A Conversation With Altie Karper

Editorial director of the American Jewish publisher Schocken, who will be attending the Jerusalem International Book Fair as an editorial fellow.

When I wrote to Altie Karper, proposing an interview for Books, she wrote back immediately to say yes, noting how "terrific" it was that the offices of Haaretz are located on Schocken Street in Tel Aviv. Karper is the editorial director of Schocken Books in New York, a company founded in 1945 by Salman Schocken.

Today there is no legal connection between Karper's firm, which is part of the American publishing giant Random House, and the Schocken Group of Israel, which owns a Hebrew book publishing company of the same name (as well as this newspaper). But both companies were started by Salman Schocken (1877-1959 ), a German Jew who used the profits from his department-store chain to publish Jewish literature in Berlin in 1931.

Altie Karper

During the seven years before the Nazi regime forced his company to cease operations, it published 225 titles, including a translation of the Hebrew Bible into German, overseen by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, and books of Hebrew poetry accompanied by German translations. The firm also acquired the rights to the works of Franz Kafka.

When he left Germany, Schocken went with his family to Palestine, staying long enough to buy Haaretz, which had been founded in 1918, and establish a publishing house. In 1940 he moved to New York and management of the companies in Palestine was left in the hands of Gershom Schocken, father of Amos Schocken, the paper's publisher today. Five years later, Salman set up Schocken in New York, whose first editors were Hannah Arendt and Nahum Glatzer, and whose works eventually included the books of Gershom Scholem, Kafka and Elie Wiesel.

The family sold the firm to Random House in 1987, which was acquired by Germany's Bertelsmann 11 years later. When the literary magazine Archipelago sought to interview someone, a decade ago, about the history of the American publisher Schocken and the family that founded it, they went to Karper, something of a self-styled expert on the subject.

Karper will be attending the Jerusalem International Book Fair as a participant in its Editorial Fellows Program, which brings together mid-career editors from around the world every two years. Karper, in her early 50s, says she also plans to use the visit to meet with her counterparts at Israeli publishing houses, and to meet local writers. Israelis already being published by Schocken include Aharon Appelfeld, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Sophie Judah and Hillel Halkin. Altie Karper spoke with Haaretz by phone from her New York office.


How did you become an expert on the history of Schocken Books?

When I started working at Pantheon and Schocken, in 1989, I wanted to learn whatever I could about the firm. There were still people around who knew this stuff, and so I asked a lot of questions. They were glad to have the opportunity to pass it on.

Reading about Salman Schocken, and the founding of the house in Berlin, it's clear that he had a strong sense of cultural mission. He believed the Jewish people needed the books he was publishing. Is it possible to sustain such a sense of mission when you are one tiny division in a vast multinational firm?

Absolutely. We are transmitters of Jewish culture to anyone - Jewish or non-Jewish - interested in reading about it. That's our mission. It's true that over the years, Schocken had published books in other categories, before Random House acquired it. But when Sonny Mehta, my boss [the president of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group within Random House], gave me the responsibility for running Schocken, we agreed that Schocken should focus on its traditional and core publishing strength, which is books that have some connection to the Jewish experience.

Many other imprints at the company also publish books with Jewish content, even by Israeli authors. Do you sometimes end up bidding for the same books?

Agents are free to submit projects multiply to editors within Random House. I guess it boils down, for an author and his agent, to which imprint makes the better impression. I like to think Schocken brings a historical brand identity, and unique editorial and marketing expertise.

What qualities do you think you bring to the job?

(Laughs.) Yihalelkhah zahr v'loh pikhah, right? [Hebrew for "Strangers should praise you and not you yourself."] For as long as I can remember, what I most loved to do was read books, talk about books, and write about books. I was an English major in college, and I knew I wanted to do something with books when I graduated. I've had a pretty extensive Jewish education - I'm Orthodox and attended yeshiva elementary and high school, seminary, and Yeshiva University's Teachers Institute for Women, and I spent some time studying in Israel. So I like to think I have a sense of what makes for an interesting and important book of Judaica.

Has your observance ever presented problems?

