When the Jewish Publication Society joined forces with the University of Nebraska Press two years ago, many wondered if the venerable Philadelphia publisher was entering the final chapter of its storied history.
Instead, the move appears to have added a new spark to JPS. The organization just completed an ambitious anthology of ancient texts and has several other major undertakings in the works.
And just last week, the Jewish Book Council named a JPS book, Hatemail: Anti-Semitism on Picture Postcards by Salo Aizenberg, as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award’s visual arts category. (Another book with a Philadelphia connection was also named a finalist: Beth Sholom Synagogue: Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture by Joseph Siry. The winner in this category was Kabbalah in Art and Architecture by Alexander Gorlin.)
JPS last won a National Jewish Book Award in 2011 for The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky.
By then, however, “we were headed toward the economic cliff,” acknowledged Rabbi Barry Schwartz, who has served as JPS’ leader since 2011.“Through a restructuring, we have breathed new life into JPS. We are extremely excited.”
JPS has long specialized in producing Bible commentaries and other serious works that are accessible to a general audience. The nonprofit publisher is slowly rebuilding its catalogue.
The publishing house was founded in 1888, a time when virtually no Jewish books were being printed in America. Since then, it has published more than 250 books by such influential writers and thinkers as Nahum Sarna, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Mordecai Kaplan and Arthur Hertzberg. By one estimate, JPS has distributed more than 9 million books throughout its history.
But over the course of the 20th century, Jewish books began to appear from commercial houses and university presses, flooding the market with titles. That long-term trend, combined with the 2008 financial crisis, put JPS in a fiscal bind.
After longtime editor-in-chief Ellen Frankel retired in 2009, JPS didn’t begin any new book projects and published just a handful of titles for two years. When Schwartz was hired, the board tasked him with restructuring the organization. His efforts led to the deal that the larger University of Nebraska Press would assume all production, distribution and marketing of JPS manuscripts. Nebraska also acquired the rights to JPS’ impressive backlog of titles at a cost of $610,000.
For its part, JPS went from a staff of more than a dozen to a team of just four, most of whom now work part-time. The organization traded in the half-floor it occupied in the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City for a much smaller office.
But the upshot, according to Schwartz, is that JPS has been liberated from business, marketing and production concerns in order to focus almost exclusively on acquiring and editing book projects.
“We have freed ourselves to do one thing and one thing only, which is find and prepare manuscripts,” said Schwartz.
Rabbi Lance Sussman, the religious leader of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park who was the longtime chair of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press, called JPS “one of Philadelphia’s great and ongoing contributions to Jewish life in America and the world.”
“The partnership with Nebraska is highly understandable in the context of the business of book publishing today,” added Sussman. “Publishing is a tough business today; JPS is not only a survivor but a leader in its industry.”
But at least one well-known Jewish intellectual and prolific author, who did not wish to go on the record, said it remains to be seen whether JPS can remain relevant in today’s publishing marketplace.
After several years in which the output from JPS has been limited, things are picking up. Last month, it released Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture, published in three volumes. The decade-long effort is the work of 70 scholars from around the globe. They produced an anthology of Jewish writing that, according to Schwartz, offers “a tantalizing glimpse into the tumultuously creative world of the Second Temple era.”
JPS also just published A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales, the first book in English by Ruth Calderon, a member of the Knesset representing the new Yesh Atid Party. Calderon, who earned a Ph.D. in Talmud, has helped popularize Talmud study for secular Israelis.
According to Carol Hupping, managing editor, JPS expects to publish 10 books this year, compared to the 16 or 17 it used to publish annually. “We’re not out to publish quanity, but quality. We are very selective on what we take,” she said.
Other projects in the works include three Bible commentaries targeting three different groups: Bar and Bat Mitzvah students, Taglit-Birthright Israel participants and adult education classes.
Also in the pipeline is a follow-up to the 1959 classic The Zionist Idea by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. In addition to the well-regarded introductory essay by the late Hertzberg, the book featured excerpts from many of the most influential thinkers in the history of Zionism. But much has happened since then, from the rise of religious Zionism and the settler movement to the emergence of the Peace Now camp. Schwartz said the new version will include contemporary writings.
“It is just wonderful,” Schwartz said, to seek out “creative new works.”