Opening lines

If the Jerusalem Prize were to be awarded to a writer from the past, Mayor Uri Lupolianski told the audience at the opening ceremony of the 23rd International Jerusalem Book Fair, a prime candidate would be Rabbi Joseph ben Haim Eliyahu. In Shvat 1857, the Iraqi rabbi, more commonly known as the Ben Ish Hai, put Jerusalem at the top of his agenda: If he couldn't live in Jerusalem, he wrote, at least his books must be published and printed in the holy city. Exactly 150 years later, the 800 publishers and writers who participated in this year's fair are testament to the fact that the Ben Ish Hai's efforts to turn Jerusalem into a literary capital paid off. "Jerusalemites are the most avid readers in Israel," said Lupolianski, quoting figures released ahead of the fair revealing that Jerusalemites buy more books than Israelis from other cities. The festive spirit at the International Convention Center on Sunday night was slightly marred by the fact that this year's Jerusalem Prizewinner, Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, was unable to make the trip from his Oxford home due to poor health. Accepting the award on his behalf was Polish Ambassador Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, joined by Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres - who gave the opening address at the ceremony - and fair organizer Ze'ev Birger. A pre-recorded tape of Kolakowski's acceptance speech was broadcast later. "In vain do I look for words that would properly express my gratitude for this distinction," he said. But he found many eloquent ones, adding, "It puts me in such splendid company. All those people who received it before are people to whom we should be grateful for their spiritual guidance. And it is extraordinary because it is given to me by the spiritual capital of the world, both of Christianity and Judaism." Prize jurists Menahem Brinker and Shlomo Avineri, who both know Kolakowski, shared anecdotes about the prizewinner. On Kolakowski's first trip to Israel in 1969, Avineri recalled, immediately after a long flight from San Francisco, he asked to be taken to the Western Wall. The next morning, when Avineri asked him where he would like to visit, Kolakowski asked to be taken to Mea She'arim. Though surprised by the request, Avineri complied. Afterwards, when Avineri asked him why he had wanted to visit the haredi neighborhood, the non-Jewish philosopher replied, "Here I saw Jewish people the way they dressed, walked and talked in Radom [Poland]. Here I feel at home, like I have returned to my city of birth." Lupolianski pointed out that although it was a festive occasion, for the first time the fair was taking place without the presence of its founder, former mayor Teddy Kollek. "As someone who worked alongside Teddy Kollek, I can testify how much the fair was a part of him. He used to say, 'A house without books is a house without windows.'"