Talking About Writing About Books

An Interview With the Editor of The Jewish Review of Books

By Jordan Michael Smith

Published February 11, 2010.
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At time when newspapers, magazines and journals are experiencing a crisis unprecedented in the history of print, launching a new publication devoted to Jewish issues is either a fool’s errand or a bold attempt to revive the minds of American Jews using some old-fashioned intellectual journalism.

New Edition: Abraham Socher, the editor of The Jewish Review of Books.
New Edition: Abraham Socher, the editor of The Jewish Review of Books.

Abraham Socher is the editor of The Jewish Review of Books, a quarterly journal that launches on February 15. Socher, chair of the Jewish studies program in Oberlin College’s department of religion, is both optimistic about the future of journals of ideas and opinion and well aware of the pitfalls that await any print publication in the 21st century.

Jordan Michael Smith:Where did the idea for The Jewish Review of Books come from?

Abraham Socher:There was an idea for a very similar publication 10 or 12 years ago that originated with the great Harvard Hillel Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, although I hadn’t known about that at the time. But for me personally it came when I started publishing things that were scholarly but pitched to a broader audience, not for academic journals. I did some things for the Times Literary Supplement, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Commentary, etc. and I found that there was no natural place whose niche and/or purpose was to publish serious essays on Jewish literary historical or philosophical topics.

And then sometime later I had a conversation with Eric Cohen, the director of the Tikvah Fund, and he was talking about launching or funding ambitious various new things in the broad field of Jewish studies, Jewish thought. And so I pitched him at some point early on this idea and it turned out also that Allan Arkush, a senior colleague of mine at Binghamton University, has also pitched him a similar idea. So we worked on it together. Two and a half years ago was the beginning of these discussions. As it goes with these things, they stopped and started for various reasons, in my case because of family complications. The Tikvah Fund made a firm commitment last year, but I couldn’t take advantage of it until my own semester ended. Really the bulk of the work on this — the design, the commissioning, the editing — has all happened over the last seven months.

Who is putting up the money?

The money is coming from the Tikvah Fund or, rather, an LLC subsidiary of the Tikvah Fund. And the Tikvah Fund, its money was ultimately set up and endowed by the late Zalman Bernstein.

What’s the motivation in this age for a print publication as opposed to an electronic one?

My sense is that magazines of ideas, which are willing to address a subject at as much length as is called for, which are willing to let writers be writerly, remain print publications. Even the best of the web-only magazines, say Slate or something, tend towards a shorter piece. A long Slate piece is 1500 words, 1000 words, whereas a long New Republic piece or New Yorker piece or New York Review of Books piece is 5,000-10,000 words. Putting aside issues of subscriber walls, these also often appear online on their Web sites. But at least at the moment, my sense is that people prefer to read them in print, and in fact, when they’re like me, if they get them online, what they end up doing is printing them out. Technology may well end up changing this. But for now, the kind of niche intellectual magazines remain [in print] like this. The great threat to print may be a far greater threat to newspapers and news magazines than it is to literary journals, journals of opinions and policy journals. Who knows for sure? But for now we’re in print, with a Web presence.

How will JRB be different than the many other publications that touch on Jewish issues, such as Forward or the New York Review of Books or Tablet?

The Jewish Review of Books is really Jewish. It’s unabashedly interested in Jewish things. One might also say — this is an overstatement — that it is unashamedly parochial. There are a wide range of Jewish things to be interested in, there are also moments to address books which raise questions which are relevant to one or another aspect of Jewish experience without being directly Jewish. Unlike The New York Review of Books, we don’t take on the whole intellectual universe. We’re the magazine for those that when they turn to the NYRB or perhaps the back pages of TNR, those wonderful pages edited by Leon Wieseltier, they’re especially excited when a Jewish book or issue is reviewed or discussed, and turn first to that. We’re the magazine for that reader. Tablet is just aimed at a somewhat overlapping but also a somewhat different audience. It’s a little more interested in current events and pop culture and with some exceptions, less interested in religion, scholarship and so on. That is, we’ll be like the NYRB, which publishes things which on occasion don’t merely report the news about scholarship, but actually advance scholarship. As does the Times Literary Supplement, that’s something we aspire to, that’s just not the business Tablet sees itself as being in, I don’t think.

Will the JRB have any specific politics?

I don’t believe in pigeonholing people, but I would say that in our first issue you get an idea of the kind of range we have, which is broadly center left to center right. But that was not some kind of deliberate positioning, just how the articles worked out. In this issue, nobody addresses an issue of domestic American politics, but there are two pieces that address Israel either internally or as a matter of foreign policy

Do you believe the JRB can make a profit?

The commitment form Tikvah is robust — it’s for five years. But nobody makes a profit in the world of magazines, least of all in with magazines of ideas. And least least [laughs] of all in this economic climate. And I believe the Tikvah Fund understands that. That being said, we do want to provide a magazine that fills a need and is good enough that people want it and are willing to pay for it. So we’re mindful of the market, but we’re not fooling ourselves into thinking we can turn a profit where almost no comparable publication is.

Jordan Michael Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C. He has written for Jewcy, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, the Columbia Journalism Review and other publications.

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