The death June 6 of Zev Birger—the brilliant, charming, irrepressible director of the biennial Jerusalem International Book Fair, and Israel's champion promoting the flow of literature and culture between countries for many decades—from injuries sustained when he was struck by a motorcycle while crossing the street shocked and saddened thousands of people in many spheres of Zev's life, and most certainly in our publishing world. He had just celebrated his 85th birthday, vibrant, energetic, and already in talks about programs for the next fair in 2013.
As Julie Grau, publisher of Spiegel & Grau, expressed it: "It's hard to think of someone more universally well regarded and beloved in the world of publishing than Zev Birger. The bonds formed at the fair—especially those who won the coveted Jerusalem Book Fair Editorial Fellowships—have proven magical and enduring." Julie (a 1991 Fellow) was one of the 386 editors from more than 20 countries awarded JIBF Editorial Fellowships since the program was launched in 1985. (Agents Fellowships were added to the program in 2001, producing 70 more alumni.) Andrew Franklin (a 1985 Fellow) was in the very first Fellows group, and is now owner and publisher of Profile Books in London. He and many other Fellows credit the connections they made in Jerusalem as extremely helpful in growing their careers and building their businesses.
Zev's focus on bringing people in the publishing world together in the interests of Israel long preceded his taking on the job of fair director in 1981. Before then, he'd worked in various government posts, and it was in 1970 that Zev "adopted" me during my first trip to Israel. As publicity director of Bantam Books, I joined Bantam president Oscar Dystel—-also making his first trip to Israel—to be part of a small group hosted by the executives of the National General Corporation, who were major Israel supporters and Bantam's owners from 1968 to 1973. They wanted Bantam to do more business with Israel; Zev, as deputy minister of commerce and industry charged with growing the printing and publishing industries, made sure that we did.
Bantam's editorial director, Marc Jaffe, was already hooked. His trip to the 1967 fair was already generating new book projects for Bantam, such as the instant book Strike Zion! about the 1967 war, and books by Israeli writers Amos Oz, Amos Kollek, Amos Elon, Dahn Ben Amotz, and Yoram Kanuik, among others. So before we knew it, Zev's charm, perceptiveness, intelligence, persistence, and hospitality, the excitement of Israel, and the dynamism of its people, especially the ebullient Mayor Teddy Kollek—worked its magic on us, too. I was soon a participant in Israel's Economic Conference on Printing and Publishing and brainstorming ideas at periodic JIBF committee meetings that Marc convened in New York, often with Zev present. The agenda: what would make the JIBF different from other international book fairs?
The Aspen Institute was enlisted to conduct special seminars on publishing issues during the fair, which drew celebrated authors, academics, and editors. The Jerusalem Prize was awarded. Bertelsmann sponsored daylong librarian and educator programs. But these events and others were not enough to brand the biennial event.
At the "end of the fair" party in 1983 that Zev and his wife, Trudi, hosted in their home, I came up with the idea for the Fellowship program after noticing how few young people were engaged in conversations with Israeli authors, politicians, and journalists. "Zev, what we need is a way to get new, younger professionals, preferably editors, rising in their careers, to come to the fair," I said to him. "We could award fellowships. We could make this an ‘editors' fair.' " Zev hugged me, immediately explained it to Teddy, who instantly endorsed it.
Ideas come and go, but making them come to life needs a totally devoted, committed conductor, and that was Zev. He looked upon the Fellows as his "children," and his smile beamed at the hundreds who showed up at the alumni reunion breakfast during the Frankfurt Book Fair hosted annually by Monika Schuler of Fisher Verlag, who, along with her brother Stefan von Holtzbrinck, are devoted to JIBF and loved Zev. When eight of the German Fellows banded together to insist he write his memoir, he balked, but their persistence won out, and the memoir was published first in German in 1997. I was proud to be the winner of the right to publish it in English at Newmarket as No Time for Patience: My Journey from Kaunas to Jerusalem: A Memoir of a Holocaust Survivor. The final paragraph reads:
"Jerusalem is a city built on hilltops. And on the different hilltops live Jews, Christians, Muslims, Armenians, and many others. Everyone should be allowed to live according to his or her beliefs and with mutual respect and tolerance for others; only in this way can people exist in harmony. This was always my goal in all the projects that I was able to implement with the support of Teddy Kollek. I hope that in the future such goals will determine the political and cultural life of our country."
Thank you, dear Zev.