, which was founded in 1999 by New York immigrant Matthew Miller. Although the Toby editorial staff is based in Jerusalem, Toby brands itself as an independent American publisher of literary fiction, with another office in Connecticut and 20 salespeople stationed across North America, where the books are printed and bound. North America and England account for about 90% of its sales. Also, Toby does not cast itself as a Jewish publisher, even though a third of its authors are Jewish (including translated authors), such as contemporary writers Haim Sabato and Emuna Elon and veteran Israeli writers S.Y. Agnon and Chaim Nachman Bialik. "I think if you look at any publisher of fiction in America, it's about a quarter Jewish anyway," says Miller. Toby Press puts out three catalogues, one for a full range of English titles, one for titles of Jewish interest and one for Hebrew titles. Topping its recent general fiction list are Tom Coffey's Blood Alley, Christiana McKenna's The Misremembered Man and Donald Harrington's Father Along. Last year Toby solidified its critical standing when one of its authors, Tamar Yellin, was honored as an emerging writer for The Genizah at the House of Shepher with the Jewish Book Council's $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Toby's translated title, Our Holocaust, by Amir Gutfreund, got runner-up. While local writers may see Toby as a local address appreciative of the Anglo-Israeli experience, Miller doesn't give preference to "ex-pats." The focus is on quality writing, Miller says. "I'm not going to take a local American ex-pat over Agnon." An exception was New York native Sherri Mandell's The Blessing of a Broken Heart, a personal, lyrical account of the Mandell family's struggle to regain their lives in the aftermath of their 13-year-old son's murder during the intifada. "We were very proud to publish it, but I couldn't believe that major houses in NY didn't want to touch it," says Miller. He attributes the book's rejection by publishing houses in the US to discomfort they may have had with the material. The book sold thousands of copies abroad and received the National Jewish Book Award by the Jewish Book Council. An American adaption of the book into a play debuted at the San Diego Repertory Theater on January 4. But such success is rare. It takes a special book to cross into the American market, says Jerusalem-based literary agent Sharon Friedman. ONE SUCH "special book" was Indian-Israeli author Sophie Judah's Dropped From Heaven, which caught the attention and favor of Friedman, who sold the book to Random House. The collection of short stories, which Judah completed as part of the Shaindy Rudoff MA program, brings to life the under-explored Bene Israel Jewish community of India. "There was something universal about the stories. You don't have to be Indian or Jewish to appreciate or enjoy them," says Friedman. Judah didn't write the collection with the explicit aim of publishing. "I didn't think it was a dream that was feasible," says Judah. "When you have the ambition, the hope, it's easy to despair," Judah jokes. "When you don't have the ambition, hope, you don't despair." Having completed a book tour in the US last November, Judah describes her audience as largely Jewish American, with a small non-Jewish Indian following. "An Indian bought 30 copies because he was meeting Jews the next day on business," recalls Judah. "It was really nice. Suddenly I was representing two countries." The challenge has been in getting the book translated into Hebrew, says Judah. "They [Hebrew-language publishers] don't want to translate books that aren't a best-seller." Some Jerusalem-based authors who have made a successful crossover include Naomi Ragen, Michael Oren and Friedman's client Dr. Aviva Zornberg. "Most publishers don't buy just a book, they buy a name or name brand, the author they feel can get on talk shows or have a following or platform," explains Friedman. "Non-fiction is very platform-oriented." Jerusalem-based author Allen Hoffman, who made aliya from St. Louis 32 years ago, says it's difficult for any fiction writer to get published, regardless of where they are based. "I don't want to discourage anyone; I don't think it's easy for anyone really [to publish]," says Hoffman, who is writer-in-residence of the Shaindy Rudoff MA program and has worked with many Israel-based fiction writers and poets over the years. "I'm certain that some of our students who have already finished will go on to publish successfully, but it's not easy. Very often good writers receive rejection before they publish successfully. That's not uncommon at all." Julie Baretz, a graduate of the first class of the Shaindy Rudoff MA program, wrote as her MA thesis a novel set during the intifada about a woman with fertility problems who turns to a Palestinian man to act as a surrogate father. Although she received encouraging feedback from her professors, she became disillusioned with the publishing process. "The process of writing the novel was a piece of cake compared to trying to find an agent and publisher. I've put it aside for now," she says. Some local writers have decided that the best way to publish is to do it themselves. Ibis Editions, a non-profit organization and small press based in Musrara, was founded in 1998 by three American-Israelis - Peter Cole, his wife Adina Hoffman and Gabriel Levin - to publish Levant-related literature. The trio run the press as volunteers, from the clerical work to the translation to the actual publishing. "We felt that there was a whole category of literature from this part of the world that no one else was publishing - whether for economic or political reasons, or because of literary sensibility - and we had a few specific projects on hand that we wanted to turn into books. It snowballed fairly rapidly after that," explain Hoffman and Cole over email. Ibis translates into English poetry and belletristic prose from languages of the region such as Hebrew, Arabic, French, Greek, German and Ladino. Part of their artistic vision is to de-ghettoize literary works, highlighting the cross-fertizilization between the languages, religions and cultures that have thrived and interacted on Levant-soil. Several Ibis works have received critical recognition and in 2007 Cole was awarded the 2007 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, or "genius award," for poetry. Jerusalem, as the crossroads of the civilizations in the Middle East, has been central to their work. "Many of our books grow out of conversations we've had with people here, whether writers who live here or writers or translators or scholars who pass through. And of course the actual subject of most of our books is this place - broadly defined - itself." These include A Levant Journal by the Greek poet and Nobel Prize laureate George Seferis, and Saraya, The Ogre's Daughter, the final novel by the late Palestinian novelist (and Knesset member) Emile Habiby. Most of Ibis's readers are located in the US and Europe. "Because we publish in English, and because, unfortunately, the state of local book distribution and local bookstores is so sorry, our audience here is more limited. This is too bad, of course, since what we're doing concerns this place deeply," say Hoffman and Cole Even though Jerusalem boasts Israel's largest English-speaking population, the local bookshelves rarely stock a rich variety of English titles. The journal Arc 19, for example, is promoted and distributed through grassroots channels in Israel, like the event at the Yedidya Synagogue. "It's almost impossible to sell it [Arc 19] in shops here," says Beck. "When I went to two or three major chains, they said 'We can't take it on. If we put Arc in the window, then anyone producing English journals will ask for the same privilege.' It becomes almost impossible to sell it the usual way. That's why we have more than one launch party."