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Enduring Imprint

Yisroel Besser

Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz’s “ArtScroll Revolution” overhauled Torah literature, but he believed anyone can do big things if they’re open to hearing the call

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

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HE HEEDED THE CALL Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz’s “ArtScroll Revolution” overhauled Torah literature, but he believed anyone can do big things if they’re open to hearing the call. He was 32 years old when he unsuspectingly lit a match that would ignite the world. It seems young, but as he himself reflected, it wasn’t really that young — it’s an age by which many people have already made peace with their destiny, accepted that their current reality defines them. They think it’s too late to live bigger (Photos: Amir Levy, Family archives)

"D on’t use the word visionary,” admonished Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz. His tone was cautionary, but his eyes were laughing. “We’re not visionaries. We’re regular people, trying to make the most of the opportunities HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave us.”

A year and a half ago he and his partner Rabbi Nosson Scherman, yblcht”a, finally allowed me to come in for an on-the-record conversation, in honor of ArtScroll’s 40th anniversary.

I wasn’t sure it could work, and I shared my reservations with Rabbi Zlotowitz.

“Look, let’s be honest,” I said. “You’re used to being in charge, but this article is for us, the story we want to tell. What if you’re not happy?”

He met my gaze. “Are you saying I’m a control freak?”

There was a moment’s uncomfortable silence, and then he burst out in delighted laughter.

“Okay, fine, you control the article. But remember, we’re not visionaries. Anyone can do big things if they’re open to hearing the call.”

It wasn’t a sound bite, but an attitude.

Rabbi Chaim Zev Malinowitz is a longtime writer and editor of ArtScroll’s Shas project, but the first time he came to the downtown Brooklyn office to meet the administration, he got lost. It was the era before GPS and Waze; he drove through the unfamiliar streets near Second Avenue, and then, suddenly, the building appeared in front of him.

He parked and came into the lobby, where Reb Meir greeted him.

“Reb Chaim, I see you made it,” Rabbi Zlotowitz remarked.

“Yes,” Rabbi Malinowitz said, “but I have no idea how I got here. Hashem led me here.”

Reb Meir didn’t hesitate. “Reb Chaim, none of us understands how we got here, but Hashem
led us and here we are.”

He Never Forgot

Rabbi Zlotowitz’s sudden passing last Shabbos at age 73 was all the more shocking because there are certain people who you just assume will be around forever — continuing to create projects of immeasurable importance for the Jewish People. Rabbi Zlotowitz’s “ArtScroll Revolution” was just that — a transformation and overhaul of the presentation and availability of Torah literature in English and Hebrew.

Back in time, with the first Megillas Esther that broke the doors open

After spending his formative years learning in Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim (MTJ) where he became a close talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein, Reb Meir became director of a high-end graphics business called ArtScroll Studios, which produced brochures, invitations, and illuminated kesubos.

He was 32 years old when he unsuspectingly lit a match that would ignite the world. It seems young, but as he himself reflected, it wasn’t really that young — it’s an age by which many people have already made peace with their destiny, accepted that their current reality defines them. They think it’s too late to live bigger.

And part of Rabbi Zlotowitz’s greatness — what made time spent with him so precious — was that he never forgot who he was back then when, as he expressed it, “My life was about stressed out mechutanim, screaming that the invitations were late.”

That first venture back in 1975 was the famous Megillas Esther, a project he’d undertaken to honor a friend who’d passed away young. (The friend was named Mair Fogel and in last year’s article, Reb Meir was insistent that I spell the name correctly, the way his friend spelled it. The person was real, the tribute was real, and the story had to be retold with precision.) As Purim was a few months away, he decided to write an English translation and commentary on Megillas Esther as a tribute, and asked Rabbi Nosson Scherman — who was principal of Yeshiva Karlin Stolin in Boro Park and was also a talented and eloquent writer — to write the introduction. It sold out its first edition of 20,000 copies within two months.

And it was that project that launched a lifetime of being megaleh the hester, revealing the obscure and the covered, opening up the world of Tanach, Mishnayos, Shas, Midrash, and meforshim to a new generation. It would expand into historical works and novels and cookbooks and a thousand other titles and genres — each one rooted in authentic hashkafah, professionally produced, and attractively presented. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 666)

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