The ArtScroll Revolution: 5TJT Interviews Rabbi Nosson Scherman December 3, 2009 1:07 pm
The following excellent interview, conducted by Rabbi Yair Hoffman, appears in this week’s Five Towns Jewish Times, published by Mr. Larry Gordon:
As general editors of ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, Rabbi Nosson Scherman and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz have led the “ArtScroll Revolution,” a major transformation in the availability of Torah literature in English. Rabbi Scherman shared some thoughts with the 5TJT:
Rabbi Yair Hoffman: ArtScroll, especially in the publication of the English Gemara, has impacted Jewish history with their translations. Do the people involved in the production-the sponsors, the writers, all those who took part in it-realize the historical magnitude of the translation?
Rabbi Nosson Scherman: Some of us do realize the changes-that it created a new generation of Shas understanding, Shas-literate Jews. Some do not appreciate the magnitude of what was accomplished.
Y.H.: Do the Schottensteins realize what they have accomplished?
N.S.: It is an amazing accomplishment that the Schottensteins, who did not have the benefit of a yeshiva education, should realize the enormous need for the translation of Shas so that every layman would be able to have access to it. They once told us, “We used to be known as merchants. Now we are known all over the world because of the translation of the Talmud.”
Y.H.: I imagine it was hard, initially, to get haskamos for the project. Can you tell me what was involved?
N.S.: We went around to gedolim and discussed it with them and showed them samples of the proposed work. Some felt it was a very good thing. Others asked some very probing questions. The result was that all of the gedolim we spoke to gave us letters of approbation. In Israel, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, and Rav Elyashiv, yb’lct, both gave us tremendous encouragement. Both said that they could not write a haskamah, but that we could use their names and that they were behind it.
Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, didn’t write a written haskamah because he said, “Who am I to give a haskamah when my father-in-law, Rav Elyashiv, has lent his support to it?” He did say that 150 years ago, the gedolim supported a German translation of Shas called the Goldschmidt translation in order to combat the anti-Semitic notion that the Talmud was filled with hateful remarks about others. He continued that years ago gedolim supported such a translation for goyim, but now we need it for Jews. Rav Shach did have difficulties with it. He said, “It would make learning Gemara too easy.” Privately he said that he was troubled by it. Several gedolim communicated with him, and he said, “If they are taking responsibility for it then I won’t say anything publicly against it.”
Y.H.: Is there a plan in the works for also translating the Tosefos on Shas?
N.S.: Not at the moment. Maybe in five or ten years down the line, but meanwhile, no . . .
Y.H.: Is there a plan to translate the Shulchan Aruch itself?
N.S.: It is under discussion. Meanwhile, we have started on a Kitzur Shulchan Aruch project. Two volumes are out-you should get hold of it. It will be five volumes in all. This project also includes the rulings of the Mishnah Berurah and those of Rav Moshe Feinstein when they disagree with the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. There is also a lot more background information explaining the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch text itself. Whether we will go on to the full Shulchan Aruch is under serious discussion.
Y.H.: When ArtScroll embarks on a large new project, do you use any of the software out there that allow for new types of collaboration-where several authors and translators can work simultaneously on the same document or project? Do you use these new technologies?
N.S.: We do use e-mail, but not any of these new technologies, no.
Y.H.: A lot of people work with their computers wherever they go. They travel with them. They find carrying the Gemaras as rather unwieldy. Is there any thought on making the ArtScroll Gemaras available electronically? Even as a PDF?
N.S.: Eventually, yes; at some point it will definitely happen.
Y.H.: Do you have a possible timeframe on that?
N.S.: I can’t really answer that. It is not my area.
Y.H.: Where do you see ArtScroll going in the future?
N.S.: There will be other projects. The Yerushalmi completion is probably eight or nine years off. We also have the Ramban on Chumash. Just last year we did the Mishkan project. That was an interactive CD which is really quite remarkable. That is a must-see.
Y.H.: Yes, I know, I have that.
N.S.: We will be starting a major new project soon.
Y.H.: What might that be?
N.S.: It is not for public discussion just yet.
Y.H.: Do the Judaic Studies departments in the major universities order from you?
N.S.: Yes, many of them do. If they want to instruct their students in the Talmud, they really have no choice-the students are not equipped to use the Vilna Shas.
Y.H.: Would you ever consider putting the footnotes of the Hebrew Schottenstein Gemara into the Bar Ilan University CD-the one that people use to look up responsa, Rishonim, etc.?
N.S.: Well, when and if we would go digital we would probably do so on our own and not go on another one. So the answer is probably not.
Y.H.: How many total Schottenstein Gemaras were sold, roughly?
N.S.: Well over one million individual volumes.
Y.H.: Wow. I am not sure, but I think I noticed that on the smaller Gemaras the font is larger percentage-wise to the actual area of the total sefer than the bigger volumes. Is that true?
N.S.: I believe that it is, the margins were adjusted.
Y.H.: Do you ever redo the older Gemara? The original volumes that you first started with?
