Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Saturating the Market

(Hat Tip: FinkorSwim)
There are essentially three types of Jewish prayer books on the market.  The first kind are the good, ol' fashioned all-Hebrew ones that come in a variety of sizes, nusachs and commentaries.  Generally speaking there is a specific part of the Torah-observant community that prefers them.  The third kind are the non-religious ones that the Reformatives promote that have changed the traditional prayers beyond recognition and are useless for those who wish to daven according to strictly Orthodox standards.
The second kind, however, fit in the middle - the English-Hebrew Orthodox siddur.  For decades, the standard for Orthodox shuls that catered to a crowd that wanted English in its prayer books was the Birnbaum siddur.  It was revolutionary in a few ways.  First, it insisted on making all the prayer texts the same size font, as opposed to more traditional siddurs that seemed to randomnly change font size from paragraph to paragraph.  It also included a brief but decent commentary, including a good explanation of the 13 middos of Rabbi Yishmael at the end of the korbanos section.  It's the siddur I grew up with and still have a nostalgic preference for.
The siddur that replaced it in most places was the classic Artscroll.  It had a few advantages over the Birnbaum including more detailed instructions for the beginning or even moderately experienced davener.  In addition, it contained a decent section of halachic details on praying at the back.  Like the Stone Chumash would several years later, the siddur wiped out the old Birnbaums and quickly replaced them in many shuls.
After several years of being the uncontested siddur of choice for those wanting to daven with an English side to their shul, Koren recently entered the game with its siddur.  Like the Artscroll it contained a good English translation and copious instructions.  Koren went further and revolutionized things by putting the English on the right side of the double page, as opposed to the usual left page universally used in English-Hebrew books until now.  With their distinctive fonts and layout, it has been a beautiful addition to the English-Hebrew siddur selection.  It had such an obvious impact that it motivated Artscroll to update things for the first time in decades and introduce a more comprehensive siddur to maintain their edge in the market.
The question to be asked at this point is: is there room for another siddur?  Artscroll has made a mint selling its siddur for years.  Koren is working hard to catch up.  Apparently the Orthodox Union feels there's still room and has decided to introduce their own prayer book to the mix.  The advertisement is glossy and enthusaistic.  We are offered yet another great English translation (odd how no new English-Hebrew siddur ever wants to give us a "plain old" translation) and lots of new features including a commetary guaranteed to improved kavannah (!!), essays, a halacha section and parts for non-shul functions that often require a siddur.  There is also the promise of a women's section to facilitate those prayers specific to the gentler sex.
Leaving aside Matzav's predictable and historically revisionist condemnation of the project, one has to ask: how many Orthodox English-Hebrew prayer books can the market handle? 
This is not an idle question either.  One reason for Artscroll's success in the personal (as opposed to shul) siddur market is their connection to the kiruv industry.  Folks returning to our ancestral heritage through Aish HaTorah or Ohr Sameyach are likely to be guided to Artscroll, not Koren or others.  Certainly the OU siddur will not be listed as preferred over the Artscroll when released.  Koren has made its mark by aggressively courting the Modern Orthodox siddur, noting that its commentary includes Modern Orthodox authorities deliberately ignored by Artscroll.  It has tapped into the resentment that MO feels on its scholars and leaders being sidelined by the Agudah crowd and kol hakavod to them for doing that.  However, what niche does that leave for the OU to place its siddur in?
I am a fan of competition but there are limits on the number of products that make a healthy market.  Will all due respect to those who have clearly put a great deal of effort into this new prayer book, I wonder how successful their efforts to sell it will be.  I think that at this point, instead of a new siddur, the Orthodox Union and MO groups should concentrate their efforts on producing a new Chumash to rival Artscroll's.  That would have a far greater chance of making a meaningful impact in the MO community.


Bob Miller said...

While I'm not with Chabad, I've liked their siddur and machzor translations by N. Mangel the best. These seem to be updates of Singer's and Adler's old UK translations but without archaic word forms.

Michael Sedley said...

Your article only describes the American market.

I grew up in New Zeaalnd where we used the British Singer Siddur, which was and excellent Siddur for it's time, and the Centenial edition that came out a few years ago is i believe superior to Artscroll.

It is that translation, Ry Chief rabbi Sacks, that was used in the Koren Siddur.

What I like about the Singer Siddur, in addition to clear layout and easy instructions, it is very faithul to Minhag - following the British Minhag.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Michael, I was in Scotland a few years ago and was amazed to discover the British minhag, including the prayer for the royal family, the special robes the Rav had to wear, the tunes, etc. It was fascinating to see an Ashkenazic prayer system that didn't have a Yiddish accent or all the same ol' tunes attached to it.

Michael Sedley said...

When and where were you in Scotland?

My brother was the Rav in Endinborough about 10 years ago, so if you were in Edinborough then, the tall chap with the funny robes (and no Yiddish accent) would have been my brother.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Oh yeah! I met him and had Shabbos meals by him!
Actually I had a different connection with him. I was going to a friend's wedding so I looked up "Edinburgh" and "kosher" on Yahoo and his name came up. David, right?
Anyway, I called him and spoke with his wife and she asked where I was calling from. I figured that all she knew about Canada was Toronto so I assured her she had never heard of the city I was calling from. She insisted I tell her and when I did she noted she was best friends with a lady who lived a floor above us in our apartment building. Small Jewish world!
Great guy. How's he doing?