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Behind the Scenes of NASHIM: The Trials and Tribulations of an Academic Editor

Recently I was asked as of when have I been serving as the academic editor of NASHIM, and to be perfectly frank, this historian could not recall. More than five issues ago? Perhaps ten? I decided to look at the inside cover of all the issues on my bookshelf, only to discover I have been officially editing this journal as of the fifth issue. When the latest issue, no. 20, arrived at Schechter today, the calculation was, as they say, a “no brainer.”

Nashim was created at the initiative of Deborah Greniman, a professional editor who was studying for her M.A. at the Schechter Institute in women’s studies in the mid-1990s. In the early years, it was published annually, almost singlehandedly by Debbie. In 2001, the editorial board realized that the managing editor needed the help and support of an academic; thus, I officially came on board. Soon after, the journal made a major transition by signing a contract with Indiana University Press in 2003 which obligated us to produce two issues annually.

Each issue has presented its own challenges. It took a while for the two editors to learn to work together, to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each of us and how to take advantage of each other’s talents. While we have worked out timetables that appear to chart the path ahead of us, there are so many other factors involved that it is always a miracle to me when each issue appears more or less on time.

The editorial board is composed of  Schechter and Hadassah- Institute Brandeis faculty (and one Bar Ilan representative) and has to approve  the topic for each future issue which is to be midwived by a consulting editor with expertise in that particular topic. This outside expert begins by writing a short call for papers (CFP). As Debbie explains to potential guest editors:  “It usually takes us about 18 months to prepare an issue, from the publication of the CFP to sending the final copy to press. This breaks down roughly into six months for soliciting and evaluating proposals; six months for evaluation of submissions, peer review and author revisions, and six months for editing the copy, though in practice there is much fluidity between these periods.

While we do publish a CFP, issues typically take shape as a result of the consulting editors’ solicitation of articles and networking with scholars they know to be researching on their topic. We then expect our consulting editors to be available throughout the period of the issue’s preparation to evaluate proposals, submissions and revised drafts.”

So what happens during these eighteen months? If we are fortunate, we begin to receive proposals even prior to the final date. Each of us reads each proposal as soon as it arrives and comments upon its appropriateness. While the hope is that the proposal can be approved, there are times when the focus or the author’s sources are not clear to us and we prefer to seek clarification early in the process. Once the deadline passes, I prepare a list of the proposals that have been approved and we then wait for the actual submissions.

However, lest one think that we are sitting around waiting for all these potential contributors to write their pieces, we are simultaneously working on two other issues, one in its final phase and the other in the midst of the process. When the submissions do arrive, we all (and sometimes there are two consulting editors which manages to complicate the communications between four of us) need to read them and comment as soon as possible. Debbie and I rarely serve as the “experts” but rather as the veteran editors with a sense of what is well-written, what is ready to go out to peer review and what needs to be revised. I must confess that this is Debbie’s forte as a professional editor. I can read submissions and sense that something is askew, but am not always able to identify precisely what bothers me. I never let this trouble me, because I know that Debbie is there with an editorial safety net, adroitly pointing to the weaknesses that I sensed but could not verbalize.

Every submission that is ready to go out to referees is my responsibility. I often ask the consulting editors for suggestions, for names of experts in particular fields, and then pray that they will agree to do this pro bono work. My experience has been amazingly positive. Most colleagues are cooperative and gracious. Because NASHIM is an interdisciplinary journal, I have corresponded with experts in rabbinics, Jewish art, Yemenite and Iranian Jewry, multiculturalism, philanthropy, books, autobiographies and memoirs, health, economics, poetry, sexuality and spirituality, not to mention referees for unsolicited articles that deal with anything related to Jewish women’s and gender studies. Hundreds of scholars have given of their time and knowledge as a pure gesture of collegiality, willing to help us as we strive to maintain our academic standards.

This process is always a balancing act: to find scholars who will be critical but constructive and who can submit their reports in two months’ time. I am often sending out “a gentle reminder” to those whose desks are filled with piles of other papers and might have overlooked that article from NASHIM. Once I have received two reports, I share them with the other editors and we assess the situation: accept, accept with revisions, revise and review again, or reject. Decisions are not always clear-cut, but if all parties are not of one mind, the academic editor makes the final call. The truth is that in more than fifteen issues, I have rarely had to pull rank and am grateful for that. Once an article is officially accepted, the onus of the final stage is upon the managing editor, who deals with the nitty-gritty details of clear and intelligent writing. The attention paid to each submission is substantial.

While we are involved in these processes and juggling three issues, each in a different stage of preparation, we are always concerned about whether or not we will have sufficient contributions for that issue. I am forever updating our lists for each issue, noting in which stage any given article finds itself, but there are times when revisions come in late or are not up to par. Fortunately, we have two types of back-up pieces for each issue: the unsolicited submissions which Debbie and I deal with on our own as well as book reviews. Publishers send us a fair amount of books; scholars agree to write reviews to enlighten our readers about new research in the field. We also have a wonderful graphics editor, Judith Margolis, who usually offers a creative piece of writing together with art that enhances the issue together with a beautiful cover design for those who see the print (vs. electronic) edition.

Toward the back of the journal, one finds a CFP – for the issue to be published 18 months later and thus the cycle can continue without interruption. We only pray that our wonderful donors continue to support this publication; we are always thrilled to see “our” articles quoted in conferences and in publications and assigned as reading in the university classroom. The women behind NASHIM live an electronic life, but now that there are twenty issues on the bookshelf, it seems to us that the journal supported by the Schechter Institute and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute has made its mark.

To purchase a subscription to NASHIM, click here.

Prof. Renée Levine Melammed is Dean of the Graduate School of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. She lectures about medieval and modern history of Sephardi and Oriental Jews and women’s studies and has published numerous books and articles on these topics.

Renée Levine Melammed, originally from Long Island, New York, received her degrees from Smith College and Brandeis University. Her dissertation and early research dealt with the lives of crypto-Jewish women in Spain and the way in which conversos coped with the issue of their identity; her current research is focused on women’s lives as reflected in the Cairo Geniza. She is an emeritus professor of Jewish history at Schechter, teaching courses in medieval Jewish history and gender studies as well as in Jews of Spain and Islamic lands.

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