Grapevine: Jerusalem of Books

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 ZION SQUARE has become far more user-friendly in recent years. (photo credit: DANIEL HANOCH)
ZION SQUARE has become far more user-friendly in recent years.
(photo credit: DANIEL HANOCH)

IT WAS sad to open Yediot Aharonot on Monday and read about the closure of Jordan Books, which is among the most veteran of the city’s bookstores, dating back to 1929. Though not the oldest, it is one of the oldest.

Gilad Cohen, who wrote the story, begins with a customer telling Rami Meir, who ran the store for 42 years, that, one after another, Jerusalem landmarks are closing down. Indeed, anyone who has lived in Jerusalem for 30 or more years can vouch for that. Very few of the enterprises that ran the gamut of Jaffa Road are still operating. Many buildings have been gutted and altered beyond recognition. Some have gone through several alterations, as premises changed hands and new businesses evolved.

The Jordan bookshop stood diagonally across the road from the original Steimatzky bookstore, which on one side stood close to a furniture store and a large restaurant that was always empty, and two or three doors down on the other side neighbored the Zion Square intersection. Most of that block was overtaken by Hamashbir when it changed ownership and moved from its original site on King George Avenue to Zion Square, opening its vastly enlarged department store on November 1, 2011.

The Jordan bookstore, which stocked a wide selection of foreign language publications, was opened by Meir’s grandparents Zvi and Pnina Tzimet.

In a pre-digital era, most booksellers were bookworms themselves, and even if they didn’t read all the books on their shelves, they at least read the blurb on the back cover, were familiar with the stock, and knew the preferences of regular customers.

 GOODBYE, BOOKS: Jordan Books closes its doors (Illustrative). (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90) GOODBYE, BOOKS: Jordan Books closes its doors (Illustrative). (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

In the Yediot story, there is an anecdote about a customer who purchased a particular book as a gift for a friend, who was also a frequent customer at the store. The friend showed up looking for the same book before receiving his gift. Meir told him that he didn’t have it and that he didn’t know when he would have it again. A few days later, when the gift had been duly transferred, the penny dropped, and the man understood why Meir had been so uncooperative.

For Jerusalem-born Meir, the bookstore has been his second home all his life. He went there as a child and began to work there immediately following his discharge from the army.

The first Steimatzky store in Jerusalem was opened by Yechezkel Steimatzky in 1925. The family business was started by his half brother Tzvi, who opened a store on Tel Aviv’s Herzl Street in 1920. In 1927, the Jerusalem store expanded to include branches in Beirut and later in Baghdad, Cairo, Alexandria and Damascus. With the establishment of the State of Israel, Steimatzky could no longer operate in other parts of the Middle East.

Yechezkel’s son Eri Steimatzky took over the business in1963 and remained at the helm till 2005, when he sold the business to Markstone Capital Partners, which retained the original name. Markstone sold it in 2014 to a group headed by Yafit Greenberg, an advertising and marketing expert, who introduced a lot of changes but opted not to change the name. She appointed her son Eyal as CEO. When Yafit died in November last year, Steimatzky had 128 branches around the country.

Advertising itself as the Middle East’s first bookstore and the oldest in Jerusalem, the Ludwig Mayer Bookstore on Shlomzion Hamalka Street, a few meters past the Jaffa Road intersection, was opened in 1908. A book browser’s paradise, with an aura of 19th-century Europe, it’s a little cramped because its relatively large space is filled with so many bookcases. Like Steimatzky, it has retained its original brand name.

Close by on Jaffa Road is the Bible Society bookstore, which offers Bibles of all shapes and sizes in Hebrew, English and Arabic, Old and New testaments separately and together, digital Bibles and more.

Despite the digitization of literature, there are still people who prefer turning the page of a book to scrolling up, down and across the screen. The closure of any bookshop is a victory for digitization. Happily, there are still enough people who want to hold a book in their hands to keep book producers in business for a long time.

Also, think about it. If you don’t have a well-filled bookcase, how are you going to impress your guests with your intelligence?

50 years of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies

■ THE PARDES Institute of Jewish Studies will celebrate its 50th anniversary at a festive gathering at the President’s Residence on September 19, with the participation of President Isaac Herzog.

In the fall of 1972, Rabbi Michael Swirsky established Pardes and welcomed the first 27 students. Since then, Pardes, the Hebrew word for “orchard,” has borne much fruit. It has grown in terms of students, teachers, programs and patrons, with branches in Jerusalem and North America.

Unfortunately, many of the people who would like to attend the event hosted by Herzog will not be able to do so. The reasons given are security and capacity, neither of which really hold water, as there is very tight security at the President’s Residence, and there have been several large-scale events over the past year. For whatever reason, the current administration closes more events than any of its predecessors.

However, the celebration will be livestreamed to Israel and North America. Further details will soon be available on Pardes social media platforms.

Lyon in the shuk has a sound problem

■ ANYONE WHO frequents the coffee shops and restaurants in and around Mahaneh Yehuda market can vouch for the fact that Lyon (formerly Haba), on Jaffa Road near the entrance to the market, is almost always full, with people standing in line as they wait for other patrons to vacate their tables. Seating is inside and outside, the food is good, and the extensive menu offers enough variety to suit a diversity of tastes.

But like many other eateries in the area, Lyon suffers from a sound problem. Management apparently feels that turning up the music is imperative to the success of the establishment.

Even in this digital age in which people are constantly peering at the screens of their cellphones or laptops, friends who go out for coffee or a meal do so in order to talk to each other. One such person, Eliahu Gal-Or, was sitting with a fellow septuagenarian in Lyon. Neither is hard of hearing, but they couldn’t hear each other because the music was so loud. Gal-Or asked a staff member to turn it down by a couple of decibels – but to no avail.

The writer of this column had a similar experience when dining with her friend Bridget Silver, just before Silver left the home where she had lived for many years to a new address on the other side of the city.

Aside from the music, which kept blaring, the acoustic system was such that conversation from a nearby table made it impossible for us to hear our own.

There are many such establishments in Jerusalem, where despite excellent cuisine and service, the acoustics are enough of a deterrent to keep some customers away.

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