The seed that became Gefen Publishing was sown in 1973, when U.S.-born Murray Greenfield published his book ‘How to be an Oleh or Things The Jewish Agency Never Told You,’ in what was probably Israel’s first self-publishing venture. Today, 900 titles later, the family business is the world’s leading Zionist publishing house

Wendy Elliman
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Murray, Ilan and Binyamin Greenfield
Wendy Elliman
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Fifteen years after Murray Greenfield published his first book, his son Ilan spent seven nights typesetting at Gefen, fell in love with the business, and is today its CEO. When Ilan’s elder brother Dror filled in for him for three weeks, he too ended up working at Gefen, until his untimely death in 2003.  And four years ago, Ilan’s son Binyamin, then 26, turned vacation stints at the company into a serious job, developing technologies such as e-books and print-on-demand.

Flourishing in an industry that is, according to Ilan, “clearly changing but very much alive and thriving,” Gefen’s English-language list encompasses Jewish and Zionist thought, history and faith, literature, humor, biography and fiction. Among its authors are Natan Sharansky, Yosef Mendelevitz, Benzion Netanyahu and his late son Jonathan, Miriam Peretz, Lihi Lapid, Ruth Westheimer, Shmuley Boteach, Aryeh Eldad and Moshe Arens – as well as two far closer to home. Murray has published a second book, ‘The Jews’ Secret Fleet,’ which tells the story of the 200 North American Aliyah Bet volunteers (including his 20-year-old self), who challenged the British Mandate blockade of Palestine with ten ships carrying Holocaust survivors; and Murray’s late wife Hana recorded her years in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen in ‘Fragments of Memory.’  

The founders

For Murray and Hana, with their different pasts, publishing was always more than simply a business. “For them,” says Ilan, “it held the same values which they taught us at home: a vital part of life is contributing to others. I’ve tried to pass on to my own four children this same message.”

Murray published three more books before he realized he was a publisher and created Gefen in 1981. Friends were looking for publishers, and he produced their books – an eclectic trio that reflected the future diversity of Gefen’s list: ‘Chasidic Stories’ by journalist and novelist Meyer Levin, ‘One Man’s Judaism’ by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, and a collection of Yaakov Kirschen’s ‘Dry Bones’ cartoons, which became a worldwide hit.  

At the time, however, books were no more than a sideline. Murray’s energies were focused on encouraging investment in Israel, qualifying as Israel’s first American-born licensed tour guide, co-founding and later directing the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), One Stop Duty Free Shopping for new immigrants, working with Soviet and Ethiopian newcomers, and establishing a gallery to nurture Israeli artists – Reuven Rubin and William (Sunny) Weintraub were two of them.

“Hana and I eventually set up Gefen because we felt the publishing world was bypassing Jerusalem, and we had to do something about that,” says Murray. They named it for an acronym of the Yiddish ‘gezunt, parnasa and naches’ (health, income and joy), and started “publishing books about Israel and for Israel,” he continues. “Neither my wife nor I had much publishing knowledge, but we had a knack for promoting what we produced. When Ilan and Dror got involved, they put the business on a more serious footing, and Hana and I became their front-people.”

Book-printing in Israel was just moving from hot lead to the computer, and the fledgling Gefen acquired an early phototypesetter. “It was two meters long,” says Murray, “but it could print in different alphabets. Ilan quickly became an expert.”

Over a decade earlier, Murray had sent 11-year-old Ilan to Hebrew and Englisha touch-typing courses. Sitting in a class of middle-aged women, he had hated every moment – but now put the skills he had learned to critical use. “We published ‘The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu,’” says Murray. “It put Gefen on the map.”

The son and the grandson

Like Murray, neither Ilan nor Binyamin see Gefen as solely about sales. “We publish books which we believe speak for Israel and for Jews worldwide,” says Ilan. Survivor Masha Greenbaum’s ‘Jews of Lithuania,’ for example, sold an impressive 20,000 copies, and is a valuable contribution to understanding the history of Lithuanian Jewry. ‘Dreams Behind Bars’ by Rachamim Elazar and Baruch Hameiri is probably the only book about Ethiopian prisoners of Zion.

Perhaps Gefen’s supreme example of a book with a message is ‘And Every Single One Was Someone’ by Phil Chernofsky. It contains just one word – JEW – printed six million times across its 1,250 pages. “Everyone, from the printer onward, told me I was wasting paper by producing it,” says Ilan, “but I had to do it. It conveys the magnitude of the Holocaust in a single word.” The book was featured on the front page of The New York Times on January 26, 2014. January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day and, as it turned out, the day of Hana Greenfield’s death. The book continues to transmit its message. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps it on his desk. Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, gave a copy to then-President Barak Obama. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said of it: “Now I understand what I’m here to do in this world.”

“We take pride in publishing books which show an entire world,” says Ilan. Now in preparation is a ‘Converso cookbook’ of recipes discovered by Genie Milgrom, a woman who grew up Catholic, but from age seven felt drawn to Judaism. After her grandmother’s death, she found documents which allowed her to trace her unbroken maternal Jewish line to the 1500s. Among those documents were recipes cached by this crypto-Jewish family.

Like his father and grandfather, Binyamin, who is Gefen’s third generation of Greenfields, sees the company as “a place where I can contribute.” Murray, now 92, was born in the U.S., and brought American energy and audacity to the enterprise. Ilan combines the vigor, idealism and practicality of the sabra. Binyamin, quieter and milder than both, is of a wackier high-tech world. A rock-climber and contestant on ‘Ninja Israel’ (an Israeli show based on NBC’s ‘American Ninja Warrior’), who is  growing his red hair long to donate it to Zichron Menachem for making wigs for cancer patients, his plans for Gefen’s future have yet to unfold.

Thou Shalt Innovate

‘Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World,’ published by Gefen Publishing House, profiles 15 Israeli innovations that are improving and saving the lives of billions of people around the world, and “explores why Israeli innovators of all faiths feel compelled to make the world better,” according to AIPAC, which has given copies to all 535 members of Congress.

Written by U.S.-born entrepreneur and Middle East expert Avi Jorisch and published by Gefen in March 2018, it is Gefen’s kind of book, says CEO Ilan Greenfield. “It explains the impact Israel has on the world, what Israel is and what it has to give, from drip irrigation to solar energy, deep-brain stimulation to cybersecurity, the Pillcam to the ReWalk exoskeleton, medical cannabis to the Grain Cocoon and Iron Dome missile defense system. It’s true tikun olam, expressing the essence of Israel. We’re a small country, but we’ve developed life-giving technologies with enormous impact.”

Jorisch knew that Gefen would immerse itself in his book and get it out there. Its rights have already been sold in 12 languages – Bulgarian, Burmese, Chinese, Hindi, Polish and Slovakian are some of them – with negotiations underway for more.

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