In a small side corner of Allenby Street in southern Tel Aviv, almost hidden away from pedestrians amidst all the chaos that surrounds it, stands a shop. A shop of stories, one could say. Halper’s Books is its name, and inside is a maze of over 60,000 second-hand books. As I ventured inside, wending through the matrix, the amount of potential information and lives documented all around me felt staggering.
In the forefront of all of this, behind his little counter, is the unassuming face of Yosef Halper, the author of a new book called The Bibliomaniacs – Tales from a Tel Aviv Bookseller, an anthological collection of eccentric stories and encounters Halper has had since moving to Israel.
The many encounters of Yosef Halper in Israel
Halper, originally from New Jersey, officially made aliyah in 1983, after his Yeshiva University graduation and many stints of experiencing Israel (for example, in 1968 on a trip with family; and in 1976 when he spent a few weeks at the Ben Shemen Youth Village, which he says “solidified my desire to come here for a longer stretch”).
His love for books started when he was a child, gazing in wonder at the books his mother had read over the years, such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (“Wow, Naked! But what was this dead stuff all about?” he thought).
His endeavor of being a bookseller started in 1990 when the lease of his rented apartment in Jerusalem ended after seven years. He returned to New Jersey with his wife, whom he had met during his military service in Israel (while guarding a kibbutz during his service in Nahal), and their two babies, and crashed at his parents’ refurbished basement. The idea of being a bookseller first took root in Halper’s mind when he had passed a “For Sale” sign in a bookstore off a quiet alley in Jerusalem. After a failed stab at tree-trimming, he tried his hand at book selling by setting up shop on the sidewalk of Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village.
Halper returned to Israel – to Petah Tikva, where he still lives – in 1991 with his wife and children. The decision was not an easy one. With the backdrop of the Gulf War looming, they went against the odds, and in a “God-only-knows-why” fashion decided that their place was in Israel. In retrospect, he states, “The Jewish thing was a big thing with me.” He says he felt more comfortable in his skin in Israel and became “quite observant.”
You must be thinking, “This is a book review; why are you telling me about the author?” Well, that is because the book is Halper. And vice versa. In fact, what Halper managed to do with this book is create an engaging and dynamic world with his unique, slice-of-life experiences. The world, in this case, is not one you would see in a Tolkien book, and it doesn’t have thousands of years’ worth of lore and history behind it. Rather, Halper’s colorful encounters provide us with a near pocket dimension of sorts, one that mirrors ours and basks in its ability to show us a reality of living in Israel.
Most of the book’s chapters, each a self-contained story, although definitely not entirely disconnected from the rest, are related to Halper’s book shop and are written from his perspective as narrator.
We sat down for coffee and pastry nearby, adjacent to an ear-piercing intersection. Allenby Street, much like the man it is named after, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby (nicknamed “The Bull”), is a rough, explosive and gritty street. Yet it is also vibrant and full of life. The book does a terrific job of encapsulating the energy of its backdrop, with characters as quirky as its setting.
“I think my store became a bit of a magnet for various misfits. The fact that it’s so cluttered, it’s a place where people feel at home; they let their hair down.”Yosef Halper
A drunken Eastender Brit, a wannabe messiah, a Talmudic scholar looking for erotic novels, and the Coen brothers are some of the people that stumble across the bookshop. “I think my store became a bit of a magnet for various misfits,” Halper says. “The fact that it’s so cluttered, it’s a place where people feel at home; they let their hair down.”
There are chapters where events are happening that are relatively detached from Halper’s perspective and personal interaction, giving a taste of his writing ability beyond a fictional memoir. They are much grander and more dramatized but are still in good taste and are placed strategically toward the end of the book by his editor, who saw a delineation in the time line of the stories, Halper says.
He wrote most of the stories in a writing group, which he began attending later on in life: “I am almost 63 years old, and I started in my late fifties,” he says. “I always felt the desire to put things onto paper.”
This against-the-odds mentality is something one feels in the book and is a pattern in Halper’s life. “I’m a bit of an against-the-grain type of person. If you look at my story, you can see it’s not very organized or sanitized. It’s not like Steimatzky,” he says, referring to the man who founded Israel’s largest book chain. (In fact, Tzvi Steimatzky opened his first bookshop in 1920 on nearby Herzl Street.)
“Coming here is against the grain,” he continues. “I deliberately locked myself in because despite everything I believe in this country, it’s needed and is a place for persecuted Jews to come to and is a necessity.”
As for what part of the book is real and what isn’t, the answer lies in its very nature – it doesn’t really matter. On page 8, there is a disclaimer stating that the book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to real life is purely coincidental. Halper clearly isn’t a combative person. But a quotation I particularly liked from one of the stories tells us exactly what the relationship between reality in fiction in this book is: “I have an innate tendency, perhaps to a fault, to let people lie to me,” he writes. “I had no pressing reasons to suspect people of deviousness. Thus, if people told me illogical stories about themselves, I usually rolled with them. Maybe this person did serve in Nam at the age of 16, or prevented WW IV as a secret CIA agent, or was abducted by aliens, or heard God speaking to him. True? Not true? Who cared? I wouldn’t get indignant. I’d just enjoy the BS as long as it didn’t affect me. If an individual needed to share his rich fantasy life with the world, then yalla, spew!”
His bibliomaniac traits reveal themselves. “I think that it’s all realistic,” he says. “I embellished a lot, I changed names, descriptions, dialogues; some of the stuff I made up entirely, but there are elements of truth in them.”
Yosef Halper’s presence within the shop and in general is welcoming and innocent, almost inviting for chaos to barge in. “I had an open door policy; unless someone really misbehaved, I never kicked anyone out. I felt just because of the exotic nature of these people, I gave them a lot of leeway. They’re interesting,” he says. “I perhaps am too trusting. And to this day, despite being burned a lot of times, it’s important to have a character that can let problems run after them and not get stuck on every little insulting thing that happens to them.”
I think there’s a life lesson to be learned from this book. Letting people into our shop, our little worlds, our hearts, makes us vulnerable. It makes painful experiences that much more painful. But having this open door policy sometimes, and letting people share their fantasy life with you, no matter if it’s true or false, right or wrong, sane or crazy, has allowed for Halper’s colorful experiences and his book to take shape. And that’s what makes his stories so sublime and appealing.
While some critics say the book has a niche appeal meant only for the Jewish market, Halper says his “intention is that it should appeal to everybody. I’m more drawn by the idea that non-Jews or people unfamiliar with Israel should read it. It provides a completely different perspective on Israel.”
There is Jewish chutzpah coursing through its veins and its language, so it would also be a terrific read for people making aliyah.
As for what comes next, Halper comes back to the reasons for why he wrote the book: “I had all these incidents and encounters that had built up in my store; I felt if I don’t write them down, they’ll get lost.” It helps him process them: “I put all of these stories to bed, in a sense,” he concludes.
Halper says that these experiences are still ongoing. “I’ve had three messiahs in my store. One’s even a regular,” he says.
He has half of a new book written already, but he says that writing a book is “like giving birth” – a break is needed after all that rigorous labor. There are a lot of good stories that didn’t make the deadline for the first installment, so we can look forward to more kooky characters and awesome anecdotes in his next work. I, for one, can’t wait. ■
The Bibliomaniacs – Tales from a Tel Aviv BooksellerJ.C. HalperLocus Publishing House, 2022249 pages; NIS 89