The Frankfurt Book Fair

December 19, 2008 by

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Makom editorial note: this blog was written before the current situation in Gaza but we have held it offline until now. Now that the situation appears to be stabilizing, we are putting the blog up, and hope that our blogs will continue to look at wider perspectives on the place of Israel in Jewish life.

I attended the Frankfurt Book Fair as an emissary of the State of Israel, though it was only after I returned that I realized that this was the case.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is the largest international book fair in the world. Representatives from book publishing and multimedia companies from over 100 countries come to the fair in order to negotiate international publishing rights and licensing deals. For five days more than 7,000 exhibitors set up booths where they show off their new titles and upcoming catalogues. The fair is part of a tradition that dates back over 500 years: Soon after Johannes Gutenberg had invented printing in movable type in Mainz (near Frankfurt), the first book fair was held by local booksellers. Until the end of the 17th century, it was the most important book fair in Europe, a status it holds once again today.

As a foreign rights agent, my role at the book fair is to make my way from booth to booth reporting on the books I have sold in Israel and hearing about new titles that will be available in the coming year. I work for a literary agency in Jerusalem, where I am responsible for selling foreign rights to Israeli publishers to translate books into Hebrew. We sell books in all languages, though mostly English, German, Spanish, Italian, and French (in that order). And so I meet colleagues from all over the world.

Inevitably, the people I meet in Frankfurt assume I am Israeli. After all, I am their subagent in Israel. They expect me to have some sort of foreign-sounding accent, and they are prepared to forgive my imperfect English. In fact I am a native New Yorker with a degree in English literature, and I have been living in Israel for only four years. Some people figure this out immediately: “Wait, you sound American!” Others never catch on. Midway through our meetings, as they are telling me about a new book about the Starbucks empire, they pause and say, “Have you heard of Starbucks? It’s a very big coffee chain.” Or they tell me about a movie version of a backlist title starring Mel Gibson. “He is a very famous American actor.” I smile and nod slowly, as if I am taking it all in.

Some publishers expect me to know far more about Israel than I do. I live and work on Emek Refaim, where I hear more English (and French) than Hebrew, and where I have to specifically request Hebrew menus when I walk into restaurants and cafes. I read novels in Hebrew, but that is pretty much the extent of my culture immersion. So it is always hard when at the book fair I am asked questions such as, “Did that movie come to Israel yet?” Or: “When is your next election?” Embarrassed, I stammer some vague answer and turn the conversation back to books.

Often I am asked questions about what it is like to live in Israel, a country that is always in the media’s limelight: “Do you feel safe?” “Do you support your government?” “Do you think there will ever be peace?” These conversations are never overtly political, but the people I meet are educated and curious, and they want to better understand the region of the world from which I (ostensibly) hail. I choose my words carefully, aware that I may be the only “Israeli” they ever meet, and that therefore I may constitute their entire impression of Israeli society. A scary thought indeed.

The day I returned from Frankfurt, I had dinner with my Israeli friend Chana, who works for the Jewish Agency for Israel. She told me that she and her husband had decided to leave Israel the following summer “on shlichut” to an American Jewish summer camp. “What will you do?” I asked her. She told me that they would be representatives from Israel, responsible for teaching the American campers about Israeli culture and enabling them to get to know “real life” Israelis. In listening to her, I realized that I had just performed a similar role at Frankfurt.

We who live in Israel sometimes forget that no matter how much or how little we see ourselves as part of the larger society, inevitably other people regard us as such. When we attend international conferences, or indeed any time we travel abroad, we have the potential to change the world’s impression of Israel and of Israelis. It is a job that I, for one, hope to take more seriously in the future, starting with next year’s Frankfurt fair.

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