No. From the day I started, people have been intrigued by my background and my religious practice. When I was an editorial assistant, to Elisabeth Sifton at Viking, even Irving Howe and Arthur Miller, whom she published, couldn't get over the fact that she had this little religious girl working for her. I think they were surprised that someone Orthodox would also want to live in the modern, very secular world of publishing.Even though he's known me for more than 20 years, I think Sonny's still intrigued by the fact that I live with one foot in each of two very different worlds. When I have to leave early on Friday, and Sonny will run into me on his way back from lunch, he'll smile and say playfully, "And where are you going?" To which I'll reply, "I have to go be with the other god in my life," which invariably makes him burst out laughing.

What makes Sonny Mehta so good at what he does?

He has a combination of terrific editorial sense, marketing sense and business sense. That's very unusual. It was more common years ago, with publishers like Alfred A. Knopf and Bennett Cerf [founder of Random House] and Harold Guinzburg [founder of The Viking Press]. Sonny is one of the few people in publishing today who has all that. He also learned publishing from the bottom up - starting as an assistant to a smallish publisher in England, where he did a little bit of everything, in every department.

Where do you live?

On the Lower East Side, the time-honored immigrants' portal to America. It still has a very nice Jewish community, not big. I've lived there all my life. My parents were born there, too. My grandparents got off the boat from Europe at the docks of Lower Manhattan, and decided to stay in the neighborhood.

In which synagogue do you worship?

 Young Israel Manhattan, the mother branch of the Young Israel movement. I've got a family connection to it: My dad was president years ago, [as were] two uncles and my brother. My mom was a vice president. My cousin is now co-president.

What do you say about the plaint that Israeli culture and Jewish culture in the Diaspora are diverging?

I think we are all still one people. Jews, wherever they are from, have a shared historical experience and shared cultural reference points. And that will never change.

You don't see American Jews becoming alienated from Israel?

One of the most interesting things I've read about Birthright Israel is that when young American Jews meet their Israeli counterparts, the first thing they realize is how much they have in common. Everyone in the modern world wrestles with the question of identity: How does one live a Jewish life in the secular 21st century? Young Jews in Tel Aviv wrestle with this the same way young Jews in Boston do.

Some years ago, Jacob Neusner wrote an op-ed complaining that no good culture was coming out of Israel.

I don't think that's true at all. Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Meir Shalev, Yehudit Rotem, Nava Semel, Yoram Kaniuk, David Grossman, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Savyon Liebrecht, Etgar Keret. Those are just names [of writers] I've come up with off the top of my head. That's a pretty impressive list to me.

You also publish a series of books, called "Jewish Encounters," together with Nextbook Press, a division of Keren Keshet. How does that work?

We have a terrific collaboration with Nextbook. Jonathan Rosen, the series editor, is part of the Nextbook team, and we publish these books together. People will come to him or to me with an idea for a book in the series, and we come to a publishing decision about each book jointly.

My impression is that while the books have been a critical success overall, only a few have actually made money.

Some have sold better than others, but I don't know that it's accurate to say that only a "few" have been profitable for us. I like to look at how well they have been received. David Lehman's "A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs" won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. Esther Schor's biography of Emma Lazarus won a National Jewish Book Award, [as did] Hillel Halkin's biography of Yehuda Halevi. And Joseph Telushkin's biography of Hillel was a Publishers Weekly Best Religion Book of the Year. That's my yardstick.

What interesting titles do you have in the pipeline?

We will be publishing two titles this spring in our "Jewish Encounters" series: Deborah Lipstadt's "The Eichmann Trial," on the 50th anniversary of the verdict, and Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole's book on the Cairo Geniza. Both have already gotten stellar advance reviews. And in the fall, in the series, we will be publishing Shimon Peres' biography of David Ben-Gurion, which he wrote in collaboration with David Landau. There's a huge amount of excitement within Random House for this book. I understand it will be published in Hebrew at the same time.

Francine Klagsbrun, who's been working on a biography of Golda Meir, told me that when you signed a contract with her, you gave her a four-year delivery date. Isn't that a very long time these days?

It's not unusual, not for a major biography. Robert Caro takes even longer to write the books in his multi-volume Lyndon Johnson biography. He lives in Francine's building in Manhattan and periodically gives her hizuk [support].

Do you call her every once in a while to remind her that you're waiting?

I run into her often, ask how she's doing, and give her advice if she asks for it. And I give her hizuk, too. That's one of the most important things an editor can do for an author.