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.