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A small press taking on the largeness of the world

Tucked away in a tiny but brightly windowed office in New York's unfashionable garment district, Adama Books is taking its first steps into the world of publishing. Despite the diminutive size of the venture, its steps are not small.

The forces behind Adama (pronounced Ah-da-MA) are Esther Cohen, publisher, and Pamela Nelson, managing editor.

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The two represent the entire roster of Adama's staff, and by keeping overhead low, they direct their efforts toward the careful publication of the books themselves, rather than a stylish company facade.

Adama, founded in September of 1983 in association with Adam Books of Jerusalem, has already published its first half-dozen projects, among them ''The Shalom Seders,'' three Haggadas (narratives of the Exodus to be read at Passover Seder celebrations) compiled by New Jewish Agenda; ''Sinai,'' by Neil Folberg, a lush portfolio of 12 full-color photographs of the Sinai wilderness; and ''Teenagers Themselves,'' a compilation of young people's thoughts and concerns about sex, drugs, parents, nuclear war, education, prejudice, and a host of other aspects of daily life coloring our world.

Adama's parent, which was itself founded in 1977, is the only alternative trade publisher in Israel, Ms. Cohen says. And Adam certainly does offer books out of the ordinary: For instance, the only two Palestinian autobiographies published for the Israeli bookstore market.

Although most of her books will originate in the United States, Ms. Cohen released one of these autobiographies here, ''Samed: Journal of a West Bank Palestinian'' by Raja Shehadeh, and encountered a great deal of resistance.

Nevertheless, she is not discouraged. ''This is the kind of material I want to continue with,'' Ms. Cohen says. ''I want the same sort of publishing philosophy that Adam has - doing quality books, alternative books that deal with a freedom of thought.''

As she describes them, the Palestinian autobiographies seem unavoidably political, but they also appear to speak from a humanistic point of view, not from the pulpit of rigid ideology.

''In Israel people are a lot freer about this sort of material,'' she says. ''It's a situation they have to live with every day, and they are much more able to discuss it than the Jewish people in this country, some of whom take their very identity from Israel itself.'' Ms. Cohen suggests that these Jews would prefer ignoring potentially negative controversies and so avoid books illustrating the Palestinian position.

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As a further indication of her progressive stance, she also publishes liturgical subjects conceived today. Among these is ''The Shalom Seders,'' which contains three original experimental Haggadas designed for the Passover ceremony , when the saga of the Jewish exodus from Egypt is recounted each year. These three Seders are modern in feeling, and they draw on experiences of today's world while continuing to recall the Jews' escape from Egyptian slavery.

It is significant to Ms. Cohen that this less traditional presentation of the Haggada may provide a more meaningful Passover experience for Jews today and may promote a warmer climate which can forge closer links between Christians and Jews, as the former will be more easily able to comprehend the latter's religion.

Despite some resistance from adherents to more orthodox Jewish rites, Adama has been successful with ''The Shalom Seders.'' Some 7,500 copies were sold in six weeks.

''What we're dealing with is a much more broadly based definition of Judaism, '' Ms. Cohen says, ''and no one else is publishing this sort of thing, so you really don't know what to expect in terms of acceptance and sales.''

Still, one of the projects closest to her heart is ''Teenagers Themselves,'' which has no direct link to Jewish liturgy or thinking. It is perfectly appropriate within Adama's publishing program, however, because it is a deeply felt and humanistic work. The book, assembled by a high school newspaper, the Glenbard East Echo in Lombard, Ill., includes interviews, essays, and art submitted or considered by 10,000 students throughout all 50 states.

Esther Cohen calls it ''a phenomenal documentary about America today.'' She points to ''Samed'' and to ''The Shalom Seders'' and says, ''These books are about my beliefs, but 'Teenagers Themselves' is about America, what it really is. The kids tell about themselves, and they're honest, not like adults after they've been in analysis for years.''

The books Adama has scheduled for fall include ''Before There Was a Before,'' a retelling of the six days of creation by Arthur, David, and Shoshana Waskow; ''The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays,'' by Dalia Hardof Renberg; ''Working Detroit: The Making of a Union Town,'' by Steve Babson; and ''Working Class Hero: a New Strategy for Labor,'' by Stanley Aronowitz.

Among the balance of the fall books is a trio of color dictionaries for children. The three languages they define are French, Spanish, and Hebrew.

''As you see, we've planned some lively alternative educational material for parents and kids alike, but I especially like doing the children's dictionaries. I believe that kids should understand the largeness of the world.''

It is that largeness of the world that Ms. Cohen is determined to communicate to all readers, young or old, through books that point to nontraditional paths of thought and understanding.

Adama Books is at 306 West 38th Street, New York, N.Y. 10018.

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