N.S.: Yes, absolutely. Every new edition has corrections. All of them had typos. Some of the paragraphs were rewritten for content, too. Two of the earlier ones had some larger rewrites. It took a couple of years to develop the system we have now. In addition, we made some changes to the format of the earlier ones-improvements like that. We are never just content to reprint.
Y.H.: Since ArtScroll has come out, there have been new Gemaras in Hebrew, like the Shas Lublin and the Mesivta. They are similar in style to the old “green books” called the Otzer Meforshei HaTalmud. Are these looked at when ArtScroll does their next edition of the Gemaras?
N.S.: No, not really. Their contribution is entirely different. They go through different shitos of Rishonim and Acharonim. Our format is different. We are presenting the Gemara according to Rashi and raising any difficulties and answers entailed in that.
Y.H.: There is some overlap, though, isn’t there?
N.S.: True. But no, we do not consult them.
Y.H.: How have the Conservative and Reform movements looked at the Schottenstein? Have they adopted its use-notwithstanding the Torah-true editorship of the Gemara?
N.S.: Yes, there is quite a lot of that. In fact, there are many Jews who are not observant who study the Talmud now on account of ArtScroll.
Y.H.: What is the most remote location that you ever sent an ArtScroll Gemara?
RH: Hong Kong and Shanghai. I have also been told that there are universities in Japan that use the Talmud. There are non-Jewish scholars in Japan who believe that the Talmud is the secret to the wisdom of the Jewish people, and they now study the Talmud. We got a call once from someone in Tasmania. There is a small Jewish community there with less than 300 families. They made a siyum there on one masechta. The caller said it was probably the first siyum on a Gemara in Tasmania in his lifetime.
Y.H.: What was the most interesting encounter with a reader that ArtScroll ever had?
N.S.: We one received a question from one of the readers. He had a very good question on the Gemara. The call was transferred to one of the editors. He answered, “You asked a very, very good question. It is found in a gloss of Rav Akiva Eiger. You can find the question in such and such a place.” The man responded, “Rabbi, you don’t understand-I can’t read Hebrew . . .”
Y.H.: What about variant texts? Do you just go with the text in the Vilna Shas or do you use manuscripts and the several Dikdukei Sofrim (ed. by Rabbi Rabbinowitz) at all?
N.S.: Oh yes, frequently. On the Bavli we do so only occasionally, but on the Yerushalmi, we use many, many variant texts. We have a whole peirush identifying the exact text.
Y.H.: Were you given any guidelines by gedolim as to what to include in the footnotes?
N.S.: Not that much, actually. They had confidence in the people working on it to do a good job. The fact is from the start we followed pretty much these same guidelines.
Y.H.: Which have greater sales-the English edition or the Hebrew edition in Israel?
N.S.: In terms of total sales, the English still sells more than the Hebrew. In terms of Hebrew Gemara sales in America versus Hebrew Gemara sales in Israel, they are at the same level. And, of course, English in America is much more than in Israel.
Y.H.: I have noticed that in America the Gemara is called the ArtScroll Gemara but in Eretz Yisrael it is called the Schottenstein. Why is that?
N.S.: Yes, it is funny, isn’t it? I think that it is because ArtScroll existed in America for 15 years before the Gemaras came out. The name “ArtScroll” meant nothing to them in Eretz Yisrael. When the Gemara did come out there it said, “Mahadur Schottenstein” in big bold letters on the cover. A good analogy is that no one says, “Avenue of the Americas.” They say, “Sixth Avenue”-even though the street signs say “Avenue of the Americas.”
Y.H.: I have encountered a number of choshuva maggidei shiurim, roshei yeshiva, and rabbanim who use the ArtScroll Gemaras. Yet it is kept out of sight-in an upstairs bookcase, in an inner shelf. Do you have any thoughts or comments on this?
N.S.: There are plenty of roshei yeshiva who say it out in the open that they do use the ArtScroll Gemara. There is one rosh yeshiva who says, “I have very limited time to do the daf hayomi, and I do use it. I also look at it to help prepare my shiurim.” He says it quite openly.
Rav Elyashiv goes through the ha’aros in the Hebrew edition when he is learning on his own to see if he missed anything and to jog his memory. He is not ashamed of it. He even keeps it on his desk. Rav Shteinman says a shiur in the Yerushalmi. He is saying his shiur on Yerushalmi from the ArtScroll Gemara itself. Big people are not ashamed to say that they rely on something. Small people hide it. It is like women ask for directions; men are too proud to ask sometimes.
Y.H.: What, other than the Talmud Bavli, do you feel ranks among ArtScroll’s greatest accomplishments?
N.S.: Looking far ahead into the future, the Yerushalmi is the work of greatest impact. It is now very learnable. We started a French edition-there are about a dozen volumes out now.
Y.H.: Yes, I have been meaning to ask that. Why did you start with a French edition? It cannot be because of sales.
