11 May The Artscroll Revolution An Exclusive Interview with the General Editor, RABBI NOSSON SCHERMAN
As general editors of ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications,
Rabbi Nosson Scherman and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz zt”l have led the “ArtScroll Revolution,” a major transformation in the availability of Torah literature in English. They both changed the Jewish publishing industry 45 years ago with the publication of their first volume, a commentary on Megillas Esther. No one could have dreamt that four and a half decades later, over 2,000 titles, seforim, a million siddurim, and a complete Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi would emerge from ArtScroll. Last week Ari Hirsch from The Jewish Vues had the honor and the privilege to interview Rabbi Scherman in his home in Flatbush.
Name: Rabbi Nosson Scherman
Born: 1935 in Newark, New Jersey
Family: Children: Reb Yitzchok Zev, Reb Ephraim,
Reb Avrohom, Mrs. Nechama Friedman, Mrs. Chaya Sutton, Mrs. Malkie Weinberger, Mrs. Libby Glustein,
Mrs. Sori Groner, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Rebbetzin’s a”h Name: Mrs. Chana Scherman a”h
Currently lives in: Flatbush
Currently Davens at:
Rabbi Hillel David’s Shul and Rabbi Landau’s Shul
Yeshivas/Education Growing Up:
Torah Vodaath & Beis Medrash Elyon
Jobs before ArtScroll: Rebbie and General Studies Principal at Torah VoDaas of Flatbush, later known as Yeshiva Torah Temimah, 1963-1971. Principal at Yeshiva Karlin Stolin of Boro Park 1971-1977
Title at ArtScroll: General Editor
Year ArtScroll Started: 1976
Amount of Volumes ArtScroll has published: Millions
First ArtScroll Book Ever Published & Year:
Megillas Esther, 1976
Number of people that currently work for ArtScroll:
Hard to say, people who are writers and editors work through the net and email that are from
Lakewood, Israel, and even France
First ArtScroll Headquarters were located at:
5th avenue in Manhattan for a little while, then Coney Island Avenue between Avenues P and Q for many years and for about 30 years on 2nd Ave. in Brooklyn
Current ArtScroll Headquarters located at:
313 Regina Ave, Rahway, NJ 07065
Number 1 all time ArtScroll Book/Sefer seller:
The ArtScroll Siddur- over a million sold
Number of ArtScroll Chumashim sold:
Over 3/4 of million
Number of Schottenstein Gemaras sold:
Over two million individual volumes
Cost to make the Schottenstein Shas:
Over $23 million dollars
In short, how did ArtScroll start?
ArtScroll began when a very close friend of Rav Meir Zlotowitz zt”l, a young man in his 30’s named Rabbi Mair Fogel, passed away in his sleep. He left no children. Meir wanted to do something in his memory. Meir was a very imaginative person, one of the most innovative people I have ever met in my life. He wanted to do something more than a plaque somewhere in Israel. He had the idea of doing a translation and commentary of Megillas Esther that would be completed by the sheloshim. I was the principal of the Stoliner Yeshiva in Boro Park at the time. He asked me to edit and write an introduction. He finished his job on time, but it took me longer. It came out that year right before Purim. It had unprecedented success; it sold almost 25,000 copies, which never happened before in any English language Torah publication. In retrospect, it was the cliche “An idea whose time has come.” Two generations of Americans who had gone to yeshiva, girls who had gone to Bais Yaakov, could read Hebrew but it wasn’t their first language. Here they had something in English, attractively packaged with state of the art graphics. It was affordable and people just took to it. The original plan was a one shot thing and a tribute to the friend. But the response was so enormous and gratifying that Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Meir’s Rebbe) and Rav Gifter zt”l, among others, urged us to continue. Obviously there was a need for such work and we would do the other four megillas, in a little over a year. The first year I kept my position in the Stoliner Yeshiva. I wrote and edited at night and in the afternoon. After the first year, I went full time with ArtScroll. It kept on growing and growing .
Where did you learn to write?
(laughing) Nobody taught me how to write. To a certain degree it has to be inborn. I give a lot of credit to two of my very best friends during my mesifta years; Rabbi Mendel Weinbach (who became the Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Somayach in Eretz Yisrael) and Nissan Wolpin (long time editor of the Jewish Observer). Nissan was from Seattle, Mendel was from Pittsburgh, and I was from Newark. During the summer we used to correspond and I give a lot of credit to that. People don’t write letters anymore, but we wrote to each other and we tried to impress each other. I learned a lot from that.
