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The Sephardic Bibliophile of Brooklyn

On a nondescript street of brick row houses, nestled between an insurance office and a computer store, in an out of the way corner of Brooklyn known as Marine Park that is not on any subway lines, lies a small storefront. From the street, it’s impossible to see in — the glass windows are blocked by bookshelves, the glass door covered by a large red and white version of the Israeli flag. A small printed flyer is taped to the top of the door: “Mizrahi Bookstore: Over 60,000 Jewish Books in Stock.” A phone number is provided, and then: “Please knock and ring bell.”

Should you do so, the door will be answered by the proprietor of Mizrahi Bookstore, Yisrael Mizrachi, a delicate man who is a mere 28 years old. You will be escorted into the bookstore. Inside, it is cozy; you must maneuver delicately to avoid disturbing the chaotic order of the books. As you make your way through the maze of bookshelves, Mizrahi will watch you closely for signs of his own affliction—bibliophilia — until you arrive at the sanctum sanctorum, Mizrahi’s office at the back of the store. Here, the buying and selling of books happens — a dizzying mix of the modern and the ancient, with books from the middle ages sharing space with three computers and a monitor displaying security footage of the front door.

Like Mizrahi Bookstore, the book business today is a curious mix of new and old, the Internet having changed the business significantly. Mizrahi himself seems to embody that very tension. An old-school piousness suffuses his words and the blog he maintains about his bookstore, and yet his gravity is belied by a quickness of wit and the spryness with which he moves. With his large black velvet yarmulke, fraying white shirt, black pants, and sneakers, he could easily pass for a yeshiva student.

He worried about telling me his age. “‘Too young,’” he explained. “‘Such a young guy, and such old books,’ they say.”

Mizrahi was born in Brooklyn to a Sephardic family of Moroccan descent. After high school, he studied for a few years in yeshiva in Israel before returning to Brooklyn where he got married at 20. A lover of books for as long as he could remember, Mizrahi had been a buyer well before he began to sell, but shortly after he got married, he started to sell a few titles, and, shortly thereafter, Mizrahi Bookstore was born.

That was eight years ago, and he has in the meantime accumulated a stock of 100,000 books. To make a living, he explained, you have to sell between 100 and 150 books a day. The average $300 book will sit on a shelf for two years, so you need a stock of at least 50,000 to make ends meet. “One thing about this business is, there’s no way to retire,” he said with a chuckle. “What do you do with 100,000 books? It’s a real problem!”

By the time I got to the bookstore at 11:30 in the morning, Mizrahi had already shipped his quota of 150 books. He gets to work at 6 a.m., and spends the morning packing and shipping books, tearing packing tape loudly and smoothing it over a final package.

“I do make a decent living,” he said, “but you have to be a workaholic. There’s no laidback way to do it.” He tried to get an assistant — twice — but both times, his workers abandoned him to go study in yeshiva.

But an assistant would only be of minimal help. Mizrahi —who speaks English and Hebrew fluently and can read Ladino and Yiddish — knows where every single book is. Disturbing a book’s location has catastrophic effects on his ability to sell it. A sign beseeches customers: “We beg, we insist, we plead, we urge, whatever it takes: Please make sure every book gets back in the shelf it started from. We want to continue to serve you.”

His evenings are spent searching out and chasing down books. “Occasionally you have the emergency phone calls,” Mizrahi said, which is why he tells people to phone ahead if they want to drop by. He once got a call from Manhattan, telling him he had two hours to get to an apartment overlooking Central Park before they would send all the books to the dump. The collection Mizrahi recovered that day was worth $10,000.

But the reverse happens too. He once got a call from a guy in New Jersey asking if Mizrahi wanted an Encyclopedia Judaica. Mizrahi asked if he had anything else, and the man told him he had just disposed of thousands of books. “But you didn’t want them,” the man said “They were old.” To add insult to injury, the man came from a prominent Zionist activist family, just the kind whose library might contain untold treasures.

“It’s sad to say but for some people, books are cockroaches,” Mizrahi said.

Books in New York are generally in good condition, unlike those that come from Israel or the Middle East, which can have worms in them, or worse. “Beard hairs is another thing you find in books,” Mizrahi said. “Sometimes you find red ones, sometimes you find black ones.” A kabbalistic concept that every hair is holy resulted in men slipping fallen hairs into their books.

Mizrahi sells to book lovers like himself — those who salivate at the words “first edition” and hunger to own rare manuscripts and old letters, the scent of the past clinging to these texts like the lost stories of their previous owners. His customers range from academics with specific interests to individuals trafficking in nostalgia. “It’s funny,” he said. “No one goes into a shoe store and says, ‘I’ll have a size three because I had it when I was a kid,’ but all the time people ask for children’s books they grew up with.” Children’s books from the ’60s and ’70s, especially illustrated ones, represent a big market.

Rare Finds: Mizrachi discovered this correspondence between poet Jacob Fichman and his wife, Batsheva, while they were separated from each other during World War I. Image by Marisa Scheinfeld

He also gets customers who have authors among their ancestors looking for anything their relatives wrote or published. He pulled out a book to illustrate his point — a 300-year-old book of poetry that Mizrahi was in the process of reuniting with its author’s descendant. He found it in a collection of a few thousand books he had purchased, an operation that tends to yield one or two books he’s been looking for. He has a 126-page-long list of such books, some of which he’s been searching for as long as 10 years, in a treasure hunt that spans countries and continents.

