Last Wednesday, just hours from the Oscar nominees announcements in Los Angeles, the Jewish Book Council announced its finalists and winners of the 2015 National Jewish Book Awards, North America’s longest running awards program in the field of Jewish literature, now in its 65th year.
Once again, the winners were mostly white and mostly Jewish.
Actors Chris Rock and Jada Pinkett Smith had no comments.
This year’s winners include Daniel Torday for his “ambitious and moving novel of two Jewish stories set in rich contrapuntal relation,” The Last Flight of Poxl West (St. Martin’s Press), and Newbery Award recipient Laura Amy Schlitz, the first winner of the Young Adult Literature award for The Hired Girl (Candlewick Press). Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom will receive his fifth National Jewish Book Award in the Modern Jewish Thought category for Not in God’s Name (Schocken Books), a “dramatic and ebullient” philosophical contemplation of the increasing frequency and scale of violence catalyzed by religious beliefs.
Shulem Deen a first time author, receives the Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice award for his memoir All Who Go Do Not Return (Graywolf Press), “a book for the nomad, the explorer, the insatiable.” It is one of over a dozen books in the current genre of memoirs of young Jews who have left or escaped from Hasidic families.
The Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award is awarded to Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917 – 1947 (Knopf) by Bruce Hoffman, “a morally illuminating and challenging work about the role of violence in politics.” This crucial new study examines anticolonial attitudes and actions of Jewish operations in the last three decades of British Mandate Palestine preceding the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
JEWISH BOOK OF THE YEAR 2015
Everett Family Foundation Award
Anonymous Soldiers re-creates the crucial period in the establishment of Israel, chronicling the three decades of growing anticolonial unrest that culminated in the end of British rule and the UN resolution to create two separate states. Hoffman tells in riveting, previously unknown detail the story of how Britain, in the twilight of empire, struggled and ultimately failed to reconcile competing Arab and Jewish demands and uprisings.
Bruce Hoffman, America’s leading expert on terrorism, shines new light on the bombing of the King David Hotel, the assassination of Lord Moyne in Cairo, the leadership of Menachem Begin, the life and death of Abraham Stern, and much else. Above all, Hoffman shows exactly how the underdog “anonymous soldiers” of Irgun and Lehi defeated the British and set in motion the chain of events that resulted in the creation of the formidable nation-state of Israel.
AMERICAN JEWISH STUDIES
Celebrate 350 Award
In 1965 social scientist Charles S. Liebman published a study that boldly declared the vitality of American Jewish Orthodoxy and went on to guide scholarly investigations of the group for the next four decades. As American Orthodoxy continues to grow in geographical, institutional, and political strength, author Adam S. Ferziger argues in Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism that one of Liebman’s principal definitions needs to be updated. While Liebman proposed that the “committed Orthodox” -observant rather than nominally affiliated-could be divided into two main streams: “church,” or Modern Orthodoxy, and “sectarian,” or Haredi Orthodoxy, Ferziger traces a narrowing of the gap between them and ultimately a realignment of American Orthodox
Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way by Hasia R. Diner. Yale University Press
Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel by
Leah Garrett. Northwestern University Press
Lincoln and the Jews: A History by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell.
Thomas Dunne Books
ANTHOLOGIES AND COLLECTIONS
At the turn of the 20th century, Jewish families scattered by migration could stay in touch only through letters. Jews in the Russian Empire and America wrote business letters, romantic letters, and emotionally intense family letters. But for many Jews who were unaccustomed to communicating their public and private thoughts in writing, correspondence was a challenge. How could they make sure their spelling was correct and they were organizing their thoughts properly? A popular solution was to consult brivnshtelers, Yiddish-language books of model letters. Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl translates selections from these model-letter books and includes essays and annotations that illuminate their role as guides to a past culture.
The Literature of the Holocaust Edited by Alan Rosen, ed. Cambridge University Press
The New Diaspora: The Changing Landscape of American Jewish Fiction. by Victoria Aarons, Avinoam J. Patt, and Mark Shechner. Wayne State University Press
The Krauss Family Award in Memory of Simon & Shulamith (Sofi) Goldberg
This memoir is a portrait of a mother and child who miraculously survive two concentration camps, then, after the war, battle demons of the past, societal rejection, disbelief, and invalidation as they struggle to reenter the world of the living. It is the tale of how one newly takes on the world, having lived in the midst of corpses strewn about in the scores of thousands, and how one can possibly resume life in the aftermath of such experiences. It is the story of the child who decides, upon growing up, that the only career that makes sense for him in light of these years of horror is to become someone sensitive to the deepest flaws of humanity, a teacher of God’s role in history amidst the traditions that attempt to understand it—and to become a distinguiched Boston area rabbi.
