It's an old saying in Judaism: "May you live as long as Moses." Now that the Jewish Publication Society has reached the age of the great Jewish sage and leader, 120 years, it's setting out to do something he was unable to do — ensure its survival well beyond that.
This august occasion serves as what CEO and Editor in Chief Ellen Frankel called "a culmination and a new beginning" for the organization, as it reflects upon its accomplishments thus far and prepares for the numerous challenges that lie ahead in the world of publishing.
"Our core mission remains the same — to provide Jewish books in English, but we're moving into the digital age," said Frankel.
One person who certainly recognizes the significance of the milestone is Philadelphia native and Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna, who literally wrote the book on JPS — the historian penned the group's history 20 years ago when it celebrated its centenary. He noted that the organization's longevity was particularly notable, since two early incarnations (in the 1840s and 1870s, respectively) had failed. He said that, among other accomplishments, JPS had helped to create a market for Jewish books in America and helped shape the country as a major center for Jewish culture and learning away from Europe.
"JPS certainly played a very important role in changing that image," he explained, "in demonstrating that America could really seize the mantle of Jewish culture, and that from America would come forth great Jewish books, and that's extremely important."
While JPS was the nation's first major publisher of Jewish books, that's definitely not the case now, Sarna noted.
"JPS, in part, has been a victim of its own success, by which I mean that when they began they were the major publisher of Jewish books. They published highly significant novels of Jewish interest, the most-significant Jewish history books, and so forth.
"Obviously, the very success of those books led others to go into the so-called 'Jewish market,' and, today, I think JPS understands that, in many ways, it cannot compete for certain books with Random House, or some of the other major presses. But it does deserve a great deal of credit, it seems to me, for really creating a market for Jewish books."
The Way Ahead Looks Bright
As JPS prepares for its next 120 years, it's starting by building "Yavnet," which Frankel referred to as an online, "collaborative-learning platform." The name is an apt pun — a reference to the village of Yavneh, where, as Frankel said, "Judaism rebooted itself after the destruction of the second temple."
The first phase of the project will be a "tagged Tanach," putting the text online, and tagging it with links to commentary and supplemental material by scholars and laypersons.
"We're enlisting scholars to tag the Tanach according to their expertise, but also inviting the community — in the widest sense — to tag it." The alpha and beta launches — or aleph and bet launches — will take place in June and December of 2009, respectively, starting with the first 20 chapters of Exodus, with tags, notes and annotations from a committee of Biblical scholars.
Linking the Bible to the Web
"The functionality we're going to roll out will be able to link the Bible to other things on the Web," said Frankel, emphasizing that the format will allow users to "link — online — their lives to Torah."
Another major project on the horizon is The Lost Bible, planned for publication shortly after the turn of the decade. Comprised of translations left out of the Jewish Bible, including texts in Latin, Slavonic and Aramaic, Frankel called it "the lost library of second-temple Judaism."
More commonly known as the Apocrypha, the texts that will be included in The Lost Bible will be some of those which were left out of the Five Books of Moses — known to Christians as The Old Testament — when it was codified.
Frankel said the trio of editors behind the project has assembled 75 scholars on six continents, who are "either translating or modernizing translations of about 100 texts, and providing a commentary that restores these ancient Jewish texts to their Jewish setting."
JPS also will continue to push its "print-on-demand" service, which Frankel said has "allowed a niche publisher like JPS to keep books in print that we can produce one copy at a time."
The group is also gingerly moving into the world of e-books, including negotiations with Amazon to put its Tanach on Kindle, Amazon's e-book reader.
JPS recently celebrated its milestone with a gala reception in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center. The evening, attended by Mayor Nutter, among others, honored those who have served or been involved with the group through the years, including seven past presidents (presiding over the organization between 1973 and 2000), whose service equals a combined total of more than 250 years.
Frankel admitted that these are challenging times for publishers, citing competition from the Internet and other media. She said that JPS faces many of the same economic problems today it faced 100 years ago. But she's got 120 years of history at her back, and she remains optimistic.
"We will always publish print books, because there will always be a demand for them — especially in the Jewish world, because, on the Sabbath and on holidays, you can't turn your computer on," said Frankel.
"I think the way books are discovered, bought and read is changing, and there will be no going back. But I think there will always be books."