Israel is Self-Described ‘Nation of The Book’

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Starting Year Four, that is quite an achievement. Unexpectedly it has arrived. I had not noticed it before, but it coincides directly with the Jewish New Year. So we celebrate.

Over time we were delisted at some locations while others were added. Our readership grew, and depending on extraneous events, like waves our words spread and then contracted, almost with predictable regularity.

Some “regulars,” wrote to us directly or posted comments on websites where the Postcards appear. Along with others we read and consider what is being said, although we rarely respond, after learning long ago that engaging directly with individual readers is not recommended. Instead, we create, and then allow the product a life of its own, alone to wander this earth, experience and grow.

The inspiration happens on its own, we are merely conduits by which the essence is translated from the translucent into the tangible. It flows through our fingers to the keyboard to create a complete and comprehendible text. This journey begins in space, is somehow captured by our heart and soul and then moves into the realm of the written word.

And so we sit in awe, first at particular Postcards, then at the sum total, as the series has now achieved very respectable measures. Like parents watching a child grow, periodically noting his height on a wall, his weight in a notebook and the inoculations he received in a yellow booklet, we look with wonder and give thanks, our hearts filled with joy and gratitude.

Unlike the native-English-speaking ex-pats living in Israel, Israelis, we know, read the Postcards less. Like a pendulum, Israelis wonder between extremes. They devour news, as long as these are as long as a twit. They also devour books, more than any other people around the world. But they skip the spectrum that fills the distance between the two, where our Postcards reside.

Overall, Israelis are impatient people. Perhaps this is due to so much available information, likely not. For a long time this trait was attributed to the constant existential threat, but it became a second nature that exists independently. They want the essence, the gist, no fanfare, explanations or conclusions. They need no direction or guidance (having decided they do only too well on their own) and have very little time to devote to reading news.

Israelis like to read but know exactly what they like and would never compromise. News must be short, a sentence or two, in large print and pictures are a must. Cover to cover must be consumed during a train ride, often standing, pressed among the throngs at rush hour. Few bother to take the finished papers, so they remain, read again by the latecomers who were denied a new copy after the piles on the metal racks were emptied by the previous multitudes.

However, as future waves of people dwindle and trains reassume their kind, emptier nature, I pass among the rows of empty seats. Not one paper can be found anywhere. They have all disappeared, into thin air it seems, and I am at a loss for their whereabouts.

Books are a different story in Israel, for more are published and read there per capita than anywhere else in the world. Books are born and die quickly, and the choice is overwhelming at times. Bookstores flourish, as do the stands at train and bus stations where discounted tomes are sold. There are even duty free bookstores at the Ben Gurion International Airport.

Improperly lit cellars filled with mountains of books exist, for if fame and popularity are not achieved in a very short time, the books are relegated to this destiny. They may find their way back to the light of day, as every once in a while, three or five are gathered, a one hundred Shekel bill exchanges hands and they are placed in a thin plastic bag, hauled away by their new owner.

While most people would grab a murder-mystery or what is commonly referred to as “airplane books” (read in one sitting, usually without necessitating the reader to focus much or understand thoroughly what is going on), there is such a diversity of good books it is quite extraordinary.

Israel is self-described “Nation of the Book,” and this truth holds in reference to the number of books published, owned by individuals, read and re-read. Apparently, Israel is a fertile ground for writers, whose work stems from hardships and disappointments, love and promise, the past, present and future or the on-going existential threat. These ingredients all intermingle as writers try to encapsulate the past, explain the present and envision the future. Each takes personal ownership and recreates past lives or brings about lives yet to be.

Israelis are curious people, and reading is sharing in someone else’s life or experiences, journeying along with another in his or her imagination or just peeking in, sneaking a look and observing. Thus, although books are not inexpensive (on average twenty to thirty dollars or eighty to a hundred shekels), it is a thriving and lucrative trade.

I admit I do not know the attitude toward libraries in Israel nowadays. Do children love to visit and wonder in libraries? Do they sense the thrill of being surrounded by never-ending rows of books, regiments of soldiers standing upright, filling one shelf after another?

Do they get dizzy as they try to focus on ballerinas dancing in place, whirling around on one leg, or the promise of treasures unearthed, journeys to be taken and fountains of laughter to be enjoyed, all contained in these unharnessed wilderness and yet-to-be-explored frontier? Which one should I grab, which is the prettiest, the most enticing, with most appeal? Shall I try that one, or this, where is the greatest promise?

Will future generations be distanced from the written word printed on paper or be as addicted as their parents and grandparents before them? As I look around at bookstores, with the large round stickers affixed on books indicating a sale of one sort or another, and the never-ending titles, I realize nothing has changed over the past decades. If anything, this love affair has only intensified and is as strong as in adolescence. Like a marriage that has achieved the half-century mark, it grows stronger with time. The future is as strongly cemented as the past.

