Can New Journal Find Its Niche?

Quarterly Jewish Review of Books joins crowded field of thinky publications.

02/25/2010
Staff Writer
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If you’re an intellectually curious reader who craves sophisticated, accessible writing on Jewish books and ideas, there’s no shortage of places for you to look. There are well-established magazines like Commentary and Tikkun, to say nothing of start-ups, like the online magazine Tablet and this paper’s monthly insert, Text/Context. And even if those explicitly Jewish publications are too burdensome a detour from your already imposing stack of unread New York Review of Books, Harper’s and The New Republic issues, the latter journals cover plenty of Jewish issues, too.

Fair enough, but that logic has not deterred Abraham Socher, a professor of Jewish studies at Oberlin College, from publishing his own new quarterly Jewish magazine, called The Jewish Review of Books, which arrives in mailboxes this week. The JRB, as Socher called it over coffee, unabashedly models itself off that publishing world anomaly — the New York Review of Books — which, since its founding in 1963, has established a devoted readership that now surpasses 100,000. Much like the New York Review of Books, Socher hopes to defy skeptics who think that a magazine written primarily by professors, novelists and poets can’t possibly attract a wide and diverse readership.

“I’m aspiring to that quality,” Socher said, referring to the New York Review of Books. “It’s ludicrous to expect me to put those guys out of business, but it’s also the case that they can’t continually foster an intellectually vibrant subculture” of Jewish ideas, Socher added. He said that while publications from The New Yorker to Harper’s often cover Jewish issues, they tend to do so only when they attract national attention — which usually means issues involving Israel. But Socher said, “A culture is more than its peaks and valleys,” and his goal is to cover those, but also everything else.

Socher, 44, was sitting in a Manhattan café, on a brief visit to the city on his way back to Ohio, where the magazine has its main office. (And near his home in Cleveland Heights.) The university gave him a full year off, and a reduced teaching schedule for the two years that follow, to work on the magazine. “They were very generous,” Socher said. But his task ahead will not be easy. He has only one other full-time editorial employee, Phil Getz, a 25-year-old newbie to journalism. Socher also will have a few more interns, plus Allan Arkush, a professor at SUNY-Binghamton who helped Socher brainstorm the idea for the magazine. He serves as the senior contributing editor from New York.

On the café tabletop, Socher laid out the new magazine. In appearance, it certainly lives up to its namesake, the New York Review of Books, with identical dimensions and bold-name contributors sprawled across the cover. And the premiere issue’s contributors are similarly impressive. Adam Kirsch, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and The New Republic, for instance, reviews Rebecca Goldstein’s satirical novel “36 Arguments for the Existence of God.” Shlomo Avineri, a prominent political scientist at Hebrew University, weighs in reviewing the book, “Myth, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East,” by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky. And the novelist Dara Horn and cartoonist Harvey Pekar contribute pieces, too.

In all, the premiere issue features almost 20 essays, most of them book reviews, on everything from recent biographies of Theodor Herzl, all reviewed by Allan Arkush, to Seth Rogovoy’s Jewish biography of Bob Dylan, reviewed by Ron Rosenbaum. NYU Law professor J.H.H. Weiler discusses what makes Islam, Christianity and Judaism a distinct “Abrahamic” group of faiths, and the University of Haifa professor Menachem Kellner reviews a new book of general philosophy that evokes comparisons to Maimonides.

In the next issue, which should be out early this summer, Steven Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish history at Stanford, plans to write an essay on a Stalinist Jewish spy who also wrote one of the first great histories of the shtetl.
The initial press run for Jewish Review of Books is 30,000, and while the magazine hopes to make money through ad sales (the premiere issue is 52 pages, with an editorial-to-ad ratio of about 85 percent to 15 percent) and subscriptions ($19.95 for four issues), the Tikvah Fund is keeping it afloat for now. The foundation guaranteed funding for at least five years, said Eric Cohen, the fund’s executive director, noting that the magazine grew out of a series of conversations he, Socher and Arkush had been having over the last few years. They came to the conclusion that, as Cohen said, “There’s a lot of Jewish writing out there, but there needed to be a forum for all those discussions.” 

They hope the Jewish Review of Books will be that forum, and that a thoughtful new “sister” Web site — www.jewishideasdaily.com — which is also funded by Tikvah but edited separately from the JRB, will attract readers, too.  Modeled on Artsandlettersdaily.com, which posts links daily to intellectual journalism of note, the Jewish Ideas Daily is “an aggregate site on steroids,” according to Cohen, and will occasionally publish unique online material as well.

The JRB will have no ideological agenda, the magazine’s editors said. But the Tikvah Fund’s involvement has already raised eyebrows. The $160-million charitable foundation was established by the late Zalman Bernstein, founder of the Sanford C. Bernstein & Company brokerage firm, and has a small board of directors made up of at least two prominent conservatives. Both have significant journalism credentials, too: William Kristol, founder of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, and Roger Hertog, who was a part-owner of the conservative New York Sun, and who also briefly owned The New Republic. 

The Tikvah Fund has given grants to major universities as well, mainly Princeton and NYU, both of which prize their intellectual independence. And Mem Bernstein, the widow of Zalman Bernstein who also sits on Tikvah’s six-person board, established Keren Keshet-The Rainbow Foundation a few years ago, which funds  publications like the Nextbook series and Tablet magazine. For his part, Cohen said that no one on Tikvah’s board would meddle with the magazine’s editorial product. “Abe is the editor, and he has real editorial independence,” he said.

Socher seconded that, and added that he would encourage intellectual diversity, not limit it.  While he does not plan on publishing writers from either the far right or far left, he said one goal was to embrace thoughtful criticism with both left- and right-leaning bents. To signal that to writers, one of his first priorities was to establish an advisory editorial board that reflects the range of Jewish perspectives he’d hope for.

Editorial board members include Leon Wieseltier, Hillel Halkin and, to the left, Michael Walzer. What unites them all is the unanimous respect from their colleagues and a deep knowledge of Jewish thought. “The board is made up a rather wide range of people, and I tend to disagree with some of them about matters, small and large,” said board member Zipperstein, the Stanford professor. “But that’s its strength, and this diversity will, I hope, help press the magazine to stretch itself. ... Nothing bruises an intellectual magazine more than being predictable.”

Eric Alterman, who often writes about Jewish issues for the liberal magazine The Nation, was skeptical of whether a nonpartisan intellectual Jewish magazine could survive. He said in an e-mail that by opening up itself up to writers with both liberal and conservative views, the Jewish Review of Books would eventually run into a conflict with Tikvah’s main funders, who he described as neocons.

“They can either try to cast a wider net and open up their pages to genuinely interesting and open-minded arguments about sensitive topics or they can adhere to the prejudices of the people involved with founding it,” Alterman wrote. “Either way, someone’s going to be unhappy and that strikes me as a formula for trouble down the road.”
Michael Lerner, editor of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun, was more hopeful about the JRBooks’ prospects. He said that because magazines like his and its conservative counterpart, Commentary, had already staked out more polarizing positions on both the left and the right, the JRB might be saved from the wrath that met magazines like theirs.

Lerner’s greater concern was whether there will be sufficient interest from a younger readers. “The main issue is whether there’s a generation coming up that has an attachment to print magazines or newspapers, or the world of intellectual thought,” he said.
Socher knows the future for magazines like his is never certain, but one thing he doesn’t think needs justification is the idea of the magazine itself. “If Judaism or Jewish thought is valuable, it’s valuable in and of itself,” he said, adding, “the TLS doesn’t have to justify itself, why should we?” n
 

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