By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Perhaps his eâ€‘mail address said it all: “Meir at Mesorah.com.” Perhaps more so than any individual in the past 800 years, Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, zt’l, brought Jewish people back to their mesorah–their birthright of Talmud, their yerushah of Torah.
Rabbi Zlotowitz and his partner in a remarkable revolution, Rabbi Nosson Scherman, ybl’c, achieved something that others could only dream about. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, envisioned that perhaps one day there could be a translation of the entire Bavli. Reb Meir made it happen.
And, as everyone knows, it wasn’t just Gemara. The ArtScroll Mishnayos project is a masterful work. There is the Siddur, the Chumash, the Yerushalmi, the Midrashim. There is the Yom Kippur Kattan Siddur. There is the beautiful Tishah B’Av kinnos. ArtScroll has well over 2,000 titles–each one unique and exceptional. Because of Rabbi Zlotowitz, English speakers are now privy to the depths of the Talmud, the shmuessin of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt’l, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt’l, and others, the insights on tefillah of Rav Shimon Schwab, the Chofetz Chaim on lashon ha’ra, and the crystal-clear yet deep expositions of halachos by such poskim as Rav Binyomin Forst and Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen.
There is not an English-speaking Torah home in America that does not possess a sefer that Rabbi Zlotowitz published. There is almost no aspect or field of the oeuvre of Torah literature that was not reintroduced to Klal Yisrael in a language that they could understand–and with an unprecedented scholarship as well.
It could not have happened without “Meir being Meir.”
When he made up to do something, he did it. And at almost every juncture, his vision was initially dismissed as sheer madness. Yet his perseverance enabled him to achieve the well-nigh impossible. Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman was initially not a supporter of the ArtScroll Gemara project. He feared that people would no longer horveh on unfolding the latent processes of reasoning in the Gemara when it was handed to them on a platter. After he saw the ArtScroll Hebrew Yerushalmi, Rav Shteinman changed his mind. Reb Meir was there and shared a picture of Rav Shteinman giving shiur out of the Schottenstein Yerushalmi. Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, as well, learned out of the ArtScroll Hebrew edition. Reb Meir shared the picture with a number of people.
Meir had a remarkable gift of writing and presenting complex aspects of Torah to the reader so that the reader could truly comprehend it.
He was larger than life. He had enormous creativity, passion, and drive combined with a fantastic sense of humor.
Once in shul, Reb Meir had fainted into the lap of someone sitting next to him. The atmosphere was tense and grim. People were concerned. When he came to, Reb Meir realized what had happened. He gathered his energy and yelled, “Kohanim arois!” (“Kohanim out!”). The entire shul burst out in laughter. Even when ill, this was Meir being Meir.
One Shabbos during Parashas Zachor, he approached a young child who knew he was the publisher of ArtScroll. He whispered to the young man, “Come here. I work at ArtScroll. I know whether it is really ‘zecher Amalek’ or ‘zeicher Amalek.’ But I’m not telling anyone.”
I once met him at a local zoo on a Wednesday–when admission is free–on chol ha’moed Pesach. This was after ArtScroll had picked up financially. I told him, “Reb Meir, I understand why I am here today; I am in chinuch. But you? You are now a successful businessman.”
He responded, “Are you kidding? I have almost all of my grandchildren here, too. This would have cost me four or five times what it would cost you.”
I teased him about a comment in the first edition of the ArtScroll Shalosh Seudos publication. It said that shalosh seudos commemorates the three meals in which the evil Haman was handed over to the Jewish people, citing the Aruch HaShulchan. “How could ArtScroll have allowed this error to creep in?” I teased. He responded that it was a practical joke someone had pulled that had gone awry. I had my doubts. The three seudos in which “ha’man”–“the manna”–was given seemed more likely to be a 3Â a.m. bleary-eyed rendering. The twinkle in his eye indicated that he might have agreed.
Reb Meir had a kindness and generosity of spirit that endeared him to people. When people were down on their luck, he not only helped them, he lifted their spirits by treating them with the utmost respect as equals. He was a friend to those who did not have friends. He understood pain. He was a kindred spirit to Ronnie Greenwald, a’h, and they were good friends as well. They worked on numerous projects together–helping others, helping Klal Yisrael.
He also had a deep and abiding relationship and friendship with the gedolei Torah of the last generation and of the current one. And they were his friends as well. Recently, Reb Meir spent an hour with the Belzer Rebbe on his last trip to Eretz Yisrael.