A refugee seeking sanctuary from the horrors of Kristallnacht, Oskar arrives by ship in New York City with only a photograph and an address for an aunt he has never met. It is both the seventh day of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve, 1938. As Oskar walks the length of Manhattan, from the Battery to his new home in the north of the city, he passes experiences the city’s many holiday sights, and encounters it various residents. Each offers Oskar a small act of kindness, welcoming him to the city and helping him on his way to a new life in the new world. This is a heartwarming, timeless picture book.
Farmer Kobi’s Hanukkah Match. by Karen Rostoker-Gruber and Rabbi Ron Isaacs; CB Decker, illus. Apples and Honey Press
Adam and Thomas. by Aharon Appelfeld; Philippe Dumas, illus.; Jeffrey Green, trans. Triangle Square
The Safest Lie by Angela Cerrito. Holiday House Read more about the making of Angela’s book HERE
CONTEMPORARY JEWISH LIFE
Myra H. Kraft Memorial Award
All Who Go Do Not Return:
by Shulem Deen
Shulem Deen was raised to believe that questions are dangerous. As a member of the Skverers, one of the most insular Hasidic sects in the US, he knows little about the outside world–only that it is to be shunned. His marriage at eighteen is arranged and several children soon follow. Deen’s first transgression — turning on the radio in the village of New Square, New York — is small, but his curiosity leads him to the library, and later the Internet. Soon he begins a feverish inquiry into the tenets of his religious beliefs, until, several years later, his faith unravels entirely. Now a heretic, he fears being discovered and ostracized from the only world he knows. His relationship with his family at stake, he is forced into a life of deception, and begins a long struggle to hold on to those he loves most: his five children. In this memoir, he traces his loss of faith, while offering an illuminating look at a highly secretive world.
Jews and Genes: The Genetic Future in Contemporary Jewish Thought Edited by Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff and Dr. Laurie Zoloth. The Jewish Publication Society
Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience and Spirit by Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal (Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction). Behrman House Publishing
The Goldberg Prize
Tin House Books
A fierce and complicated man wakes from a fever dream compelled to build a boat and sail away from the isolated island where he was born. Encountering the wider world for the first time, the reluctant hero falls into a destructive love affair, is swept up into a fanatical religious movement, and finds himself a witness to racial hatred unlike anything he’s ever known. The boatmaker is tempted, beaten, and betrayed: his journey marked by chilling episodes of violence and horror while he struggles to summon the strength to make his own way. The Boatmaker is a fable for our times, a passionate love story, and an odyssey of self-discovery. Is it sort of like a fable of the European Jewish experience? Yes, says Benditt.
After Abel and Other Stories by Michal Lemberger. Prospect Park Books
The Empire of the Senses: A Novel by Alexis Landau. Pantheon (now in paperback)
EDUCATION AND JEWISH IDENTITY
In Memory of Dorothy Kripke
For much of the twentieth century, the New York Jewish deli was an iconic institution in both Jewish and American life. As a social space it rivaled—and in some ways surpassed—the synagogue as the primary gathering place for the Jewish community. In popular culture it has been the setting for classics like When Harry Met Sally. And today, after a long period languishing in the trenches of the hopelessly old-fashioned, it is experiencing a nostalgic resurgence.
Pastrami on Rye is the first full-length history of the New York Jewish deli. The deli, argues Ted Merwin, reached its full flowering not in the immigrant period, as some might assume, but in the interwar era, when the children of Jewish immigrants celebrated the first flush of their success in America by downing sandwiches and cheesecake in theater district delis. But it was the kosher deli that followed Jews as they settled in the outer boroughs of the city, and that became the most tangible symbol of their continuing desire to maintain a connection to their heritage. Ultimately, upwardly mobile American Jews discarded the deli as they transitioned from outsider to insider status in the middle of the century. Now contemporary Jews are returning the deli to cult status as they seek to reclaim their cultural identities.
Richly researched and compellingly told, Pastrami on Rye gives us the surprising story of a quintessential New York institution.
