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Jewish Publication Society Sale Brings End to Era

The University Press of Nebraska’s purchase in September of the unsold inventory and publication rights to all of the Jewish Publication Society’s books effectively rings down the curtain on the oldest and most prestigious active Jewish publisher in the United States. It also marks the latest in a string of institutional “intermarriages” between Jewish and non-Jewish organizations.

Famed Authors: The Jewish Publication Society was once a giant house, pubishing works by famed authors like Israel Zangwill, shown here in 1913. Image by getty images

JPS will continue to develop and sign new titles as a separate imprint, but it will no longer publish, sell or distribute books on its own. Its success from now on depends on its non-Jewish partner: a secular university press headquartered in Lincoln, Neb.

When JPS was founded, back in 1888, the state of Nebraska was all of 21 years old, and the great university presses of Harvard, Yale and Princeton did not yet exist. The American Jewish community’s literary output was embarrassingly small, and mostly it consisted of prayer books, textbooks and sermons. American Jews of that time imported far more books than they created, and very little of what they did create was worthy of respect.

The establishment of JPS changed all that. Within 25 years, the not-for-profit organization had published more than 50 important titles, including an original best-selling novel by Israel Zangwill, a six-volume English-language history of the Jews by Heinrich Graetz, 14 volumes of the American Jewish Year Book and the first volumes of Louis Ginzberg’s magisterial “The Legends of the Jews.” In 1917 JPS issued a path-breaking Jewish translation of the Bible into English, a work that underscored the American Jewish community’s newfound scholarly prowess and boldly proclaimed its growing international prominence.

By the 1940s, Jewish book publishing had become a big business in the United States, and JPS faced numerous competitors. Rapidly expanding university presses, for example, accounted for more than twice as many Jewish books produced during that decade than JPS did. Two decades later, JPS was publishing only 2.26% of the nonfiction Jewish titles being put out in the United States. By contrast, university presses issued 11.53% — more than five times as many.

Nevertheless, JPS persevered, largely thanks to books that university presses would not deign to publish, such as the best-selling “Jewish Catalog,” updated Jewish Bible translations and a multivolume Jewish Bible commentary. At its best, JPS strove to be more than just a cultural foot soldier, marching in step with the times. With works like the catalog (which for a few years sold almost as many copies as the Bible), it sought to lead the way into uncharted cultural realms where no American publisher had ever ventured.

More than it succeeded, however, JPS stumbled. Faced with a raft of competitors eager to publish Jewish books — including mainstream presses, university presses and other Jewish presses — it had trouble finding its way.

For its centennial, in 1988, I wrote a history of JPS. It concluded with a series of “fundamental questions” that JPS grappled with but never resolved, such as: “What, first and foremost, were its aims and objectives, especially given the new and rapidly changing world of Jewish publishing?” “What obligations should it feel to the American Jewish community, to Jews everywhere, to Jewish scholarship, to its members — and which of these obligations should take priority?” What should be its relationship to others in the Jewish publishing field — competition, cooperation, or fallback?” “What types of books should it publish — should they be popular and timely or scholarly and timeless, books that members wanted or books that they should want, controversial books or those that represented a community consensus?” And if the answer is “a whole range of books,” how should priorities be determined, how should scarce resources be allocated, how should decisions be made, and at the most basic level, how should JPS guarantee its own financial solvency?

In the years that followed, JPS remained flummoxed by these questions. As the world of publishing consolidated, and online sales as well as ebooks came to dominate the marketplace, it found itself unable to compete and was increasingly left behind. The economic downturn only added to its financial woes. As its options narrowed, it found itself facing a stark and difficult choice: Find a publishing partner or go bankrupt.

Once upon a time, a Jewish organization in this position would have considered only potential Jewish partners, such as another Jewish publisher or a Jewish educational institution. No longer. Instead, following a trend that has grown increasingly common nowadays, JPS jumped into a relationship with a non-Jewish partner, the University Press of Nebraska. In so doing, it joined a parade of other Jewish institutions that in recent years have similarly “intermarried.”

This trend began back in the 1990s, when, under government pressure, Jewish and non-Jewish hospitals merged. A good example is the 1996 merger that created the “intermarried” Boston hospital known as Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. A similar merger created Barnes Jewish Christian Hospital, in St. Louis. Then, in 2004, the Young Men’s & Women’s Christian Association and Ohio’s JCC of Greater Toledo merged, reputedly the first-ever merger of two faith-based not-for-profit organizations with different religious backgrounds. More recently, we have seen the merger of Baltimore Hebrew University and Towson University, as well as the merger of the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center and Temple University. The University of Nebraska Press-JPS partnership takes us another step down this same path.

Relationships of this kind would have been unthinkable during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when anti-Semitism was so rampant. But today Jews seem confident — maybe too confident — that successful long-term relationships with secular or even avowedly Christian partners can be consummated without Jewish identity being lost. Whether that proves to be the case for JPS remains to be seen. In the meantime, even as we mourn JPS’s disappearance as an independent Jewish publisher, lovers of Jewish books should wish the new couple well.

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History.

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