People of the Book: A Seforim Sale Review

The Seforim Sale is an annual emblem of Yeshiva University. Inviting hundreds of Jewish shoppers through its doors in the span of one wintry month, the Sale exposes shoppers to a wide-ranging selection of Jewish literature. The cavernous room that is Weissberg Commons houses this eventful place. However many stereotypes persist (and confirm themselves) that the Seforim Sale is a Jewish mating ground, it is more than that: it is an intellectual mating ground. The variety of books brings in a variety of readers, including Modern Orthodox rabbis, egalitarian teachers, and chasidishe rebbes. The Seforim Sale’s collection spans general interests, and does not usually go into niche areas of scholarship, such as this writer’s personal interests of Second Temple Literature. This aside, the sale caters to liberal thinkers, providing Reconstructionist haggadot and books like Judaism in a Post-Halakhic Age by Rabbi Jack Cohen and Evolving Halakhah by Dr. Moshe Zemer. The Sale includes James Kugel’s The Bible as It Was, but, as one section manager explains, the Sale has specifically chosen to omit the sale of Kugel’s How to Read the Bible due to its controversial nature. This censorship can be duly criticized, especially in light of the Sale’s inclusion of one sefer which a certain section manager has nominated as “most right-wing book”: Rabbi Bleich’s Emunah Shlaymah, a mussar book which includes the belief voiced by numerous rishonim that believing in a heliocentric universe is heresy. The Sale is also is inclusive enough to provide a book discussing Bible Codes, which might speak for itself. Yet with these shortcomings, the Sale is a sight to behold, and represents a wide range of Jewish writing and interests and speaks to an impressively diverse audience.

A massive enterprise, the Seforim Sale is comprised of many hardworking students running a competitive sale that succeeds in its goal of impacting the reading of today’s Jews. It contains just under 10,000 titles, with prices ranging from $.25 cents to $1,799, the price of a full set of Artscroll Shas. On any given night, thirty student volunteers will be perusing the aisles, providing friendly and impressively knowledgeable assistance to customers and advising them on the most relevant books for their interests. The most sold item has been this year’s Bais Yaakov Cookbook, though it can be expected that Just My Style: A Tznius Reader for Teens will be a close second. The efforts students put in to help customers after a full day of classes and, for female students, after travelling to the uptown Wilf Campus, are truly astonishing. Blanche Haddad, a cashier, observes that many customers don’t realize the amount of time and work that goes into such a production. “People stay to set books up until 2 AM. It’s an amazing thing.” Haddad works four times a week, including Sundays, and even double shifts on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Even on the eve of Super Bowl Sunday, there were enough people working at the Sale to make a vasikin minyan the following morning.

Many shoppers have praised the Sale board as approachable and very available for questions, more so than in previous years. However, one floor manager has complained that some section heads do not always show up on time. “The downside to hiring students is that they sometimes lack a sense of responsibility,” a higher level worker explains. It might also be noted that the signs labeled “Halacha” are mis-transliterated (“Halakhah” is the proper spelling according to most standardized listings). The chosen transliteration at the Sale was intentionally selected as it is assumed to be the most familiar spelling to an average customer.

The Sale is run by Yehuda Kaminer, an accounting major in his senior year at Yeshiva College, who spent all waking hours (excluding class time) since Sukkot working on Sale preparations. Kaminer began as a regular section manager, and then offered to do some ordering. By “working efficiently and building trust,” he soon gained a board position. “Once promoted to the board, I did all the ordering, showed initiative and did more than was asked of me.” Kaminer also assists the sale in its annual charity campaign, dedicated this year to donating seforim to synagogues in the Tri-state area affected by Hurricane Sandy. By conducting a vote through the Sale’s website and working with the organization Achiezer to collect a total of 3,000 votes, the Young Israel of Oceanside was chosen to receive $10,000 worth of books. Although the Sale requires a tremendous amount of time and effort, Kaminer says he has no regrets. “The people who show up at the Sale make it all worth it.” Everyone is paid in “seforim dollars,” one of two types of currency accepted at the Seforim Sale, the other being the US dollar. This was noticed, to the dismay of student shopper Raphi Ozarowski. “This is a religious Zionist institution, and they wouldn’t accept shkalim!” (This is a reference of Israel’s NIS.) On a more serious note, a widely-voiced complaint was the absence of the Sale’s usual Jewish music section, intentionally omitted in order to identify the Sale exclusively with the sale of Jewish books. Hundreds of complaints were voiced on this matter, and numerous workers at the Sale voiced dismay at the decision. However, it proved logistically beneficial, as the lack of music provided significantly more space for the vast amount of books to be sold.

Overall, the Sale was a success. It represented a broad spectrum of Jewish interests and helped service a vast population. The Sale remains a unique emblem of the University, and of the Jewish community at large. We are, time and time again, a people of the book.