Menu JTA Search

Arts & Culture: Author’s Magical Jewish Tales Honored with National Book Award

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

A flying rabbi has landed a Southern Jewish author a literary award.

Memphis-born Steven Stern is among the authors honored with one of almost 20 National Jewish Book Awards chosen from more than 400 titles and announced earlier this month by the Jewish Book Council.

“We are the people of the book and we honor that,” said the council’s director, Carolyn Starman Hessel.

Stern’s book, “The Wedding Jester,” whose tales have been dubbed magic realism, won for best fiction.

“It’s always nice to get a little recognition, but I don’t understand why certain contemporary fictions are pronounced magic realism,” Stern said of the box in which critics have placed his works. “What puts the magic in magic realism?

“Fabulism is a more appropriate label,” he added.

Stern, influenced by the works of Isaac Babel and Bernard Malamud, penned his latest as a collection of short stories in which fantastic tales are steeped in Jewish folklore and tradition.

“The tradition that I come out of has more to do with Jewish folklore and mythology than it does with magic,” he said, though a flying rabbi does make an appearance in his latest work.

Raised in Tennessee, Stern’s family was affiliated with a Reform temple that “was divested of any element of tradition. I thought I was a Methodist until I was about 35,” he quipped.

After working in a folklore center in Memphis, Stern began to visualize the “literary relation to Jewishness.”

“The Wedding Jester” arose out of Stern’s frustration with his progress, or lack thereof, on a novel that never made it to press.

“Every time I hit a wall, I’d write a story,” he said.

The title story was influenced by a trip Stern took to the Catskills region of New York with his mother. After viewing the desolate landscape and rustic ruins, Stern was saddened by the end of an era that once boasted popular hotels with comedians catering to Jewish crowds.

“I was so unhappy I tried to redeem it by writing a story about the place,” he said.

What resulted was the tale of a bride possessed by the spirit of a dead comic.

“Heretics or Daughters of Israel?: The Crypto-Jewish Women of Castille” by Renee Melammed won in the categories of Sephardic Studies and Women’s Studies, marking the first time in the awards’ history that one book won in two categories.

“I always considered myself interdisciplinary,” Melammed said. “This goes to prove it.”

The National Jewish Book Awards will be handed out at a ceremony set to take place March 23 in New York.

NEXT STORY