October 19, 2010 | 9:59 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
On my bookshelf is a cherished copy of “Foundations of Modern Art” by the French artist and theorist Amédée Ozenfant, a book that my stepfather, Elmer Heller, brought back from Israel after spending several years at Kibbutz Hatzor in the early 1950s. And on the flyleaf of the book is a old-fashioned green label that identifies the bookstore where he purchased it more than a half-century ago: “Steimatzky’s Jerusalem – Tel Aviv – Haifa.”
That label was very much on my mind when Ann and I visited the flagship store in the Steimatzky chain in the elegant Mamilla Mall near the Jaffa Gate last week. The store occupies a refurbished structure of Jerusalem stone where Herzl stayed during a visit to Palestine in 1898, and I went there in search of books by Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, whom I was to interview while in Israel, but we also came away with a bag full of souvenirs for our grandson. As it turned out, the books I needed were in stock at the Steimatzky’s branch at Yad Vashem, where Prof. Bauer’s office is located, and I picked them up after we had spent four hours in the superbly designed and deeply moving galleries of the museum.
All of these associations attest to the long history, deep roots and pervasive presence of Israel’s largest bookstore chain, which was founded in 1925 and now boasts some 160 locations across the country. From what we saw, business is booming at Steimatzky, something that cannot be said about very many bookstores here in the United States. Of course, it’s fitting that the homeland of the “People of the Book” is able to sustain a vigorous book trade, and I am sure that the throngs of visitors from America are helping to make it so.
Significantly, the very last purchase we made before leaving Israel was at the Steimatzky branch in Ben Gurion International Airport, where Ann stocked up on reading material for the flight back home. It was there that I saw, for the first and only time during our stay in Israel, an offering of magazines that feature photographs of nude women, all of which were sealed in plastic sleeves as a gesture of modesty in what is, after all, the Holy Land. Still, it was a far cry from the Kotel, where Ann donned a shawl before entering the women’s section to place a prayer between the stones.
When I spotted the magazine display at Steimatzky’s airport location, the thought occurred to me that the very first photograph of a nude woman I ever saw as a young boy was in the pages of “Foundations of Modern Art,” which may explain why the book is such a memorable keepsake of my childhood. But the label on the flyleaf also left a deep impression on my youthful imagination, and that’s why shopping at Steimatzky was as much of a pilgrimage for me as our visit to the Western Wall.
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