Monday, March 01, 2010

the BA era -- Before Artscroll

Two little book notes this morning:
One of my kids was rummaging around for a megillah to take to shul and pulled out an Artscroll copy buried on a long forgotten shelf. I recall exactly how I obtained that copy: it was a prize for wining some contest in eighth grade, and if I am not mistaken, it was one of the first books published by Artscroll. At the time, there were only a handful of other Artscroll titles available; I recall winning the Artscroll Haggadah before Pesach that year as well. It dawned on me that I, unlike my kids, was born in the BA-era: Before Artscroll. This was the era where difficult words had to be looked up in Jastrow, where Soncino and Steinsaltz ruled the world of gemara translation, where Birnbaum siddurim and Hertz chumashim were still found on the shelves of Orthodox shules, where there was no “elucidation” of the text into plain English telling us exactly what the “traditional” meaning is. One of my kids recently took from her grandparent one of those old blue-covered chumashim with the Rashi translated line by line that I remember from grade school and which seem to have vanished completely from stores' bookshelves. I must be getting old : )

There is no question in my mind that for all of Artscroll’s flaws, the world is a better place for them. They have certainly inspired many to crack open a gemara with confidence that the text can be conquered, at least on a rudimentary level. On the other hand, I can't recall actually purchasing anything from Artscroll; I discourage my kids from using their gemaras or Tanach seforim. Yes, life is easier with Artscroll, but who says life has to be easy? I don't force my kids to look up information in a hard copy encyclopedia instead of google, but I don't think the situations are analogous. Whatever tools and methods the editors of Artscroll use to decipher difficult text can be / should be part of the tools and methods my kids can learn to master in their study of a text.

On a completely different note, I like the title of this article in the Jewish Review of Books: "Why There is No Jewish Narnia." Michael Weingrad does a nice job exploring the question; my only quibble is that I think the last reason he mentions I think is actually the most significant. The Jewish people are just theologically-averse to magical wardrobes, rings that grant power, bad guys who speak to snakes, and forces of evil that seem to have independent power on par with that of the good guys. Looking for Jewish fantasy literature is like looking for the Jewish art at the Met – even the Chagall paintings they have on display are centered around Xstian themes (brings to mind My Name is Asher Lev). For better or worse, certain artistic avenues just are not “Jewish” roads to follow. That being said, I have never met anyone who became a kofer from reading Narnia, and if you think you are on a ring quest or have plans to teach at Hogwarts after you graduate, I would suggest that you speak with a good shrink, not a Rabbi.
Update: more on this topic here.


  1. anon13:20 PM

    I think that the megilas esther was the first thing that Artscroll/Mesorah every published.

  2. We read megillas narnia on Purim, then I realised something was wrong - it wasn't Artscroll!

    I think that fantasy is an important aspect of cultivating a child's imagination and creativity.

    Dimyonos we have of olom habo, melachim, etc., are all fantasy. But that's fine, because we don't understand what they are, so all we can do is imagine that it is at least that.

    For example, a mussar technique of imagining nitzchiyas is to imagine an enormous muntain of sand, after 1000 years a bird comes and takes one grain of sand...

    Narnia is a story of cardinal sin, starting with Turkish Delight. Average kids don't get that. Stories like this are only a problem when they form part of the culture, then the kids 'get it', i.e. they don't understand the nuances but they pick up the undertone.

    pc :-)

  3. No, kids don't get the undertone of the story, which is probably why it is so successful.
    Along the lines of your comment, elsewhere someone brought up aggada (the Rabba bar bar Chana stories in particular) as being of the same genre. I don't know if I would quite say that, but it is an interesting point.

  4. Garnel Ironheart7:30 PM

    The first Artscroll publication was their little booklet on Ruth actually.

    As for what's come after, I've always had mixed reviews.

    Their gemara, as you noted, certainly opened the world of the Talmud to many who otherwise might never have tried to delve into in. On the other hand, one of the kavannos of creating the series in the first place was to put Rav Steinsaltz' English version out of business because of the whole cherem issue. (Fortunately for Artscrool, the Rav's English gemaras were so unwieldly and expensive they put themselves out of business)

    However, Artscroll often has a habit of assuming that its audience not only needs English but is also not capable of handling difficult subjects. Unlike Feldheim which translated the classics as close to the original as possible, most Artscroll classics aren't the original but someone's selection of topics from said original interpreted in a particular fashion. If you read a Feldhim Luzatto book, you can get an idea of what the original was like. Reading an Artscroll book on the Maharal still gives you no clue as to what he actually wrote.

    Finally, there's their selective translation to avoid difficult subjects. Their Hebrew-English Ramban glosses over the kabbalistic parts of the peirush on Torah which are the most difficult to figure out in the Hebrew but also important to understand the surrounding text. If Soncino could do it, why not them?

    Finally, I still use a Birnbaum whenever I can and I have a full set of those really old blue Rashi's and I use them to teach my kids, except when the Olde Englishe words confuse them.

    "Daddy, what's a secret part?"

  5. Anonymous8:28 AM

    30 years of secretly wondering what "Turkish Delight" tasted like was finally answered a couple of years ago when I noticed a kosher version on the shop shelf.

    To be honest, it wasn't that tasty...


  6. Thanks for this nostalgia-inspiring post. I remember the blue chumashim - I must have one lying around somewhere - which were, incidentally, surpassed by the Metsudah first and subsequently by the copiously footnoted Artscroll Humash with Rashi.

    Birnbaum Siddurim I remember well, I grew up in Young Israels although I always used a Sephardic Siddur anyway.

    And I recall the very first Artscroll Gemaras that came out in the early 90s (if I am not mistaken), at the time they seemed so unbelievably superior to Jastrow/Soncino that we were in awe. (As a commenter above noted, Steinsaltz' English gemaras were too expensive to be popular; then again, Artscrolls are pretty expensive now too, but one gets more for the money with the extensive commentary, footnotes and cross references.)

    I actually learned a lot of English vocabulary from Soncino, since I needed a dictionary to understand some of the translations.