Mourning Jerusalem icon Mechoel Pomeranz

His eponymous bookstore is well known among Jerusalem’s English-speaking community for its eclectic collection of Jewish books.

 MECHOEL POMERANZ passed away after a lengthy illness. (photo credit: Courtesy Pomeranz family)
MECHOEL POMERANZ passed away after a lengthy illness.
(photo credit: Courtesy Pomeranz family)

Mechoel Pomeranz, the beloved owner of Pomeranz Bookseller, died last week after a lengthy illness at age 68.

His eponymous bookstore is well known among Jerusalem’s English-speaking community for its eclectic collection of Jewish books ranging from Shlomo Carlebach haggadot to translations of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.

Pomeranz established his bookstore only later in life. His fascinating life story began long before he made aliyah in 1991. He worked in various police roles in Southern California, including a stint as an undercover narcotics officer, in addition to six years of firefighting. During his time at the fire department, he eventually became assistant to the fire chief and won a gold medal in powerlifting at the fireman’s Olympics.

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Pomeranz began to explore his Judaism further when he reached his thirties. Following a trip to Poland and Israel, the firefighter met a woman at a gathering for the children of Holocaust survivors. This woman could sense that he was interested in becoming more observant, and gifted him with Artscroll’s Book of Genesis. Pomeranz eventually became the president of a Conservative synagogue – a job that required him to study Torah on a regular basis in order to prepare divrei Torah for the congregation. At the same time, he befriended an Orthodox couple who were influential in his adoption of Orthodox Judaism.

After leaving the fire department due to his increasing level of observance, Pomeranz worked for a Jewish bookseller in Los Angeles. He then met his wife, Shira, and worked as a security consultant. Despite having a comfortable life in the US, the young couple decided to make aliyah with their two children without any jobs lined up.

 POMERANZ BOOKSELLER storefront sporting a poster of the then-imprisoned Jonathan Pollard.  (credit: ALDEN TABAC) POMERANZ BOOKSELLER storefront sporting a poster of the then-imprisoned Jonathan Pollard. (credit: ALDEN TABAC)

“He knew every book in the store. He wasn’t just a simple salesman in a store. It was a love of books and a love of customers that made him who he was. It made him a local Jerusalem icon.”

Arnie Draiman

Selling books in Israel

Upon his arrival in Israel, Pomeranz noticed that there was a void in the English market for Jewish books: nearly all Jewish books published in English available in Israel catered to the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. Pomeranz and his wife decided to take a risk by investing $18,000 in Jewish books on diverse topics and charging the same price that the books were sold for in the US. The first shipment was barely enough to fill the shelves of their small store in a basement on King George Avenue.

Strategically placed flyers in neighborhoods with large anglophone populations along with word-of-mouth advertisement drew increasing numbers of people to the store, which moved to Shmuel Hanagid Street before occupying its current location on Be’eri Street, where it has been for the past 16 years. The store now refers to itself as the “Gan Eden of Jewish Books” due to its massive selection.

Aside from offering new English books on a plethora of Jewish topics in a city where it was difficult to obtain such books that are not secondhand, Pomeranz’s personality and dedication to his customers fueled the success of his store.

“He knew his products,” explained Arnie Draiman, a philanthropic consultant who knew Pomeranz for over 15 years. “He knew every book in the store. He wasn’t just a simple salesman in a store. It was a love of books and a love of customers that made him who he was. It made him a local Jerusalem icon.”

Draiman added that Pomeranz would always offer the best price for any book.

Pomeranz’s customer-first orientation extended beyond the confines of his bookstore.

“Any book you wanted, he would get for you,” Draiman recalled. “He would go out of his way to please customers. For years, he offered free delivery, if it was on his way home.”

At an annual Passover program where he used to sell books, Pomeranz could always be counted on to give his undivided attention to whoever engaged him conversation.

“He was always listening,” Draiman said. “If people would talk to him, he would always listen. He would stand for eight or 10 hours at the Passover program in the lobby, and it wasn’t that he was a schmoozer; he was a good listener.”

DUE TO his father being a survivor of Auschwitz, Pomeranz had a strong passion for Holocaust education. The book salesman would often visit schools to provide students with topical books before they embarked on trips to Poland.

Pomeranz continued to visit Poland himself after making aliyah, including one notable trip during which he was arrested with Rabbi Avi Weiss, the former leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, for protesting the country’s distortion of the Holocaust. The two men engaged in a sit-in inside the illegal church on the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau and were arrested after seven hours. They were released a few hours later, but the incident demonstrated Pomeranz’s characteristic devotion to that which he cared about the most.

In addition, Pomeranz was deeply concerned for Jonathan Pollard, placing a picture of the then-imprisoned intelligence agent in his store. When Pollard was walking by Pomeranz Bookseller after arriving in Israel, Pomeranz, who was already quite ill at the time, literally jumped out of his car to greet him.

“He gave me what he could give me, a bear hug,” Pollard said. “It was weak, but it was all he could give me.” The salesman then brought him into the store and showed him the picture that had been hanging for years. “I asked him why he had the picture of me there, and he said, ‘For two reasons. Firstly, I wanted everyone who came by the store to remember you. Second of all, on the off-chance that the prime minister came by, maybe he’d remember his responsibility to you.’”

“He was nonjudgmental and treated everyone equally. Everyone who came into his store was an honored guest. He was a role model who valued unity. That’s what we need right now – unity.”

Jonathan Pollard

The two developed a relationship, and Pollard recalled how kind Pomeranz was to his late wife, Esther, during her illness. “Whenever she needed something, he was there for her. He was more than just a bookseller. He was our friend, a dear friend.”

Pollard was also quite impressed with Pomeranz’s extensive knowledge. “It wasn’t that he knew about books; he actually knew the books. I’m sorry I never got a chance to sit down and talk books with him. If there’s any solace I can take with this, it’s that he is sitting down with Esther in heaven talking books with her. They are both in good company.”

Lastly, Pomeranz’s love for every person made him a role model for his community, according to Pollard. “He was nonjudgmental and treated everyone equally. Everyone who came into his store was an honored guest. He was a role model who valued unity. That’s what we need right now – unity.”

Pomeranz is survived by his wife, children and two grandchildren. His sons Yisroel and Nachum took over the store when their father fell ill, running the store in a way that made Pomeranz very proud. The store will remain open under their leadership, continuing Pomeranz’s legacy and serving the English-speaking community of Jerusalem as it did during his lifetime. 

Pomeranz will be remembered for contributing only positivity during his life.

“They always say you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” Draiman said. “I don’t know anybody who ever spoke ill of him when he was alive.”