The JJ Greenberg Memorial Award
Poxl West fled the Nazis’ onslaught in Czechoslovakia. He escaped their clutches again in Holland. He pulled Londoners from the Blitz’s rubble. He wooed intoxicating, unconventional beauties. He rained fire on Germany from his RAF bomber. Poxl West is the epitome of manhood and something of an idol to his fifteen year old surrogate nephew, Eli Goldstein, who reveres him as a brave, singular, Jewish war hero.
Poxl fills Eli’s head with electric accounts of his daring adventures and romances, as he collects the best episodes from his storied life into a memoir. Sadly, upon reading the memoir, Eli begins to see that the life of the fearless superman he’s adored has been much darker than he let on, and filled with unimaginable loss from which he may have not recovered. As the truth about Poxl emerges, it forces Eli to face irreconcilable facts about the war he’s romanticized and the vision of the man he’s held so dear. It is vaguely based on Torday’s own family story and his family’s escape from the Nazi’s. The voices of Eli Goldstein and Poxl West explore what it means to be a hero, and to be a family, in the long shadow of war.
The Ambassador by Yehuda Avner and Matt Rees Koren Publishers / Maggid Books / The Toby Press
The Book of Aron: A Novel by Jim Shepard. Knopf
A Reunion of Ghosts: A Novel by Judith Claire Mitchell. Harper
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. St. Martin’s Press
Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award
A necessary and unprecedented account of America’s changing (and challenging) relationship with Israel from a man who was in the room. When it comes to Israel, U.S. policy has always emphasized the unbreakable bond between the two countries and our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security. Today our ties to Israel are close?so close that when there are differences, they tend to make the news. But it was not always this way. Dennis Ross has been a direct participant in shaping U.S. policy toward the Middle East, and Israel specifically, for nearly thirty years. He served in senior roles, including as Bill Clinton’s envoy for Arab-Israeli peace, and was an active player in the debates over how Israel fit into the region and what should guide our policies. In Doomed to Succeed, he takes us through every administration from Truman to Obama, throwing into dramatic relief each president’s attitudes toward Israel and the region, the often tumultuous debates between key advisers, and the events that drove the policies and at times led to a shift in approach. Ross points out how rarely lessons were learned and how distancing the United States from Israel in the Eisenhower, Nixon, Bush, and Obama administrations never yielded any benefits and why that lesson has never been learned. Doomed to Succeed offers compelling advice for how to understand the priorities of Arab leaders and how future administrations might best shape U.S. policy in that light.
Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel by Dan Ephron. W. W. Norton & Company
A monumental work of nonfiction on a wartime atrocity, its sixty-year denial, and the impact of its truth. Jan Gross’s hugely controversial NEIGHBORS was a historian’s disclosure of the events in the small Polish town of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941, when the citizens rounded up the Jewish population and burned them alive in a barn.
The massacre was a shocking secret that had been suppressed for more than sixty years, and it provoked the most important public debate in Poland since 1989. From the outset, Anna Bikont reported on the town, combing through archives and interviewing residents who survived the war period. Her writing became a crucial part of the debate and she herself an actor in a national drama. Part history, part memoir, The Crime and the Silence is the journalist’s account of these events: both the story of the massacre told through oral histories of survivors and witnesses, and a portrait of a Polish town coming to terms with its dark past. Including the perspectives of both heroes and perpetrators, Bikont chronicles the sources of the hatred that exploded against Jews and asks what myths grow on hidden memories, what destruction they cause, and what happens to a society that refuses to accept a horrific truth. A profoundly moving exploration of being Jewish in modern Poland that Julian Barnes called “one of the most chilling books,” The Crime and the Silence is a vital contribution to Holocaust history and a fascinating story of a town coming to terms with its dark past.
KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Jewish Honor Courts: Revenge, Retribution, and Reconciliation in Europe and Israel after the Holocaust by Laura Jockusch and Gabriel N. Finder, eds. Wayne State University Press
MODERN JEWISH THOUGHT
Dorot Foundation Award in Memory of Joy Ungerleider Mayerson
Rabbi Sacks of London tackles the phenomenon of religious extremism and violence committed in the name of God. If religion is perceived as being part of the problem, Rabbi Sacks argues, then it must also form part of the solution. When religion becomes a zero-sum conceit—that is, my religion is the only right path to God, therefore your religion is by definition wrong—and individuals are motivated by what Rabbi Sacks calls “altruistic evil,” violence between peoples of different beliefs appears to be the only natural outcome. But through an exploration of the roots of violence and its relationship to religion, and employing groundbreaking biblical analysis and interpretation, Rabbi Sacks shows that religiously inspired violence has as its source misreadings of biblical texts at the heart of all three Abrahamic faiths. By looking anew at the book of Genesis, with its foundational stories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Rabbi Sacks offers a radical rereading of many of the Bible’s seminal stories of sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Rachel and Leah.
