Home » Blog » Religious Books As Art Objects: An Interview with Publisher David Zvi Kalman

Religious Books As Art Objects: An Interview with Publisher David Zvi Kalman

A few weeks ago I saw a sponsored Facebook post announcing the publication of the Asufa Haggadah. While I normally tend to ignore sponsored posts, this one stood out, and I dutifully clicked on the link. Within minutes I was entering my order information for this stunningly gorgeous haggadah. I was not alone. The haggadah has been ordered in 42 states and as far away as Japan. It’s perhaps as “hot” (if not hotter than) the New American Haggadah that debuted in 2012. But unlike that haggadah, this one is Israeli, and contains no translation. It is a beautiful combination of art and ritual. I recently spoke with David Zvi Kalman, whose small publishing house Print-O-Craft is distributing the Asufa Haggadah, on the origins of this haggadah and on the value of religious aesthetics.

HR: Tell us a bit about the background of this unique haggadah. How did you discover the work of the Israeli design firm that created this haggadah? How long has this tradition of publishing a new haggadah each year been going on?

DK: Asufa is an Israeli collective; they’ve been making haggadot since 2013, with a new haggadah coming out each year. Though Print-O-Craft is a publisher, we are acting more like a distributor in this instance. On the basis of the Seder Oneg Shabbos bentsher, the first book we published, and another book that we are publishing, Asufa approached us about bringing the book to North America.

HR: As a Hebrew reader/speaker, when I looked through the beautiful Asufa Haggadah, I personally enjoyed the absence of the English translation that I’m used to seeing in haggadot. The experience felt like a more direct engagement with the text, and I especially loved the eclectic Hebrew fonts. But many American Jews don’t read Hebrew. What was the thought process in regard to including or not including translation?

DK: The haggadah is in Hebrew because it was made for an Israeli audience, not Americans. That being said, we’ve been surprised by how many people enjoy the haggadah without any translation. In fact, not all of our buyers are Jewish; they simply appreciate the book as a work of art.

HR: There has been an overwhelming response to the 2015 Asufa Haggadah. How are you handling all the orders as a small publisher? Are you surprised by the response?

DK: One of the purposes of selling a Hebrew-only haggadah was for Asufa to determine the size of North American demand for the book. The answer, it seems, is that there’s a lot of demand. After an article about the haggadah appeared at the beginning of last week we sold all remaining copies within a couple of hours. Neither I nor Asufa were prepared for this—they had to print a whole new batch of books to accommodate demand.

As a smaller publisher, this has been great, although the number of orders that have had to be filled is a little overwhelming. The haggadah‘s success has really helped cement Print-O-Craft as a real and growing publishing house, and also means that we have a lot of name recognition.

Actually, as far as Jewish name recognition goes, bentshers and haggadot are basically the best things one could possibly publish, because these are the only two books that Jews regularly use at communal gatherings. Every seder, every Shabbat meal, and every wedding we create books, which only serves to advertise our products further! Even siddurim and chumashim don’t get the same level of exposure.

HR: It seems with these two publications you have tapped into a growing market for beautifully designed religious texts for practical use. What inspired you to create the Seder Oneg Shabbos bentscher and to launch Print-O-Craft?

DK: The truth is that I never set out to create a publishing company. Around February of 2014, I began working on Seder Oneg Shabbos alongside two soon-to-be-married couples. Since we intended the bentsher to be used not just at these two weddings but for sale in the future, I set up Print-O-Craft as a convenient way of dealing with the finances related to the bentsher.

The “about” page of the website contained a call for submissions as a kind of afterthought (since I had to learn the mechanics of book production and sales anyway, it was no longer logistically difficult to sell other books), but it wasn’t like anyone was actively soliciting submissions. People seemed to take it seriously, though.

HR: Do you plan to continue publishing future Asufa haggadot each year?

DK: On the basis of the strong sales, a bilingual edition of the haggadah (almost definitely featuring new illustrations) will be planned for next year.

HR: What other publication plans does Print-O-Craft have up its sleeves?

DK: There are only two titles for now, but more will come—though slowly, since I am trying to finish my PhD and run Jewish Public Media. We’d rather produce/distribute one amazing book at a time.

Very soon, though, we’ll be announcing a third book created by artist Jessica Tamar Deutsch. It is a graphic novel based on a complete English translation of Pirkei Avot. It is very beautiful.

We’re still looking for new titles—it definitely appears that there is an audience for these kinds of books. People seem to want religious texts that express beauty in pictures and not just ideas.

For the moment, aesthetics is a major selling point for Print-O-Craft’s books, but I don’t know that this will always be true—it’s a new venture, and there are dozens of other books that, as far as I can tell, no other Jewish publisher is interested in publishing.

Order the Asufa Haggadah by March 31st, to have it arrive in time for Pesach

 

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