Mea Shearim gets modern bookstore
Or Hachaim Center becomes a hit soon after opening in Jerusalem haredi neighborhood. In groundbreaking move, store offers popular-style books around religious themes, not just religious texts
Whoever thought that books were going out of style should visit the bookstore Or Hachaim Center in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood, Mea Shearim.
In the middle of the old neighborhood where a supermarket used to be, a bookstore has opened for the book lovers of the haredi sector, and there are a lot of them. Quite surprisingly, the store offers up more than holy texts and books on religion. The most interesting section is along the side of the store where there are books about adventure, action, and even some bordering on romance.
While the books still revolve around religious motifs, they are written in a popular style. Take for instance one book, "Escaping India" that tells the story of Ronen who got embroiled in controversy in India and ended up in jail only to experience a true religious awakening and escape on a wonderful path of miracles.
Many other books, with secular sounding titles, grapple with the complexities of life in the face of emotional and economic hurdles. They also offer books on socio-political analysis and on the Holocaust.
Many of them have quickly become best-sellers even though they don't have explicitly religious content.
Most of the books come with a recommendation or authorization from the spiritual council for reviewing books. Here is an authorization from Rabbi Gad Polak inscribed on the jacket of the book "Sof Ma'aseh": "I hereby confirm that a representative of the council reviewed the book 'Sof Ma'aseh' and found it suitable and kosher for reading in every house in Israel. The book is interwoven with tales meant to awaken the person to introspection and examination of everyday events. Each character is an analogy, and the reader must find the moral from each character."
There also is an explanation of the importance of books and their oversight: "The written word serves as an influential educational tool, and, therefore, there is great importance and a current need in this generation for this committee because anyone taking up the pen can publish with ease – because of technological advancements – anything he pleases."
Alongside fiction books, some of them in English, religious texts still reign supreme.
In the entrance to the store, there are computer stations and every book has a barcode, something new in the haredi sector. The design is also something unprecedented in the ultra-Orthodox world.
"We decided to make a store that is nice to shop in, not like a basement, for instance. Everything is organized," said Yaakov Bibla, 38, one of the store's owners. "We learned from the general market and upgraded the service and quality provided to the consumers in the haredi sector."
According to Bibla, the location of the store in Mea Shearim turns to an audience that is not accustomed to the organization and technology in the store, though the haredi sector consumes large amounts of books and printed material.
"Unlike other groups, which are open to technologies through which the book loses its power, the status of the book is growing in the haredi public," explained Bibla.
The store also has a stereo system that plays Hassidic music in English. The music is fitting to the store's many American Jewish patrons. "This is the biggest store here," said Michael, 19, who came from New Jersey to Israel with his family for Passover. "There are other stores with books in English, but here they have the biggest selection."
Natan, 27, a Breslev Hassid from Mea Shearim said of the shopping experience, "Everything is very organized, and I quickly found what I was looking for. There are signs, whereas in other stores you have to ask the salesperson."
The bookstore has 16 branches in Israel and aims to become the Steimatsky of the haredi sector. "We took all the technologies, including registers, barcodes, rechargeable gift cards, and signage, that you could put in the place to carry the religious books."
In the past, Mea Shearim's residents picketed against such stores being opened in the neighborhood. Many of the residents belong to anti-Zionist sects known for their zealotry. However, Or Hachaim Center is not concerned. "Everyone comes to buy here. The store is filled with a mosaic of the haredi sector," said people in the store.