From the Outside Looking In: a selective memoir by Asher Weill

This is very readable memoir which includes many photographs of the multi-faceted aspects of his personal and working life

A portrait of Asher Weill (photo credit: Courtesy)
A portrait of Asher Weill
(photo credit: Courtesy)

As a quintessential English man of letters, growing up in a secular assimilated family in London, it is interesting to read how the life’s work of Anthony James Campbell Weill (known as Asher Weill) has impacted the world of publishing in Israel.
For those readers who enjoyed the heyday of English-language publications in Israel, it is interesting to read of the many journals and books and literary events that were founded and nurtured by Asher Weill in his more than 60 years in the country.
As the people of the book it is surprising that Israel does not have any vast book emporiums like Foyles, Waterstones or Barnes and Noble. For indeed most book shops, even those of the monopolies like Steimatsky and Tzomet Sfarim only occupy single unit stores in shopping malls and high streets.
Therefore, reading Weill’s tales of the rise and fall of many of these publications, one realizes that a small country, albeit whose citizens are mostly literate, can only sustain a limited amount of printed material and even less in the English language.
In reading of Weill’s childhood, it is obvious that his home environment which encouraged culture and education was influential in nurturing his essential Englishness,in spite of his very mixed pedigree. His paternal grandfather was a German immigrant to Britain, while a branch of his mother’s family came from Morocco. His maternal grandmother was converted with Scottish and Irish origins.
Following the World War II, during which the family were evacuated, they moved to a prestigious neighborhood in London and Weill was sent at a young age to a public boarding school, Wisborough Lodge, followed by the non-residential City of London School. In Britain, public schools are the private elite establishments. He admits that he did not shine at school but was interested in literature and in geography and felt that he gained a great deal from the discipline at these schools.
But it was when as a swimming champion he represented the UK in 1957 at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, that he caught “the Israel bug.”
Meanwhile on his return to England, he took a job as editor for the Oxford University Press and thus began his career in publishing.
While growing up with no exposure to Judaism or religion, he described his bar mitzvah as one of life’s traumas as he did not even know the aleph beth. And yet his trip to Israel for the Maccabiah Games attracted him to all the excitement and challenges of living in this volatile new country. He enrolled for a Kibbutz Ulpan at Beth Hashita, and his telling of this phase in his history certain caused me to experience a déjà vu for, I too, in my youth spent six months in a wooden hut on a kibbutz, with a walk down a dusty path to the cold-water showers – and I too remember the grueling physical work, trying to keep up with the tractor that dug up the potatoes while we were supposed to run after it gathering them into our sacks.
But whereas I had returned to my loving family, soft bed and hot showers in London, waiting another 15 years until our aliyah, Weill stayed on and began his working life which was to benefit and influence publishing and literary standards in Israel.
In 1959, the Prime Minister’s Office set up the Israel Program for Scientific Translations, using the resources of immigrants from the Soviet bloc. Weill became sales director and eventually publishing director. As the need for this Russian material diminished, he founded the Israel Universities Press.
By this time he had professional and social contacts with many of the leading publishers in Israel and overseas and in 1969 he became managing director of Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Jerusalem, a subsidiary of the famous British publishing house.
He is bitter that their financial advisers closed down the Israel company prematurely, following the recession after the Yom Kippur War.
He then founded and became a partner in Yediot Ahronot Edanim publishing house producing biographies of Israel’s greatest leaders.
One of his great achievements was to found the Israel International Jerusalem Book Fair and for this he was honored with the Worthy Citizen of Jerusalem award (Yakir Yerushalayim) by then-mayor Teddy Kollek.
Weill writes fondly of his editorship of the quarterly journal Ariel produced by the Foreign Affairs Ministry. This was a glossy high quality arts journal with translations into many European languages as well as Arabic and Russian. When it was closed to cut costs in 2003, he regretted that no other journal existed to expose the arts and culture of Israel.
As one door closed, others opened. He edited Israel Scene and other publications for the press division of the World Zionist Organization, coordinated the Anglo-Israel Colloquium, prepared English language material for Limmud FSU and co-founded Sia’h Va’Sig, the Israel Debating Society, with Ann Kirson Swersky. Like so many English-speaking immigrants who deplore the shouting and interrupting on TV news and debating programs, he was keen to educate Israeli youth to debate in a more civilized manner
A very dynamic career which resulted in him receiving the Bonei Zion Prize from Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2015 for his contribution to Israel’s culture and literature over 50 years.
His personal life was no less dynamic. He kept in constant contact with his parents and younger brother in England and found out from a confession from his father that he had a half-sister born in Germany during the war when his father had been on active service. Weill had five children from two marriages and has a tribe of grandchildren. One son was tragically killed in a climbing accident and is mourned until today.
Weill also volunteered for 40 years for Melach, an organization which ensures function of civilian life in time of crisis and war.
Weill gives credit to the many writers, publishers and artists who inspired and helped him in his work. It would have been helpful to include an index so that we could put these personalities in context. Also, with his Ashkenazi and Sephardi roots, not to mention the Celtic side of the family, it would have been interesting to have included a family tree at the beginning of the book.
This is very readable memoir which includes many photographs of the multi-faceted aspects of his personal and working life,
As a bibliophile who enjoyed so many of those publications and endeavors of which Weill was responsible, it was a pleasure to read of those efforts and success and to appreciate the battles that were won or lost in order to keep up literary standards in Israel.
From the Outside Looking In:
A Selective Memoir
Asher Weill
Weill Publishers, POB 7705,
Jerusalem 91076
158 pages, 85 shekels (including postage)