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Hebrew Book Week :from an open, urban fair into an entertainment festival
By Shiri Lev-Ari

Hebrew Book Week has transformed from an open, urban fair into an entertainment festival. A little-known organization, Keren Keshet - Rainbow Foundation, is largely responsible for the change .

How did it all begin?

Eighty years ago, in the summer of 1926 on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, the concept inspired by the late Ms. Bracha Peli, founder of Massada Publishing, later became Israel’s major cultural event– the “Israel Book Fair”.
For the first time in Israel, a book fair was held to commemorate “Hebrew Book Day”, whereby books were sold at stands at a 25% discount. The slogan chosen for the event - “For the sake of the book I will not hold my peace”.

From 1926 to 1961 sporadic events such as the first “Hebrew Book Day” took place. Since 1961, the “Israel Book Fair” takes place throughout the entire country at the same time. The Book Publishers’ Association of Israel, initiator and producer of the fairs, made a point of conducting the fairs every year, even when security events coincided with fair dates. Neither the Six Day War, nor the war in Lebanon nor the security events of the past two years hindered the fairs from being held year in and year out.

In Israel, where as many as 4000 new book titles are published annually, only at the “Israel Book Fair” can one find a selection of the latest books, as well as books of the past and purchase them at a discount and at special prices.

This is an excellent opportunity to stroll among thousands of new and old book titles, to find the book you wanted before it runs out, to locate a bestseller at a discounted price, to update yourself on books published this year and to buy as many books as possible at as low a price as possible.

Every summer, the cultural events held at the “Israel Book Fair” set the stage for a celebration of literature. Throughout the country, a plethora of events is offered to fiction readers, poetry lovers, mystery enthusiasts, non-fiction fans, small children and avid readers. The finest writers and creators will be there to meet readers at the theater, the Cinematheque, on open-air stages or sitting in a coffee shop for an intimate discussion.This year, special emphasis will be on Hebrew poetry- “Simanim” (Signs) – a festive performance that will take place at the Tzavta club in Tel Aviv, a poetry panel comprised of poets will take place on stage at the book fair, a meeting with poets, a Seduction and Poetry festival, special events for children and parents and more.And most important, as every year, a wonderful opportunity to enrich the home library with the finest most recent and past literature.

For better or for worse, Hebrew Book Week has changed its stripes during the past three years. At first, the transformation was justified in security terms. Then, explaining that it wanted to include cultural events on the schedule, the publishers association decided to move the event to closed-off areas such as malls and cultural institutions. Eventually it became clear that security considerations were not the sole motivation: organizers felt that they needed to provide crowd-stopping attractions to pull purchasers toward the books. Fairs held in open public spaces - Safra Square in Jerusalem, or Rabin Square in Tel Aviv - have become a thing of the past.

Last year, professionals in Israel's publishing industry aired criticism about how Hebrew Book Week has turned into an entertainment festival, isolated from the everyday urban flow. Books, they complained, have been shoved to the side; the main attractions nowadays are shows put on for children, or hot dog stands. Others, however, were less negative about the change.

Children's shows, street performances, discussion panels about books, meetings with poets and writers at coffee houses, special events in libraries and in cultural facilities - all of this open to the public, and free or at low admission cost. So, many asked, what is there to complain about? This year will continue the transition. Hundreds of events are scheduled for Hebrew Book Week, and listings can already be found in daily newspapers.

As it turns out, the lion's share of these events have been initiated and funded by a little-known Jerusalem-based organization called Keren Keshet, the Rainbow Foundation.

It was established in 2000 by the American Jewish millionaire Zalman C. Bernstein. During his lifetime, Bernstein founded the Avi Chai Foundation, which promotes dialogue between religious and secular groups. Bernstein died in 1999, and left a hefty sum for philanthropic pursuits - the press reported a figure of $900 million. One of the foundations formed from his estate is Keren Keshet, whose purpose is to enrich cultural activity in Israel, particularly in the sphere of books. The foundation's work is designed to make books more available to all sectors of the population. In addition to its contributions to Hebrew Book Week, the foundation supports events such as the Israel Festival (last year it subsidized ticket prices to the festival's final event, dedicated to the poems of Leah Goldberg).

For reasons that remain unclear, Keren Keshet's staff prefers to remain anonymous and to withhold information about the foundation's work - the approach straddles a line between modesty and mystery. In a recent conversation, one of the foundation's staff members spoke courteously, but refused to reply to basic journalist's questions, such as what is the foundation's purpose, what is its annual budget, and so on. The foundation's phone number is not listed with information (Bezeq's 144 number). "This is a public nonprofit organization, not a private company," the staff member said. "Our focus is Jewish culture in a broad sense, particularly culture which can bring together Jews from different streams."

Before the Shavuot holiday, Keren Keshet advertised in newspapers schedules of holiday eve "Tikun" (Torah study night) events in Jerusalem, at synagogues and institutions run by Orthodox, Reform and Conservative movements. "Having all these synagogues appear together in one advertisement listing is not a trivial thing," said the Keren Keshet spokesman.