The store is full of rare gems. But he also sells books for as little as $3 or $4. In the bookstore window, he has a small can of shaving cream from the 1930s, along with a copy of the rabbinic ruling permitting men to shave. He has pages of the Baba Sali’s handwriting, which will go for $1,400. Hasidic books can go for much more — there are fewer of them, with a much larger number of people competing for the books.

Mizrahi pays attention not only to the books themselves but also to the stamps of former owners, inscriptions in books given as gifts, and stamps of publishers or presses from far flung places, the markings of a map tracing back in history and showing how far books, and ideas, traveled.

If you come on a good day, you might get Mizrahi to tell you some of his more fascinating finds, like the time he discovered Leonard Cohen’s name written by Cohen’s grandfather in a book, or the blessing for returning apostates he found in a 1929 prayer book, or the story of a Jew-on-Jew murder from 15th-century Germany.

In a travelogue written in the 1880s, an emissary from Tiberias traveled to Iraq and met a publisher who told him that the worst curse in Iraq is to tell someone they are married to a widow — it means you’re in really bad shape, Mizrahi explained. But things got so bad in Iraq that no one would purchase books printed in Vilna by the Romm press, which was published by a widow, and was therefore considered bad luck. On another occasion, Mizrahi uncovered an unrecorded massacre of Jews in Poland in 1655 — someone had used the blank pages of their prayer book to write a lamentation recording the atrocities in excruciating detail.

He regularly finds books that aren’t recorded anywhere else. “There’s something fascinating about picking up a book no one has read for 50 years,” he mused. Twice he found his own great grandfather’s signature in a book.

Mizrahi has sold Yiddish books to the University of Jordan and to the University of Tokyo. He has a customer who works in a mine in the Arctic Circle, a convert to Judaism who only spends six months out of every year above ground. He has a client who is a Holocaust denier — a Jewish Holocaust denier — with a radio show. He’s sold to a customer in Qatar — first some English-Hebrew dictionaries, then some anti-Zionist works. To offset any nefarious purposes the client might have, Mizrahi included a few free books that had a more balanced perspective on Zionism and which he hoped might alter the customer’s perspective.

Customers have flown in from London or driven in from Montreal. A lot of ultra-Orthodox men come in looking for unusual material. “You get to see the dark side of some rabbinic interests,” Mizrahi said. “I have a lot of Orthodox rabbis come in here for the kfira” — heretical or banned books.

One day, a Bais Yaakov girl in her school uniform walked into the store and asked for the works of the Seer of Lublin. “The Chozeh of Lublin is not your standard Bais Yaakov reading,” Mizrahi thought, so he asked her why she wanted it. She told him that lately, the Chozeh had been coming to her in a dream, so she wanted to understand him. “I gave it to her,” Mizrahi said. “But what I really wanted was to get a portrait of him, because we don’t have one. I don’t know how she knew it was him. Maybe he introduced himself.”

Mizrahi now has three children, and a personal collection of about 10,000 titles, including a large collection of Ladino literature. Additionally, he is trained to play piano, and dabbles in violin. In the office, he drinks orange juice from a glass and listens to music while he works. Classical music was playing in his office the day I visited, for my benefit, it turns out. He prefers Middle Eastern music.

“My interests are very Sephardic,” he said. When I asked if he was ultra-Orthodox, he said, “Sephardic Jews had a bypass on that whole issue. We’re just Jews.”

When he finds something he wants for himself, Mizrahi tends to keep it. He likes to read responsa from 300 years ago, from North Africa, Salonica, Turkey. It gives him a window into the day-to-day life of real issues, he says. “The problems are the same, but the solutions are different,” he says, comparing the responsa of then to that of today. “They were much more willing to work within the framework of Halacha to solve issues back in the day.” As an example, he told a story of a rabbinic ruling that allowed women to inherit wealth — forbidden by Jewish law — because women were going to Muslim courts to get their inheritances. “Something like that would never happen in Hungary,” he said. “When you see rabbinic letters, when you see the very mundane things the greatest people are busy with, it’s sort of comforting,” he said.

He told me about a bunch of postcards he found amongst a pile of books he bought. They were written by Yaakov Fichman, a Hebrew author and poet who was stranded without his family for the duration of World War I. The postcards were love letters to his wife. “The really cute thing about them is, he starts the letters with, ‘I’m writing because I love you, even though you haven’t responded,’” Mizrahi said. “He’s very poetic and writes very well. They’re all on Zionist postcards. They must have been very connected because they were buried in Israel under one tombstone.”

Despite the charm of being in the actual Mizrahi Bookstore, it’s very much an online business; the old brick and mortar places that didn’t evolve no longer exist. But the Internet has also improved things for book lovers. For one thing, it’s leveled the prices. “It used to be, if you really wanted a book, a bookseller could ask you any price, and if you wanted it you had to pay for it,” Mizrahi said. But now, buyers can look up prices online. And people who never had access to bookstores now have access to them, like Mizrahi’s Middle Eastern customers. Still, Mizrahi is not hopeful about the future of the book business. “Young guys just don’t read,” he said.

During the course of my visit, he urged me not to write about him but about the books. “The focus should be, people should be reading these books,” he said. “People should know there’s a place they can read stuff which is interesting to read. Jews produced a lot of very good works. I take pride in being a little bit of a missionary in that sense.”

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.

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