Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, April 20, 2009

National Book Week

Photo (c) Amy Samin

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 19 June 2004.

For the last 43 years, Israel has held a nation-wide celebration of the written word. Although it is offically called the National Book Week, this festival is actually 10 days long. During that time, approximately half a million Israelis will visit book fairs held throughout the country. The largest fairs are held in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Be'er Sheva, but there are approximately 60 fairs held in cities and towns across Israel.

Some 150 publishers take part in National Book Week (called Shavuah Ha Sefer in Hebrew). Visitors to the book fairs can browse among stalls offering cookbooks, bibles and other religious texts, children's literature, poetry, nonfiction and even thrillers. In the last year, 3,000 books were published in Israel; of those, 82% were in Hebrew, 8% in English, and the remaining 10% in Russian, Arabic, and 34 other languages.

In addition to displays of books and book-related products, visitors to the book fairs can enjoy readings and author appearances. Even those who stay home can participate by watching authors read from and discuss their books on talk shows and children's programs. Often schools offer tie-ins to National Book Week by sponsoring read-a-thons and competitions, and assigning book reports as homework.

Jews have traditionally been termed the People of the Book, but educators and legislators in Israel have begun to fear we are in danger of no longer deserving that title. Israelis are as enamoured with television and the Internet as the rest of the world. In addition, according to a recent study* by the Bar-Ilan University school of education, Israel is "one of the most news-oriented societies in the world." According to the study, Israeli children are "spending more time reading the news than reading literature." In fact, while 80% of Israeli teens read the daily newspaper, only about 32% of teens read fiction.

In some ways, this doesn't surprise me. If you happen to be riding a bus at the hour or half-hour, you will hear the radio news over the loudspeaker. News, both local and international, is one of the most common subjects of conversation. Israelis debate and analyze events going on halfway around the world with almost as much intensity as we do the antics of our own politicians. People seem sometimes to be involved in a competition to be the first to impart news; to be the last to know something borders on the shameful.

I think this thirst for information about the affairs of the whole world is a special aspect of the Israeli character. You would be as likely to find a palm tree in the Yukon as you would to find an Israeli who is neutral about world events. Perhaps this is a response to the fierce scrutiny Israel endures from the international community. Or it could be merely a zest for knowledge and debate. Israelis may be opinionated or argumentative, but at least we are never noncommital.

Israelis will happily debate and dissect all manner of issues, including whether or not we are still the "People of the Book." 'After all,' some say, 'when you talk about books, you're really talking about reading. When I peruse articles on the Internet, or scan the Hebrew subtitles when I watch an American television program, what am I doing if not reading?' An interesting point, and as fine an example of Israeli hair-splitting as I've yet heard. And while TV and the Internet demand more and more of our attention, it is heartening to note that Israel's National Book Week endures, and people continue to throng to the fairs in satisfying numbers. Here's hoping that many of them will come home with a few new books to read.

*This study was part of the Program for International Student Assessment. Facts taken from the June 18, 2004 issue of the Jerusalem Post.

(c)Amy Samin

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