Harold Rabinowitz is a book packager who owns and operates a company called The Reference Works, Inc. Here are some sundry facts about this Rabinowitz character that will fill out a very confused and mottled picture:

• He was born in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.  He was raised in the home of very orthodox (but loving) Jewish parents who spoke Yiddish in the home; he learned English from listening to late night radio talk shows such as Long John Knebble, Jean Sheppard and Barry Gray (which accounts for his slight California accent). Though he followed the exploits of Hoppalong Cassidy, Flash Gordon and Zorro as a child, he might as well have been living in a shtetl in Poland.

• He was told by people in his neighborhood countless times how much he looked like his mother, to which he smiled benignly and thought, “Just my luck–I’m growing up among the only Jewish morons on the planet!” Only later, when he was 32, did he discover that he had been adopted–and that he was the only living soul in Williamsburg who didn’t know that (and that’s what people found so remarkable). He acquired a reputation as a prodigy (an “iluy”) because of his memory and was inducted by his yeshiva to speak at banquets and to women’s groups rasing money for the instituion.

• He started accumulating books (why not “collecting”? Because he never considered it simply collecting) at the age of 9, and had a bookcase of his own in his room by the age of 10. He learned early on the importance of used book stores and library discard sales. His mother called the books “dust collectors” in spite of his efforts to keep them clean and free of dust. (He would jokingly tell her that the dust was “the best part” of the books, just as she would tell him the peel of the cucumber was its best part. When in his teens, he once gave his mother a locket for Mother’s Day in which he put a small bit of dust (he told her it was erudite dust–“erudust”) from the best books he had. “Comedian!” she scoffed with a grin…but she wore it for many years afterwards.)

• Being a “good boy,” he did not pursue the career he most wanted to, which was writing; in his neighborhood, “my son is writing books” was a euphemism for “my son is out of work.” He instead pursued two other passions: physics and Talmud. By the time the dust had settled (on many more “dust collectors” he had accumulated by this time), he had gone through Rabbinical Seminary and was an ABD (“All But Dissertation”) in philosophy of physics.

• A curious set of circumstances had him serving as the Rabbi of an Orthodox congregation in Malden, Massachusettes, where he served for nine years. When he decided that he did not want to continue as a rabbi and wanted to pursue a career in publishing, his family laughed at first—and then all Hell broke loose and he was ultimately shown the door (literally and formally—it’s called “Herem”) from the community, and from the family (that, as everyone knows, is called divorce). Two years later, he was alone and virtually penniless, but was working as an editor at Shenkman Publishing, a small academic publishing house in Cambridge, a few steps from Harvard Square.

• By an even more curious set of circumstances, he met, and then translated the work of a celebrated Yiddish writer (Chaim Grade), known in the Jewish and Yiddish literary community, but unknown in the culture at large. The book, Rabbis and Wives, was published by Knopf and was the First Runner-Up for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (coming in second to The Color Purple). The distinction led to him being appointed the Executive Editor of The Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia.

• At JPS, he found a mountain of work that had accumulated after years of inactivity. He spent many days and nights in the JPS Philadelphia office wading through this material and managed to see to publication about three year’s worth of titles in the space of one. Since these works had been well chosen to begin with (by an Editor-in-Chief who was brilliant if imbalanced–you get a lot of that in publishing), that year JPS won an unprecedented four National Jewish Book Awards for its titles. JPS reacted by disposing of the Editor-in-Chief, hiring a totally unqualified and inappropriate individual to be the new Editor-in-Chief–something they realized 6 months later, at which point they fired him–and then unceremoniously firing Harold.

• In Philadelphia, while looking for a synagogue for the High Holidays, he met and fell in love with a beautiful and very intelligent woman living in Bryn Mawr—herself recently divorced with a 5-year-old son. Her name was Ilana and her son’s name was Daniel. She was from a family that, frankly, makes the crew in “Arrested Development” look quite normal, but there were some kind and good souls to be found there, too: Her father, Izzy, was a man with a profound love of Israel (having traveled there scores of times over the years) and a sprightly, somewhat macabre sense of humor. (He passed away several years ago.) There was a sister of Izzy’s who would call Harold every day and bring him up to date on her performance in the State Lottery (she passed away not long before Izzy); and another aunt, a sister of Ilana’s mother, who always seemed very partial to Harold and Ilana (and still is).

• Harold’s own family would probably have been closer to Harold (now and over the years), had his parents not lived in constant fear that he would, in the course of socializing with his uncles and cousins, learn that he was adopted. (The conventional wisdom then was not to tell.) In his youth, he thought it was because they were not strictly Orthodox and he and his parents were. But out of that family, two cousins, Leon and Ruthy, both children of his Aunt Channah, have been close and have supported him over the years, materially and spiritually. Of all the friends and family he has encountered over the years, these (along with the kooky couple he met in Los Angeles in 1982, the Mirkins) are the ones he loves most dearly.

