When Stuart Matlins, left, founder of Jewish Lights Publishing (JLP), was recognized for American Jewish Distinguished Service, he invoked the iconic James Cagney.
Standing on the podium nearly three years ago to accept the award from Hebrew Union College, Matlins reached back more than half a century to a line of Cagney dialogue: “Sometimes I believe more in dreams than in statistics.”
Not long afterward, in 2007, somewhere in the world, someone who speaks English, Italian or one of the numerous languages among JLP’s translated editions, bought its two millionth book. That number was no dream.
In describing how and why he founded a niche Jewish publishing house in the bucolic hills of Vermont – with such diverse titles as to satisfy a spiritual hunger for rabbinic wisdom or a craving for Jewish aliens in outer space – Matlins could well have drawn inspiration from the title of that 1948 Cagney film, The Time of Your Life.
Indeed, this transplant from New York to Woodstock, Vt. (population 3,232), is having the time of his life nourishing readers with Jewish food for body and soul, be it yoga and the aleph bet or the modern man’s Torah commentary.
It’s a mission for him, publishing as “outreach” to other Jews, those who go to bookstores, not to shuls, “to share with them the relevance of Judaism to their lives.”
Making a midlife move to a village and operating Jewish Lights from a converted dairy barn might suggest that the 68-year-old entrepreneur has come full circle, returning to the Polish shtetl roots that his family left in 1902 to cross the ocean to America.
And as in the shtetl, parnassah (business) and kavanah (intent when we pray) aren’t far from each other. Step out the front door of Jewish Lights and it’s just three or so miles to the country shul that Matlins and his wife, Antoinette, founded 25 years ago, when they traded Manhattan’s go-go for the Green Mountain State’s slow-mo.
But Matlins didn’t settle in Woodstock to publish books. The former managing partner for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton was still seeing clients when he took a successful stab at refreshing and reissuing a book on gemstones that his wife had authored.
Then, as these stories go, Matlins happened to be attending a Jewish summer study retreat when an acquaintance put a bug in his ear. That bug concerned the out-of-print books of Lawrence Kushner, an American rabbi known for his writings on spirituality and mysticism. Would Matlins consider adopting the orphaned titles that could still attract readership?
Initially, he brushed off the suggestion. But the prospect soon took shape as Matlins became convinced of the books’ potential market – Conservative, Reform and non-affiliated Jews he felt were underserved in publishing circles.
His target audience, particularly those with ID tags from the consciousness-raising 1960s, were increasingly curious about Judaism’s approach to the issues of poverty and social justice. And their interests dovetailed with the growing tikkun olam (repair the world) movement that was inspiring many to greater involvement in Jewish community life.
“No one [outside of publishing targeted at the Orthodox] was focusing on creating a body of inspirational literature and resources based on the Jewish wisdom tradition to help people lead a Jewish life,” Matlins said in a telephone interview.
And the difficulty of staying connected Jewishly in a small town had its own unexpected benefit. “Had we not moved to Woodstock, we never would have understood the need for the kinds of books we publish.”
What began in 1990 as a modest venture headquartered in the guest house on his property quickly outstripped its space and staff. Within two years, Jewish Lights had moved to offices in a converted old dairy barn in town, and has since added 8,000 square feet of warehouse in nearby Windsor, Vt.
That “town square” location suits a company that aims to bring Judaism, as Matlins puts it, into the “public square of discussion” on contemporary issues.
To that end, one can find among JLP’s 260 titles Jewish ethics and social justice, Judaism and ecology, even spirituality in the workplace. With theology as its guide, the publisher can go just about anywhere in the Jewish galaxy of life-cycle events and tradition, from texts on baby-naming to restoring spiritual meaning to the bar mitzvah.
While it’s mostly Jews who buy the books, about one-third of readers are Christian or of other faiths, drawn to themes both Jewish and non-denominational, such as the illustrated God’s Paintbrush for young children. And while Matlins is a regular at Jewish book fairs, he can also be found at the annual trade show of Christian religious booksellers in the United States.
That cross-cultural interest is reflected globally, too: more than a dozen languages, including Hindi, Portuguese and French, are represented among the JLP texts in translation. One that’s made it into 14 languages, including Korean, is The Empty Chair, a compendium of aphorisms from the long-dead Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.
(How Empty Chair found its way to Woodstock is a story with twists and turns that Matlins relishes recounting: initially, he turned down a chassidic group’s request to distribute its books, but subsequently, a chance encounter with a haunting Breslover melody while on a trip to Jerusalem kindled his interest.)
Although Jewish Lights releases mostly non-fiction, it does have a playful side. Under its imprint, one can find two first-rate short story anthologies of Jewish-themed crime fiction, Mystery Midrash and Criminal Kabbalah. For readers who like to orbit the fantasy-science fiction shelves, there are two compendiums of the genre, Wandering Stars and More Wandering Stars, while graphic novel enthusiasts can enjoy the Rabbi Harvey adventure series set in the Wild West. (Harvey is especially popular in France.)
Matlins will keep expanding JLP’s range. Because in accepting the award from Hebrew Union College, he not only spoke of dreams and statistics, he also quoted from Ecclesiastes 12:12: “Of making many books there is no end…”
The website address is –www.jewishlights.com