American Jews in Text and Context: Jacob Behrman and the Rise of a Publishing Dynasty

Published: 
2015

Source: Images 2015

 

This article explores the career of Jacob Behrman (1921–2012) and the growth of Behrman House from a small Jewish bookseller to the leading publisher of Jewish religious school textbooks. Behrman’s success owed in part to his ability to appeal to the vast center, to gauge correctly his consumers’ needs and reflect their outlook and values, to eschew partisanship and play down ideological differences, and to swim with the tide. In addition, I make the case that Behrman House elevated the field of Jewish education by raising the quality of Jewish textbooks, and that through its ascendency played a role in redefining the goals of Jewish education and its undergirding ideological thrust. Behrman was not driven by a single model of Jewish education or a monolithic vision for the Jewish community, but rather, by business exigencies and a connection to Jewish peoplehood and culture.

 

As the premier Jewish textbook publisher for over twenty-five years, with a dominant position in the market since the 1960s, Behrman House has been in the position to shape American Jews’ self-understanding, the ways in which they express and relate to their tradition. The stakes are enormously high, particularly given that many religious school teachers lack extensive academic training. For these teachers the textbook often provides an organizing framework as well as an authoritative source of knowledge. One need look no further than the periodic culture wars over public school textbooks to recognize that educational publishing can easily become politicized.

 

Over the course of his career, Jacob Behrman made a number of publishing decisions that reverberated in religious school classrooms and beyond. Behrman’s decisions concerning the teaching and learning of Hebrew provide a significant case in point. But one could point to numerous other examples, including the introduction of God as a subject of inquiry into the religious school curriculum, first indirectly in the third volume of the Basic Judaism for Young People (1987) series by Naomi Passachoff, and, later, head on in Partners with God (1995), by Gila Givirtz.

 

Rabbi Samuel Joseph, a professor of Jewish education and longtime observer of the field is undoubtedly correct that Jacob and David Behrman were never driven by a single model of Jewish education or a monolithic vision for the Jewish community. The Behrmans, both father and son, were “not trying to chart the course of Jewish education in America. They were trying to figure out the market to sell books.”113 But their books were not merely reflections of the Jewish community’s central narratives, priorities and needs. The Behrmans were curators of the American Jewish tradition. They were not only charged with its management and oversight, but with selection and interpretation. Their success owed in part to their ability to appeal to the vast center, to correctly gauge their consumers’ needs and reflect their outlook and values, to eschew partisanship and to downplay ideological differences, to swim with the tide. To be sure, there were occasional missteps. But they were the exceptions. His talent for tastemaking was grounded in Behrman’s ability to discriminate. Eugene Borowitz captured the Behrman genius in comments that he made upon Jacob Behrman’s retirement: “In a day when we are accustomed to think of business leaders as masters of the balance sheet and the strategic business plan, Jacob ran Behrman House by what must be called poetic intuition. He has exquisite taste and, to a considerable extent, that is not only why Behrman House’s books were so tasteful but why they set an esthetic standard other publishers had to meet.

Updated: May. 12, 2015
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