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Bookmarks are facing extinction

Halper Books store owner Yosef Halper and Britishborn customer Diana Rubanenko browse through a collection of books from the library of the late Abba Eban

Just call me old-fashioned but when I want to read a book I want to do just that. I am hooked on books; the real McCoy and not the present day thin, reflective in a different way electronic version of a good read.

The work room in my kibbutz abode is full from floor to ceiling with publications large and small – history, art, the classics, autographed publications, and my feel-good section, the latter being a somewhat battered but extremely comfy armchair in the middle of the cramped but friendly room. It is here that I occasionally indulge myself in joining L.S. Lowry for a taste of Lancashire as I knew it many years ago, or once more wander the hills and vales of Wales through photographic albums - all presents from guests who knew I grew up there.

An e-reader, like a Kindle, with the capacity to carry a library around in my bag just doesn't do it for me. I need the touch of pages proper sitting in my hand– not just a one finger caress of a plastic screen, one of my precious and treasured bookmarks letting me know where I had left off reading.

Apart from the books themselves, my half a dozen treasured bookmarks all have stories behind them. One of my most prized is a black leather bookmark with Manchester Jewish Museum inscribed in gold lettering and a drawing of the magnificent building, the former Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, sitting majestically on the top.

Visiting Manchester many years ago, I decided to take a peek inside the building whose splendor always caught my eye when heading to and from the city center. Unbeknown to me, the day I chose to call a very special guest had come to talk to a group of schoolchildren. The visitor was Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld whom I instantly recognized upon entering the synagogue.

Ms. Klarsfeld was standing with the children sitting on the floor around her. Strong rays of sunshine shone through colorful windows creating an amazing sight, the lady, whom together with her husband Serge, had dedicated her life to bringing fugitive Nazis to justice, was literally bathed in a glow of colorful light, some of which also enveloped the upturned faces of the children at her feet.

At the moment, the bookmark I picked up that day is appropriately keeping my place one-third the way through Kasztner's Train by Anna Porter. Kasztner, a Hungarian lawyer and journalist, saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust by bargaining with the Nazis who allowed them to leave in exchange for large sums of money. Kasztner was vilified during a libel trial in Israel in the early 1950's, but later vindicated by the Supreme Court. For Kasztner the verdict came too late since the devastated man was assassinated outside his home in Tel Aviv in 1957.

I recently travelled from Israel to Los Angeles via London with three books in my bag. I must admit I was a wee bit jealous of those sitting on the plane around me with wafer thin Kindles or the likes propped up on the tiny table in front of them. I was reading a book purchased last year in a British Heart Foundation charity shop. Protruding from Melvyn Bragg's A Soldier's Return was the organization's bright red book mark their logo on top and inscription underneath reading: If you enjoyed this book, please donate it back to a BHF shop so it can be enjoyed again and help us raise vital funds against heart disease.

At some point, a passenger on walkabout paused by my aisle seat and out of the blue asked me if I was British. Admittedly I was a bit puzzled but said I was a British-Israeli – one third of my life there and the rest in Israel.

"How did you know I was British", I asked. He pointed to the bookmark and told me an amazing story. He had undergone a life-saving heart operation and since his complete recovery volunteers at the British Heart Foundation's charity shop in his town and saw my bookmark as a good omen with regard his first visit to America. Being a good omen for a stranger was heartwarming of course. 

The Martha Street Little Free Library in Valley Village, Los Angeles

Having finished all my books after a week in Los Angeles, on an early morning brisk walk around Valley Village, I spotted an interesting garden with an attractive little cupboard which had a glass door facing the pavement. Above the door was written The Martha Street Little Free Library. Wow, that was a new one for me. Take a book - read a book - leave a book instructed a notice on the door.

Fascinated, I opened and browsed through the stock of the day and found an interesting book for children on Jewish culture and traditions and another on how to make a cardboard Chanukah dreidel. I borrowed both and a-read-and-forget novel that I later returned with the children's book on Jewish culture and tradition and added those I had brought with me. This Chanukah I will be sitting with my grandchildren making dreidels according to the Martha Street Little Free Library gem of a book that has now made aliyah. (Little Free Library is a grassroots movement www.littlefreelibrary.org.)

I do not often get to Tel Aviv but when I do, a visit to Halper's Books in Allenby is high on the must-do list. Walking around the labyrinth of narrow aisles with metal bookshelves packed from floor to ceiling with around 60,000 used books, is the closest to Utopia on earth for this avid reader. Yosef Halper, an American who made aliyah in the 1980s, told me that e-readers have caused a noticeable drop in sales but, when I popped in to Halper's this week I was happy to see that there were quite a few folks bending over the lower shelves and a few on stools reaching for the heights – inches away from the ceiling.

Some months ago, when I visited Halper's Books, Yosef was browsing through an enormous number of books stacked around his little corner office. The books had belonged to the late great Abba Eban and most of the titles were connected to Jewish or Israel topics.

This visit, we had a conversation around bookmarks and what one finds stashed away inside used books. Yosef has piles of bookmarks held together with rubber bands stashed in a corner behind his counter top but as I was pushed for time bookmark browsing will have to wait.

Books no longer wanted by folks in my kibbutz and of which the kibbutz library already has copies or is not interested in stocking, are left on shelves in the entrance to the library. Recently I took a number of those books home. Earlier that same day, I discussed the Israeli and Welsh flags during a seminar for a group of overseas teens and Israeli peers. Israeli children deftly draw the flag of the country in kindergarten, usually in preparation for Independence Day celebrations. Not as a child nor as an adult could I draw the Welsh flag freehand, with the large ominous looking red dragon on a green and white background. But, that evening, I picked up the copy of Belva Plain's Looking Back taken from the library entrance shelf – more from nostalgia remembering my Belva Plain, Chaim Potok and Leon Uris days of reading when I made aliyah in the 1960s.

As I opened the book, a small business card fell on the floor. Half the card was taken up by the Welsh flag's red dragon and the other half advertised Scorpio's New Zealand's only Welsh restaurant.

Out of curiosity, I wrote a letter – a 'proper' one as there was no email address on the card - to the Scorpio's owner to ask if they had any idea how their card would have made aliyah. I included my email address. I can't say I expected a reply but was delighted when an email popped up on my screen from Welsh emigrants Jo and Mike Howard. Although their business had moved, and was renamed The Welsh Dragon Bar, my letter had been forwarded by someone from the previous address. The Howard's are friendly with the former Wellington folk-singer Jill Rogoff who settled in Jerusalem so she may be the possible pigeon card carrier.

I could write a book about my bookmarks and things I have found written inside the books I own. I am also well aware that many will end up in the recycling bin when my reading and other days are up and I am being recycled myself as I push up the daisies in the forest where the kibbutz cemetery is situated.

Bookshops are closing rapidly as the electronic gadgets force them out of business.

Bookmarks will also become a thing of the past and I can hardly ever see anybody leaving their e-reader in a little cupboard on a street corner inviting folks to choose a title from their electro-library and when finished, place the e-reader back in the cupboard on the corner for the next person.

Second-hand books are available at ESRA bookshops, at minimal cost: Modiin in the Azrieli mall; Or Akiva at 16 Koplevitz Street; and Raanana at 5 Klausner Street.

 

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Saturday, 16 October 2021

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