How did you meet Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz zt”l? He originally did graphics, invitations, brochures, and illuminated scrolls. He had someone working for him, Avi Shulman, a great personality himself. I wrote something for The Jewish Observer about the Chofetz Chaim going to Vienna for the first Kenessia Gedolah. Meir read it and he liked it and wanted to meet the person who wrote it. Avi said, “He’s my friend!” So he introduced us.
Most partnerships in business fall apart. What would you say is the secret that kept your relationship with Rabbi Zlotowitz zt”l? Mutual respect and very warm friendship. And we were not competitors. I could not do what he did, he could not do what I did. We were a team. You’re right! Most partnerships do not last. Ours lasted forty years till he passed away and now it’s continuing with his son Gedalia who is doing a phenomenal job. He stepped right into his father’s position and ArtScroll didn’t lose a beat. There is a third partner, Rabbi Sheah Brander. He is a graphics genius and a talmid chochom who gives a Daf Yomi shiur. We were together from the start and still are.
What’s the story behind the Mesorah Heritage Foundation? We had a visitor one day named Joel Fleishman. At the time he was the first senior vice president of Duke University. Duke is one of the top universities in the country and he was number two or three in Duke. He came to our office and introduced himself just to say thank you. He was Orthodox; he read our books, enjoyed them, and learned a lot from them. So he came to say thank you. In the course of the conversation he asked how we produce such quality work at such a phenomenal price. A college textbook at that quality costs $100. This costs $20 . How do you do it? So we said we work long hours and often have to borrow money. He told us he had been at Yale and was now at Duke and knew how university presses operated. He told us we couldn’t do this without a not-for-profit foundation to pay for the scholars and editors to produce the manuscripts and then Artscroll could do the publishing.
So he got the tax attorney of Duke pro bono. The two of them created the Mesorah Heritage Foundation and had it approved by the IRS. The board of trustees of the foundation includes Professor Fleischmann, James Tisch, the Chairman and CEO of Loews Corp, Joseph Shenker, chairman of Sullivan and Cromwell, and. and other people of similar caliber. They are very very hands on. A more recent member of the board is Sam Astrof who used to be CFO of the New York Federation. They make sure that there’s an arm’s length relationship between the Foundation and ArtScroll. The Foundation pays for the scholars, writers, and editors, and the ones who prepare the manuscript. Then ArtScroll publications take over after that. We are two separate entities that cooperate together.
What are you most proud of related to ArtScroll? The Shas. Seventy three volumes. The Siyum Hashas at MetLife Stadium had 90,000 plus 20,000 at Barclays Center, plus who knows how many were watching on video hookups. At least half of them were using the ArtScroll Shas. It made history and thanks to Jay Schottenstein and many others who contributed and dedicated, it really changed the course of Jewish history.
Does the Schottenstein family realize what they have accomplished? 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 elucidation 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.”
This past year Klal Yisrael lost a lot of Gedolim. How does ArtScroll decide which Gedolim to write about? Some are obvious, like Rav Dovid Feinstein zt”l of course, who was extremely close to us. For the most part we are not in a position to fund biographies. We have to do a lot of fundraising to pay for our mission projects – Shas, Sefer Hachinuch, and many other seforim like that. We are not in a position to pay high class writers to do biographies. For the most part there are people who undertake to pay the writer. Then we take over to do the editing, typesetting, and whatever else is necessary. The work has to be subsidized.The Orthodox market is not that big. Not big enough to support non profit organizations. If Megillah Esther sold 25,000, that was the all time best seller. Not big enough to support non profit organizations. Example – Metropolitan Opera. Museum of Art. Every university has funding. The market place cannot support scholarly or artistic institutions. They must have the ability to raise tax-free funds.
Do you have any regrets regarding ArtScroll? I have one that comes to mind immediately. R’ Meir Zlotowitz wrote a commentary on Bereishis. It originally came out in six volumes and now it’s printed in two. There’s nothing like it in any language. I had the privilege of editing and writing overviews. If only he had been able to continue writing Sefer Shemos and the rest of Chumash. He loved the work, but ArtScroll became bigger and needed him to manage it and raise money and keep things going. That’s a big loss. It was a really significant loss to Klal Yisroel that he was not able to continue his writing on Chumash.