“Abraham himself,” writes Rabbi Sacks, “sought to be a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That idea, ignored for many of the intervening centuries, remains the simplest definition of Abrahamic faith. It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing to the world. The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness but idolatry… To invoke God to justify violence against the innocent is not an act of sanctity but of sacrilege.” Here is an eloquent call for people of goodwill from all faiths and none to stand together, confront the religious extremism that threatens to destroy us, and declare: Not in God’s Name.
The Secret of Chabad: Inside the World’s Most Successful Jewish Movement by David Eliezrie Koren Publishers / Maggid Books / The Toby Press
The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible by Aviya Kushner. Spiegel & Grau
Leaving the Jewish Fold: Conversation and Radical Assimilation in Modern Jewish History by Todd M. Endelman. Princeton University Press
An elegy of a father for the loss of his son: a short life, a bewildering death, unanswerable sorrow. Hirsch delivers his heart to the reader without sentimentality. From its opening lines
“The funeral director opened the coffin /
And there he was alone /
From the waist up” —
Hirsch’s account is poignantly direct and open to the strange vicissitudes and tricks of grief. In propulsive three-line stanzas, he tells the story of how a once unstoppable child, who suffered from various developmental disorders, turned into an irreverent young adult, funny, rebellious, impulsive. Hirsch mixes his tale of Gabriel with the stories of other poets through the centuries who have also lost children, and expresses his feelings through theirs. His landmark poem enters the broad stream of human grief and raises in us the strange hope, even consolation, that we find in the writer’s act of witnessing and transformation. It will be read and reread.
The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards: Poems by Rachel Mennies
Texas Tech University Press
The Invention of Influence Poems by Peter Cole. New Directions
In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner
Tuvia Ruebner; Rachel Tzvia Back, translator. Hebrew Union College Press
Nahum M. Sarna Memorial Award
Christine Hayes is the Robert F. and Patricia R. Weis Professor of Religious Studies in Classical Judaica at Yale University. In the past she was a Finalist for this award. Now she is the winner. In the thousand years before the rise of Islam, two radically diverse conceptions of what it means to say that a law is divine confronted one another with a force that reverberates to the present. “What’s Divine about Divine Law?” untangles the classical and biblical roots of the Western idea of divine law and shows how early adherents to biblical tradition — Hellenistic Jewish writers such as Philo, the community at Qumran, Paul, and the talmudic rabbis–struggled to make sense of this conflicting legacy. Christine Hayes shows that for the ancient Greeks, divine law was divine by virtue of its inherent qualities of intrinsic rationality, truth, universality, and immutability, while for the biblical authors, divine law was divine because it was grounded in revelation with no presumption of rationality, conformity to truth, universality, or immutability. Hayes describes the collision of these opposing conceptions in the Hellenistic period, and details competing attempts to resolve the resulting cognitive dissonance. She shows how Second Temple and Hellenistic Jewish writers, from the author of 1 Enoch to Philo of Alexandria, were engaged in a common project of bridging the gulf between classical and biblical notions of divine law, while Paul, in his letters to the early Christian church, sought to widen it. Hayes then delves into the literature of classical rabbinic Judaism to reveal how the talmudic rabbis took a third and scandalous path, insisting on a construction of divine law intentionally at odds with the Greco-Roman and Pauline conceptions that would come to dominate the Christianized West.
Rabbis, Sorcerers, Kings, and Priests (oh, my…): The Culture of the Talmud in Ancient Iran by Jason Sion Mokhtarian. University of California Press
Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition by Benjamin S. Sommer. Yale University Press
Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts
Marc Michael Epstein, ed. Princeton University Press
Mimi S. Frank Award in Memory of Becky Levy
The year 1492 has long divided the study of Sephardic culture into two distinct periods, before and after the expulsion of Jews from Spain. David A. Wacks examines the works of Sephardic writers from the 13th to the 16th centuries and shows that this literature was shaped by two interwoven experiences of diaspora: first from the Biblical homeland Zion and later from the ancestral hostland, Sefarad. Jewish in Spain and Spanish abroad, these writers negotiated Jewish, Spanish, and diasporic idioms to produce a uniquely Sephardic perspective. Wacks brings Diaspora Studies into dialogue with medieval and early modern Sephardic literature for the first time.
Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th Century Yemen by Mark S. Wagner. Indiana University Press
THE VISUAL ARTS
The love of books in the Jewish tradition extends back over many centuries, and the ways of interpreting those books are as myriad as the traditions themselves. Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink offers the first full survey of Jewish illuminated manuscripts, ranging from their origins in the Middle Ages to the present day. Featuring some of the most beautiful examples of Jewish art of all time–including hand-illustrated versions of the Bible, the Haggadah, the prayer book, marriage documents, and other beloved Jewish texts–the book introduces readers to the history of these manuscripts and their interpretation.
Edited by Marc Michael Epstein with contributions from leading experts, this sumptuous volume features a lively and informative text, showing how Jewish aesthetic tastes and iconography overlapped with and diverged from those of Christianity, Islam, and other traditions. Featured manuscripts were commissioned by Jews and produced by Jews and non-Jews over many centuries, and represent Eastern and Western perspectives and the views of both pietistic and liberal communities across the Diaspora, including Europe, Israel, the Middle East, and Africa.
Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene by Diana L. Linden. Wayne State University Press
The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film by Susan Tumarkin Goodman, Jens Hoffmann, Alexander Lavrentiev. The Jewish Museum / Yale University Press
Roman Vishniac Rediscovered by Maya Benton. International Center of Photography / DelMonico Books•Prestel
The Barbara Dobkin Award
A fascinating and gripping examination of birth, sex and abuse during the Nazi era. Dr Chalmers’ unique lens on the Holocaust provides a stunning and controversial exposé of the voices of both Jewish and non-Jewish women living under Nazi rule. Based on twelve years of study, the book takes an inter-disciplinary view incorporating women’s history, Holocaust studies, social sciences and medicine, in a unique, cutting-edge examination of what women themselves said, thought and did.
Dr Chalmers has dedicated her life to studying women’s experiences of giving birth in difficult social, political, economic and religious environments. During her distinguished academic career, she has held professorial appointments in both the Medical and Social Sciences and has served, for decades, as a maternal and child health consultant for numerous United Nations and other global aid agencies. Her inter-disciplinary focus and extensive international experience provide a novel perspective on the Nazi era and on the neglected issue of the Nazi abuse of childbearing and sexuality.
WRITING BASED ON ARCHIVAL MATERIAL
The JDC-Herbert Katzki Award
Headlines from France suggest that Muslims have renewed an age-old struggle against Jews and that the two groups are once more inevitably at odds. But the past tells a different story. The Burdens of Brotherhood is a sweeping history of Jews and Muslims in France from World War I to the present. Here Ethan Katz introduces a richer and more complex world that offers fresh perspective for understanding the opportunities and challenges in France today.
Focusing on the experiences of ordinary people, Katz shows how Jewish-Muslim relations were shaped by everyday encounters and by perceptions of deeply rooted collective similarities or differences. We meet Jews and Muslims advocating common and divergent political visions, enjoying common culinary and musical traditions, and interacting on more intimate terms as neighbors, friends, enemies, and even lovers and family members. Drawing upon dozens of archives, newspapers, and interviews, Katz tackles controversial subjects like Muslim collaboration and resistance during World War II and the Holocaust, Jewish participation in French colonialism, the international impact of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and contemporary Muslim antisemitism in France.
The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust by Lisa Moses Leff. Oxford University Press
YOUNG ADULT (YA)
The Posner Award
Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs, just like the heroines in her beloved novels, yearns for real life and true love. But what hope is there for adventure, beauty, or art on a hardscrabble farm in Pennsylvania where the work never ends? Over the summer of 1911, Joan pours her heart out into her diary as she seeks a new, better life for herself—because maybe, just maybe, a hired girl cleaning and cooking for six dollars a week can become what a farm girl could only dream of—a woman with a future. Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz relates Joan’s journey from the muck of the chicken coop to the comforts of a society household in Baltimore (Electricity! Carpet sweepers! Sending out the laundry!), taking readers on an exploration of feminism and housework; religion and literature; love and loyalty; cats, hats, and bunions.
Somewhere There Is Still a Sun: A Memoir of the Holocaust by Michael Gruenbaum with Todd Hasak-Lowy. Aladdin
Audacity by Melanie Crowder. Philomel Books
Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke by Anne Blankman. Balzer + Bray
Mazel Tov to all the winners, finalists, judges, readers, and other authors.