Shabbat without Harry

by Brian on July 27, 2007

in In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture,Only in Israel

“This is the longest Shabbat ever,” pouted thirteen-year-old Merav over the weekend. The reason for her distress was having to wait until Shabbat was over in order to claim her copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows from our local Steimatzky’s book store.

Religious Jews around the world were at a distinct disadvantage in the race to learn “who will live and who will die?” as advertisements for the seventh and final installment in the Harry Potter series have been teasing for months. The book went on sale at midnight Saturday morning, that is, on Shabbat. In Israel, that posed not only an economic, but a political problem.

According to the “Hours of Work and Rest Law,” stores in Israel are supposed to be closed on Shabbat; those that violate the law are to be fined. In practice, however, stores in many parts of the country other than Jerusalem and cities with a particularly religious character are regularly open. Harry Potter launching on Shabbat with all its incumbent publicity just brought the issue into Industry, Trade and Labor ministry officials’ faces, with minister Eli Yishai leading the anti-Harry Potter crusade. “Vendors should wait until after Shabbat,” Yishai of the religious Shas party said. “The law is that they can’t work on Shabbat.”

That didn’t stop Steimatzky from holding a gala party at the old Tel Aviv port early Saturday morning. Video screens broadcast an interview with Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling from London and many attendees came out in costume. Other branches of Steimatzky opened at 10:00 AM Saturday morning, while rival chain Tzomet HaSefarim began selling copies at 2:00 AM. Some 4,000 Israelis reportedly pre-ordered the English edition (the Hebrew translated version won’t be out until December). Three branches of the Tzomet HaSefarim chain were eventually fined NIS 5,000 each for opening on Shabbat.

In holy Jerusalem, the only way to get a copy of The Deathly Hallows before the end of Shabbat was a trip to the eastern part of the city, where the small Arab-run Educational Books store opened at 5:00 AM on Saturday morning. Owner Imad Muna had offered to take pre-orders for Jews from West Jerusalem who don’t handle money on Shabbat and would be willing to walk to his Salah a-Din Street store to pick up a copy.

Anxious readers ready to break the law could also download a copy of the book: someone had nabbed a pre-release copy and painstakingly scanned every single page and posted it as a grainy file on various Internet file sharing services. The New York Times confirmed last week that the web version was the real deal.

Back in the Blum household, there was no question of stealing and we weren’t about to hoof it over to East Jerusalem to gain a few extra hours of what would fast become essential Shabbat reading. We had to wait until our local Steimatzky opened at 9:30 PM an hour after the conclusion of Shabbat. Hence Merav’s increasing impatience.

“Only three hours and 25 minutes more,” she duly informed me as the dull Jerusalem afternoon heat began to wane.

Mind you, Merav wasn’t alone in her anticipation. I’ve been just as hotly awaiting the final book. I’m not ashamed to say I’ve read all the books twice already – once to myself and a second time aloud to nine-year-old Aviv before bed (a process that has taken several years).

Now, for Shabbat lunch, we had guests visiting from the States who had a teenage daughter the same age as Merav. Merav and Penina didn’t know each other, and their initial moments were awkward and tentative. As soon as they discovered their mutual Potter fandom, though, they became as thick as thieves, making a plan to get in line as soon as Shabbat was over to pick up the book. Penina wouldn’t be getting her own copy until she returned back to the U.S. in another two week’s time, giving Merav the definite home court advantage.

By 9:00 PM, the line outside the Emek Refaim branch of Steimatzky already stretched down the street past the new branch of Aroma. Merav and Penina were joined by a who’s who of English-speaking southern Jerusalem teenagers and adults, some in black capes, all moving excitedly towards the shop door where they were asked whether they wanted the British or U.S. version of the book (with the U.K. editions referring to the “Philosopher’s Stone” rather than the Sorcerer’s Stone as in the U.S.) The queue advanced quickly and by 9:45 PM the girls were home with the thick orange tome in hand.

“Let me see, I want to read the first page,” I implored but to deaf ears. Merav and Penina grabbed the book out of my eager hands, swept into Merav’s room and slammed the door.

An hour later, when I came to say good night, the two girls were hunched over their shared copy reading the book aloud in turns. Penina’s father eventually came, leaving Merav the onerous but exciting task of finishing all 700 pages before Thursday, when she was due to leave for two weeks of sleep-away camp, sadly sans Harry.

They say that the Harry Potter series has increased literacy among young people. It also apparently can turn complete strangers into friends. Maybe there is such a thing as magic after all.

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