An excerpt from the introduction to Orthodox by Design: Judaism, Print Politics and the ArtScroll Revolution, released this month by University of California Press

by Jeremy Stolow

Do you wish you could pray in Hebrew and understand what you are saying as you are saying it? Now you can, with ArtScroll’s Schottenstein Edition Interlinear Series.  It’s easy to pray with meaning in Hebrew with the new interlinear format developed by ArtScroll to give you maximum comprehension with minimum effort.   – ArtScroll Complete Catalogue (2006)

ArtScroll is a publisher known throughout the English-speaking Jewish world as a purveyor of handsomely designed, accessible, and uncompromisingly Orthodox print commodities, including bilingual prayer books and Bibles, rabbinic commentaries, legal manuals, historical works, novels, self-help books, and curricular material for Jewish education. The advertisement quoted above announces a new edition of ArtScroll’s highly popular Siddur, a liturgical text that in its various formats has sold roughly one million copies, making it arguably the most successful Jewish prayer book in the history of publishing.  Since its founding in 1976, ArtScroll has enjoyed a stellar career, in many ways parallel to a broader cultural shift that has seen an increasingly confident and unapologetic form of Orthodoxy assume a central position on the Jewish public stage.  Defined by some as “Jewish fundamentalism” or “ultra-Orthodoxy” but better referred to as Haredism, this movement promotes stringent interpretations of Jewish law, intensive study of Jewish texts, and submission to the authority of a narrowly defined rabbinic elite.

The expanding influence and visibility of Haredism in such varied domains as education, philosophy, law, entertainment, and politics point to one of the most pervasive struggles for legitimacy and authority within contemporary Jewish public life, its sources of knowledge and imagination, its bonds of affect, and its markets. The enthusiastic reception of ArtScroll books among diverse constituencies of Jewish readers can thus be read as a metonym of Haredism’s ascendance. For some, the spread of ArtScroll books epitomizes the Haredi assault on Jewish traditions stressing autonomous powers of reason, pluralism, and enlightened acculturation: a dangerous drift toward punctiliousness, interpretive rigidity, and unreflective obedience. But from another point of view, ArtScroll is understood as a vital tool for recuperating an authentic religious tradition and for helping pious Jews navigate the dangerous currents of narcissistic hedonism, empty relativism, and idolatry in the global present.

This book engages with the intellectual and political goals of ArtScroll’s Haredi editors and authors as mediated through their books.  It is equally concerned with the broader economic, ideological, and affective forces that animate the publisher and define its receptivity in discrete local contexts. What can one hope to gain from such a study? Some readers may find it odd, if not misguided, to devote sustained attention to a single publishing house and its readership. After all, ArtScroll is only one of several institutions dedicated to the expansion and legitimation of Jewish Orthodoxy (a label encompassing a startling array of doctrinal positions and cultural distinctions). Even within the relatively narrow confines of contemporary Jewish print culture, it is not immediately apparent what is so innovative, unprecedented, or consequential about ArtScroll books and the popularity they enjoy. There are many Jewish publishers, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, and many have existed in the past, both distant and recent. Jews are currently not the only people who produce and read books. And books, for that matter, can hardly be considered the only media with which both Jews and non-Jews interact in their everyday lives. Nevertheless, however parochial the ArtScroll story might at first appear, I propose that there is much to be gained from its close examination. Among other things, this study offers new insight into a phenomenon that has only recently begun to command attention in academic circles and arenas of public debate: the strategically decisive position of institutions, technologies, and practices of mediated communication within the embodied regimens and imagined worlds that constitute religious experience in the global present.

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Orthodox by Design aims not only to demonstrate that certain aspects of Jewish publishing merit greater attention than they have been accorded to date but also to shed further light on the increasingly intimate articulations of religion and media in the current historical juncture. Specifically, the case of ArtScroll invites reflection upon the ways in which the medium of the printed text has assumed a new status within Jewish public culture.

In the coming pages, I hope to demonstrate how ArtScroll evinces this trend. As we shall see, this publisher has had a considerable impact on the contemporary Jewish book market and on a variety of synagogal and communal institutions — to those extents revealing shifts in the structures of symbolic exchange that make up the contemporary English-language Jewish public sphere. While ArtScroll books seem to mark the advance of powerful new expressions of authority emanating from the so-called Religious Right, we shall also see how their consumption and use have empowered a significant Jewish population to attempt, in its own fashion, to reorganize the building blocks of religious imagination and knowledge, their theoretical sources, their modes of legitimation, and their relationship with patterns of everyday conduct and ritual performance. As the proper name for a body of discourse, a financial entity, a community of intellectual producers, and a collection of material artifacts, ArtScroll thus serves as an ideal site for tracking much broader shifts in modes of religious knowledge, practice, agency, and authority.

It provides a unique window into the processes whereby the advancing technologies, economic arrangements, and social systems for the production and consumption of texts are redefining the exercise of religious authority and legitimacy. And this in turn provides the basis for revisiting some widely held assumptions about Haredism, its cultural and political influence, and what some take to be its foreboding presence within contemporary Jewish public life.

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The title of this book, Orthodox by Design, is meant to draw attention to the tensions inherent in ArtScroll’s project and in the life of ArtScroll books in the public sphere of English-language Jewry.  The word design can and should be read here in several ways. From its Latin root, designare — to mark out or designate (from signum, a sign) — this term has always encompassed a range of activities of “working out,” whether in the sense of conceiving in the mind, contriving, planning, or intending (as in “They designed a good excuse not to go to work yesterday,” or “This room is not designed for loud music”), or something materialized in the form of a blueprint, a pattern, a sketch or a plan (as in “the design on his shirt, “ or “She contributed to the design of a new instrument”).

Running through all these definitions is the idea of aesthetic form but also the idea of function: the organization of social relations, embedded in things, that constitutes “society made durable,” as Bruno Latour once called it.

“Orthodoxy designed” is thus also Orthodoxy as it comes to be known through its material culture — in this case, the materiality of print commodities and the webs of semiosis and social interaction in which they are situated and that they in turn transform.  From this perspective, as I shall try to elaborate in this book, “design” is one of the key media in and through which scenarios of conception and production of ArtScroll books are articulated with scenarios of their consumption and use.  Orthodox by Design therefore seeks to cast the net as widely as possible for the analysis of ArtScroll books: to consider the processes of their conception and authorship; their modes of production and their materialization in specific physical, visual, and typographic registers; their means of distribution, marketing, and public consecration; the work of desire and acquisition; the activities of reading and reciting; and even the less frequently noted practices of transporting, displaying, storing, or disposing of books.  As we shall see, each of these arenas is part of a larger process of constituting Jewish Orthodoxy “by design,” and each points to some of the deep paradoxes that shape the public life of Haredism and the involvement of the Haredi intellectuals and cultural workers in activities of mediation and in the materiality of mediated communication.

This excerpt from Orthodox by Design is reprinted with permission from University of California Press.  For further information, visit the UC Press website.

Jeremy Stolow is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada.  He also sits on the International Advisory Board of the Center for Religion and Media, NYU.