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Jewish book fairs a growing industry

NEW YORK, June 21 (JTA) — Samuel Freedman best captured the essence of the seventh annual Jewish Book Council Network conference when he commented not about the conference’s themes but about its timing. “You’re 15 minutes ahead of schedule,” the author noted at the event, held last week in Manhattan. “This is like talking to a conference of Episcopalians.” The audience, consisting of 115 Jewish book fair organizers from across the nation, laughed. Timing, they realized, could not be squandered, as it often is at Jewish events. After all, Jewish books are now big business: According to industry sources, Jewish book fairs — there are more than 70 of them nationwide — are an industry with annual revenue of $3 million. For an industry plagued by an ever-dwindling readership, Jewish book fairs are emerging as an increasingly important source, said Peter Olsen, CEO of publishing giant Random House. “The actual number of active readers is a minority, less than half of the adult population,” he said. “Do we think that Jewish book readers are significant? You bet we do. Disproportionately so.” “We don’t usually qualify our statistics on an ethnic basis,” Olsen told the conference, “but you’re probably the highest of the bunch. We’re very pleased that you do what you do, and we’re here to say thank you.” Jewish book fairs are no longer just for Jews, said Carolyn Starman Hessel, the powerhouse behind the council and the woman credited by many for transforming Jewish book fairs from a sleepy footnote on the Jewish calendar to institutions drawing, in some cases, more than 10,000 visitors. “It’s now an industry unto itself,” she said of the Jewish book fairs. “It’s an outreach, a way of making the Jewish community inclusive. It’s also a way for Jewish organizations to partner with other organizations and enhance its standing in the community at large. Books are non-threatening; a non-Jew won’t go to a synagogue, but he might go to a Jewish book fair.” Bryan Cahen, 61, director of the book festival at the Indianapolis Jewish Community Center, agreed. “Our goal was never to be behind the walls,” he said. “We want to reach out beyond the Jewish community and bring a broad perspective of authors.” A few years ago, he added as an example, the JCC brought in an artist who had published a book of photographs from Auschwitz. After speaking for the Jewish community, she was taken to a rural middle school, where she addressed 800 children, many of whom were hearing of the Holocaust for the first time. Then, in association with local educators, she was taken to an elite private high school. It’s these kinds of events, Cahen said, that “build bridges all across the different communities.” Realizing the importance of the fairs, Hessel understood that for her council to play a prominent role, it had to develop into a grassroots organization. To that end, she created a network of dedicated book fair activists; over the conference’s three days, it was they who organized meals, schlepped boxes, exchanged strategies and notes, moved chairs and discussed authors. Nowhere in evidence was the traditional organizational structure that divides the world into committees, into leaders and lay people, into a rigid hierarchal structure. The conference’s high point came every afternoon, when a battery of authors — 138 in total — appeared before the members. While some renowned authors — such as playwright Wendy Wasserstein or Freedom Tower architect Daniel Libeskind — were given ample time, most were allotted two minutes. A good appearance, they realized, can make a book, leading to invitations to dozens of fairs and festivals and promoting sales considerably. Likewise, a bad appearance may mean utter demise. One woman imitated her Jewish-Cuban mother, while another told a tall tale, omitting the end and leaving the audience in suspense. Whatever the authors’ tactics, one thing was apparent: The book fairs were their golden fleeces. Such eagerness, said Julie Potiker, 44, a member of the board of the Jewish Book Council and a member of the lay committee of the San Diego Jewish Book Fair, is as apparent in fairgoers as it is in authors, making Jewish book fairs a draw even for otherwise passive members of the community. The book fair she organizes, considered among the most prestigious in the country, draws an audience of 8,000 visitors and rakes in upward of $100,000. “All the Jews I know have a strong place in their guts for Jewish books,” she said. “It connects you back to history, and it takes you forward to the future. It’s also sufficiently diverse, both intellectually and culturally, to draw a wide range of people.” Andrea Miller, 41, coordinator of the Jewish book festival at the Rochester JCC, agreed. “It happens every year,” she said, “that a community member hears an author, and all of a sudden there’s this magical moment of connectedness for them. This can only happen with books.”