KTAV Publishing House and Multiculturalism

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Jul 7, 2011 Comments Off Renatta DeBlase

An Experience in Diversity

In the spring of 1974, after working steadily in book publishing in New York for four years, I decided to take a break from the pressures of a full-time job, and of commuting to work as a freelance editor for various publishers. The previous year I had worked as a proofreader and copy editor for Unitron Graphics, a New York printing company that had been a pioneer in the use of computerized typesetting and that produced some beautifully written books about Judaic studies for KTAV Publishing House, some of which I copy edited.

So in 1974, realizing that I would enjoy working for KTAV (which translates as “life” in English), I sent a letter to Bernard Scharfstein, the editorial director, in which I explained that I had recently edited and proofread some of his publications at Unitron and would enjoy working for KTAV on a freelance basis. After all, I had a degree plus a few years of graduate work in foreign and comparative literature, which traces the development of literary movements in various European countries, studying the similarities and differences–that is, I was accustomed to studying different cultures, languages, and religions.

In his reply, Mr. Scharfstein offered me a freelance editorial position that would require me to do most of my work at KTAV. This way, if I had any questions about my work, he and the editorial staff at KTAV could answer them readily. Furthermore, because of my previous experience with KTAV publications, I knew that some of the manuscripts would require careful, substantive editing, which I was willing to provide on site.

The following Monday I took a subway to East Broadway, a very old neighborhood that was the location of KTAV at that time and frequently served as the locale for some of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s most memorable stories. Because I was a half hour early, I decided to have breakfast at a nearby cafeteria, and as I sat down to begin to eat, I was joined by a lovely appearing woman who looked no more than fifty. We began to converse and I mentioned that although I did not have a background in Judaic studies, I was on my way to work at KTAV. Sadly, she shook her head and said, “Everyone should be like you. I was in a concentration camp during World War II because of my faith and background and even saw women and children killed. Why children, when they had done nothing wrong?” She then showed me a series of numbers that had been tattooed on her arm as proof of her incarceration.

“But today you have Israel and so much beautiful literature is being written about it, and the world’s most famous conductors including Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta have conducted the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. Israel is truly wondrous, with its very strong defense, self-determination, magnificent universities, and respect it has received worldwide,” I countered.

“But we didn’t have Israel then–we had no place to go.” she continued. “In the end the Americans helped us, America always helps everyone.”

I then wished her a good day and continued on my way to KTAV. I soon approached a very old three-story red brick building, which housed KTAV. The layout was very efficient: the warehouse–indeed, a library–which housed thousands of hardcover and some paperback books, was located on the second and third floors.

After meeting Bernard Scharfstein, a handsome six-foot-plus publisher very much like Carly Simon’s father, Richard, who had founded Simon & Schuster, and then his brother, Sol, and his 84-year old father, Asher, I started to edit various manuscripts whose topics would include:

* Zionism and the founding state of Israel
* Religious and cultural Judaic studies written by leading American, Israeli and European scholars
* Shtetl life, a European community for people of the Jewish faith that existed between 1900 and 1941
* European ghetto life in general (enforced between 1938 and 1944)
* Several aspects of the Diaspora

KTAV also publishes books describing various religious customs and holidays. I was able to edit the English texts very carefully, and because I did not know Hebrew, in-house editors corrected both the Hebrew characters and transliterations, as is the case in most publishing houses in their treatment of foreign languages.

One morning Mr. Scharfstein’s brother, Sol, showed me a KTAV textbook depicting student life during the Warsaw ghetto: elementary school children are shown at their desks in mid-January wearing winter coats only because the occupying government would not heat the schools. And the Scharfstein family alone lost more to discuss this topic directly in illustrated textbooks for elementary schoolchildren.

“If your editorial staff, which is comprised of employees of various faiths and backgrounds, can get along, why can’t entire nations?” I asked Mr. Scharfstein.

“Yes,” he replied, “we at KTAV are of different faiths and backgrounds, yet we get along!”

I freelanced for KTAV for two years and was impressed with the optimism and sense of hope that pervaded its textbooks, and upon leaving, the words “never generalize” and “never scapegoat an individual or group of individuals because of problems in our society, economic or otherwise,” came to mind because this kind of negative thinking can lead to disaster.[1]
Surprisingly, my experience at KTAV proved to be very helpful when I began working at Arnold & Porter in Washington in the 1980′s. In a conversation with Harold Luks, Arnold & Porter’s internationl trade specialist as well as a specialist on the Middle East Peace Process, I begin to discuss various publications that I had edited for KTAV. From that time until I left Arnold & Porter’s in 1996, I edited most of his documents pertaining to Israel, especially the ones he drafted following the Peace Accord that was signed in September 1993. Once again, an experience in multiculturalism and diversity proved to be very rewarding.

[1] For anyone interested in learning more about the period 1933-1945, I recommend visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, located at 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, S.W., Washington, D.C., or call 202-488-0400. Andrew Hollinger, assistant director of communications and media relations for the museum, generously provided the impressive photos that appear in this article.