I was privileged to know and work with Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, founder and leader of the ArtScroll/Mesorah organization, whose first yahrzeit was just recently commemorated. Under Rabbi Zlotowitz’s leadership, ArtScroll popularized and reinvented Orthodox Judaica publishing and continues today to open new vistas of Torah study, knowledge, and inspiration for hundreds of thousands of Jews, young and old, around the world.
I first met Reb Meir during the early 1970s. ArtScroll at the time was known as a source for Judaic calligraphic art, brochures for Jewish organization, and fancy Hebrew-English wedding invitations. It was a pioneering company, introducing modern graphic design and computerized typography to the Jewish marketplace.
Using Hebrew typefaces they designed, Reb Meir and ArtScroll’s brilliant chief graphic designer, Reb Sheah Brander, developed ArtScroll’s unique Compuscribe Hebrew typesetting system. They adapted cutting-edge computerized photo-typesetting to meet the rigorous requirements of Hebrew typography, including a system for accurately reproducing nikkud.
Meir Zlotowitz was inspired to produce ArtScroll’s first sefer – an English edition of Megillas Esther – as a tribute to his good friend, Rabbi Mair Fogel, a young rebbe in Yeshiva Torah Emes who passed away suddenly in his sleep on December 7, 1975. Amazingly, he completed the manuscript in time for Rabbi Fogel’s shloshim, and the volume was published in February 1976, just in time to market it for Purim that year.
Its clean, modern typography and distinctive graphic design were revolutionary. Even more revolutionary was Rabbi Zlotowitz’s translation and commentary. He rejected the standard translations available at the time because they were often inconsistent with the explanations of Rashi and the rabbis of the Talmud. His original translation and running commentary, in contrast, was drawn exclusively from classic sources.
A key element of the ArtScroll formula from the outset was the close collaboration between Zlotowitz and Rabbi Nosson Scherman, Zlotowitz’s editor. Both men had serious Torah credentials. Rabbi Zlotowitz was a musmach of Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim on the Lower East Side and a talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein, whose haskamah (endorsement) published in the original edition of Megillas Esther gave it instant acceptance in the Orthodox community.
Rabbi Scherman, meanwhile, had been a talmid of Rav Gedaliah Schorr of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and then had gone on to the kollel of Beth Medrosh Elyon in Monsey. He had experience as a rebbe and was serving as the principal of Yeshiva Karlin-Stolin in Brooklyn when Rabbi Zlotowitz asked him for help with Megillas Esther. Rabbi Scherman had previously worked with Rabbi Zlotowitz as a writer on some of ArtScroll’s graphic brochure projects.
Megillas Esther was an overnight sensation. The initial edition had to be reprinted twice to keep up with the demand. It sold an unprecedented 20,000 copies during its first months of publication.
As Zlotowitz had anticipated, Megillas Esther was snapped up by day-school trained American Jews who could appreciate the authentic Orthodox content and the easy accessibility of the English translation and commentary. They were also attracted by the book’s sleek, modern graphics. ArtScroll books also appealed to members of baal teshuvah revolution, which began in the 1960s and accelerated after Israel’s historic victory in the Six-Day War.
Rabbi Zlotowitz never apologized for ArtScroll’s strict adherence to Orthodox interpretations in its translations and commentaries. Indeed, its faithfulness to tradition was always a matter of considerable pride and principle for him. In the preface to Megillas Esther, he writes, “No non-Jewish sources have even been consulted, much less quoted. I consider it offensive that the Torah should need authentication from the secular or so-called ‘scientific’ sources.”
The success of Megillas Esther and subsequent ArtScroll books had a significant impact on Jewish book stores. When Meyer Eichler opened his first the Jewish bookstore on Coney Island Avenue in Flatbush early in 1977, his goal was to provide his customers with the same kind of enjoyable book shopping experience offered by the popular general bookstores of the day, such as Barnes & Noble. But at first Eichler had few high-quality Jewish books to offer his English-reading customers.