Zalman Bernstein headed the Sanford Bernstein Investment Bank in New York, and made his fortune on Wall Street. His first name was Sanford, but in the 1980s he began to move closer to Orthodox Judaism and changed his name to Zalman. In 1992 he moved to Jerusalem, and lived modestly while contributing millions of dollars to promote Jewish culture in Israel and the world. He wanted to create a new model of Orthodox leadership, and founded a university-style yeshiva in Jerusalem in the hope that it would train men and women for leadership roles. His detractors in Israel claimed that despite Bernstein's declarations of support for pluralism, the Avi Chai Foundation tends to support mainly Orthodox causes, at the expense of Reform and Conservative projects.

Keren Keshet's trustees in Israel are Arthur Fried and Mem Bernstein, Zalman's widow, who lives in Jerusalem. "She is very modest, and doesn't seek publicity," explain her acquaintances. A year ago, Mem Bernstein initiated in the U.S. a project, called Nextbook, to promote Jewish culture and literature - the project makes Jewish books available to public libraries, runs a large Web site with Jewish cultural offerings, sponsors a publishing division, and sponsors public lectures with first-rate authors such as Michael Chabon and Amos Oz.

Coffee house events

Production and artistic management of Hebrew Book Week events funded by Keren Keshet was entrusted four years ago to a small Jerusalem company called Hotam. This year, the budget for the Book Week's events exceeds $1 million. Hotam, a Hebrew acronym for Experience, Culture, Place, was established a decade ago, and specializes in the production of events in educational and cultural spheres. During the year, Hotam has a staff of four employees; during Book Week, the staff swells to nine workers.

Originally hired by Keren Keshet to produce Hebrew Book Week events in Jerusalem, Hotam started two years ago to arrange events in Tel Aviv and other venues as well. Alongside these events, it organizes the "Autosefer" project - a bookstore and theater on wheels designed for children, particularly youngsters who live far from Israel's central urban areas. Autosefer puts on plays for children, and sells children's classics for reduced prices (NIS 35 a book). The bookstore-on-wheels catalogue was selected by a committee of experts in children's books.

"Four years ago Keren Keshet's staff turned to me and said they wanted to upgrade Hebrew Book Week in Jerusalem," recalls Tzila Haiyun, Hotam's founder. "I proposed to them an array of cultural events throughout the city, to be held in cultural institutions such as the Cinematheque, the Khan Theater, museums and coffee houses. At first, it was hard to persuade coffee house owners - we managed to convince just five such proprietors, and they agreed that events could be held in their establishments only at off hours. Today, coffee houses wait in line for an opportunity to host events."

The philosophy behind the events, Haiyun says, is to focus on readers. "Not writers, not publishers," she says. "People understand that you need a marketing campaign to promote a fashion line or a new television channel; but they don't understand why there's a need to promote a book. In my opinion, you don't need to be polite and bashful about promoting a book: you need a good campaign, and attractive packaging."

This philosophy - Hotam's detractors would say - underlies the commercial ambience which has characterized Hebrew Book week in recent years. Haiyun counters by saying that the changes have been undertaken out of respect for writing and literature. She describes some of this year's projects: "In Jerusalem, we are staging a Winnie-the-Pooh festival, in honor of the book's new translation. The Israel Museum's Youth Wing will be done with themes from Winnie the Pooh. We are sponsoring a children's book train with quizzes. In libraries, particularly in low income areas, authors of children's books will discuss their works; books will be offered to children for just NIS 5 apiece.

Haiyun, 40, was born in Haifa, and lives with her family in Har Gilo, adjacent to Jerusalem. She has a Master's in Jewish studies, and lectures on Jewish culture at the Kibbutz Seminar. Married and the mother of three, she maintains a traditional-religious lifestyle. Last August she was badly wounded by terrorist gunfire near her home, while she was returning with her family from a vacation. Haiyun was wounded by seven bullets; her daughter sustained serious injuries as well. "For two weeks, doctors weren't sure whether I'd live," she recalls. "I was in a coma for 32 days. When I woke up, I knew I'd continue. I'm still recovering; for me, to produce all these events this year is a major achievement."

Where and when ?

The 43rd annual Hebrew Book Week( 9-19 June 2004) featuring 150 publishers displaying their wares in over 60 cities for the next 10 days. Book lovers can stroll the fair every evening from 6 till 11, at Ganei Yehoshua in Tel Aviv, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Castra Mall in Haifa, Big center in Be'er Sheva, City Square in Kfar Sava, Moshava Park in Rishon Letzion, Chen Boulevard in Herzliya, the Mediatech plaza in Holon, the Big centers in Karmiel and Nahariya, and in the other communities across the country.

As in previous years, the big city fairs will be accompanied by hundreds of cultural events, most of them financed by the Rainbow Fund and produced by an underwriting company with a total budget of about $1 million. ; full details are available( in Hebrew) at www.sfarim.org.il.

Contact :

The Book Publishers’ Association of Israel

Chairman : Shay Hausman

Managing Director: Amnon Ben-Shmuel

29 Carlebach St. Tel-Aviv, 67132

P.O.B 20123 Tel-Aviv, 61201

Tel: 03-5614121

Fax: 03-5611996

E-Mail: hamol@tbpai.co.il

Web : http://www.sfarim.org.il/abouteng.htm

Hotam Ltd

Director : Tsila Hayun

2  Beytar Street ,Jerusalem 93386

Tel : 972-2-6727177

E-mail : hoyam@hotam-ltd.co.il

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Logo Hebrew Book Week

Producer Tsila Hayun

Summer of 1926 on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv

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