Sunday, October 21, 2007

The First Jewish Publisher in America

Dr. Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism, p. 82:

The same year that The Law of God (1845), [Isaac] Leeser's five-volume, exquisitely produced Hebrew-English edition of the Pentateuch appeared, Leeser also founded America's first Jewish Publication Society, designed "to support the noble fabric of our faith." "The press is at our service," he announced in an address to the "Israelites of America." He hoped that the new society would solve the problem caused by the fact that "our people live dispersed over so wide a space of country that we are precluded from waiting upon all individually." The American Tract Society and the American Bible Society, he knew, had long since used the press to spread Protestantism's religious message. Now, showing that he too had assimilated the lessons of the market revolution, he sought to emulate "the plan adopted by our opponents" and to "profit by them." He proposed to "prepare and publish works to be placed in the hand of all Israelites" and listed two major religious objectives for his new society: first, to provide American Jews with a "knowledge of their faith," and second, to arm them with the "proper weapons to defend... against the assaults of proselyte-makers on the one side and of infidels on the other." The publication society produced fourteen small English-language volumes, each an approximately 125-page tract, but in 1851 a fire consumed its entire stock of undistributed books, and it went out of business.

Yet even as the society's literary effort went up in smoke, Leeser's Bible, prayer books, monthly magazine, and textbooks remained in print, in some cases well into the twentieth century. His strategy for revitalizing American Jewish life--his use of print media, his willingness to borrow successful techniques from non-Jews, his focus on education and aesthetics, and his commitment to communal defense--proved equally long lasting.

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