Meyer Eichler met Meir Zlotowitz for the first time when the latter visited his store a few months after it opened in 1977.When he saw the high quality of ArtScroll’s books, Eichler thought, “ArtScroll is giving us a jewel to sell to our customers, and it is our job to provide an appropriate setting.”
Eichler credits ArtScroll for vastly expanding the number of high-quality English-language books written from an Orthodox perspective that he could ]sell. He recalled that during those early years, Zlotowitz would visit his store about twice a month to ask him about the reaction of his customers to ArtScroll’s newest books. He would then incorporate that feedback into future volumes, in a constant effort to improve ArtScroll’s products.
During the early 1980s, Rabbi Zlotowitz and the ArtScroll team were ready to apply their approach to the long-neglected Hebrew prayer book. At the time, most siddurim and machzorim were poor reproductions of old editions that were inconsistently typeset and often difficult to read. They had also been designed for those who were already familiar with the daily, Shabbos, and Yom Tov prayers.
The best of the pre-ArtScroll prayer books were produced in the years after World War II by the Hebrew Publishing Company. They were translated into English and edited by Philip Birnbaum, and the Hebrew type had been reset in a uniform style and size which made them easier to read. However, the sparse English comments were largely technical in nature and offered little to someone looking for a better understanding of the prayers. In the 1960s, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) produced a Shabbos and yom tov siddur translated by Rabbi Dr. David De Sola Pool, but it suffered from various usability problems and never gained much popularity.
ArtScroll’s creative team began the process of re-imagining and redesigning the siddur by seeking ideas from the lay and rabbinic leaders of American Orthodoxy. These included Rabbi Moshe Sherer of Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Pinchas Stolper of the Orthodox Union and NCSY, and Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld of the RCA. (As an Anglo-Jewish journalist, I was also privileged to be among those invited to submit their suggestions at the time.) They also consulted with leading roshei yeshiva and gedolim, including Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky, Rav Gedaliah Schorr, Rav Mordechai Gifter, and Rav Shneur Kotler.
When the first edition of the ArtScroll siddur was published in 1984, it was hailed as a masterpiece and instantly adopted by many Orthodox synagogues around the world. Over one million copies of the ArtScroll Siddur have been produced to date, and its many editions are still selling briskly.
But the development of the ArtScroll siddur and machzorim required a huge investment in research, writing, design and production, which put a tremendous strain on ArtScroll’s financial resources. (Despite their enthusiastic reception from the public, it would take many years for ArtScroll to recoup its investment through profits from book sales alone.)
Professor Joel Fleishman, vice president of Duke University and an avid Artscroll reader, recognized that ArtScroll could never undertake the translation of other Torah classics as long as it had to rely on the limited income generated by the traditional book publishing business model. So he volunteered to create the Mesorah Heritage Foundation, an independently-operated, IRS-approved non-profit organization that supports the original scholarship that goes into the creation of ArtScroll editions of classic Torah works. Without the donations to the foundation, the publication of many of these books would not have been possible.
One of ArtScroll’s most impressive scholarly and publishing accomplishments was its completion, in a very short period of time (1997-2005), of a new English translated edition of the Bavli Talmud. The huge project, which cost many millions of dollars, was dedicated through the Mesorah Heritage Foundation by the Schottenstein family of Columbus, Ohio.
ArtScroll’s Shas has made the wisdom of the Talmud readily available to English-speaking Jewish laymen around the world, and its availability at an affordable price is widely credited for the massive growth in daily daf yomi Talmud classes in recent years.
In an exclusive interview with The Jewish Press, Rabbi Scherman interestingly said that Rabbi Zlotowitz considered the publication of the ArtScroll edition of the Yerushalmi Talmud (still ongoing) to be an even greater accomplishment than ArtScroll’s Bavli. As Rabbi Scherman explained, the Yerushalmi had virtually been a “closed book” to most Torah scholars because it has no Rashi commentary. Also, unlike Bavli, which was finalized during the fifth century, C.E. by Ravina and Rav Ashi, the text of the Yerushalmi Talmud was never properly edited due to the intense Roman persecution of Talmudic scholars living in Israel during that period.
