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Local bookstores weigh in on 'Jewish best sellers'

What are “Jewish best-sellers”? It depends on whom you ask.

“Our books break down into many different categories,” said Reuben Nayowitz, owner of Teaneck’s Judaica House. In many of those categories – like dictionaries or Tanachs [bibles] – many are always best-sellers.”

Talk to Michelle Gersh, however, and the store manager at Books & Greetings in Northvale will reel off a list of novels, while Brent Campbell, store manager at Barnes and Noble in Paramus, says that Judaica – such as Passover haggadot – sell best.

“We’re not called the people of the book for nothing,” said Judaica House’s Toni Nayowitz. “[Our customers] always make time to read a Jewish book.”

“People come in for books about Israel and modern politics,” she said, “also for commentaries, especially from some new sources and modern authors.”

She cited the new siddur and mahzor (High Holy Days prayer book) by Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks as particularly popular. “His other books are popular, as well,” she said. “They’re philosophy but readable, not heavy.”

Nayowitz said the store sells a lot of volumes of Talmud, “not just for academic use, but for personal use as well.”

In addition, cookbooks are perennial favorites and “creative approaches to Jewish cooking are coming out all the time.”

A new series, for example, contains recipes subdivided by preparation time.

“It’s a novel approach,” she said, “very nice, as opposed to splitting by menu.”

Also selling well are cookbooks with ethnic specialties, be it Persian cuisine or recipes from the American South.

Hot-selling cookbooks include “Melting Pot” by Dafi Kremer, described by Nayowitz as “recipes from Israel together with historical associations with those recipes.” The book was compiled to celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday. Also selling well is “Cooking with the Butcher’s Wife” by Sharon Lurie.

According to Reuben Nayowitz, best-selling cookbooks include “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews” by Poopa Dweck, Michael J. Cohen, and Quentin Bacon; “Kosher By Design: Teens and 20-Somethings: Cooking for the Next Generation,” by Susie Fishbein; “Quick & Kosher: Meals in Minutes,” by Jamie Geller; “Kosher Elegance,” by Efrat Libfroind; “Cooking with Color,” by Estee Kafra; and “Simply Southern With a Dash of Kosher Soul” (Margolin Hebrew Academy).

Other books that have been selling particularly well include “The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership,” by Yehuda Avner; “Listening to God: Inspirational Stories for My Grandchildren,” by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin; “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza,” by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole; all of the Rabbi Shalom Arush titles (“Garden of Yearning,” “Garden of Peace,” “Garden of Emunah,” “Women’s Wisdom,” etc.); “By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amitai,” by Elyashiv Reichner; and “Reb Moshe: The Life and Ideals of Hagaon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein,” by Shimon Finkelman and Nosson Scherman.

As regards Jewish fiction, novels by Daniel Silva “fly off the shelf,” said Toni Nayowitz, as do the books of Naomi Regen, including her new one, “The Tenth Song.”

She noted that holidays are a particularly busy time for Jewish book-buying, whether for those looking to entertain themselves over a holiday or those looking for appropriate gifts.

“I think there’s an increase in the desire to give gifts of some ceremonial significance, including books,” said Nayowitz. “People seem to be more interested.”

This trend has been noticed by Womrath’s owner Bob Kutik. The Tenafly bookstore will soon be adding a Judaica section to its display of Jewish books.

Kutik said he has seen the sales of Jewish books improve since moving from Hackensack to Tenafly 10 years ago. “Tenafly has a bigger concentrated Jewish population, even though Teaneck is next to Hackensack,” he said. “We sell more Jewish-related books in Tenafly.”

One of his most popular books is “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, just out in paperback.

In general, however, “Jewish fiction is the best-seller,” he said, listing current favorites as “To the End of the Land,” by David Grossman and “Sarah’s Key,” by Tatiana De Rosnay.

“Amos Oz usually does pretty well also,” said Kutik, pointing out that Oz’s new book, “Scenes from Village Life,” is due out in October.

Kutik said employee Annie Emanuel “reads 300 books a year and what she recommends usually ends up being on our best-seller list.”

Emanual, who facilitates the store’s book club, said “The Invisible Bridge” by Julie Orringer is a consistent best-seller.

“I loved it and have it on my staff picks, along with a few old favorites,” she said. Some of those include “My Enemy’s Cradle,” by Sara Young; “Not Me,” by Michael Lavigne; “Fault Lines,” by Nancy Huston; and “The Game of Opposites,” by Norman Lebrecht.

“Eli Wiesel was the speaker at my son’s graduation, so I have been suggesting him, too,” she said.

Kenny Sarfin, owner of Books & Greetings in Northvale, said his customers also rely on recommendations, in this case from store manager Michelle Gersh.

For her part, Gersh said that when she goes on vacation, she spends more time gathering books than clothes.

“If I read it and like it, people will buy it,” she said. “There is really no pattern. When customers come in for recommendations, I tell them about the books I have read and those are the ones we sell the most of.”

According to Gersh, best-selling Jewish books include “Sarah’s Key,” “Those Who Save Us,” by Jenna Blum, “Not Me,” and “This is Where I Leave You,” by Jonathan Tropper.

She recently read “The Very Thought of You,” by Rosie Alison, and thought it was “very good.”

“I like historical fiction,” she said. “I like to read books and learn something.”

Often, she is drawn to books by their covers.

“I work in a bookstore, so I’m always in front of books,” she said. “Or sometimes the customers will suggest a book to me.”

Gersh said it is her impression that not all readers of Jewish fiction are Jews. For example, she said, “Sarah’s Key,” now a movie, has been selling briskly to a variety of customers.

The store manager said there is an “upsurge” in sales prior to the major Jewish holidays, when people come in for items such as cookbooks, especially before Passover.

“We have tons of books for kids,” she added, pointing out that these sell particularly well before Chanukah.

“Considering that we’re a regular bookstore, we have a lot of Judaica,” she said. “We have the demand for it.”

At Barnes and Nobles in Paramus, Elie Wiesel’s “Night” remains a perennial favorite. Even the large sales of “Sarah’s Key” – which, says manager Brent Campbell, are “huge right now” – do not compare with the demand for the Wiesel book, which sells by the thousands.

“But we’ve really got to take that out of the equation,” said Campbell, pointing out that many schools require that students read the Holocaust book.

While the store was unable to provide a detailed breakdown of sales of Jewish books, Campbell noted that in addition to books tied to Jewish holidays, people tend to buy books of religious inspiration, as well as history.

In general, he said, while fiction always sells well, as do cookbooks, his consistently biggest sellers are “more religion than fiction.”

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