The two shuls I attend regularly each have the ArtScroll and Koren siddurim on their shelves. And I am able to choose which one I want to use. Invariably I will choose the ArtScroll siddur.
It’s not that there is anything I dislike about the Koren siddur. Having the Hebrew on the left side and the English on the right makes very good, logical sense. The off-white color of the pages is easy on the eyes. Rabbi Sacks’s introduction, commentary and translation are all superb. There are a couple of nice bells and whistles that are unique to the Koren siddur. And the hashkafa is certainly one with which I identify.
So why do I always gravitate to the ArtScroll siddur?
There are a few reasons.
First of all, the ArtScroll siddur is the one I have been using for 30-plus years, since it was introduced in the mid-1980s, and it’s familiar to me. Opening the siddur is like meeting an old friend. I know where the pages are, and I can navigate through the prayers easily and with confidence. Why deal with a new siddur when I am comfortable and familiar with the one I have been using for the last three decades?
Second, the typography is phenomenal. Everything flows beautifully. The instructions to various sections of the prayers can be focused on, if one wishes, or easily skipped without feeling like they are an intrusion. If you want a lesson on how to effectively use type, look no further than the ArtScroll siddur.
Third, it’s user friendly. I grew up with the blue Birnbaum siddur, as most of the folks my age did. It was an adequate siddur, but there were a few things that always bugged me. I still cannot understand why the editors of the Birnbaum siddur could not spare an extra page to add Barchi Nafshi after the Shir Shel Yom—each month on Rosh Chodesh, we’d have to turn to the pages of Shabbat mincha to find the prayer. And kudos to ArtScroll for being the first to realize that they could add all of the short Torah and Haftorah readings on Rosh Chodesh and holidays to the back of its siddur—thereby alleviating the need for a chumash on those days.
And while I am complimenting the ArtScroll siddur, let me take this opportunity to give props to its excellent chumash. I grew up with the Hertz chumash, and at the time it was fine. But looking at the translation today, it seems incredibly old fashioned and archaic. As to the commentary, it was very academic and wordy. ArtScroll’s Stone Chumash includes thoughtful explanations from a variety of commentators that are short and to the point, and translates the text in simple, understandable English.
In addition, I will be forever grateful to ArtScroll for including the five megillot in their chumash—before ArtScroll, we had to remember to bring a copy of Megillat Rut and Kohelet to shul if we were to follow the megillah reading. I also can remember arguments in shul about which haftorah to read during the Three Weeks and the weeks after Tisha b’Av before Rosh Hashana. It indeed can be quite confusing, but to its credit, the ArtScroll chumash lays out every possible configuration after each parsha, with clear instructions as to which haftorah to read in each instance.
As to ArtScroll’s English translation of the Gemara, it was a monumental accomplishment—and for someone like myself, whose Hebrew and Aramaic skills are mediocre at best, it was a lifesaver to be able to study Gemara using ArtScroll. I know the purists feel that one should struggle while learning Gemara, and that ArtScroll makes learning it too easy. However, I feel that this is simply a way for those who used to be in a more exclusive “club” of individuals who had mastered Gemara learning to keep their numbers small. However, why shouldn’t we open up Gemara learning to as many people as possible? Without ArtScroll, the Daf Yomi movement would never have taken off— and we would not have witnessed 80,000 people attending a Daf Yomi celebration at MetLife Stadium the past two cycles. We owe ArtScroll a huge hakarat hatov for this.
In the mid-1980s, I purchased the very first ArtScroll Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur machzorim it published, and copiously entered my notes and instructions in pencil for leading the service in the two volumes. (I’ve led Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services continually in various congregations for 45 years now.) I still have those machzorim, and they are among my prized possessions, even if the binding on the books are ripping. (I really do need to get them repaired.)
One year, after Neilah services, I left my machzor in shul and forgot to take it home. I didn’t realize this until a few days later, and panicked, thinking that I might have lost it. But I figured I simply left it in shul. But where? Our shul had packed away all its ArtScroll machzorim, so I carefully went through more than 100 books, and at the very end of my search, finally found my copy. Boy, was I relieved!
Generally speaking, I do not share ArtScroll’s charedi philosophy. I particularly find fault with ArtScroll’s biographies of our sages, and its insistence to whitewash any negative traits they might have had. But in terms of its siddur, chumash and Gemara, it ranks second to none, in my humble opinion.
Finally, from my professional perspective, I appreciate ArtScroll’s keen marketing sense. Years ago they recognized a void in the English language market for our holy books—and brilliantly filled that need with quality products.
To Nosson Scherman, Meir Zlotowitz (ob’m), and the many wonderful folks at ArtScroll who were responsible for these publications, thank you for your contributions and efforts to make our traditional books more accessible to so many more people.
Michael Feldstein is a contributing editor for The Jewish Link. He owns his own marketing consulting firm, MGF Marketing, and can be reached at [email protected]