Voices of Jerusalem: For a better society

Loren Minsky speaks to Michael Pomeranz, 59, owner of much-loved M. Pomeranz Bookseller in Jerusalem.

June 2, 2013 17:47
Michael Pomeranz, owner of M. Pomeranz bookstore

Michael Pomeranz, owner of M. Pomeranz bookstore. (photo credit: Courtesy)

“I always wanted to contribute to society,” says Michael Pomeranz, the unassuming owner of Pomeranz bookstore, which Michael claims has the largest selection of Jewish-themed books under one roof in the world. The store’s website refers to itself as the “Gan Eden of Jewish Books”, and stocks a massive selection from Chassidic works to books with a Zionist, historical and political bent to general books on travel and food.

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Michael did not grow up in an actively observant home though his parents sent their four children to Jewish schools and were open to each of their children observing at the level that they felt comfortable. “If we wanted to keep kosher, they kept kosher,” recalls Michael. “However, there was nothing really pulling me and after my Bar Mitzvah, I said goodbye to Judaism for a while.”

Michael went on to study Criminal Justice at University in Los Angeles, and in his own time took part in a police “ride-along” program. “I had very high ideals and wanted to help contribute to society,” shares Michael. “I also liked the unpredictability of the job.”

After college Michael worked as a policeman for seven years, and became the youngest person to be promoted to the rank of sergeant.  His favorite assignment was as an undercover vice narcotics officer. This was followed by a six year stint as a fireman, where he was promoted to assistant to the fire chief, and won a gold medal in the fireman’s Olympics for powerlifting.

In his early 30s, in 1984, Michael decided to go to Poland. Growing up, his father had shared stories about the Holocaust if asked, and Michael wanted to explore his roots. The trip was intense and moving yet was not straightforward as Poland was still under the Iron Curtain and Michael was followed around by a policeman. He was not allowed access into the Jewish cemetery. After the trip, he visited Israel for the first time, and was struck by the juxtaposition between the extinction of Judaism in Poland and the life and rebirth taking place in Israel.

Another turning point in Michael’s Judaism took place at an international gathering of second generation Holocaust survivors in New York. There he met a woman who sensed he was interested in returning to Judaism. “She took me off to a bookstore and bought me an Artscroll Bereishit as a present, which I began studying,” recalls Michael. He then moved to Santa Barbara and while working as a firefighter, got appointed as President of a new Conservative synagogue.

In that role, Michael was required to give over a lot of divrei Torah (Torah ideas), which forced him to learn a lot. Simultaneously, he befriended an Orthodox couple, Susan and Harold Weingarten, who “adopted him”, and he would spend most of Shabbat with them. Ultimately, he gravitated to the Jewish Orthodox community, but points out that he believes that all Jews are doing their part.

In 1986 Michael went on a return trip to Poland and Israel. This time he got to visit his great grandfather’s tombstone and to meet the woman who saved his aunt but was yet to do the four kilometer walk from the square outside his father’s house to the train station, where Jews were sent to their death. “When I arrived in Israel thereafter, I hopped on an Egged bus and just felt so at home,” remembers Michael.

Michael’s increased ritual observance coupled with his world view and values resulted in him leaving the fire department and he began working for a Jewish bookseller in LA. Soon after he met his wife-to-be Shira Tolwin through her brother, and the couple married the following year. Michael began working as a consultant for a private security firm, and although he could have gone on to do very well in this position, the couple made Aliyah in 1991 with two young children.

According to Michael, the only English Jewish-themed books available at the time were Hareidi-type books. “There was a big void of non-Hareidi books such as Rabbi Soleveitchik or Rabbi Kook books available and not even a Kuzari. It wasn’t right.” Although Michael had been prepared to do whatever it would take to make a go of Aliya, he saw the void in the market as an opportunity to give back to Jewish society on a spiritual and intellectual level.

After researching the shipping costs involved, Michael and Shira decided to take a chance and introduce a revolutionary concept at the time, namely charging American prices for American books in Israel. Though their first store was just a tiny basement on King George Street in the city center, Michael recalls unpacking his first shipment with knots in his stomach. Michael had spent his entire $18,000 on an inventory of books and yet after placing them on the shelves, the small shop still looked empty so he displayed each book facing front.

