Haim Be’er, born in the ḥaredi G’ulah neighborhood of Jerusalem in 1945, is a prolific author of novels, personal essays, and literary criticism. (Most of his work has never been rendered into English, one notable exception being his novel Feathers, translated by Hillel Halkin.) In general, notes Jeffrey Saks in a brief essay, Be’er’s writing is deeply informed by his religious upbringing. Much of it also bespeaks the influence of the great Hebrew author S.Y. Agnon, who appears briefly in this reminiscence by Be’er of his native city on the eve of the Sukkot festival. Herewith, the opening paragraphs:
One late afternoon between Yom Kippur and Sukkot 1963 I stood in the dark recesses of Jerusalem’s Ohr bookshop, a treasure house of old and antique holy texts. The delightful aroma that wafted off the etrogs, precisely as described in a story by S.Y. Agnon, obliterated the mustiness of the old books, most of which had come from the homes of poor folks. I inspected the recent acquisitions [by] the . . .bookseller, Rabbi Avrum Rubinstein, from the estate of a Torah scholar recently departed to eternal rest. That dead man’s sons, who had strayed from the traditions of their father and had no need for his library of rare and valuable volumes, sold them to the bookseller for a pittance.
The small shop, located at the end of Meah Shearim Street, had been well known to me since the time I had begun my hunting expeditions in search of coveted books. It was here that I once passed a test posed to me by the bookseller. He showed me a large stack of old tomes, including entire anthologies of Hebrew poetry from Yemen, and said that if I succeeded in identifying the most valuable book in the lot I would receive it as a gift.
It was also in this shop that I met Hebrew literature’s most famous author, Agnon, for the first and only time. To my embarrassment I did not recognize him, mistaking him for a retired Galician businessman who had taken up book collecting in old age. He asked what family I came from. As I offered up my family tree stretching back seven generations, like a peddler laying out his wares, Agnon suppressed a smile and said, “You only know that far back? A person ought to know who his ancestors are going back to Adam in Eden.”