A star disappeared from the Jewish cosmos some weeks ago, and only a handful of people noticed the loss. Maier Deshell, who died on Simchat Torah eve, was far from a household name, yet, as the longtime editor of the Jewish Publication Society, he forever enriched the world of Jewish letters. The small circle of friends and family he left behind has mourned his passing, but his contributions need to be more widely known and celebrated.
Deshell, it needs be said right off, could be stubborn and cantankerous. Once committed to an idea, he rarely changed, sometimes making friends and colleagues want to scream. But he could also be charming and delightful, with a self-denigrating wit that endeared him to those who knew him. That combination of stiff-neckedness and humor helped make him the great editor he was. He demanded nothing less than perfection in everything he published, yet he knew how to cajole and encourage authors into striving for the standards he set.
He had been ordained as a rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary, but found his true calling in publishing, first at Commentary magazine and then at the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), which he headed from 1974 to 1983. It was a time of change in Jewish publishing; mainstream publishers, who had discovered that Jewish titles could be lucrative, had begun to compete with the venerable JPS for top-notch writers. Still, by dint of his reputation and determination, Deshell managed to publish some of the finest Jewish books of the period. They included Robert Alter’s “Defenses of the Imagination;” Gershom Scholem’s “Sabbatai Sevi;” Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s “Halakhic Man,” and others. All have become classics of Jewish thought. He also published two of the most popular and provocative Jewish books of the time. Hillel Halkin’s “Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist Polemic,” criticizing diaspora Jewry, still arouses heated discussion. Blu Greenberg’s “On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition,” introduced the well-known Orthodox feminist to the public at large. And therein lay a story.
The women’s movement was at its height, but the Society’s staid Publication Committee had little interest in publishing a feminist work. I was the only female member of that committee (hard to believe today), and I pushed hard for publication. Deshell was torn. But once he decided this was an important book that needed to see the light of day, he put his heart and soul into editing it. It became one of the fundamental works of Jewish Orthodox feminism, and Greenberg has remained everlastingly grateful to Deshell. “He was a great editor,” she says. “And he had an extraordinary vocabulary. I always remember the word ‘befits,’ which I never used, but seemed just right when Maier applied it.”
His mastery of language was, indeed, awe-inspiring. The writer Gloria Goldreich recalls being on a camping trip with her husband and reading a book she was reviewing where the word “celadon” kept appearing. Unsure of its meaning and with no dictionary available, she phoned Deshell. “Jade green,” he said, without hesitation. “He knew everything — history, politics, Israel affairs,” Goldreich says. He mined that extensive knowledge when he became editor of the American Jewish Congress publication, Congress Monthly, after leaving JPS. What might have been a house organ became under his direction a widely read lively journal of essays, opinions and reviews.
After he retired in 1998, he translated two major Yiddish books into English: Jacob Glatstein’s “Chronicles” and Yehoshua Perle’s “Everyday Jews,” and received The Leviant Memorial Prize for an “Outstanding Translation” of the latter. His own family, he would say, consisted of everyday Jews, poor, struggling, troubled in some ways. He grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, his father a milkman. He never married, but turned friends into family. Some of us, a small group of writers — Cynthia Ozick, Gloria Goldreich, Norma Rosen, and I — laugh at how we mothered him, phoning regularly, inviting him for meals, giving him food to take home. Years ago, when he turned 60 (he died at 85), he hinted so broadly that he wanted a big birthday party that I felt compelled to give one. My brother, who attended, joked in his toast, “How’d you swing it, Maier? My sister never did that for me.”
We did things for him, in spite of his sometimes orneriness, because he cared so deeply for us, truly shared our joy when good things happened, our distress at any sorrow. He once said to Cynthia Ozick, “When we’re old, let’s start a moshav zkanim [old people’s cooperative] in Israel and live there all together.” Sadly, he died alone (although looked out for by a loving niece). But this erudite, complex man should not be forgotten by the Jewish community, to whom he gave so much. May his memory be for a blessing.
Francine Klagsbrun’s book, “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day” is now an e-book. She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.