Arts & Culture

Aviv Press: The Inside Story

Today, I’d like to write a bit about being one of Aviv’s authors. The press is small, even not by comparison with the publishing giants. It’s run by one editorial director, an editorial assistant, and a devoted editorial board made … Read More

By / November 20, 2008

Today, I’d like to write a bit about being one of Aviv’s authors. The press is small, even not by comparison with the publishing giants. It’s run by one editorial director, an editorial assistant, and a devoted editorial board made up of volunteers who believe in the worth of the operation and want enough to see the press succeed that they devote their free time to making it thrive.

I was the first Aviv author. My book of Psalms, called Our Haven and Our Strength, came out in 2004, and set the tone for the list that has developed over the years: books of applied scholarship that speak directly to the hearts of interested Jewish readers. I know all the other authors and feel proud to be in their company. We’re a disparate group, but we all have that the same idea churning around at the center of our literary lives: that the much-spoken-of distinction between real scholarship (the dry-as-dust kind published by academic presses mostly for purchase by libraries) and vibrant, creative writing possessed of intellectual and spiritual integrity, suffused with an author’s sense of deep personal engagement with the material at hand, and offered to the reading public not merely to inform but also to inspire – that that distinction, for all it truly exists, does not have to imply that books in the latter category (what I called "applied" as opposed to "pure" scholarship above) are somehow less valuable contributions to the cultural lives of real, 21st century Jewish people. Just the opposite is true, I think. And so do my colleagues on the Aviv list.

I’ve read all the books Aviv has published, some of them several times. Jewcy readers should take a good look – these could well be the books you’ve been waiting for, the ones reflective not merely of their authors’ fantasies about the world, but of those authors’ ability to stand at the confluence of reason and religion, of creativity and sober evaluative effort… and (for most of us) also of productivity and exhaustion. We’re a busy group. None of us is a pure academic author; all of us have "real" jobs. I feel honored to be in their company, and pleased beyond the telling of it.

Jonathan Wittenberg lives in London and writes the kind of prose about the intersection of the natural and spiritual worlds that I personally have only found previously in the prose of Thoreau and the poetry of William Cullen Bryant.  Ira Stone lives in Philadelphia and writes to suggest how the old musar movement, that nineteenth century effort to suffuse ritual with ethical decisiveness, could profitably be revived to transform our ritual lives into something far more profound than most of us know or even know of. Jon Slater’s book, Mindful Jewish Living, the result of years upon years of focused thinking about how to create a kind of Jewish life not merely suffused with ritual exactitude but infused and invested also honest, productive spirituality, is one of the books that has influenced me personally the most over these last years. I’ve known the author for more than thirty years. I encouraged him to write the book, but the work is wholly his…and so suffused with his own sense of spiritual integrity so as, in my opinion, to be a landmark work in the evolution of the literature of religion (and not even just Jewish religion) in our day. Miriyam Glazer lives and works in Los Angeles. Her book on the psalms used liturgically in Jewish worship isn’t quite out yet–it will be out in early January–but I’ve read the manuscript and I think I can promise that readers will find it exceptional in many different ways, but mostly in terms of the richness of the poetry and the focus and intelligence of its prose: it is a book for serious worshipers eager to find a way into the psalms that we read over and over again in shul, but often remain obscure and inaccessible even to regulars who know them more or less by heart. 

There are other books to read on the Aviv list. Elliot Dorff’s book on the evolution of Jewish law and Ismar Schorsch’s rich, satisfying book of comments and observations on the weekly Torah readings have already become classics in their respective categories. And there is a very rich and interesting list of books set to come out in the course of the next few years as well. All together the books on the list represent the single idea stated above: that there will always be a willing audience for books that sit precisely at the intersection of intellectual integrity, spirituality, and creativity. It’s a great list and, like I said, I’m very proud to be part of it.

My new Aviv book, The Boy on the Door on the Ox, is part of the larger effort to bring that kind of book to the attention of the reading public. It’s about me personally and my life in the rabbinate, but also about the ways traditional Jewish learning (in this case, the study of Mishnah and, at that, of its most intractable, apparently unfriendly, section) can yield the most interesting and spiritually useful results. Like all books, it’s about a lot of things… those two just mentioned, but also about the much vaunted choice rabbis are supposed to have to make between being pastors or scholars, between being working congregational clergy and creative, thoughtful authors. I’ve met that challenge by denying that it exists in the first place… and so have most of the authors on the Aviv list. We’re not the only ones, obviously. But, taken together, we hope to be taken seriously as the ultimate refutation of the concept in the first place: there is no problem choosing paths, because the choice itself doesn’t really exist. The thoughtful mind, the creative heart, the willing hand, the productive life, the literary spirit…all these can come together (and do come together) in the personalities represented on the Aviv list. Like I said, I’m proud to be among them.

You can check out the Aviv website and read interviews with the authors about their books. And Aviv books can be purchased on-line almost everywhere, as well as in person at many bookstores. I hope you all enjoy all the Aviv books!

Martin Samuel Cohen, author of The Boy on the Door on the Ox, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.