Ten thousand dollars is a nice chunk of change, but organizers of this year’s Koret Jewish Book Awards, who handed out checks for that amount to six authors, say the real gift they’d like to give the Jewish community is to allow writers and readers of Jewish books to interact more easily. Decrying the “increasing barriers” between academia and popular culture, the Koret Foundation’s advisory board chairman, Steve Zipperstein, told 200 invited guests at Monday night’s award ceremony at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center that by “bringing together the best, most interesting Jewish writing of all sorts” in a weekend of author-led workshops, the foundation was trying “to make learning and literature part of one’s immediate culture, not something exotic or rarefied.”
From a gathering of mainly industry insiders held for the past six years in New York, Koret this year moved its awards ceremony to its home city, San Francisco.
In addition to awarding $10,000 prizes in fiction, biography, philosophy, history and, for the first time, children’s literature, judges waded through almost 200 entries in the category of “young writers on Jewish themes,” bestowing $25,000 on University of Oklahoma graduate student Tim Bradford.
The judges also created a special translation and commentary category to honor the University of California at Berkeley’s Robert Alter for his monumental treatment of “The Five Books of Moses.”
Monday’s ceremony was the capstone of a weekend of public workshops at the San Francisco JCC, and the prize-winning writers fanned out Tuesday morning to speak in Bay Area day schools and universities.
“Why ought writers to meet?” Zipperstein asked rhetorically during the ceremony, before launching into a paean to famous 20th-century writers’ groups. Even those writers who create in self-imposed isolation must draw upon “a network of human dramas,” he insisted, and their work needs “a community of readers” to give it cultural context.
Riffing off Zipperstein, fiction award-winner Tony Eprile, author of “The Persistence of Memory,” asked whether writers ought to get awards — a question he quickly answered in the affirmative.
The prize money is nice, Eprile admitted.
“And this is a reminder that while we write our works in solitude, we actually write for other people,” he said.
Recalling his childhood refusal to have a Bar Mitzvah, Eprile said his late father “would have been amused that I won a ‘Jewish’ book award.”
Israeli writer Amos Oz sent a pre-recorded video to accept his award in the biography category for “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”
The famed author and political activist said he had to employ all his novelist’s skills in the purported recreation of his grandparents’ trek from Europe to Israel, and the story of their generation’s attempt to recreate in Jerusalem the intellectual society they had left behind.
“To know what my grandparents did in bed in Russia, I had to consult my own genes, which, being their genes, told me,” he said.
Two awards paid tribute to groups traditionally marginalized in Jewish life.
The history award went to Elisheva Baumgarten, assistant professor of gender studies and medieval history at Bar-Ilan University, for “Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe.”
Accepting her award, Baumgarten said the Jewish medieval history she studied in graduate school “was lopsided. There were no women.”
Her book, by contrast, focuses on how gender roles affected medieval Jewish history. It also places that history within the larger context of European Christian history, a context that scholars of Jewish history too often ignore, she said.
This year’s philosophy award was given to Rabbi Steven Greenberg for “Wrestling with God and Man: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition,” a chronicle of his own struggle to read Jewish texts in a way that supports both his homosexuality and his Orthodox faith.
In a sometimes emotional speech, Greenberg said the book sprang “from my love of Torah and my refusal to abandon it for what I consider a piece of my essential self.”
Referring to Leviticus 18, the Biblical text most often cited to support Jewish opposition to homosexuality, Greenberg recalled “the hundreds, the thousands, the millions of us who have borne the weight of that verse on our shoulders,” and asked “how could it be that a loving God consigns us to a life of hopelessness?”
Illustrator Wendy Watson accepted the children’s literature award on behalf of herself and writer Karen Hesse for “The Cats in Krasinski Square,” a sober yet hopeful tale of a little girl in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Noting that the book was based on a true story, Watson said that getting inside the characters’ heads to devise her drawings, and finding a way to make the Holocaust appropriate for young readers, was “an agonizing experience.”
The awards ceremony was preceded by a lively dialogue on faith and politics between Israeli translator Hillel Halkin and American author Anne Roiphe.
Disagreeing on the dangers presented by the Christian right — Halkin called for greater American Jewish appreciation of this group’s friendship to Israel, while Roiphe advocated vigilance against what she deemed the right’s moral intolerance — the duo’s passionate exploration of the Jewish community’s relationship to fundamentalism underscored the evening’s themes of breaking down barriers and openly confronting the relationship between Jewish faith and Jewish culture.
Koret Foundation President Tad Taube said the group’s sponsorship of the awards is predicated on the belief that promoting a greater appreciation of Jewish culture inside and outside the Jewish community is essential to ensuring Jewish survival.
“Now go out and buy books,” Zipperstein said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.