Is there someone that you/ ArtScroll asked to write a sefer that turned you down? We had wanted to do a biography on Rav Aaron Kotler zt”l. People who were talmidim who were close to the family felt that no one could do justice to R’ Aaron. They were right. However, there should be a biography about him. It hurt us that we couldn’t do it because it should be done. One of his talmidim put together a collection of things about R’ Aaron, but it’s not written in a popular way. It should’ve been a bestseller.
We have biographies about R’ Moshe Feinstein zt”l and R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l. And the books bring them to life! There’s one about R’ Yisroel Belsky and it’s a magnificent piece. Someone close to him funded the work. Just a few weeks ago a talmid of his told me he read it three times. It brings his Rebbie back into his life. I feel very proud that ArtScroll has a share in something like that. More recently we published biographies of R’ Dovid Trenk and R’ David Grossman of Migdal HaEmek. They are enormously popular.
Which person has written the most books for ArtScroll? Rabbi Shea Twerski wrote the most books for Artscroll. Approximately 40 books.
How did you meet Rabbi Paysach Krohn?
Meir Zlotowitz knew him well. The two of them had the idea of doing the book on bris milah, which Paysach wrote and I edited. I told Paysach I thought he had a lot of talent as a speaker. I encouraged him to speak at Camp Bnos for one Shabbos every summer, which he did, and it took off. Rabbi Krohn is #1 on the A list these days. We remain very close friends. I edit his books so we are in constant contact.
Have book sales dropped or plateaued?
Really good books will always sell well.
What does well mean?
Well means for example- R’ Grossman’s new bio has sold 25,000 copies by now and it’s still going strong. Artscroll Chumash has sold at least 3/4 million copies and it still has a very respectable annual sale. Shuls need to replenish. People are still buying it. Other books will break even. Very good popular books will sell well. Torah publications sell well, but not as well. Shas is the exception because if you learn Gemara you’ll need it. Sefer Hachinuch is marvelous. We have two relatively new sets of Mishnayos that were completed in the last year or two. The English, called “Mishnah Elucidated” is very popular and an excellent work and the Hebrew Ryzman Mishnayos is fantastic and a best seller in Eretz Yisrael. So things like that will sell. If someone is a serious learner he needs serious sefarim. Others are less popular.
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?
Yes, it is funny, isn’t it? I think it’s 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 and it said, “Mahadurat Schottenstein” 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.”
Does ArtScroll look at Torah websites like TorahAnytime as competition? You have to understand the mission statement of Artscroll. On the one hand, it’s a business because we have to pay salaries, mortgages, we have to stay alive, so we have to do better than break even. But the mission isn’t to be rich. I’ll prove it to you. Towards the beginning of Artscroll, R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l said it would be a tremendous thing to do Divrei Hayomim because there was no extensive commentary
Even in Hebrew. It did not break even and never will. We did it because R’ Yaakov felt it was important. We’ve done other projects because we felt they were important or Gedolim had told us to do it. If we concentrated on only seforim that we could be sure would be highly profitable, then a lot of our books would never have been published. We want Torah to be spread. I had a career before Artscroll and so did Meir Zlotowitz. We went into this because we felt a sense of mission and sense of responsibility.
How often do you go these days to ArtScroll headquarters? What does a typical day for Rabbi Scherman look like? Since I’m a senior citizen, I don’t drive highways anymore. I go into the office 3 times a week. I work from home the other three days. When I go to the office, we have someone who lives nearby so I go with him. He drives my car. It’s not fair to have the expense of wear and tear on his car. We leave about 10 after 8. We get there by 9 and we’re there till about 5:30, quarter to 6. When we were in Brooklyn I’d be there from 8:30 – 7. But now I can’t have someone stay late because I want to stay late!
What’s next for ArtScroll?
Artscroll has seforim on all of Tanach, Gemaras, Mishnayos etc. We are working on several new major projects. The Sefer Hachinuch is now being done in Hebrew. Gemara Yerushalmi is almost finished in both Hebrew and English. Zera Shimshon is a classic we are working on that was almost forgotten for 200 years and now we’re bringing it back. Yesod V’Shoresh HaAvodah. Ein Yaakov. Tosafos. Many seforim of R’ Chaim Kanievsky; his five volumes on Chumash, Shabbos, Haggadah, etc. R’ Krohn is also finishing a sefer on the Yomim Noraim. And several others.
How has ArtScroll embraced the 21st century?