Michael began marketing the business by making flyers and hanging them up in apartment buildings in Anglo-Saxon areas late at night. Word of the store spread by word of mouth too, and it grew in popularity. After two years, the store’s lease ran out and they moved to a small space on Shmuel Hanagid Street. The couple kept putting profits back into the business to build up their inventory. Seven years ago the store moved to its current location on Be’eri Street.

In the last several years the book business has changed drastically. “Whereas it was once novel to sell American books at American prices, nowadays prices are expected to be lower,” shares Michael. Contributing factors include the Internet (buying of books online), electronic reading devices and people spending less time curling up with a book and more curling up with their computer. “Though people do still need books on Shabbat, it’s far less than previously and yet operating costs are just the same.”

Michael also speaks of how many publishers are trying to cut out the bookseller and sell directly to the public. “It used to be a mutually beneficial relationship,” says Michael. “But many have forgotten who took them to the dance in the first place.”
Michael speaks of all the energy, time, heart and soul that goes into running his store. “We are more than a bookstore,” says Michael. “We offer guidance and advice and do a lot of kiruv (outreach) to Jews that come into the store. The store serves as a meeting place, and we’ve had many people over to our home for Shabbat meals. We’ve also helped people undergo their conversion process. However, since we are a book-store and not a non-profit charity, we are not in line for donations like Yeshivas and other institutions.”

Michael shares how one young woman wandered in to their old shop and told him how she was involved with a “Rabbi” in Tel Aviv, which turned out to be a cult that Michael knew about. He devoted time to her and steered her away from the cult. A year later, her parents arrived at the store to invite him to the chuppa (wedding canopy). The woman was marrying a Yeshiva student, and today she has a beautiful family and stays in touch. “We take time to interact and talk to our customers,” says Michael.

With over 1,000 bookstores in America having closed down in recent years, it is really up to the public to decide who stays in business. Michael appeals to the community to support their favorite bookstore; to simply buy a book from time to time. According to Michael, the Hareidi community have not been affected quite as much, mainly due to their customer base, which is less involved with the Internet.

“We have an agenda,” declares Michael. “People think an agenda is a negative thing, but we are proud of our agenda, which is promoting Zionism. For us that’s the greatest contribution.”

Michael wants to encourage Zionists in particular to support bookstores. “People may not realize this, but when you buy books on the Internet, there is about a 96 percent chance of the money going into non Jewish hands. Although you may have “saved money,” in the bigger picture you are losing. On the contrary, if you buy a book from a book seller in Israel, the situation is reversed and there is a 96% of the money being circulated among Jews.”

Michael and Shira have five children. The family lives in Efrat, though Michael spends a 16-hour day on average at work in Jerusalem, a city that he is passionate about. “We daven (pray) for it all day long; it’s not only the center of the universe but the center of Judaism. Jerusalem has been with us through all the ages; it’s our link from the past to the future.”

“It’s a tremendous deficiency that as Jews we can’t practice our full Judaism in Jerusalem – to be able to go up to the Temple Mount as we should. We need to find the strength and energy as a people to strive for total freedom to practice our faith in Jerusalem. We can’t bend over to satisfy other people and nations, and rather have to show our pride individually and collectively about our right to be in Jerusalem and Israel. If we can do this without apology, then our friends, and probably our enemies too, will respect us. We will have what we’re supposed to have.”

Though Shira is involved in the business, she is also kept extremely busy with family life. Michael speaks with pride of her many accomplishments including her idea of getting each of their children to learn one-on-one with a Rabbinical student simply for the love of Torah, without a curriculum or grades getting in the way.

To unwind, Michael likes to read tour books of different places in the world, “G-ds greatest hits.” Michael enjoys traveling when he can and engaging with customers about different people and places in the world. “It gives me a lot of pleasure.”

“What would I be in another lifetime? I’d be an activist Rabbi and would promote different causes,” says Michael. “I would also like to be able to travel and bring Jews back to Israel.”

Michael’s favorite book of all time is Lord of the Rings, which he read when he was a teenager. He almost gave the store the subtitle “From Tolkien to Talmud”. But if he could take one book with him on a stranded island, the Tanach would be his choice.

Michael’s plans for the future include making the bookstore even more Zionist focused. “I’d like to bring in teachers and educators and offer regular classes and programs,” says Michael. He also hopes to continue to offer books that help people get closer to G-d, Judaism, spirituality and their fellow man.

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