The eighth annual Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, an award established by the late Sami Rohr’s children on his 80th birthday to honor him, was awarded Tuesday night at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Though the event took place in Israel, as it does every other year, English was the dominant language of the night. If fact, the only Hebrew this reporter heard at the event was a conversation between translator Mitch Ginsberg and writer Ofir Touche Gafla, whose first novel to be published in English, The World of the End, came out last summer.
Language was a big theme of this year’s awards, which honored works of non-fiction (the prize switches between fiction and non-fiction each year, with books published within the past two years eligible). The winning book, Matti Friedman’s The Aleppo Codex: In Pursuit of One of the World’s Most Coveted, Sacred and Mysterious Books, is a detective story about what happened to the missing pages of the oldest extant manuscript of the Jewish Bible when it was moved from Aleppo to Israel, ostensibly for safe keeping, and pages of the priceless work went missing. (You can listen to Friedman discuss the work with Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry here.)
As Yair Zakovitch, professor emeritus of Bible studies at Hebrew University, pointed out to me earlier in the day, Jews are one of the few cultures who can still read their sacred text in its original language. A book about the Hebrew Bible, then, is very much in line with the parameters of the Rohr prize, which honors “the unique role of contemporary writers in the transmission and examination of the Jewish experience.”
The runner-up, Sarah Bunin Benor’s Becoming Frum: How Newcomers learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism, is about how language creates identity and gives shared bonds to the adherents of particular linguistic traditions. Excerpts from both books were ably read by George Rohr, son of the late Sami Rohr, who joked that the family gives the award just so that he gets a chance to read.
Also attending the event were Yossi Klein Halevi, Gershom Gorenberg, and New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, as well as literary agent Deborah Harris, who does as much as any agent to bring works originally written in Hebrew to an English speaking audience, and who counts Friedman among her clients.
Attendees were gifted a copy of Daniel Gordis’ forthcoming book on Menachem Begin, part of the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters series. Gordis, for his part, told the crowd that the 350 kilograms of dynamite Begin and his Irgun cohorts stashed in the King David Hotel, then the site of the British military command, in the 1946 bombing were placed below what is now the beauty shop.
“Don’t worry,” he joked, “we have Israeli security, not British, now.”