Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Israel at 75

As Israel marks 75 years since its establishment as the Jewish State, the country is fraught with division, with a profound chasm between viewpoints about our future as a democracy. On the occasion of our Independence Day, I will refrain from politics and instead invite you to view some videos about everything positive in Israel.

Israel - a modern country based on ancient history. Home to three of the world's major religions - this is the land where King David ruled, where Jesus preached, where the Crusaders waged their battles. Israel has sandy Mediterranean beaches, a ski resort on Mt. Hermon, and stunning deserts.

Of course if you visit Israel, you'll see much, much more!

Monday, April 17, 2023

Review of 'The Bibliomaniacs: Tales from a Tel Aviv Bookseller'

Down an alleyway on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv there is a bookstore described as "probably the biggest collection of used English books in the country". This very real bookstore, opened in 1991, is the setting for the short stories of The Bibliomaniacs: Tales from a Tel Aviv Bookseller by J.C. Halper (Locus Publishing House, December 2022).

"One hears a lot of stories in a place where stories are sold," the protagonist of the collection says in the opening story. "I am often a good listener and encourage people, especially paying customers." This storyteller, an undisguised characterization of the author, is intrigued by stories of bibliomania, the obsessive-compulsive urge to hoard books, and these are the stories he shares with visitors to his fictional, based-on-fact, bookstore.

His customers include Kenny Gold, an American-born Paratroopers veteran working at Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. About to participate in the Jerusalem Marathon, Gold is called away at the last minute to handle a private task for his boss, Minister Moshe Sulimani. Angry after being assigned to send out the Bar Mitzvah invitations for Yaron, his boss's son, he instead papercuts them into snowflakes and flowers. Gold is saved from being sacked when the minister runs into personal problems of his own.

Sulimani and his son appear in another of the book's stories. Yaron escapes his father's political misconducts by changing his last name to Solan. After writing a book of poetry and a novella that was praised in Haaretz but mocked by his infamous father, Yaron takes refuge in a Bedouin encampment in the Negev. "Another shameful scandal for the Sulimanis," the tabloid headlines scream.

Hanan Meir, a famous writer, visits the bookstore on a monthly basis in search of books he himself has written, questioning why books he had inscribed or dedicated to readers had ended up in second-hand bookstores. Meir mentions meeting a professor, a frequent bookstore customer who had been caught pilfering valuable British Mandate period literature collectibles. "Murder, I would even murder to get a book I must have," the professor declares.

Customers to the fictional bookstore in The Bibliomaniacs, or to the very real bookstore on Tel Aviv's Allenby Street, probably won't kill anyone for books, but they will find genuine value in the "book gossip" told in the short stories of this highly enjoyable collection.

J.C. Halper was born in Newark and raised in Springfield, New Jersey. He studied history at George Washington University and at Yeshiva University. He moved to Israel in 1983 and was soon drafted into the Infantry. He opened his bookstore on Allenby Street in downtown Tel Aviv in 1991. When not buying and selling books, he tries to read them.

Originally published on The Times of Israel.

Monday, April 10, 2023

On the Trail of the Sarajevo Haggadah

How an illuminated manuscript inspired me to travel to the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I first learned of the Sarajevo Haggadah when I read the novel, People of the Book, by Australian-born author Geraldine Brooks. The book, inspired by a true story, tells the harrowing journey through the ages of a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript. This colorful holy book was spared destruction during World War Two when it was saved by an Islamic scholar and hidden in a village mosque. Its history goes back even further, to 14th century Spain and Venice.

The novel fascinated me. It was also exciting to learn that one of the characters in the story, a member of the partisans fighting against the Nazis, was based on a true person, the mother of one of the members of the moshav where I live near Jerusalem.

I couldn't stop thinking about Sarajevo, a city famous for its cultural religious diversity.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914 was the "shot heard round the world" that sparked World War I.

Although my wife and I had lived for two years in Bulgaria, and we had traveled extensively in the region, we had never yet visited Bosnia and Herzegovina. We signed up for an organized tour to the Balkans, which included visits to the stunning mountains and nature reserves of Montenegro, and to the seafront walled city of Dubrovnik, in Croatia. I eagerly looked forward to my visit to Sarajevo.

Inside the Sarajevo Synagogue

In addition to being the place where the first world war was launched, Sarajevo suffered heavily in a war that marked the end of the 20th century. During the Balkan conflict in the years 1992-1995, some 60% of the city's buildings were either destroyed or damaged by Serbian bombardment. 11,541 people lost their lives in Sarajevo in that war; a tunnel dug under the city's airport provided a lifeline for much needed supplies.

The Jewish connection to Sarajevo goes back centuries. Strongly involved in commerce and trade, the Jewish community lived freely among the Muslim and Christian population. The Ottomans provided land for a central synagogue, originally built in 1581 and later reconstructed with stone walls in 1831.

In World War Two, the city's Jews were rounded up and sent to the camps. The synagogue became a prison, and then stables for Nazi officers. The building was used as a warehouse until 1966, and then reconstructed. It opened its doors in 1976, only to be closed during the Balkan war years. In 2004, the Sarajevo Synagogue reopened its doors as a synagogue and museum. There are today some 700 Jews in Sarajevo, but only 80 adults constitute the active Jewish community. A total of 1,100 Jews live in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A member of the Sarajevo Jewish community tells of the famed Haggadah.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is the country's most prized treasure. A Haggadah is a narrative of the Exodus read at the Passover Seder service. Sarajevo's 109-page text is unique because it is handwritten on bleached calfskin, and illuminated in copper and gold, with colorful depictions of Biblical scenes.

The manuscript is housed in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a building nearly destroyed in the four years of the Balkan war. The Haggadah is protected in a special vault with a bulletproof glass door on the museum's restored second floor. The Haggadah is reportedly the most valuable book in the world; it was insured for $7 million when it was transported to an exhibition in Spain in 1992.

In October, 2012, Bosnia's National Museum closed its doors due to a lack of funding. For years the museum had survived on donations, but they were not enough to keep the institution running. An offer by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to exhibit the Haggadah was rejected due to domestic legal issues.

Replica of the Sarajevo Haggadah

My visit to Saravejo to see the prized manuscript was not in vain. The synagogue displays a copy of the famed Haggadah, and even when viewed behind glass, this replica is strikingly beautiful. The Haggadah tells the story of the Exodus from Israel, but this particular manuscript also demonstrates an ability to survive despite the most horrific odds. It is no wonder that this fascinating book inspired me to visit Sarajevo.

Originally published on July 4, 2014 and in The Times of Israel.

Related article:

I Couldn't Believe What I Saw Out My Sarajevo Hotel Window