• He came under the unfluence of two great people in publishing: Jeremiah Kaplan, the legendary founder of The Free Press, who, during the last years of his life was the President of Macmillan, U.S.A.; and Irwin Glikes, the celebrated editor of Basic Books and the President of The Free Press until his untimely passing (of a heart attack, suffered, I understand, while driving up the Taconic Parkway). Either out of pity or guilt or whimsy or whatever, they gave him his own imprint: Seth Press (after his step-son’s middle name), distributed by Macmillan/Free Press. At the time, Harold was unaware what an extraordinary publishing move and outrageously generous gift this was. (Now, alas, he knows.)

• In 1991, during the third year of Seth Press, Jerry Kaplan was en route to Israel with a Macmillan/Seth Press contract in his briefcase for Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz for the publication of The English Edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud—projected to be a 60-plus-volume annotated translation of the Babylonian Talmud, based on Rabbi Steinsaltz’s celebrated Hebrew edition of the Talmud. In Athens, Jerry called the office and asked Gloria, his assistant, how things were… and she told him he had better get back to New York. Mr. Robert Maxwell, the Chairman of Macmillan, had been found face-down in the Adriatic that morning. (How he got there remains a mystery to this day.) Jerry Kaplan got back on the plane and returned to New York. Macmillan did not publish the Steinsaltz Talmud (Random House eventually did); Maxwell’s passing allowed for scrutiny of the books, revealing a sea of red ink (bigger than the Adriatic!). The company was soon in bankruptcy court and Macmillan’s assets and imprints were cast to the winds. All the small distributees, which included Seth Press, were out in the cold, and Harold was back at square-one.

• After some twelve years bouncing around among several publishing companies—a stint as an Executive Editor at a science publisher, Gordon & Breach; as Science Editor of the Encyclopedia Americana at Grolier; as Executive Editor of The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science & Technology–he founded The Reference Works in 1996. Over the past decade, The Reference Works has produced some 50-plus books for major trade houses. Six of its books have been Main Selections of Book-of-the-Month Club, an unusual record for a packager and for reference material. Soon you’ll be able to take a closer look at these title as we are developing a website of our own. (What’s taking us so long? That’s the subject of another blog posting.)

• Harold and Ilana have been married for 26 years now. Daniel is a Harvard-trained lawyer and he is married to a lovely girl from New Jersey (a physics major now pursuing a wonderful career teaching physics—I’m proud to say she teaches at Brooklyn Technical High School). They had a son two-and-a-half years ago–Ari Isadore. (The family is waiting for Harold to tire of saying “Ari is a..dorable” when the tyke does something outrageously cute. Let’s hope they’re patient.) The Rabinowitzes moved to New York City the day—the very day—after Daniel graduated from Akiva Academy, a suburban Philadelphia Jewish high school. Ilana has come to see what Harold meant when he told her upon moving from Philadelphia to NYC, that she would soon feel like those people who awaken from long comas, look around dazed and ask, “Who’s President?”

• Now the world of publishing looks more like a remake of Titanic (or is a Mad Max movie?) and the number of book stores seem to be vanishing right before my eyes. Pretty soon, this blog will be like the Templars of old, a secret underground society relegated to an island somewhere, outlawed by the authorities, cultural renegades (maybe, like Bradbury’s fantasy, actual renegades, though I’ve always thought Walter Miller’s Canticle for Liebowitz was the more meaningful and prescient dystopic vision). What more can I say, but…WATCH THIS SPACE.

You may contact me via email at  HIR555(at)Gmail.com


3 Responses to “Who (the Hell) is Harold Rabinowitz?”

  1. 1 Shashi K. Shah, Ph.D. January 3, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    I knew Jerry Kaplan well. In fact, I worked for him at Macmillan and then kept in touch with him until he returned from London to live in Westport,CT. Perhaps because of a mutual bond you and I once had with Jerry, I thought I might ask for your advice in connection with a book that my son, Sanjit (also a lawyer like Daniel), is writing.

    Publishing world has changed drastically and the people I once knew have passed on or no longer active in the field. This is indeed a shot in the dark, but I am the kind to explore every opportunity. If you please, call me on my cell (917)670-4345 or send me an email to pursue further. I thank you. – Shashi

  2. 2 Romarez1tx August 23, 2010 at 9:28 am

    hi every person,

    I identified booktemplars.wordpress.com after previous months and I’m very excited much to commence participating. I are basically lurking for the last month but figured I would be joining and sign up.

    I am from Spain so please forgave my speaking english...

  3. 3 Moshe Berger November 10, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    Heshie: I LOVED this!!

    Let’s talk – or Skyoe – or whatever. Email me a cell or home number.


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