Last Saturday night marked the end of shavua ha sefer a week (actually 10 day) long festival where across the country publishers set up booths in a public park (Liberty Bell Park in Jerusalem, Kikar Rabin in Tel Aviv among many others) and offer the books at large once a year discounts. The turnout for the festival by some estimates reaches well over 150,000. In addition the month is marked by special programs in libraries and community centers throughout the country featuring talks by authors and poets. And why this time of year.?...because it coincides with Shavuot the time the Jewish people received the Book of all Books.
The booths are packed and people are buying ! and they’re not just buying self help books and pop novels there is lots of serious literature and non fiction both translated and in the original hebrew being purchased . There are displays of serious literature, judaica and poetry (as well as some self help books and pop novels many translated from english).
Several things never cease to amaze me both here at the festival and in bookstores.
Firstly people know books: there is informed discussion of the books and the staff both the young people manning the booths and most of the people I have found in bookstores actually know something about what they are selling (remember what that was like ?).
Secondly it is amazing how much gets translated and how quickly ...after all there are maybe 8 million people in the world (and that’s a very high estimate) that read hebrew as their main reading language…and several hundred thousand of those would never (at least openly) read most of the books that are being translated. Steve Jobs biography for example came out in Hebrew just about the same time as the English version and went straight to the top of the bestseller list. You can also find translations of Captain Underpants for kids and the Devil Wore Prada and similar chick lit as well as translations of virtually every major book that has recently appeared in English….and yes a translation of 50 Shades of Grey is expected to be released soon.
Judaica sells: there is almost always a book of Judaica on the bestseller lists Currently it is a book of stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. On a trip last summer I noticed Micah Goodman’s book on Maimonides stacked high in a bookstore on Dzeingoff in Tel Aviv. I asked the salesperson: do they read about maimonides n Dzeingoff she responded with an emphatic “why not”. A recent book composed of a very serious dialogue on religion and literature between 2 Rabbis with a literary background Rabbi Chaim Sabato a Rosh Yeshiva and novelist and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein a Rosh Yeshiva with a PhD in literature from Harvard sold out of its first priining the first day it appeared in bookstores.
Of course sales of Judaica are higher in Jerusalem. At the book fair in Jerusalem Saturday night there were large crowds waiting for the popular Dati Leumi (modern orthodox in american terms) Rav Benny Lau sign copies of his 4 volume series Chachamim (The Sages) and the books are serious well researched works not light reading or hard core religious dogma. The first volume of the series btw is available in English,
Fortunately the discounts continue at the major bookstores til the end of June.