A new chapter for the Book Fair

Unlike previous years, the upcoming event will focus on digital publishing

bookstore 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
bookstore 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Jerusalem International Book Fair is one of the country’s most venerable cultural institutions, so it makes perfect sense to have an accomplished diplomat like Avi Pazner at the helm.
Pazner, 73 years young, moved into the literary bash’s top role in October, following the death of the previous long-serving incumbent, Zev Birger, who was killed in a traffic accident last year at the age of 86 after almost 30 years in the job.
This year, the fair is marking 50 years of robust activity, and Pazner says that for him, the new position is a labor of love.
“I have had a penchant for reading books ever since I was a kid,” he says.
“You know, in those days there was no TV and there were hardly any radio shows to listen to, but we had books.
From when I was little, I just read and read and read. But of course, I never thought that my love of books would ever lead to a job in the field. For me, being in charge of the fair is like a dream come true.”
The other fields in which he has worked, and still works, are nothing to sneeze at, either. Besides moonlighting at the book fair, he is world chairman of Keren Hayesod, and he served as Israel’s ambassador to Italy in the early 1990s, followed by a similar berth in Paris. That latter posting suited Pazner, an unabashed Francophile, to the hilt. He even retains the faint singsong of a French accent, and wrote a book about his life in the service of this country, The Secrets of a Diplomat, in French.
“I am very busy, but I was really honored to be offered this position,” he states. “But, you know what the Americans say: If you have a good job, give it to a busy man.”
Besides pushing local writers and publishing houses to the fore, the book fair attracts literary establishments from around the world, with publishers from over 30 countries lined up for next week’s six-day event (it runs from February 10 to 15).
Pazner stands to benefit from their wares more than most, as he is fluent in more than half a dozen languages.
He was born in Danzig, then Germany, just a few months before the outbreak of World War II. He and his family survived the war in Switzerland, and he arrived in this country at the age of 14.
“I didn’t know a word of Hebrew when I came on aliya,” he says, although he had several other means of spoken communication: “I really have three mother tongues. I spoke Swiss German, because my mother came from Lucerne in Switzerland, and I spoke German German because my father came from Danzig, and of course, I spoke French because we lived in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, in Geneva.”
His stint as Israel’s man in Italy added another item to his linguistic baggage, and as a veteran of Jerusalem’s diplomatic corps, his English is up to scratch as well. He also has more than a smattering of Spanish at his command.
Pazner’s single foray as an author, to date, has left him with a deeper understanding of the writer’s side of the publishing business, and with some insight into the vagaries of the international marketing field.
“I wrote my book in French and I thought of translating it into Hebrew, but then I realized that it was really written for non-Israeli readers,” he notes. “There are all sorts of things I’d have to change in the Hebrew edition, but most of all, I’d have to make it juicier for the Israeli reader.”
His only other professional venture in the book world so far was of a more personal nature.
“My father, Haim Pazner, saved 10,000 or maybe 15,000 Jews during the Holocaust,” he says. “The book about him and his life was written by [veteran journalist] Menachem Michelson, together with [British historian] Martin Gilbert. I also helped with the book. To this day, people come up to me and tell about some relative or other whom my father saved,” he adds proudly.
The elder Pazner also helped to nurture his son’s bibliophilic tendencies.
“Immediately after the Second World War, my father used to travel abroad a lot, as the European representative of the Jewish Agency, and he worked on the illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine in 1945-48. He’d go to Italy and France, and he’d bring me presents. Not chocolates or toys – remember, I was only a young boy of six or seven – he’d bring me books, books and more books, in French.
That’s always been the language I prefer to read in. Mind you, when I can, I prefer to read a book in the source language.”
THAT NEATLY segues into another aspect of this country’s cultural outreach in recent years, as more and more works written in Hebrew are translated into other languages.
“Oh yes, that’s so wonderful,” says the book fair chairman. “You know, authors like Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman and Zeruya Shalev are very popular all over the world. And there are other Israeli writers who are getting translated, too, including lots of our very talented younger authors.”
That is particularly gratifying, considering the country’s controversial standing in the international community, and the de facto cultural boycott on Israel. But Pazner says those have not impinged on his work and the efforts of his colleagues on the book-fair staff, including general manager Yoel Makov.
“We have never had any cancellations by authors and, as you can see, there are plenty of foreign publishing houses that want to come to Jerusalem to take part,” he says. “I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair [last October] and lots of people talked about the Jerusalem Book Fair. We have a good reputation outside Israel, and rightly so. This is always a wonderful event. We are still the People of the Book.”
He notes that he tried his utmost to place Israeli artists front and center when he was representing the country around the world.
“I have always said that theater professionals, writers and musicians, all our artists, are our best possible ambassadors,” he says. “When I was in Italy and France, as the official ambassador, I worked hard on bringing Israeli artists over and showing people abroad what we can do. We have so much to offer the world in the arts, and in so many areas of the arts.”
Part of that will come through in the opening slot of the fair.
“I have asked [singer] David Deor and that wonderful Arab singer Lubne Salameh to perform,” he says. “That, I think, will help to show people – especially non-Israelis – something of the broad spectrum of disciplines in which we excel, and that there are good things that come out of Israel, and not just the political stuff.”
NEWCOMERS TEND to bring a breath of fresh air and some innovative ideas to their new jobs, and Pazner is no exception.
“The fair is a great event, and I have enjoyed attending, as a consumer, for many, many years,” he says. “I like the ICC [International Convention Center, where the fair is taking place], it is in a great location, but it is a very large place, and I feel that books, and reading, exude a sense of intimacy, so I have arranged for drapes to be put up around the fair area to give it a cozier ambiance.”
With this year’s half-century milestone in mind, he was also keen to reference the past. “There will be all kinds of historic, and very lovely, posters of Israeli events around the ICC. I think that will add to the aesthetics and make the place even more welcoming.”
But he is not looking to rest on his laurels; he wants to boost the fair’s international standing during his tenure.
“I hope the next time round, in two years’ time, we’ll have even more international publishing houses in Jerusalem. I think that’s probably why I was chosen for this job. I am not a man of letters, as such; I am a diplomat, and I am experienced in the global arena. A major part of my job is to enhance Israel’s and Jerusalem’s standing in the world, through the book [in] an apolitical way. I am not a politician, but I love books.”
Despite his definitively non-technological upbringing, he says he has nothing against, for example, using Kindle.
“I prefer holding a real book in my hands, smelling the paper and feeling the weight. They say that if someone reads a book without jotting things down on the pages, it’s as if he didn’t read the book. I write things down, but I use a pencil because I might want to erase them later. Don’t forget, I am a diplomat,” he says with a smile. “But Kindle is fine, too – as long as people read books.”
Next week’s event also addresses the march of time and its impact on the world of books.
“At the fair, we have seminars on literature in the digital era,” continues the chairman. “This is a global phenomenon, so we should, quite rightly, talk about it. You know they say, as a generalization, that young people don’t read books. I’d be quite happy for them to read them on the Internet. I think Kindle is a very positive phenomenon.”
Bringing out his flair for languages, he adds, “Think of the name Facebook. You see, ‘book’ is in there, too. Maybe what I say, about people reading books in virtual form, will annoy some publishers, but you can’t stop technological advances. If you try to do that, you’re going to lose out, and that certainly wouldn’t help the fair.”
Pazner is already looking forward to his second time around, at the next fair in 2015.
“I am, of course, still learning the job,” he says, “but I hope I’ll be able to [bring] other dimensions to the fair in the future.
Zev [Birger] did a wonderful job with the fair for so long, I have to keep up the good work.”