Few Jews know it, but the Torah translation they crack open after they slide into the pews of their synagogue or temple was published by the nation’s oldest nonprofit Jewish press: the Jewish Publication Society (JPS). Neither do they know that JPS nearly shuttered last year, but has found new life through a collaborative relationship with the University of Nebraska Press.
That partnership has allowed JPS to continue its mission of delivering classical Jewish texts into the hands of scholars, students, and ordinary synagogue-goers.
In its transition year, JPS and the University of Nebraska issued two books, but plans call for more next year, including a major milestone: the publication of a three-volume, 2,500-page anthology of ancient Jewish texts that did not make it into the TANAKH, or Jewish Bible. Outside the Bible will be released next December. In future years, the partnership plans to ramp up publication to between six and ten books a year.
Projects include commentaries on the Song of Songs, Lamentations, and the Psalms (five volumes); two additional volumes in its series on classical medieval commentaries on the Torah; and a potentially groundbreaking E-TANAKH project that will allow readers to search for commentaries on biblical passages from among five different collections.
“No one else would pick projects of this size because it’s not economically feasible,” said Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz, director and editor-in-chief of JPS. “This partnership is enabling us to move forward and bring classics of Jewish thought and history into the English-speaking world.”
A Unique Partnership
The JPS-UNP arrangement stands out amid the turbulence in the publishing world that has led dozens of large publishers to swallow up smaller presses. The seven-year agreement allows JPS to continue to acquire titles, while the university press assumes production, marketing, and distribution of the Jewish publishers’ releases.
How a secular university press, headquartered in Lincoln, Neb., and a religious publisher, based in Philadelphia, came together has much to do with relationships.
As JPS’ board considered its options more than a year ago, it investigated partnering with trade presses in the U.S. and Israel. Nebraska, which had two series devoted to Jewish studies--the Comprehensive History of the Holocaust and Studies in Anti-Semitism series--emerged as a possibility.
But the fact that Donna Shear, now director of the Nebraska Press, worked for JPS earlier in her career, helped clinch the deal. Shear said the collaboration, which includes dual fundraising for projects, has worked seamlessly. “Once our staff got used to the fact that some of the books open the other way, the reception was really positive,” she joked. (Books in Hebrew are read from right to left.) Shear and Schwartz, who hold conference calls every other week, said digital technology and frequent communication helped bind the two groups together.
“On the one hand, it’s an unlikely marriage,” said Schwartz. “On the other hand, the fact that a Midwestern university press would have the interest and the will to partner with a Jewish publisher is testimony to the openness and ecumenical nature of scholarship in the world today. That collaboration would not have been possible in a different era.”
The Fruit of the Union
This year’s releases include a translation from Hebrew of From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths and Legends by Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch, translated by Valerie Zakovitch (Dec.). JPS also published Judaism’s Greatest Debates: Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl by Schwartz in July.
In April, the collaborators will publish The Gods are Broken: The Hidden Legacy of Abraham by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, which examines how the Jewish tradition dealt with the idol worship that must have characterized Abraham’s family. Two other 2013 titles include a book about a secret magazine by the boys of the Terezin concentration camp, and a book on anti-Semitic statements on postcards.
But Torahs and TANAKHs remain JPS’ bread and butter. These Bible editions make up 50 percent of JPS’ sales, said Shear. They have a huge readership. Not only do the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements of American Judaism use JPS translations, so too do some modern Orthodox, as well as Jewish and Christian seminaries (the latter as part of their course offerings on Judaism). In addition, JPS licenses its Bible translation to Oxford University Press, publisher of The Jewish Study Bible.
Earlier this month, at an event in New York City’s Hebrew Union College, the publishing house celebrated the 50th anniversary of its successful Torah translation and the 20th anniversary of the passing of that translation’s chief editor, Harry M. Orlinsky. The 1962 edition of the JPS Torah was followed by the entire TANAKH in a 1988 bilingual edition.
JPS is now looking to the future. Although the collaboration led to major downsizing of its staff, JPS contracted with an online developer to work alongside Accordance, a Bible software firm, on the E-TANAKH. Schwartz described the venture, with its searchable commentary database, as “path-breaking,” though an earlier electronic product, the Tag TANAKH, has since been spun off to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which hopes to develop the social media aspects at the heart of the project.
An E-TANAKH prototype is expected within a year.