N.S.: It was more of a public service. The French-speaking Torah community is very small. People felt that if we didn’t do it, Torah study in French would just come to a halt.
Y.H.: Speaking of expensive, how is it that the price of an ArtScroll is so modest?
N.S.: People in universities have asked us, “How do you produce a Gemara that sells for $40? A textbook that we produce is usually well over $100.” The answer is fundraising. One of the main purposes of our fundraising is so that we could present the Gemara at a reasonable price to people.
Y.H.: Any thoughts on making some sort of a Gemara forum, like a Wikipedia for Shas?
N.S.: No, not really. The problem is that in such a project there are so many errors and inaccuracies. I once saw something there [Wikipedia] about where I went to yeshiva and where Rabbi Zlotowitz studied, and it was completely inaccurate.
Y.H.: Speaking of that, what is your background? I imagine that you learned at Torah VoDaas, but where else?
N.S.: I learned in Torah VoDaas and in Beis Midrash Elyon. I was born in Newark, New Jersey. I started off in public school and went to Torah VoDaas as a dormitory student when I was about ten years old. I was a rebbi for eight years in “Torah VoDaas of Flatbush.” It later became Torah Temimah. And I was principal in Stolin for six years. Then came ArtScroll.
Y.H.: If I remember correctly, ArtScroll started off publishing fancy high-end kesubos…
N.S.: Yes, ArtScroll’s name came from that. Meir Zlotowitz had a company that was involved in such printing.
Y.H.: How did you get started, though?
N.S.: It happened after a tragedy. Meir Fogel was a rebbi in a yeshiva who was a close friend of Meir Zlotowitz. He passed away in his sleep one night as a young man. Meir Zlotowitz wanted to do something in memory of his friend. He had the idea of doing a translation and commentary of Megillas Esther that would be completed by the sheloshim. He asked me to edit it and add an introduction-which turned out to be the first ArtScroll publication. It caught on and went through many printings before the first Purim. There was nothing like this before. It was a need that had not been recognized. We were encouraged by Rav Moshe and Rav Yaakov to continue such work.
Y.H.: So would it be fair to say, “No Meir Fogel, no ArtScroll?”
N.S.: Yes, that is a fair statement.
Y.H.: Can you tell me more about him? Was he married? Any children?
N.S.: Married with no children. That made it particularly tragic. He was a rebbi in Toras Emes.
Y.H.: How did you get together with Meir Zlotowitz? He was a graduate of MTJ and working. You were in Stolin.
N.S.: ArtScroll did brochures too. Someone told him that I could write copy. So we got together on a few projects. In chinuch, everyone needs an additional means of parnasah. That was my side income. Rabbi Zlotowitz, though, was the founder of ArtScroll and is still our dynamo. He is amazingly creative and dedicated.
Y.H.: I see your son occasionally at Yeshiva Tiferes Yisroel in Flatbush. He is clearly Stolin. How did you become Stolin if you started off in public school in Newark?
N.S.: My son is more Stolin than I.
Y.H.: So are you Stolin because of the job that you had then?
N.S.: Yes, that is a fair statement. Hashem has mysterious ways. So I and two of my sons became Stoliner chassidim.
Y.H.: How did you get such a strong background in English language skills?
N.S.: Yeshivos in general in those days had stronger general-studies departments than they have today. A very important influence was my friendship with Rabbi Nisson Wolpin and Rabbi Mendel Weinbach. They were two of my classmates, and we used to correspond. Rabbi Wolpin was from Seattle and Rabbi Weinbach was from Pittsburgh. During the summers we used to write letters. Does anyone correspond today? We wrote to each other-that helped. We tried to outdo each other; we were big-shot teenagers. The only way to learn how to write is to write. You know that. That is your craft. But it was those correspondences that helped a lot.
Y.H.: I have noticed that the word “ArtScroll” has taken on a new connotation in some circles. It has replaced the expression “highfalutin.” I have heard people say, “I can’t read that! It is written in ArtScroll English”-meaning with too high a vocabulary. Do you have any comment about that?
N.S.: We try as much as possible to avoid complex terminology. Simplify, simplify, simplify. I do try to avoid hefty words. When I edit others, I try to simplify what they are saying. If people feel that our English is not intelligible, it reflects the fact that they just don’t know English. It’s the American educational system.
Y.H.: Some have suggested that simplifying it even more will yield even greater understanding. It has been proved that if one dumbs down the English in hospital brochures it will actually save lives. Are there any plans for simplifying some of your texts and translations?
N.S.: We have been talking about that over the years. Someone is working on a sample of a Chumash commentary for children ages 10 to 14. A very simple translation-clear and with a simple commentary.
Y.H.: So there is thought to do that to the Gemara? An ArtScroll middle-school edition? Such as the perakim that are taught to younger children in grades 5 through 8? That might sell like hotcakes . . .
N.S.: It is not in the works but may well happen.
Y.H.: Rabbi Scherman, it has been a pleasure talking with you. Continued hatzlachah!