Don’t judge a book (shop) by its cover

The story of how a former undercover narcotics officer, fireman and athlete founded an iconic bookstore.

M. Pomeranz bookshop: A treasure trove peeking out from every nook and cranny (photo credit: M. POMERANZ)
M. Pomeranz bookshop: A treasure trove peeking out from every nook and cranny
(photo credit: M. POMERANZ)
In today’s day and age, with the prevalence of retail chain stores and large, identical shops that look almost the same wherever they are located, it is refreshing to encounter a store such as the M.
Pomeranz bookshop in central downtown Jerusalem.
One of the things that make it more than just a regular bookstore is the personal care and attention to detail apparent upon crossing the threshold. As you enter the shop, a veritable treasure trove of books greets you, peeking out from every nook and cranny – a kind of paradise on earth to a book lover such as myself.
Pomeranz was started by husband and wife Michael and Shira Pomeranz in 1991 several months after they immigrated to Israel. Making aliya to live and raise their children in Israel had always been one of their top priorities even though they did not have any family here.
Prior to moving to Israel, Pomeranz had an interesting and diverse career, serving as a police officer for seven years in the capacity of patrolman, detective and undercover narcotics officer as well as six years in a fire department. He competed annually in the police and fire Olympics, winning gold medals in powerlifting and arm wrestling, and to this day can still do 50 good form push-ups. Although he had been in the book business for a short time in Los Angeles, his former professions did not portend that one day he and his wife would run a bookshop with the largest selection of English-language Judaica books under one roof in the world.
The Pomeranzes did not have jobs lined up in Israel before they moved here, but several months after their arrival they realized that the only religious English Judaica books were the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) publications of Artscroll and Feldheim and saw an opportunity to fill a void by offering English-language readers Judaica books on a whole variety of topics. Prior to the Pomeranzes opening their shop, it was not possible to find books in English by or about Rav Kook, Rav Soloveichik or Rav Steinsaltz, to mention but a few.
So armed with $18,000, Michael and Shira embarked on their mission to give the Anglo community what they deserved. Alongside books on diverse topics such as Jewish law, science and Torah, academic books and Jewish and Israeli history, they also maintain the more traditional publications such as Artscroll and Feldheim.
While browsing in the shop, I also noticed several errant and random books such as The Cats’ Guide to Famous Lovers and a book on chess, which I did not expect to see there. Although most of their books have a Jewish or Israel bent, they also believe that it is important to cater to the mind and the body so offer books on topics such as healthy eating and self-help.
The couple are particularly proud of their huge selection of books on Zionism and the Holocaust.
They hold such a vast selection of books on the Holocaust that Yad Vashem even suggests that people visit their shop. Prior to schools and seminaries visiting Poland, Michael visits them to provide them with books and to talk about the books to make their trip more meaningful.
Pomeranz’s keen interest in the Holocaust and in ensuring that later generations remember it stems from the fact that he is a second-generation Holocaust survivor. His father survived Auschwitz. In addition to being the address for English-language books on the Holocaust, the bookshop is proud to have held a ceremony to commemorate the shloshim (30 days since the death) of Elie Wiesel in Israel, which was connected to the United States via phone. The Pomeranzes were asked to hold the event by Wiesel’s study partner Rabbi Joseph Polak and Wiesel’s close friend Alan Rosen, as they wanted the venue to be a place surrounded by books to exemplify the literary aspect of Wiesel that was such an integral part of his life. Pomeranz’s personal connection to the Holocaust and his admiration of Wiesel and his writings made the store the perfect choice to host the event.
Pomeranz has made several trips to Poland investigating his roots – including a trip with Rabbi Avi Weiss, an American Modern Orthodox rabbi instrumental in preserving Holocaust memorials and exposing antisemitism. They protested the distortion of the memory of the Holocaust there. The main protest of the trip, which took place amidst the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, was against the illegal church at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
They were briefly arrested seven hours into their sitin inside the church, but as a result of being foreigners, they were released after several harrowing hours, having been informed that they were to be charged with a serious violation of the criminal trespass code.
For Michael and Shira the bookshop is more than just a business, and their children have been involved with it – from helping out in the school holidays at an early age to thinking of constructive ways of developing the business as they grew up. Shira is responsible for updating Facebook with announcements of sales and events.
The Pomeranzes find that the most satisfying part of running the business is the interaction with customers – many of whom they now view as friends. As well as offering their customers a smiling face, anecdotes and advice on what books to purchase based on their inquiries and needs, they also learn a lot from their customers – including who they are, where they are from (they have customers spanning almost the entire globe) and often their spiritual journey. They derive the most satisfaction from being able to put the right book in the right person’s hand at the right time and in recommending a book that they would not have known about otherwise but which the couple feel is a must-read.
One such book is Letters to Talia, about a yeshiva student’s letters to a secular girl in answer to her questions on matters of religion. This is their best-selling book, having sold approximately 700 copies of the English-language version. Michael and Shira take the responsibility of providing people with the books they want and making suggestions about other books seriously and regard it as an opportunity to change people’s lives for the better.
In addition to selling books, the Pomeranzes place great importance on hosting events, mainly outside the bookshop which are usually free of charge, and regularly travel around Israel with authors, such as former chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, famed lawyer and jurist Alan Dershowitz and ambassador/MK Michael Oren. These events provide people with an opportunity to hear the authors talk about their books, to obtain signed copies, and allow Michael and Shira to feel that they are connecting with and contributing to the community.
The large windows of the store also serve to highlight issues of importance to the wider international Jewish community, such as when they hung a large photo of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard there as a reminder of his plight, helping them to educate those who were unfamiliar with the story.
Alongside the joys of running a bookshop, the Pomeranzes have to deal with the changing face of bookselling and the challenge posed by the Internet, online stores such as Amazon and e-readers.
Although times have changed considerably since they opened their store, many people go out of their way to support their “brick-and-mortar” establishment.
Patrons of the shop know they are contributing to the continuity of what their parents and grandparents enjoyed and helping to support a real bookstore with all its smells and trappings and the personal touch and care that cannot be found in an online bookstore – as well as the opportunity to sit on one of the comfortable sofas and browse through books before buying.
Many local customers place great importance on supporting an Israeli store and in keeping the money in Israel, thereby helping the economy. The store also has overseas customers who return year after year to the store, even though the store also delivers books overseas.
Whether you are looking for a specific book on Israel or Judaism or just want to browse to discover books that you aren’t aware that you are looking for, set aside some time to lose yourself in the treasures of a landmark bookstore that has become a cherished institution. I guarantee that you will be enriched!