Jerusalemites – Matthew Miller

An occasional series of interviews with notable veteran or more recent olim who have chosen to make their homes in Jerusalem.

BY DAVID OLIVESTONE

Since Matthew Miller bought Koren Publishers Jerusalem in 2007, he has turned it into one of today’s most successful and well-known Jewish publishing houses, with a particular niche in the Religious Zionist world. Urbane, witty and self-deprecating, he is lanky, with a domed intellectual forehead, and could easily be mistaken for the professor he once aspired to become. Matthew and his wife Renée live in Jerusalem’s Greek Colony neighborhood.

You and your company have had a profound influence on the Religious Zionist / Modern Orthodox world. Was this something that evolved from your background?

No, not at all. Growing up, my family was Reform, at best. My grandparents, who all came to the USA before World War I, were either Bundists or Socialists. At university I was studying Thomas Aquinas before I had even heard of the Rambam, on whose trailblazing work a century previously Aquinas based much of his work. So no, Judaism was something that came into my life as an adult.

What did you want to become as you grew up?

A history professor. When I was younger and still had a functioning brain, I skipped a couple of grades, so I was only 20 when I graduated college. I was accepted into a master’s program at Oxford University, and I remember when I submitted my first essay, it was written American-style, full of quotes from eminent thinkers. My tutor insisted that I tell him not what others thought, but what I knew and what I thought, and no one had ever told me that before. At the end of my two years at Oxford I had my degree, but I found poring over things like medieval Latin texts very boring, and I realized that I wasn’t cut out for a career in academia.

So you went into the family business?

Yes, my father had started the business in the early 1950s, and we manufactured some industrial machinery. After a few years based in the US, I took over the manufacturing and sales operations in Europe. So in 1981, when Renée and I were married, we moved to England, ostensibly for six months, but we ended up living in Leeds for ten years and then in London for eight years until we sold the European business.

Were you religiously observant by this point?

Renée was already quite observant, as she had grown up in Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, under the influence of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. But I believe I would not have become frum myself if we had remained in America, where there are so many highly fragmented streams. Before joining a shul you have to define yourself as Reform or Conservative or Egalitarian or Modern Orthodox or Charedi, or whatever. If you want to move from this to that, you have to, in effect, reject where you are coming from. But in England in the 1980s, almost all the shuls were Orthodox, and you had some very frum and learned people there, and you also had people who would drive there on Shabbat and leave the car parked around the corner. Renée encouraged me to find my own religious level. I consider myself a very rational person, but I took some courses with a rabbi who challenged me to think about the universe and its purpose and order. I became fully Orthodox gradually, but it felt comfortable as I was able to stay in the same shul, with the same friends.

What came first, the idea of going into publishing or the idea of making Aliyah?

We didn’t want to stay in England or go back to the States, and we both loved Israel and had a lot of friends here and used to visit a lot, so it was a logical decision. We made Aliyah in the summer of 1999 and it was the best move we ever made. Since I was blissfully out of a job, I needed to reinvent myself. I had always loved books, but I knew very well that I didn’t have the capacity to write them myself. So instead, I decided to enable others to write, and I started The Toby Press. The best-known title I published under this imprint was Yehuda Avner’s The Prime Ministers.

How did you become involved with Koren Publishers?

After a few years, I began to feel that what I was doing was not very satisfying. I had heard that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l, whom I had gotten to know a little while I was still in England, was looking for a Jewish publisher to produce his siddur internationally and also his Jewish-themed books in English. At about the same time, I learned that the families that owned Koren were looking to sell. Koren had always pushed all my buttons; its beautiful typography – which is something with which I’ve always been obsessed – its very high academic standards, and its Zionist identity.

What attracted you about Rabbi Sacks’ siddur?

I am my own target audience, and I felt that combining the elegance and logic of the Koren design with the profound learning, moral depth, and sheer eloquence of the Sacks translation, and also his extensive commentaries, would make it a siddur that would appeal to the intellect, the thirst for spirituality and to the eye. The Koren Sacks Siddur was a great success, as it clearly filled a niche that people were looking for. Then we went on to publish the festival machzorim with Rabbi Sacks’ translation and commentaries, and many of his other highly popular books under our Maggid imprint.

Rabbi Sacks once said of you that you have reinterpreted the classic works of Judaism for our time, and you’ve done so brilliantly. Did you have a special relationship with him?

I think I had an excellent professional relationship with Rabbi Sacks. We didn’t do small talk; he was my moral rebbe. In fact, many of the meetings and conversations we had were more like  private classes. By the way, I worked very hard to promote Rabbi Sacks as a serious thinker in Israel. He wasn’t known much here in the early 2000s, but now, for example, the huge Steimatzky bookshop chain, which doesn’t really stock much Judaica, is selling large quantities of Rabbi Sacks’ works in the Hebrew translations that we publish.

What came next?

We started putting out a wide range of books for a broad tent Orthodoxy under the Maggid imprint, and many of the most prominent scholars and writers began to publish with us. I was soon approached by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s son and advisory staff and we became his sole Hebrew and English publisher. Rav Steinsaltz zt”l, who had spent over four decades creating his monumental elucidation of the entire Talmud in modern Hebrew, partnered with us to launch the groundbreaking Koren Talmud Bavli, which is both elegant and user-friendly in the Koren style. It includes a new English translation, together with Rav Steinsaltz’s explanations, color illustrations and many other tools to aid in understanding the text. I never thought in my wildest imagination that I would ever be publishing a Talmud, but it’s been very successful.

Do you have a hand in everything that you publish?

I know where I’m good and I know where I’m not. In my previous 25-year business career, I learned how to get things done, so I think I’m good at visualizing the right projects, choosing the right people and empowering them to get them done. But as I said, I’m only a wannabe academic, so I have little-to-zero editorial input. We publish over a hundred books a year and we have a fabulous team of editors on whom I can totally rely, and I have absolutely no interest in getting involved in something that’s going well. 

So how much of Matthew Miller is there in Koren?

I talk to many people and I get to hear what they are looking for. This helps me contribute ideas for various new series. But in general, I want to publish books that address issues we’re wrestling with in the Orthodox world. We need to know how to talk to our children, and to ourselves, about issues of moral value. You’re not going to get that from the secular world. Some parts of the Orthodox world tend to talk down to you, whereas what we need is a way to talk with, not down.

Do you have a sense of pride that you’ve created all this?

That’s not how I think… but I don’t want to sound disingenuous. I know that this is important; of course I know that I’m enabling great thinkers to communicate their thoughts to a broad public. That’s what I do. I don’t create; I’m an enabler for creation. And I’m never satisfied.

 

David Olivestone is an award-winning writer who served on the staffs of the British Museum and of the Encyclopaedia Judaica. He was Director of Communications at the Orthodox Union in New York before making Aliyah to Jerusalem with his wife Ceil in 2013.

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