The small print

An author believes we can learn how Orthodox American Jews develop their faith through ArtScroll works.

Orthodox by Design book cover 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Orthodox by Design book cover 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In studying this new book on the ArtScroll publishing empire, I can honestly say that I have lived through several eras of Hebrew- English translation. The first included the linear Hebrew-English editions of the siddur, the Pentateuch and the Bible prepared by Rev. Joseph Magil of Philadelphia at the beginning of the 20th century. The second was the Soncino English translation of the Babylonian Talmud completed in England before World War II.
The third are the 1,200 works in the ArtScroll series including the Complete Siddur, the Stone Chumash, the Schottenstein Talmud, the Kosher By Design cookbooks and a multitude of other volumes and religious items fashioned, according to Orthodox by Design author Jeremy Stolow, to match the haredization of American Jewry.
What the author, a professor at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, has done, in his words, is to examine “ArtScroll as an assembly of material artifacts: more specifically, of industrial print commodities.”
He believes that we can learn how American Jews develop their faith through the ArtScroll works, possessing all the teaching tools provided by the great rabbis who have carefully fashioned their messages. Then it will be seen how the readership is carefully taught by the manner in which the press offers its representation of Judaism.
In his book Stolow goes in the following direction. “Rather than treating fundamentalism as simply a matter of ideological indoctrination or directly coerced behavior, Orthodox by Design proposes a different approach to the study of religious authority.”
What the author demonstrates is that this publishing company seeks to show “how religious authority is exercised and how it is transformed through the multi-layered tissues of affect, technology and institutionally coordinated actions that are redefining the place of the media in the world today.”
Interestingly enough, the American military first used media in transmitting religion. During the Korean War, the Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Catholics were able to use their budgets for soldiers in most innovative ways. Aside from the printed materials, slide presentations were developed that helped strengthen the faith of the American soldiers. These techniques were also utilized in the “Character Guidance” lectures on morality. During the Vietnam War creative Jewish chaplains wove together religious teaching materials that captured the attention of the young troops.
The ArtScroll phenomenon began in 1976 with the publication of the Book of Esther with translation and notes. The 20,000 copies printed sold almost immediately. Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, the initiators of the work, made it clear in their introduction that this edition of a biblical text represented the traditional approach and should be understood as such. It seems fairly clear in Stolow’s eyes that the English language is a new lingua franca for quite a number of American Jews. In a fascinating manner this print house assists Jews to come under “the umbrella of authority.”
For all the readers and users of the many Orthodox works that now exist, what Stolow has done, in his book, is to focus on this extensive publication industry of which ArtScroll is a major component and show its role in the haredization of North American Jewry. More and more people are responding to the ArtScroll call for the observance of mitzvot in a very rigid fashion.
As ArtScroll volumes roll off the production line, as the Stone Chumash is used on Shabbat, as the Schottenstein Talmud encourages study groups, it is clear that the life of the English-speaking Jew has changed significantly. ArtScroll has made the publication of books a part of hiddur mitzva – beautifying the commandment component of Judaism. The innovative, colorful Kosher by Design cookbooks are aimed at raising the act of eating to an even higher religious level.
Stolow has opened the doors to the three-and-a-half-decade enterprise of this spiritual printing phenomenon. Now we can sit back and see what future steps ArtScroll takes.