newsJewish & Israeli Culture

Nothing stops Israelis from celebrating Hebrew Book Week

Israelis buy 34 million books a year.

A Hebrew Book Week event at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, June 2024. Photo by Judy Lash Balint.
A Hebrew Book Week event at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, June 2024. Photo by Judy Lash Balint.

Israelis love to read. That’s clear as the annual Hebrew Book Week comes to a close next week. A staggering 34 million books are sold annually in Israel to a population of 9.9 million people. Almost 7,000 new titles are published every year, and revenue from book sales reached $227 million last year.

Even during wartime, Hebrew Book Week boasts a long list of literary-related events and book fairs taking place all over the country that reflect the Israeli people’s love of books—and perhaps this year particularly, the need for a temporary escape from reality.

The roots of a Hebrew book fair date to the 1920s in Tel Aviv, to pioneering woman publisher Bracha Peli. Her Masada Press put on a one-day street fair on Rothschild Boulevard in 1926 to try to sell books. Hebrew Book Week came into being as a larger enterprise in 1959.

Today the main commercial event is the open-air Book Week fair that takes over the First Station in Jerusalem and the Sarona complex in Tel Aviv, Sunday-Wednesday between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. (11 p.m. on Thursday, and, in Jerusalem, from 9 p.m. to midnight on Saturday night). Publishers Large and small fill the rows of stalls and lay out their latest releases at discounted prices.

Books for children of all ages dominate many booths, and parents with kids in tow swarm around the displays in the early evening trying to decide on how many “three for 120 shekels” books they want to shlep home.

In Jerusalem, the crowd includes haredim who use the opportunity to replenish their holy books as well as to peek at the more secular volumes that are not generally carried by stores in their neighborhoods.

Authors show up all through the week at the fair to meet their readers and sign books. Gil Troy and Natan Sharansky were on hand in Jerusalem to promote the recently released Hebrew translation of their book Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People.

Hebrew Book Week at the National Library of Israel in Givat Ram, Jerusalem, June 2024. Photo by Judy Lash Balint.

Across town at the new campus of the National Library of Israel (NLI), Hebrew Book Week was marked by three days of musical performances, readings, tours and activities for children dedicated to Hebrew literature and creativity.

One afternoon during Book Week, the NLI Bookmobile parked in the Idan & Batia Ofer Park just beside the lower entrance to the library. Sixty kids and their parents enjoyed lounging on the colorful child-size pillows to watch a performance of “It’s Not Just a Story,” based on several of the most well-known children’s classics.

Later that evening, a panel discussion took place among four Israeli authors including Haim Be’er and Yaniv Itzikowitz about texts that took on new meaning after Oct. 7.

Several musical events at the NLI during Hebrew Book Week celebrated iconic Israeli literary figures. One marked the 20th anniversary of the death of lyricist Naomi Shemer, who composed the song “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”), the unofficial anthem of the Six-Day War in June 1967. Another sold-out outdoor concert brought together popular Israeli singers Shlomi Shaban, Shai Tsabari and others to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of poet Yehuda Amichai.

Yad Vashem offers 40% discounts all month on many of the titles in its online bookstore in honor of Book Week. One in-person event at the world Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem was a book launch for Written in a Barn: The Diary of a Young Woman from Vilna. The evening included a conversation with David Engles, son of the author, Ruth Leimenzon Engles, who shared highlights of his mother’s story, and a tour through the halls that highlighted diaries and last wills written during the Shoah.

In conjunction with Book Week, the Israeli Ministry of Culture designated June-July as Reading Month and sent out dozens of authors to community centers in periphery areas like Kiryat Gat, Yeruham and Netivot in the south near the Gaza Strip, and Ariel, east of Jerusalem, to lead creative writing workshops for adults and kids alike.

More than 1,800 people took part in Book Week events hosted by the Binyamin Regional Council in southern Samaria that included street theater, workshops and readings by local authors, as well as a book sale.

Despite continuing tension from sporadic missile fire from Hamas in Gaza, the Sderot Hesder Yeshivah hosted a Book Week “happening” to lead off activities during the summer school break. Never more than a few yards from the entrance to the large protected space, families that had returned to their homes facing Gaza a few months ago took part.

As part of the festivities, the Sderot Municipality brought children’s book author and illustrator Miri Leshem-Pelly to meet kindergarteners and engage them through play and movement in how a story becomes a book.

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