The ArtScroll Yerushalmi addresses these problems, making the wisdom of the Yerushalmi easily accessible to Torah scholars and laymen alike for the first time. It has been publicly recognized by some of this generation’s leading Torah authorities as a breakthrough work of Talmudic scholarship.
In 2012, with the support of the Mesorah Heritage Foundation, Rabbi Zlotowitz sought to further expand ArtScroll’s horizons by developing the Wasserman Digital Library. Having always retained his keen interest in the advancement of technology, Rabbi Zlotowitz recruited electronic coding experts at a firm called RustyBrick to exploit the three-dimensional and virtual-reality capabilities of today’s digital technology to create a unique ArtScroll electronic Torah learning experience. In their tribute to Rabbi Zlotowitz’s memory, digital experts at RustyBrick expressed their awe at the uncompromising standards of quality he demanded.
“Rabbi Zlotowitz was involved every step of the way… Time and time again the rabbi pointed out imperfections that he demanded we fix,” because anything bearing the ArtScroll name “had to be perfect on release,” they said. They added that “Rabbi Zlotowitz programmed into the culture of the Artscroll/Mesorah organization the requirement to keep bringing Torah to the Jewish world, with perfection and pursuit.”
According to Rabbi Scherman, succeeding in the Jewish book publishing business was never Meir Zlotowitz’s main motivation. He was primarily driven to serve the needs of Klal Yisrael and the Torah community. Cost was always a secondary consideration, which is why he sanctioned the production of sefarim designed to meet the needs of a relatively narrow audience, such as the interlinear translations and transliterations of the Chumash and siddur.
Rabbi Berel Wein has said that Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz became “the greatest teacher of Jewish People in our generation by making the Torah available to the English-speaking Jewish world.”
A year after Rabbi Zlotowitz’s passing, ArtScroll/Mesorah, under the leadership of Rabbi Zlotowitz’s son Gedaliah, is still a forward-looking enterprise and a powerful and creative Torah force. Several ambitious new ArtScroll/Mesorah projects have been initiated since Rabbi Zlotowitz’s passing. According to Rabbi Scherman, a recently-circulated preview of the ArtScroll English translation of the Tosfos commentary on Gemara has generated great anticipation in the yeshiva world.
Rabbi Scherman is also anticipating the start of work on the Schottenstein edition of the Ein Yaakov. Its commentary will reveal the deeper meaning of Ein Yaakov’s Talmudic allegories beyond their literal translations, which are difficult to understand at face value.
Shloime Eichler, Meyer’s son, who now oversees day-to-day operations in the Flatbush bookstore, expects the new Ein Yaakov “to rekindle interest in a once popular area of Torah study which has fallen out of favor in recent years.” Shloime is also looking forward to other projects in the ArtScroll/Mesorah production pipeline, including a series of volumes focused on Targum Onkelos, and a new English commentary on the Chumash based directly on Talmudic sources.
Meyer Eichler calls Zlotowitz “a mentor, a cheerleader and a visionary,” whose innovative books met the needs of the time and enabled his bookstore to expand and succeed. Meyer Eichler also believes that under the leadership of Meir’s son, Gedaliah Zlotowitz, who has 25 years of experience as an integral part of the ArtScroll team, will be able to maintain its position as the pacesetter in the Jewish book marketplace.
The continued presence of Rabbi Scherman in his role as ArtScroll’s general editor, and Reb Sheah Brander as its resident design genius offers further assurance that ArtScroll remains dedicated to the high standards of Torah content and quality that Meir Zlotowitz established more than 40 years ago. His monumental legacy of more than 2,000 ArtScroll/Mesorah titles will stand forever as a living tribute to his creativity and boundless determination to fulfill his holy mission of bringing authentic Torah scholarship and values to all English-speaking Jews.
T’hei zichro baruch. May his memory be a blessing.