Rolling off Hopkins presses, new series, in five volumes, traces Jewish life and migration throughout the United States

November 16, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

As a scholarly work with popular appeal, "The Jewish People in America" is the ideal project for the Johns Hopkins University Press.

"We just really think it's the kind of book that's hard to come by, but we really want to publish," says Douglas Armato, marketing manager for the press.

The five-volume series -- sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) on the occasion of its centennial -- chronicles Jewish life in the United States from 1654 through the present. Released Nov. 1, the set is in its second printing.

Reviews have been favorable, especially for Volume II: "A Time for Gathering: the Second Migration, 1820-1880," written by Hasia R. Diner, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. As well as writing a responsible history, Ms. Diner, who will speak tonight at the Jewish Book Fair, challenges prevailing assumptions about the second wave of Jewish immigration in the 19th century.

"I certainly believe in the series as a concept, but wanted to writ something that would stand on its own and would be judged by its own merits," she says by phone from her Washington home.

A Library Journal review calls Ms. Diner's volume "replete with fresh insights and a provocative thesis. . . . Not always convincing, her book nevertheless is the most original and exciting of the five."

Within "The Jewish People in America," Baltimore figures as a dynamic hub of Jewish life. In her volume, for example, Ms. Diner recounts how Maryland merchants -- in the face of virulent anti-Semitism -- worked from the 1790s to the 1820s to appeal a ban on Jewish office holding. In a section about Jewish neighborhoods, Ms. Diner, who conducted research at the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, quotes a contemporary observer of life in East Baltimore in the 1850s: "There seemed to be many Jews there. . . . Women in the small shops carrying children in their arms or else knitting busily. Young men invited passersby to enter this or that store to buy."

Maryland's Jewish Historical Society also contributed numerous photographs to the series, including a 1924 shot of Abe Sherman's newsstand at Battle Monument Square on the cover of Volume IV. Among other photographs, the society also provided a typical 1940 lunch scene from the Sussman and Lev Deli in Baltimore for Volume IV, and a picture of a silver charity box presented by Levi Benjamin, a founder of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, to his daughter in 1851 for Volume II.

For the AJHS, the oldest national ethnic historical society in the -- United States, the series was "an opportunity to mark our centennial and do something lasting and . . . necessary in the field," says Bernard Wax, its director of special events.

The AJHS began planning the history in 1976. It wanted a comprehensive history "with full coverage of the entire nation," rather than a traditional focus on Jewish life in the urban FTC Northeast, Mr. Wax says.

The AJHS was so committed to the series, designed for lay readers as well as scholars, its board of trustees created an endowment to guarantee that the series would appear "even if we had to pay for the publications ourselves," Mr. Wax says.

Altogether, Johns Hopkins has printed 10,000 copies of the series, including a special edition of 1,000 for the History Book Club, a division of the Book of the Month Club. While not a best-seller figure, it is a large number of books for an academic press, Mr. Armato says.

Of the approximately 160 books the press publishes each year, most are intended for a narrow audience of about 1,000 scholars, Mr. Armato says. But this historical survey "is a book we can really reach a large market with," he says.

In its biggest promotional campaign to date, the Hopkins press is spending $75,000 to push the series. A direct mail campaign to 50,000 prospective customers has been launched. And ads have been placed in a variety of publications, including the New York Times, the Jerusalem Post, Congress Monthly, (published by the American Jewish Congress), as well as Commentary and Tikkun, conservative and liberal Jewish publications, respectively.

The book has competition. In May, Knopf published "A History of the Jews in America," a one-volume history by Howard M. Sachar. However, the author, a professor at George Washington University, sent his own high praise, intended for reprinting in ads publicizing the series, to the Hopkins press.

JEWISH LIFE

Hasia R. Diner will speak about her book at 7:30 tonight at the Park Heights Jewish Community Center. Call 356-5200. Locally, the series is carried by Brentano's, a branch of Waldenbooks; Encore Books; B Dalton Bookseller; Borders in Rockville and the campus bookstore at Johns Hopkins University. The cost of the set is $95 until Feb. 15; $145 thereafter. Individual volumes are $29.95.

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