Profile: Tsila Hayun
Nothing can slow down this Israeli’s work to teach kids and remind adults that reading is magic and culture is for everyone.
The Hebrew Book Festival in Jerusalem may best be characterized by its miles of booths covered with books as far as the eye can see. During its course—always in early summer—titles are discounted and many families make it an annual tradition to bring their children and let them choose books, as well as waiting for that particular week to buy staples such as dictionaries and encyclopedias.
But in the last few years it has gone beyond being a mere book fair, organized by the Israel Book Publishers Association, to include hundreds of literary events in venues ranging from theaters to cafés to the streets.
Credit for the transformation goes to Tsila Hayun, 42, who masterminded the change at the request of Keren Keshet– The Rainbow Foundation, established by the estate of Zalman Bernstein. In 2001, the foundation approached Hayun, the founder and director of Hotam, a socially conscious production company, with a request to write a proposal for turning the book festival from a commercial event into a cultural event.
“I asked them, ‘What’s the budget?’ They said, ‘There isn’t one,’” she recalls. “I wrote the proposal as if it were an exercise where I had an unlimited budget and could wish for anything I dreamed of. I made a plan where books were the attraction. Not food, not TV stars. We’d have book events all over the place. We started with Jerusalem. I said, ‘Let’s go for the whole city.’ It was just what they wanted.”
“Tsila came to me a few years ago and asked me if we would host an event with a writer during book week,” says Rami Mishan, owner of Cafe Masarik. “It had never been done before but it sounded like a good idea. The first writer we had was Eyal Megged, whose father is writer Aharon Megged. It was very successful so we kept doing it. Now everybody does it and the line to get in runs into the street.”
Hayun has proven herself an innovator throughout her career. In the 1980’s, she introduced the study of Jewish texts through arts, music and theater to the public school system as head of informal education for TALI, a program to enrich education with Jewish learning. At 30, she decided to start her own business and went to the Jerusalem Business Development Center with her idea for Hotam.
Describing Hotam, which is an acronym for experience, culture and place and also means seal or mark, Hayun says, “We are definitely a rarity.” The organization contracts with philanthropies, foundations and groups to produce events that are then offered for free or at a token charge. “It was my idea to make the connection between the people who have money and people who are not the usual culture consumers,” she says. “The money doesn’t come from the audience. I sell the product upward.”
Hotam has been growing and thriving for more than 10 years. Its biggest projects are the Hebrew Book Festival, which takes eight months to produce each year; Autosefer, a mobile bookstore for children that travels all over Israel; and a reading-encouragement program for children in libraries, funded by the Jerusalem Foundation.
Hayun’s ability to think out of the box is well regarded by those who have worked with her. “Our goal [at the Jerusalem Foundation] is to empower libraries so they are seen as much more than they are today and to bring in new audiences,” notes Inbal Vaknin, assistant head of programs at the foundation. “Tsila heard our wish to do something to enliven the libraries. Her proposal included a high-level enrichment program, not just another story hour with a reader or author reading to the public, but first-rate writers, illustrators and plays.”
From looking at the vibrant Hayun, elegantly dressed and coiffed and buzzing with enthusiasm as she describes her work, it is hard to believe she has just made a near-miraculous recovery from critical injuries sustained in a terrorist attack. Her family’s car was ambushed in August 2003 when Hayun, husband Chaim, a Bible teacher at Seminar Hakibbutzim College of Education, and their three children were minutes from their home in Har Gilo, south of Jerusalem; they were returning from a vacation in the Sinai. Hayun was hit by seven bullets in the abdomen, legs, right hand and back. Her daughter, Hamutal, 11, suffered less serious injuries from bullets in her arm and foot and shrapnel in her eye. The other children, Hadas, 16, and Itai, 14, had no injuries.
“I was taken to Hadassah’s ICU, anesthetized and put on a respirator,” Hayun says. “They kept me that way for 23 days. I had serious abdominal injuries to the liver, stomach and pancreas. They didn’t think I would live.”
After weeks of touch-and-go it appeared she would live, but the doctors told Hayun to prepare for a life of disability. Her left femur was crushed. Her right foot suffered nerve damage and wouldn’t respond. She was told she would eventually be able to walk with an orthopedic device. To which Hayun responded, “You don’t understand. I really like beautiful shoes and have a whole collection of them. I am not going to wear orthopedic shoes.”
Seven weeks after the attack Hayun was discharged in a wheelchair. A physical therapist—an ultra-Orthodox mother of eight and a polio victim who limped and used a cane—visited her at home. “She said to me, ‘Whatever the doctors say you will be able to do, believe them,’” Hayun recalls. “‘Whatever they say you will not be able to do, don’t believe them. They don’t know you and you are not in the statistics. A person is more than their medical case.’ That became my motto.”
Hayun was back at her desk 10 weeks after the injury, and although there were many medical treatments to come, she immersed herself in work and the following summer produced the biggest book fair yet. Her daughter made a complete recovery, too, perplexing the doctors who were certain the operation they performed on her had failed.
“I am grateful to Hadassah for saving my life,” says Hayun. “But my injury is not the highlight of my life. My rehabilitation is a big project, but its goal is to enable me to do things.”
Last August, two years after the attack, Hayun traveled to India by herself to hike in the Himalayas. She wanted to reassure herself she could still do anything she set her mind to, despite her disabilities; she has a paralyzed foot that compromises balance and chronic pain in her lower body.
“When I decided I wanted to go, at first I thought maybe I can’t,” she says. “That is the scariest thing—the thought that something I want to do is off-limits for me. Once I realized I was thinking that, I bought a ticket to make sure it wasn’t true.”
The trip was a success. “Even though medically I am crippled, mentally I’m 100 percent,” she asserts. “When I came back I told Chaim I had done a lot of projects this year but this was the best. I felt completely healthy.”
Back at work, hayun has devised original ways to bring books to the public and people to libraries. Autosefer is another Keren Keshet-funded project that operates in remote parts of the country and underprivileged neighborhoods. The bookstore-cum-theater puts on a show about the magic of reading. After the performance, children and parents are invited into the van to browse before they buy. The cash register is deliberately kept closed for 20 minutes to encourage this practice.
“The libraries are underfunded,” Hayun says. “Books are expensive. The price of a book in Israel is like in the U.S., about $20. But when you take into consideration the average income, it means books are four times more expensive here.” At Autosefer no book sells for more than $8. Haim Navon, a cultural director in the Negev development town of Yeroham, has hosted Autosefer twice. “Their approach was very personal, warm and caring,” he says, “especially Tsila’s, and the reaction from the children and parents was great. It is a real grass-roots project that gets everywhere and it is so important to bring books here.”
Hayun believes the Israeli public craves cultural nourishment and charges the government with shirking its responsibility to provide for that need. When she was asked last year to produce events at the Jerusalem International Book Fair—a biannual winter event that traditionally has been geared more to publishers than to readers—the organizers told her, “It’s small and people don’t come.”
Hayun set up literary cafés where Israeli and foreign authors spoke. “It was packed,” she says. “There wasn’t enough space. The Jerusalem public is intellectual. It only needs to be provided with opportunities.
“You can get people here from everywhere in all languages. We had Polish writer Pawel Huelle speak about his book Mercedes-Benz: Letters to Hrabal [Znak]. Eighty people showed up and most of them had read it in Polish. The Jerusalem public just loves writers and poets.” And Hayun loves making the connection between the two.