Article in the Jewish Press about Mizrahi Bookstore
For those who missed it in print, below is a brief article which appeared in the Aug 10, 2016 issue of the Jewish Press about Mizrahi Bookstore:
For some, he evokes a bygone age – when sefarim store owners lived and breathed books and could direct customers to (and discuss) a rare Yiddish work just as easily as the latest ArtScroll title.
Israel Mizrahi, though, is a young man of 29. And, unlike sefarim store owners of yore, he earns half his profits online where patrons can view and buy any one of 36,000 volumes, ranging in price from $2.99 to $3,299.99. (He carries a total of 150,000 works in his Flatbush store.)
The scion of several rabbinic families – he is named after the Baba Sali, his grandfather’s uncle – Mizrahi lives with his wife and three children in Brooklyn.
The Jewish Press: What’s your background?
Mizrahi: I grew up locally in Brooklyn, went to community schools, learned in yeshiva in Chevron for three years, and got married while I was in Israel. Six days later, I was back in the United States and soon found myself with some bills to pay. I owned a lot of books, so I sold a few. But it’s always easier to buy than to sell and before I knew it I had 20,000 books. So I was stuck.
Can you talk a bit about your rabbinic family background?
My mother is part of the Abuhatzeira family, so that sort of speaks for itself, and my father comes from rabbinic families in Syria and Yerushalayim.
It’s a bit of a conflicting background in the sense that my mother’s side was more of the kabbalistic, pious type and my father’s side was more of the rationalist, Maimonidean type. My great great-grandfather, for example, wrote a classic book called Kenesiya L’shem Shamayim, which is a treatise against belief in superstition, magic, sheidim – things like that. Jews in Syria at the time were following Muslim practices and basically makrivim to avoda zara, so the book is a very strong attack against any such beliefs.
Your store carries books in how many languages, would you say?
Probably around 50, but I try to focus on about 10 of them: Hebrew, English, Yiddish, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic.
I also have a very large collection of books in Judeo-Marathi, which is the language of the Bnei Israel community in India; I have quite a few books in Judeo-Persian; and I even have a book in Judeo-Tatar, which is the language the Jews of Crimea spoke.
What are some of the most interesting books you’ve sold over the years?
Books that interest me the most are ones that tell a story. So, for example, I have an old selichos volume printed in Germany in which somebody handwrote a very long kinah about a pogrom that happened in Poland in the 1620s. He describes in detail how the children were killed, the women raped, etc. If you look in the history books, though, there’s no record of this specific pogrom. The only source we have for it is this sefer, which happened to survive and end up in my hands.
You apparently used to also carry the Koran in Hebrew.
Israeli President Rivlin’s grandfather did the first translation. There are seven of them in total. You also have a fellow, Professor Abraham Katsch, who did a translation. He was a grandson of the Maskil L’Eitan, and his father was Rav Reuven Katz, the rav of Petach Tikva. They both came from rabbinic backgrounds and ended up professors.
What other interesting books do you carry?
When you acquire 100,000 books a year, everything shows up eventually. I just acquired an old yearbook from the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School and found among the students a smiling Sheldon Silver.
Other items of interest include Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity in Yiddish; two leaves of a manuscript of Pirke Merkabah written in Spain in the 14th century; and a volume from the Bomberg Talmud. You may recall that a full set of this Talmud recently sold for nine million dollars.
A few weeks ago I also supplied two first editions of the Abarbanel, which were presented by an organization to Benjamin Netanyahu, whose father wrote the definitive work on this famous rabbinic figure.
Where do you find all these works?
Well, I get phone calls if somebody has a library and is moving or if someone who owned a lot of books has passed away. There are also rare book collections that occasionally are sold for one reason or another. And then there are many synagogues in small towns in the United States that are closing. They all had libraries, and somebody has to take care of them, so I’m often the one to do it.
You recently acquired the Toronto Jewish library.
That was quite a sad situation. Toronto had a very fine library of about 50,000 books. It was around since the 1930s but the community, I guess, just didn’t support it. The library of the Central Queens Y, which had about 8,000 books, just closed this month as well. I also picked up the library of the Jewish Center in Fairlawn. Nobody was using it.
It’s a different world today. People don’t go to their little shul anymore to hang out and read books. If they do read, they’re reading at home. It’s just the way things are.
What kind of customers enter your store?
Rabbis, book collectors, people who have family interests. Many people, for example, discover their grandfather wrote a sefer and want a copy. And then there are learned people who have specific interests. I have a few mohelim, for example, who want good libraries on milah. One of them has 500-600 books on milah. I sold him probably half of them.
The general idea is, whatever interest you may have, chances are I can supply you with reading material for a lifetime.
Do you have non-Jewish customers?
Yes. There are quite a few evangelical Christians in the U.S. who are very pro-Israel and pro-Jewish. There’s also some interest in Asia. The Japanese are known to have quite an interest in Jewish studies. In Tokyo, for example, you have Yiddish courses in Tokyo University, and I’ve sold them a lot of Yiddish books. I’ve also sold a complete ArtScroll shas that went to South Korea.
I also have someone from Qatar who has been buying anti-Zionist works from me for a few years already. I generally send him an extra book or two that’s more balanced so hopefully he can read those as well and not end up hating us as much.
Is it true that old chassidic sefarim are often more expensive than regular sefarim?
Yes, because many chassidic groups were small. Take Satmar, for example. Before the war, the Satmar Rebbe just barely had a minyan and 200-300 chassidim at most. Today there are tens of thousands, and everyone wants a piece of that history. There are only so many books published and only so many letters he wrote, so if everybody wants it, there’s going to be a bidding war – and that’s what happens.
Other expensive chassidic sefarim include ones published by the Shapiro family in Slavita and Zhitomir in Europe. They were grandchildren of Rav Pinchas of Koretz, and the Skeverer Rebbe prefers to use only these sefarim. But the Shapiros only published so much and time and the Holocaust did their own too, so the market has risen quite a bit for them.
On your blog you write, “Come and experience an Authentic bookstore before they cease to exist.” Please explain.
Well, Judaica stores will always be here. But if you go back 50 years on the Lower East Side, there were 50 stores just like mine. Today it’s a harder world. People are busy with their lives, they’re reading less, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Maybe it’s the price of a better life. A hundred years ago people were more aware of anti-Semitism. They were more Jewish in many ways, and so they had more of an interest.
Another thing is the price of maintaining a store has risen very fast. Today on the Lower East Side it’s prohibitive to rent a store. Used books sell for only so much, and it’s very hard to make a proper living from it. The story of bookstores in the U.S. in general – not just Jewish bookstores – is a pretty bad one.
How do you survive? Through Internet sales?
There’s no way I could do it without the Internet. Also, it’s sort of two parallel businesses at this point with the rare books paying for the other books.
Many people with your interest in sefarim become rabbis or librarians. What led you to become the owner of an old-style sefarim store?
I don’t know. God leads in funny ways. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision. It just was something I always wanted to do. And once you’re in, it’s hard to leave, because what am I going to do with 150,000 books? So I don’t know if I can ever retire. Maybe they’ll bury me with the books