B”H for Shabbos, there will always be Jewish books. In the non-Torah world, newspapers are dying. We embrace the 21st century. Thanks to the internet, we are able to have writers in Eretz Yisrael and Lakewood who can send in material using modern technology for the sake of Torah. When we first started out, if you wanted to do something in both Hebrew and English, you had to type the Hebrew words backwards because all the computer programs went the English way. There were two programs in the whole world that went both ways. One was created for Saudi Arabia and we were able to get the other one. The company is out of business, but since then other companies have picked up the slack. There’s a lot of competition today. If you go into any seforim store, there are shelves and shelves of Torah literature in English. Some wonderful, some awful. There’s so much available today. It’s a challenge. We are careful to do things that we consider to be of high quality. Whereas 30 or 40 years ago there were so few English language Torah publications of this caliber that anything that came out sold a lot of copies. Today that’s a rarity. The R’ Grossman biography that just came out is flying off the shelves, but that’s an exception. It’s definitely challenging and difficult today. We respond to the need and one thing that is a relatively new innovation is cookbooks. There’s a tremendous demand. Now some of our cookbooks are near the top of Amazon’s list!
How does it feel to know that you and Rabbi Zlotowitz are considered to many the Rabbeim of Klal Yisrael?
I’m not too happy about it because I know my deficiencies. I’d rather have someone say that I’m a gadol b’Torah, but nobody will say it because it’s not true. It feels good when someone says that the ArtScroll siddur changed their lives. It’s interesting we hear this most often out of town. B’H there is so much Torah and so many opportunities to learn. Out of town you see ArtScroll has made a difference even more, but ArtScroll has made an impact for the Jewish nation and Klal Yisrael. I feel proud to be a part of it; Meir envisioned it and kept it going. He carried the responsibility and took me along for the ride and I’m very happy about that.
FUN QUESTIONS WITH R’ NOSSON SCHERMAN
If you can have an hour chavrusa with anyone from the beginning of time, who would you want to learn with?
The obvious answer would be one of great gedolim, but I wouldn’t know what they were talking about! So, I’d say someone I can learn with and grow with together, such as my chavrusa, Chaim Leibel. We have been chavrusas for over 60 years and we still learn together once a week on the phone.
If you could be a fly on the wall anytime in the history of mankind and witness something, when would you want to be in the room when something happens?
Ma’amad Har Sinai
What’s a middah that all of Klal Yisrael needs to work on?
Eradicate machlokes and sinas chinam. I give Michael Rothschild a world of credit for making people conscious of Shmiras Haloshon. Lashon Hara is still alive, but not nearly as much as used to be. And Klal Yisroel has a lack of unity. It’s easy to criticize others. We have to appreciate the maalos of other people and not look at their chesronos.
What was your wife’s A’H favorite flower?
I don’t know. My wife loved flowers. I never cared so much for flowers, but I used to buy them for her because she loved them.
Post Gemara/Shas, who are the three most influential Jewish people?
I can’t say just three. The Rambam, Bais Yosef, Shulchan Aruch, Rashi, Baal Shem Tov, and the Vilna Gaon.
What is your favorite Artscroll Sefer?
I use the Rabbi Joseph Elias original Artscroll Haggadah. I think it’s the best haggadah there is. Of my own work – The ArtScroll Siddur and the Stone Chumash.
What is the most difficult Mesechta?
Traditionally they say it’s ANI -Aruvin, Nidah & Yevamos, but there are a lot of difficult mesechtas. My chavrusa and I finished Kereisos recently – a really difficult mesechta. Every mesechta is a challenge.
What is your favorite Mesechta?
I don’t know enough to choose a favorite.
Who’s your favorite Person in Tanach?
Dovid Hamelech. The reason is that Dovid had the hardest life of all the seven shepherds. From earliest youth his brothers felt that he was not legitimate. Shaul tried to kill him. Many of the shevatim did not accept him. He was always involved in wars. Shaul and his own son tried to kill him. He didn’t just overcome these obstacles- he grew from them and became Dovid HaMelech.
If you can have three dinner guests, anyone from the beginning of time to sit at your Friday night Shabbos table, who would you invite?
I wish my wife could be here. I can’t give any names. I would say that a person is put into this world to learn and to grow. I would want to have dinner guests that I could learn from in yiras Shamayim and middos tovos. I would want someone to learn from and see how they act toward others. Someone who could make me a better person. If I could have Moshe Rebeinu, Rabeinu Hakadosh, and Rambam, I could not grow from them because you can only grow from someone who is higher than you but within reach.