Such an example set, future generations may have the same taste, an appetite, the inexplicable feeling of familiarity and longing, and will also grab a book, buy it, read or re-read it and finally offer it to another to borrow.

Borrowing is something else altogether. Even if a book sits unopened for a very long time, there is a sense of ownership that becomes heightened when borrowing enters the equation. It will be done nicely of course, but unwillingly at heart. A sense of belonging, not wanting to let go, overrides all other attitudes. Books remain and last a lifetime, even after we are gone.

Toward life’s end, when one is moved into a senior facility, books, along with all other belongings but a few bare essentials, are distributed. Some are left in the street, to disappear shortly thereafter, taken by passersby to a new loving home. Others are discarded with most personal items that will not fit the new living space that is usually shared with others, two or more in a room. A bad, a nightstand, a chair, possibly a small cabinet. No more. There is simply no space – or use – for books any more.

Israelis however are extremely careful with one type of books, religious. These cannot be discarded and rather are taken to a nearby cemetery. There, unceremoniously they are left, sometimes in plastic bags or cardboard boxes, to be collected, grouped and then buried. You see, Jewish people bury their religious books.

One bright, sunny morning as I exited a cemetery, I noticed some books. Damp from the early morning dew drying off in the summer’s sun, the books clearly spent at least one night out in the cold. I stopped and turned the pages of one after another, until I left carrying a heavy collection. The books were in perfect condition, and I discovered a whole world inside to attract me.

Books must not be thrown away. We keep. We inherit. We dust every year. Sometimes they remain unopened for decades, until after we are gone, but they stay. Each contains countless, immeasurable treasures, so we protect them, often childishly.

Like people, each book is a whole life. When burned, books serve as a warning sign for us that humanity may soon commit unfathomable atrocities, a clear indication that our world is about to end. It happened at Kristallnacht, and now seems soon to happen again.

Protect books for people are next. Books provide our sanity and when burned, only because written by Jewish or Israeli authors, a devilish nightmare is about to begin. We must be on the alert and protect all that is dear to us. We cannot afford to forget lessons of the past or to go about our daily lives and conveniently ignore these signs.

First they burn books, and then they burn people. All is justified as the horrors begin to be unleashed while humanity looses its compass, its heart and its morality and spins out of control.

All is justified as Jewish people are demonized, the Jewish state delegitimized and the symbol of sanity and culture, books, is destroyed. Books are a road sign we must heed to avoid a fatal accident.

Adhere. Listen to the whisper. Watch the flames rising up into the skies and cry. Cry for lost innocence. Call for the world’s sanity gone astray. Look inside and find inner strength, conviction and the knowledge to prevail. Save the books to save humanity from its own demons.

For three years we have written this series with two purposes: First, to encapsulate life in the first two decades of the 21st Century. Second to help those in the future answer the question: How did they (those in the distant past, i.e. we) not see.

True to form and substance, we both enjoyed and benefited greatly from this journey. It reinforced and reenergized us, pushing us forward and onward, giving us focus and clarity.

More often than not, we were frustrated to the core. Why do people refuse to see, why are they so adamant against doing the right thing or taking the necessary action? But we had to go on, no matter what. So we continued, and you traveled along with us.

If we managed to impart just an ounce of clarity, information, a sliver of laughter, a tiny realization, an “Ah, Ha! Indeed, That is what I see too!” then we have succeeded.

For the world is the sum total of us all, and if enough are driven to safeguard and protect, sanity will eventually prevail. We are as our readers, who like candles shine and provide a light to guide our way, a promise to future generations, a New White Rose Society.

So our journey continues, and whatever hardships and challenges we face, we must forge ahead. This series may be re-printed some seven decades from now to enlighten and remind humanity not to commit the same mistakes time again. We cannot know what tomorrow brings, but we know what each of us must do today.

Together, we are an army. We may seem irrelevant and dispersed, but we are a mighty force that, once united, will prevail. Fortunately, goodness prevails in the end, even if sadly, the road is strewn with horrible deaths.

Books – the written word – are our light posts. Along our journey they brighten the darkness, direct and guide. They remind and record so that our words remain long after we are gone. They are our legacy, and with them our effort is not lost, but is transferred, survives and perseveres.

So one day, decades or even centuries from now, someone will sit, read and wonder. A classroom may study and debate. Or perhaps a nation feels proud and treasures that which was written so long before. As with all ancient promises, the roots are as deep as earth, and as endless as the space surrounding us.

Thank you, readers, for joining us in our journey.

In the series “Postcards from Israel,” Ari Bussel and Norma Zager invite readers throughout the world to join them as they present reports from Israel as seen by two sets of eyes: Bussel’s on the ground, Zager’s counter-point from home. Israel and the United States are inter-related – the two countries we hold dearest to our hearts – and so is this “point – counter-point” presentation that has, since 2008, become part of our lives.