For decades, Koren Publishers Jerusalem put out only a handful of works: a Tanach, a siddur, and three machzorim. Today, it is a burgeoning operation with new releases every week, featuring such distinguished authors as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Rabbi Benny Lau, and Rabbi Berel Wein. The man responsible for Koren’s transformation is Matthew Miller. Born and raised in the United States, Miller, a ba’al teshuvah, made aliyah in 1999 and bought Koren eight years later. The company has blossomed since then, with sales in 2016 up 30 percent from 2015, Miller told The Jewish Press. “It was supposed to be my retirement project,” he said. “But I’ve created a monster. It just grew so fast.”
The Jewish Press: How did you come to acquire Koren?
Miller: I was living in England working for a multinational company, and when it was sold in 1998, I found myself blissfully out of a job. I was in my mid-40s, so my wife and I made aliyah. I then started a small press called Toby Press, which you may know as the publisher of Yehuda Avner’s The Prime Ministers – but I wanted to do more. And since Jerusalem is a small town, I heard that Koren might be available. Koren was a 50-year old company with a wonderful reputation – for halachic and textual accuracy, for Zionism, and for design – so I bought it.
What made you think of entering the publishing business to begin with?
I’ve always been a bookaholic. When I was working at the multinational company, I was on an airplane nearly every day, going to China, the United States, etc. And I’m the kind of guy who, if I don’t have a book, I feel nervous and twitchy. So I’ve always been intrigued by publishing. I also knew that I wasn’t a writer. So I figured, “Okay, if I can’t be a writer, at least let me enable others to write.”
Some people see Koren as a Modern Orthodox alternative to ArtScroll. Is that how you see it?
ArtScroll does good stuff, and when I became a ba’al teshuvah, I of course used ArtScroll. It was very helpful. But we are going very much in our own direction. We’re not trying to emulate or copy anyone. We have our own priorities and our own direction in terms of what we want to accomplish.
We’re a halachic publisher. But in our hashkafa, Zionism is important, the state of Israel is important, and engaging the world is important. I suppose you can say Rabbi Jonathan Sacks [the author of many Koren books, including the Koren Sacks siddur] embodies many of our values.
How would you describe your target audience?
Any observant Jew. I think our audience is very broad. I don’t see any reason why it can’t extend from let’s call it right-wing Conservative all the way through the haredi world.
Clearly, though, some of your works are not targeted at haredim. For example, some haredim object to learning Torah from women, yet Koren’s Tanach series – published under its Maggid Books imprint – features several female authors. Koren – under the imprint Toby Press – also publishes novels by S.Y. Agnon, which many haredim would likely avoid as well.
It’s true. With the novels, we’re reaching a broader audience – anyone who wants to study Hebrew literature. As for female authors, I’m sad that people wouldn’t want to read them because many of them have brilliant brains. It’s their loss.
[But that’s why] we have Maggid Books, which is our imprint for Jewish thought. We don’t publish Maggid books under Koren because we don’t want someone who disagrees with a writer not to be able to buy our siddur, for example. We only publish sifrei kodesh under Koren – Tanach, Talmud, liturgical works, etc.
What are your most popular titles?
Half our business is in Israel and half our business is in the English-speaking world, so I have to give different answers. In English, the siddur is by far the most popular. In Israel, our Tanach is much stronger. It’s a standard in Israel. All schools use it. The Koren Tanach was actually the first Jewish Tanach in 450 years when it was published in 1962.
Can you elaborate?
In the 15th century many Jewish printers created Tanachim. But then in the early 16th century the Catholic Church moved in and introduced Jerome’s chapter breaks while eliminating the original Hebrew breaks in the text – the petuchot and setumot. And that became the basis for Tanachim for the next 450 years.
It was only in the early 1950s, after the creation of the state of Israel, that it was considered a national Zionist project to go back and make a Tanach not based on earlier Tanachim, but based on original Jewish manuscripts from before the era of printing. This had never been done before. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. And based upon that, the Rabbanut in Israel said the Koren Tanach is the halachically acceptable text.
Many people aren’t aware that the chapters in Tanach are Christian in origin.
Yes. It goes back to the Catholic Church. They’re the ones who started it. It’s too universal to get rid of now because people quote chapter and verse, but that’s not a Jewish invention. Originally the Tanach was divided only by the petuchot and setumot you find in manuscripts, and that actually leads to different meaning in interpretation sometimes. There’s a whole group of people here who study this stuff.
The man behind the new Tanach was Koren’s founder, Eliyahu Koren. Who was he?
He was a German Jew. He got out of Germany in the early ‘30s and made his way to Palestine where he became the chief national designer of the Jewish Agency. He’s the one who designed the logo for the city of Jerusalem in the 1940s.
Koren now publishes essentially all of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s works. How did that come about?
Rabbi Steinsaltz’s organization approached us. They said, “We’ve been publishing for 40 years – and we’ve been publishing badly.” They were looking for a partner, and because we publish both in Hebrew and English, it was a natural partnership….
We’re very pleased with [the Steinsaltz Talmud]. We’re up to volume 30 out of a projected 42, so it’s been going very well. We’re running about six to nine months in advance of the daf yomi cycle now, so it will be complete by 2019.
What led you to become a ba’al teshuvah?
Rabbi Joseph Grunfeld from Project S.E.E.D. in London was very influential. But it just made sense. I looked at all the different streams, and it was classic Orthodoxy that seemed the most logical and healthiest.
Also, England – especially back then – had much more of a fluid religious environment. Everybody belonged to an Orthodox shul. There were no Reform shuls where we were lived in the north of England. They didn’t exist. So you’d have haredi Jews who walked to shul and Reform Jews who drove and parked around the corner. There was a mixing of people, and I was exposed to Orthodoxy.
Maybe if I had lived in the States and gone to a Reform shul, I would never have migrated over. But exposed to the Shabbat lifestyle, it just seemed like a more logical life. So I looked into it, and then things started falling into place.