Bergen Record: Yudelsons' Ben Yehuda Press is Growing

Well-deserved coverage for our local Jewish publishers (but a dumb title to the story). > Book list.
Atheists welcome at this publisher

The group of Jewish thinkers, mystics and theologians share little in common.

One is an atheist who edits the liberal Jewish Currents magazine -- which, generations ago, was the publication of choice for Jewish communists.

Another is an Orthodox rabbi who once jumped a fence at the site of the former Auschwitz death camp in Poland to protest the presence of a Roman Catholic convent.

A third is a rabbi known for her contemplative approach, employing Jewish mystical sources, as well as Buddhist, Christian, Islamic and Native American traditions.

But Lawrence Bush and Rabbis Avi Weiss and Shefa Gold share one thing: They're writers whose work has found a home with an obscure but growing publishing company run from a home in Teaneck.

Larry Yudelson and his wife, Eve, started Ben Yehuda Press several years ago, building up an eclectic, idiosyncratic stable of authors who span the breadth of American Jewish thought.

Bush, for example, traces his atheism to the insurgent Jewish Left of his parents' and grandparents' generations. Weiss, meanwhile, is a major figure in the modern Orthodox movement in New York City. Gold is active in the liberal Jewish renewal movement that seeks to reinvigorate Jewish spiritual practices.

"We made a decision that we want all voices," Eve Yudelson explained. "We think they are all important. We think they all have something to say. And the feedback we're getting is that they're changing people's lives."

Indeed, readers are starting to take notice, even though the books are available mostly online and at select bookshops.

Gold's 2006 book, "Torah Journeys," was praised by several noted spiritual figures, including Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and the Jewish Buddhist writer Sylvia Boorstein.

Gold, who grew up in Paramus as Sherri Katz, takes a highly introspective approach in the book, examining the weekly Bible portions and treating each story as a symbolic narrative on the human condition. She encourages readers to embrace the text as an allegory for their own lives.

"Moses is born within us at a moment of despair, when we have ... been forced into the narrowest possible definition of self," she wrote of Exodus.

Gold, who lives in New Mexico, said she was dreading having to hawk her work to a publisher, in part because the book isn't easily pigeonholed.

"It comes from a Jewish orientation, but it's really built out of my experience as a seeker," she said. "It has been criticized for being too open to the language of other traditions."

But the Yudelsons, who are both traditional, observant Jews, said they were impressed by Gold's command of scripture and her alternative vision.

"Her book hit us in the soul," Larry Yudelson said.

Yudelson, 43, said his religious upbringing and career as a journalist prepared him for the diverse world he now oversees as a publisher.

He attended a rigorous Orthodox yeshiva as a teenager, but later worked for a Jewish news service covering all the major branches of Judaism.

"The whole thing opened me up much further," he said. "I was covering Reform rabbis saying things that, in the context of orthodoxy, didn't make sense. I had to read through it and get to that internal place where it made sense."

Eve grew up in Queens, committed to Orthodox Judaism, but intrigued by other faiths.

"You are strong when you can open yourself up to somebody else's truth," she said. "It doesn't need to negate you."

Indeed, their latest book is Bush's "Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist."

The author examines his spiritual journeys and those of the baby boom generation and concludes with a reaffirmation of his atheism.

When shopping around for a publisher several years ago, Bush said he was warned that a book on atheism might be a tough sell.

The Yudelsons, however, had no such qualms.

"My atheism is imbued with Jewish tradition, and they recognized that," Bush said.

On the other end of the spectrum is "Tanakh Companion," a book of biblical studies by Weiss and other teachers at a Manhattan rabbinical school.

All told, the Yudelsons have 13 book projects, some of which are published and others in galley form. Larry Yudelson said starting the company seemed like a natural progression from journalism and working on Jewish educational Web sites.

The couple, who have five children, still work from home in an office overflowing with papers, computers and books.

"This is a calling," Larry said. "We've all experienced that moment of falling in love with a book and wanting to tell people about it. Now we're making it possible for other people to have that book."


Publishing couple expanding

When a Teaneck couple opened their own publishing business several years ago, they started small.

Larry and Eve Yudelson, who founded Ben Yehuda Press, printed limited numbers of their Jewish-themed books and offered nominal advances to their authors.

Distribution was also limited, with most of the books sold online or in a small assortment of bookstores.

"By printing a limited number of copies we didn't have that initial risk of making a bad decision," Larry Yudelson said.

The low-budget approach is starting to change. The couple, who typically do all the editing and layout in their home, have begun outsourcing some of the work. They are also approaching the big retailers, such as Barnes & Noble, to distribute their books.

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