The Man Behind the Books

After a quarter-century in the rabbinate, Barry Schwartz is the new head of America’s oldest Jewish publisher.

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PHILADELPHIA—“I lost boxes of books and all 25 years of rabbinic correspondence to Hurricane Irene and a broken basement sump pump,” Rabbi Barry Schwartz tells JointMedia News Service mournfully. 

Rabbi Schwartz had moved from Cherry Hill, NJ, to Fort Lee, NJ, only a few weeks in advance of Hurricane Irene. After a quarter century in the rabbinate, he had amassed quite a substantial library. He laments that his younger colleagues are arriving at their rabbinic posts with fewer and fewer books. 

“They just don’t see the importance of building their libraries,” he says with pain in his voice.

Schwartz is a man who cares about Jewish books and wants to ensure their future, which is why he took on the helm at America’s oldest Jewish publishing house, Philadelphia’s Jewish Publication Society.

JPS began as a membership-based organization to which people bought subscriptions.  That model is no longer viable and in the fall, JPS announced its partnership with the decidedly non-Jewish University of Nebraska Press. Schwartz explained in an email that the “JPS imprint” will remain in this “publishing partnership” and that Nebraska will take “over the ‘back office’ operation of production, sales and marketing.”

Not all believe this was a good move for an independent publisher. Brandeis University’s Professor Jonathan Sarna, author of the history of JPS commissioned for its centennial, spoke of the arrangement as an “intermarriage” that should not have taken place between Jewish and non-Jewish organizations ((http://forward.com/articles/143236/).

Schwartz, as editor of JPS, is taking his place alongside such historically significant predecessors as Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold and writer and rabbi Chaim Potok. In fact, Schwartz is also a writer; his fourth book—Judaism’s Great Debates—will come out in spring 2012. He says that he “always loved debating” and has an appreciation for the great debates in Judaism; his latest volume sees Jewish ideas over times as a series of “makhlakot leshaim shamayim”—“worthy debates” which “endure for the sake of heaven.”

For the book, Schwartz chose a variety of historical debates from that of Moses and Korach, to King David and Nathan the prophet, to Hillel and Shammai, to the more modern discourse between the Baal Shem Tov (founder of the Hassidic movement) and Vilna Gaon.

Despite Schwartz’ passion for books, the mission of JPS and debate, he waxes particularly eloquent when speaking of one of his personal heroes, historical figure Manasseh ben Israel.  Ben Israel was a pioneer Jewish publisher in 17th-century Amsterdam who straddled many worlds. Schwartz said ben Israel bridged modernity “in thought and in activity” because he both  “collected handwritten manuscripts” and started the  “first printing press in Amsterdam—in his 20’s as a young man.” 

Schwartz is fascinated that “Amsterdam became the center for Jewish printing” in part because ben Israel embraced the scribal tradition, yet knew that printing would change the ways people understood the world.

Poised to take advantage of an era with a larger role for electronic publishing, Schwartz sees himself in a similar position to ben Israel’s—being able to love the printed book in addition to embracing the “new possibilities to enhance Jewish learning” that an e-book can facilitate.

Posted on November 28, 2011 and filed under Arts.