Many members of Detroit’s Jewish community are looking forward to Sept. 30, when a hidden jewel, the Wayne State University Press, will celebrate its 75th anniversary at a reception honoring the late Leonard N. Simons and his daughter, Mary Lou Zieve. Both played important roles in the Press’ development.
The WSU Press is known internationally for several specialty subjects, including Detroit and regional studies, film and television, fairy tales and folklore, Africana and Judaica. Its success in Judaic studies can be traced, in large part, to Simons.
The Press was started in 1941 by a group of faculty members who wanted to assist the university in encouraging and disseminating scholarly learning, said Press Director Jane Ferreyra.
In the early 1950s, businessman and philanthropist Simons and his friend Charles Feinberg, both ardent book lovers, met with several other business executives to form a committee that would help the Press raise funds and become a first-rate publishing enterprise.
“I didn’t know anything at the time about the press,” Simons told the JN in a 1992 article about the WSU Press’ 50th anniversary. “But I always loved books.”
In 1955, Simons, Feinberg and another friend, Reuben Ryding, presented their plan: Press “advisory board” members would pay annual dues of $100, which would be matched dollar-for-dollar by the university, to underwrite the cost of publishing books. Their goal was to have a board of 50, producing an annual subsidy of $10,000 ($5,000 from dues and $5,000 from the university).
Simons served as head of the advisory board and introduced many Jewish supporters to the Press. By the end of 1958, the group had 64 active members, and the Press had a subsidy of nearly $50,000.
With Simons’ encouragement, Detroit businessman Morris Schaver and his wife, Emma, set up a fund to enable the Press to publish books in the area of Judaica.
Simons and his wife, Harriette, dedicated an endowed family fund for publishing books of Judaic and regional interest.
Support for Judaic publications also comes from the Bertha and Hyman Herman Memorial Fund, set up in 1990 by their son, WSU professor Martin Herman; the Goldman Scholarly Publication Fund, established in 2001 by Marsha and Jeffrey Miro to support women’s studies, Jewish studies, art history and regional studies; and the Raphael Patai Series Jewish Fund, established in 2015 through Patai’s estate to support a series of books on Jewish folklore and anthropology.
Over the years, the Judaica section has developed several sub-specialties, including folklore and anthropology, gender studies, Holocaust studies, art and music, and translations of books originally published in other languages in Europe and Israel.
Some titles are what Ferreyra called “esoteric history,” such as a book about the education of Jewish girls in Czarist Russia.
The WSU Press, with 18 full-time employees, is housed in an Albert Kahn-designed building on the northwest corner of Woodward and Hancock. In 1994, on Simons’ 90th birthday, it was named the Leonard N. Simons Building.
The Press has published about 3,500 books, Ferreyra said, 1,200 of which are still in print. It publishes 40 new books annually, along with 11 academic journals, including Jewish Film and Media.
The oldest Jewish studies book still in print is The Origins of the Modern Jew, Jewish Identity and European Culture in Germany, 1749-1824 by Michael A. Meyer, published in 1972. Its bestselling Judaica book is Raphael Patai’s Hebrew Goddess, published in 1990, with 15,348 copies sold.
Advisory board activity gained new energy in the late 1990s under the leadership of Simons’ daughter, Mary Lou Zieve. She chaired the group, renamed the University Press Council, until 2013.
Zieve, 82, a community booster and retired advertising executive, says she shared a love of books with her father.
“Dad was always collecting books; he loved putting a library together,” she said.
She became more involved with the Press after her father died in 1995 and decided some changes needed to be made on the advisory board.
“My father was very casual about the way he raised money,” Zieve said. “He’d pick up the phone and say, ‘Send me $100, and I won’t bother you for a month.’” The supporters weren’t a “real” board, with officers and bylaws, she said. Zieve established a formal framework for the group.
The board’s mission, she said, was to tell the world about the Press and to find the money to make books come alive. “We created something that had not existed before — but it was really Leonard who put the Press on the map,” she said.
In 2013, Wayne State University developed new protocols for the volunteer boards that support many of its schools and adjunct organizations; they were all renamed boards of visitors.
Elaine Driker of Detroit was finishing a term as chair of the board of Hillel of Metro Detroit, which is based at WSU. A Wayne State alumna and avid supporter, she started working with Ferreyra to develop a framework and procedures for the Press’ new board of visitors. Eventually, she was asked to serve as its chair.
The WSU Press Board of Visitors now has 21 members, a third of whom are Jewish, Driker said.
One of the new board’s first acts was to name Mary Lou Zieve “emeritus chair” in honor of her years of work for the Press.
Margaret Winters of Grosse Pointe is also on the board. A past provost who was ultimately responsible for the success of the endeavor, she says she is impressed by the ways the Press supports scholarship, especially the volumes it has published about Yiddish and the Yiddish-speaking world.
The Press has won numerous awards for its Jewish studies work, including six National Jewish Book Awards.
Last year, the Press received a $95,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Wayne State University’s first. The Press and the university’s libraries will use the funds to digitize 59 out-of-print Jewish studies and regional titles for open access and reprinting.
Driker says the Press is a Detroit jewel that’s hidden in plain sight.
“Many people I speak with think it’s there only to publish academic journals,” she said. “They’re not aware of the wide and deep variety of books it publishes annually.”
She said she sees the 75th anniversary as an opportunity to introduce more people to the Press and all it has to offer.
The Sept. 30 free 75th celebration party will be from 5-8 p.m. at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, 52 E. Forest, Detroit. Meet authors and enjoy music, food and a cash bar. RSVP to WSUP75.eventbrite.com.
By Barbara Lewis | Contributing Writer