A while ago, one leading gadol saw him uncharacteristically feeling down. Reb Meir confided in him that he did not think he could continue with his dream of translating Shas into English. He was having enormous difficulty finding a sponsor for the second volume. The gadol encouraged him and loaned him $25,000 in order that he could continue.
But how did it all start?
Reb Meir was a talmid of Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim. He was a talmid muvhak of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, and later of his son Reb Dovid. His relationship with Reb Dovid became very close. They would speak each erev Shabbos.
After leaving yeshiva, Reb Meir entered the business world, printing brochures, invitations, and kesubos. In the meantime, he learned and continued in the high level of Torah scholarship as he had done while in yeshiva.
Reb Nosson Sherman, his partner at ArtScroll, once told me that “the ArtScroll revolution” was actually part of the aftermath of a tragedy in 1975. Meir Fogel, z’l, was a rebbe in a yeshiva who was a close friend of Meir Zlotowitz. He passed away in his sleep one night as a young man–he had married but had not had children. Reb Meir Zlotowitz was so distressed that he wanted to do something in memory of his friend, to give him a legacy. He had the idea of doing a translation and commentary of Megillas Esther that would be completed by the sheloshim.
Reb Meir asked Reb Nosson Sherman, a principal at Karlin Stolin, to edit it and add an introduction–which turned out to be the first ArtScroll publication.
The publication caught on and went through many printings before the first Purim. There was nothing like it before. It was a need that had not been recognized. They were encouraged to continue such work by the leading gedolim–Rav Moshe and Rav Yaakov. Soon they embarked upon the rest of the megillos too.
Reb Meir himself then penned an incredible commentary and anthology on Bereishis. The rest was history.
Reb Nosson Sherman remarked that it would be fair to say, “No Meir Fogel, no ArtScroll.”
This is not to say that the ArtScroll company would not have existed. ArtScroll was originally a graphic-arts company. Reb Meir was talented and artistic; indeed, he was a perfectionist. He created beautiful invitations and kesubos. He would later use these talents to create the masterpieces that the ArtScroll publishing house would bring forth.
One year during the Yamim Nora’im, Reb Meir had difficulty following which particular section to say. He commented, “That’s it. Next year I am coming out with a Rosh Hashanah Machzor that is clear.” And then he did.
While making that Machzor, they had a question about what to do when Shabbos was accepted but Ma’ariv was not yet davened. Is “l’eila u’l’eilah” added? They posed the question to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. He responded, “Ich veis nisht mir; daf freggen an alter gabbai–I don’t know. We will have to ask an older gabbai.” Subsequently they posed the same question to Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l. Remarkably, he responded with the exact same line.
Gedolim recognized the revolution that Rabbi Zlotowitz had wrought and of which all talmidei chachamim were the beneficiaries.
A number of years ago, Reb Meir showed remarkable personal strength. He had taken it upon himself to lose quite a number of pounds. He successfully kept it off. The loss of weight imbued him with a greater dignity. People commented that they did not recognize him at first.
A mere five weeks ago, he had trouble with his hip. He had suffered with arthritis for a while. That brought the realization that there was trouble with internal bleeding and issues of the liver. After transferring to NYU, there were further, dire complications. The family was called in, but miraculously he recovered. By Friday he was back to his usual self. But then he started bleeding internally once again. A short while later he passed away.
Thousands of people and the gedolei Yisrael have lost a friend. And Klal Yisrael has lost one of the most innovative and visionary minds of the past eight centuries.
Reb Meir is survived by his wife, Mrs. Rochel Zlotowitz, and a family of bnei Torah, including their children, Reb Gedaliah Zlotowitz (who is at ArtScroll), Reb Ira Zlotowitz, Reb Boruch Zlotowitz, Reb Chaim Zlotowitz, Mrs. Estie Dicker, Mrs. Faigie Perlowitz, Mrs. Devorah Morgenstern, and Mrs. Tzivi Munk, and, bli ayin ha’ra, numerous grandchildren. Some of his grandchildren attend TAG and Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway.
All of us should think about where Klal Yisrael would be if the ArtScroll revolution had not happened. What would have happened if a caring young man had not decided to make an English Megillas Esther to honor the memory of a friend who had tragically left the world without children? Reb Meir Zlotowitz, zt’l, was at the forefront of restoring the mesorah to Klal Yisrael.
He leaves Klal Yisrael with a twofold legacy–a shining example of what a human being can accomplish if he sets his mind to it, and an ever-growing body of Torah-true publications that embody the highest ideals of Torah and Mussar. Reb Meir, tehei nafshecha tzrur b’tzror ha’chaim. We will all miss you.
The author can be reached at email@example.com.