Page 51 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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SARNA/THE JEWISH PUBLICATION SOCIETY
4 3
The Jewish Publication Society was American Jewry’s third try
at founding a society for the publication of Jewish books: two
earlier attempts had ended in failure. The first, in 1845, was the
brainchild of Rabbi Isaac Leeser o f Philadelphia. His devotion to
American Jewish education and culture is legendary, but even he
could not shoulder both the literary and administrative burdens
of a publication society alone. In 1851, after publishing fourteen
numbers o f a series entitled the
Jewish Miscellany,
including
reprints of Anglo-Jewish volumes and several anti-missionary
tracts, Leeser’s undercapitalized society was hit by a disastrous
fire that destroyed most of its stock. It never recovered.1 A sec­
ond Jewish publication society, founded in New York in 1871,
fared even less well. It published three books in four years, and
disappeared; it never could muster the members, money and
leadership that it needed to carry on.
NEW SPIRIT
By 1888, however, the American Jewish situation had changed.
While no single factor can account for this, one can point to a pro­
nounced awakening o f interest in Judaism and Jewish culture on
the part of young, native-born Jews — people like the editors of
the
American Hebrew
or the poet Emma Lazarus — who returned
to their faith eager to reacquaint themselves with the heritage
they now knew to be theirs. The onrush of East European Jewish
immigration played an important part in this revival, as did reli­
gious currents in the nation at large. But there was also a growing
feeling among leading American Jews that they were destined to
play a central role in world Jewish affairs, and had better be pre­
pared. Jewish learning and Jewish books were what they needed
most.
In Philadelphia, at about this time, the new, American-trained
young rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Joseph
Krauskopf, gathered a coterie of like-minded young men and
women around him, and organized what he called the “Society of
Knowledge Seekers.” It was, originally, a literary discussion
group, but it soon took on other missions as well. Its very first
1 Solomon Grayzel, “The First American Jewish Publication Society,”
Jewish
Book Annual
3 (1944), pp. 42-45; Moshe Davis,
The Emergence of Conservative
Judaism
(Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1963), pp. 51-53.