We have, in this small Jewish community of New Mexico, a publisher of inestimable value, publisher/editor Ron Duncan Hart of Gaon Books. Gaon Books, located in Santa Fe, has brought out 36 books since 2007, bucking the trends of the publishing industry in general and stoking the hopes of many Jewish writers that perhaps they too may one day have this outlet for their works.
Hart says that going forward, Gaon is particularly interested in publishing works of Jewish non-fiction and that feature woman’s voices. Gaon’s focus is especially on history, spirituality, and Sephardic traditions. They are not currently interested in submissions for fiction and memoir. They usually publish 4 to 6 books a year, which Hart explained may be released in up to three editions (clothbound, paperback and ebook).
Hart is also a very active member of the board of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, and as program chair four years, this last year led their 26th annual conference, their most successful, in Taos, “Sephardic History from Spain to New Mexico: Did your ancestors walk here?” which attracted participants from neighboring states and the East coast.
Working out of their jewel-like home in Santa Fe, Hart shares the space with acclaimed Colombian artist, author and wife Gloria Abella Ballen and their little dog Toto, who is “a mixed poodle-something; he won’t tell us the other part.” From his perch, Hart looks out over the Jemez Mountains in the distance, and from her studio Gloria views the Sangre de Christo mountains in the other.
A visit there is like walking into one of Ballen’s paintings. The wooden floors are covered with intricately patterned rugs acquired on their travels throughout the Middle East, ornately carved furniture and colorful silk pillows. As we sat in the living room discussing publishing over steaming cups of fragrantly seasoned coffee in paisley mugs that blended chameleon-like into the background, the story slowly emerged of how Hart came to publishing.
Growing up in the Bay area, Hart said writing always intrigued him. “Books have just always been a part of my life, even as a child, at 5 years old, my mother was in a panic, I was missing. I had seen a pen in a store and I had walked to the store to get the pen.”
Later Hart would become aware that a grandfather, Abraham Hart, had established a renowned publishing company in Philadelphia. “He had a company called Hart Publishing in the 1850’s, and was the founder of the original JPS, The Jewish Publication Society, there.”
Hart earned a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at Indiana University where he said he was particularly influenced by Prof. David Bidney, an important Jewish theoretical anthropologist. He and Gloria met at Georgia State University where they were both teaching in the anthropology department. While brought up in a modern American mostly non-observant household, years later Hart would go on to do post-doctoral work at Oxford University in Jewish studies. There he focused on Sephardic figures including the poet Yehuda Ha-Levi, and the Jew as Other in Medieval Europe. He became dean of academic affairs at the InterAmerican University, and worked over a span of two decades in Colombia, as a professor, and in international projects with Unicef and the Ford Foundation as a visual anthropologist developing communication methods for delivering information for rural community development programs.
“When we came back from Colombia, by the 1990’s, it became feasible with the technology for small publishers to start up.” As the press evolved, his interests in Sephardic history overlapped with Gloria’s Sephardic background and their mutual growing interest in Jewish spirituality.
Publishing for Hart is a labor of love. “We’ve been fortunate to work with such wonderful authors and form a close relationship with them. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, of Jewish Renewal, we’ve published two books, the latest, “A Hidden Light,” just won a Best Book on Philosophy Award. Working with him is wonderful, he is such an extraordinary person, just to go and talk with him is to be in the presence of a special person. He is at ease in the world with a lifetime of thinking about spirituality, he’s so generous, so open with himself. “
Another Gaon book just won the prestigious International European Prize for Folklore, “Moroccan Sephardic Romancero, Anthology of an Oral Tradition,” by Susana Welch-Shalak, with translations by Vanessa Paloma, and we also have had the privilege to publish Angelina Muniz-Huberman - the most decorated Jewish woman writer of Latin America (she has won the major prizes in Spanish speaking literature).
Hart added, “Some of the recent New Mexico authors include Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, “Counting the Omer,” whose guide to counting the Omer has given spiritual guidance to so many, and Patricia Gottlieb Shapiro, “The Privilege of Aging: Portraits of Twelve Jewish Women,” who has won multiple book awards for her writing.” One of the featured women in that book is Paula Amar Schwartz, subject of another article here, "Paula Amar Schwartz, A Life in Applied Consciousness." Hart continued, "Another notable author is Anne Schlezinger, the first Jewish woman federal judge at the National Labor Relations Board.”
“Shapiro and Ruth Sohn are on tour right now through the Jewish Book Council and getting a lot of attention.” Sohn’s book,“Crossing Cairo, A Jewish Woman’s Encounter with Egypt,” is about living in Egypt and slowly revealing her Jewish identity there. Sohn is the director of the rabbinical mentoring program at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
Catching Rabbi Kantrowitz (See also "Counting the Omer" reviewed here) dashing between engagements, we asked her how it was to work with Gaon Books on her book. Without hesitation, she gushed, “They were a delight and a joy to work with and understood completely what I was trying to do. And Gloria, I want to add, designed the cover, and what she came up with was exactly right, without needing any changes.”
See related article here, “The Power of the Hebrew Alphabet” the new prize-winning and inspired art book by Gloria Abella Ballen just published by Gaon Books, and later in July an in-depth interview with Hart about his adventures in Colombia and his recent Hurst award, as featured in the summer issue of Legacy, the quarterly journal of the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society.
### A print version of this article first appeared in the New Mexico Link, April 2014, as "Spotlight on Gaon Books and its publisher Ron Duncan Hart," p. 2.