All aboard the bookmobile!

An initiative by the National Library of Israel is helping children deal with the trauma of war through the power of books

The National Library of Israel (NLI) holds more than five million books, as well as the world’s largest collections of Hebraica and Judaica and a treasure of rare manuscripts and artefacts, so it’s no surprise that words are its currency. Founded in 1892, the NLI has accompanied the nascent state on its entire rollercoaster ride, yet 7 October left the institution speechless. One of the library team disappeared for a few days; her sister, Tamar Kedem-Siman Tov, and Tamar’s husband and three young children were slaughtered on that black Shabbat.

After that horrendous attack left Israel brokenhearted and unbearably shocked, the library breathed deeply and swung into action. Staff descended on the library’s former building on the Givat Ram Campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, vacant since the institution’s recent, stunning relocation to its new site close to the Israel Museum. Volunteer teachers flocked to help; a retired headmistress dusted off her schoolrunning skills and returned to her desk; classrooms were scrubbed and fitted out; a ping-pong table, sports equipment and artwork from Bezalel Academy procured so the shocked refugee children from the north [which has been targeted by Hezbollah rockets] could study and also chill; permission was organised from the Ministry of Education and the Kedem school was ready to roll within two weeks, named in memory of Tamar.

“The day the pupils arrived, we were all crying,” recalls Tsila Hayun, head of culture, visitors and exhibitions at the library. “The children in our pop-up school are secular and religious, boys and girls… all displaced and waiting to go home. We are doing our bit to help them.”

In another wordscentric initiative, the NLI fitted out a bookmobile that travelled around the country from last December until the end of March, bringing two hours of enchantment to evacuated youngsters wherever they were. The vehicle, designed to look like a cuddly cat, was crammed full of children’s books; modern fiction and beloved Israeli and general classics. Once it parked up, enthralled children gathered round for a performance of It’s Not Just a Story, featuring a prickly policeman who comes to fine a bookseller without a licence, only to fall in love with the merchandise and feel happier with each story he hears. Children learned about the transformational power of reading; then, they were each given a voucher and, fired up with enthusiasm, browsed the shelves for a book to keep.

“We decided to steer clear of stories dealing with trauma and fear and gift the children with two hours of magic and relief. The response has been wonderfully positive; kids and their parents have loved the experience,” says Hayun.

Children who are often more at home with screens than printed pages dived into their stories; hopefully whetting appetites for a lifetime love of literature. One little girl tearfully approached the team with her new book in hand, explaining that she had mistakenly chosen a ‘thin’ book without many words whereas she meant to take a ‘fat’ one with more pages to read. The staff told her she could choose another book.

In a throwback to an age before emails, each child was also given an ex-libris card; they printed their name and wrote a postcard message for another child who might enter the bookmobile – and giving the children the thrill of a pen pal.

The bookmobile is now parked permanently in the grounds of the Library for the enjoyment of visiting youngsters. Hopefully soon everyone will be able to go home and sit under their own vines with a cracking good book.

By Pam Peled

Photos © National Library of Israel

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