Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem
“Right now we’re just meandering – tomorrow we’ll come back seriously,” says his wife, Marilyn, who joined him at the 25th Jerusalem Book Fair for a quick browse. The next day, she explains, they’ll devote “a good six hours” to the fair – this was just the warm-up.
Established in 1963, the Jerusalem International Book Fair takes place every two years, hosting more than 1,200 publishers from 40 countries and showcasing some 100,000 books. Fellowships are available to select emerging editors and literary agents, while authors and scholars speak at the Literary Café to packed audiences all week.
At any given corner on the bright green tarpaulin of the Steimatzky megastore, passersby can hear a cacophony of Russian, German, French, English and, of course, Hebrew. While the population seems slightly skewed to Jerusalem’s older segment, visitors vary from those pushing motorized walkers and haredi women rolling strollers to university students in trendy apparel.
The Flanzbaums, septuagenarians who live in Givat Olga near Hadera, decided to stay the night in Jerusalem for extra time at the book fair, held at the International Convention Center and organized by the Jerusalem Municipality.
“We realized we had to come back here,” says Gerry. “We’re people who just love books.”
“You can put it on your shelf,” he says to his wife, indicating the book on Antarctica, where they had recently traveled. “This summer we’re going to Mongolia,” adds Marilyn.
In the nearby scholastic section, Bracha Bender reads a colorful hardcover called Let’s Save the Animals to her three-year-old. Living in Jerusalem since she was nine, Bender says she goes to the fair every time it takes place.“I love it – I wait for it. I love to get lost in the books,” says the selfdescribed “ultra-ultra-Orthodox” Bender, who stresses that despite some common misconceptions, secular literature can be of interest in the haredi community.
“Judaism has historically encouraged study,” she says, noting that the haredim are just “selective” about what they expose themselves to. “We’re not into gratuitous violence or watching other people be intimate.” A book fair, however, is an ideal place for religious Jews, who tend to embrace lifelong learning, she explains.
As for the publishers participating at the fair, Steimatzky seemed happy with the number of people who showed up for the first full day of the fair. “Yesterday was the opening and there weren’t a lot of people, but today we are getting a lot of visitors,” a representative told In Jerusalem.
Similarly, publishers like Gefen Publishing were pleased with the turnout of customers at their stands. A popular book choice was Peace in the Making: The Menachem Begin – Anwar Sadat Personal Correspondence edited by Harry Hurwitz and Yisrael Medad.
“It’s too early to tell for sure, but so far it’s been much better,” says Gefen co-CEO Michael Fischberger, comparing sales to those two years ago, when Gefen had a much smaller number of books. “It’s a combination of the economy and the types of books we put out.”
Aside from the books themselves, many visitors enjoy being part of the multicultural atmosphere that is integral to the fair. “It’s an international environment. You can see people you wouldn’t see otherwise,” says Orit Klein, a Jerusalem resident who has been to the fair a few times before. “I also like the meetings between writers from Israel and abroad.”
One such public encounter was held between Israeli film director Anat Zuria and Iranian-Canadian Marina Nemat, author of Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir, who grew up Catholic in 1970s Iran.
Zuria interviewed Nemat about the dramatic period of her life that inspired the book, the period when she was “facing torture, facing death” as a 16-year-old political prisoner in Iran.
“I had grown up wearing a miniskirt and flirting with boys and dancing on the beach and loving it. I didn’t care about social justice,” says Nemat of the protests she became involved in after the revolution occurred and the Ayatollah Khomeini regime became more and more stringent. “Our teachers were one by one fired and replaced by fanatical young women who were there to give us propaganda and implement the Iranian Cultural Revolution.”
As a result of her protests, like so many other teenagers, she ended up in jail, where she endured two years of painful lashings and was forced to marry a prison guard or face the death of her parents. “At any given moment they could torture you; at any given moment they could kill you. You’re 16 years old, and you just want to live,” she tells the audience.
The torture Nemat speaks of is so far removed from the childhood that she enjoyed, watching the TV show Little House on the Prairie dubbed in Persian and immersing herself in literature and “into a world that was beautiful and funny and predictable.” From her childhood on, she says that “literature became a way of life for me.”
Eventually, this way of life allowed her to express her own story, which she relayed to a captivated Jerusalem audience at the fair.
Of her invitation to speak in Jerusalem, Nemat tells the crowd, “I was literally running around like an excited child… Who doesn’t want to see the Holy Land? And then all hell broke loose on the Internet. There were some people who criticized me and told me I shouldn’t be going to Israel; I should be boycotting Israel. I was so angry, I was so upset, I couldn’t sleep that night. I am not a politician, I’m a writer – it is my job to cross barriers, to cross borders.”
The audience members clearly appreciated her willingness to cross borders, as they voiced a collective “No!” when her 45 minutes were up. Some stayed on for the next speaker, while others went down to the convention hall, where they browsed through the wide selection of books that ranged from best-sellers, classic literature and religious works to children’s books like Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go. As Marilyn Flanzbaum notes, “There’s everything.”
Back on the green tarp, her husband continues to look through the magnificent images of polar Antarctica. “I bet this book is going back to Givat Olga tomorrow,” she says.