The winner of the Sami Rohr Literary Prize—which, at $100,000, is one of the most generous literary awards in the world—won’t be announced until April, but many of the finalists, along with some 150 writers, editors, and publishers, attended the National Jewish Book Awards, held last night at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. Sitting for dinner at what people took to calling the “Rohr Kids Table,” writers, both nominated and not, gossiped nervously about the five finalists: Francesca Segal (The Innocents), Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station), Stuart Nadler (The Book of Life), Shani Boianjiu (The People Forever Are Not Afraid), and Asaf Shurr (Motti). “If you don’t hear by 10 a.m., you didn’t get it,” said Allison Amend, a novelist and Rohr finalist in 2011, to Boianjiu, who was visiting New York from Israel.
The Rohr Prize is intended for an emerging writer of Jewish literature—but the way the award defines “Jewish literature” is somewhat vague. “We look for books written with a Jewish pen and Jewish eyes, that have a kernel of Jewish content,” said Carolyn Starman Hessel, the director of the Jewish Book Council, which hosts the awards. “Strong feelings of Jewish identity now might change the writers’ focus in the future.” There are no submissions; finalists are nominated by a panel of judges. “Otherwise, I’d have to rent out the Empire State Building,” to house all the eager entries, Hessel said.
All of the council’s other awards are submission-based and define Jewish literature in a more straightforward way, recognizing books about Jewish people and history; there are categories like “Education and Jewish Identity” and “Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice.” In 1992, when Hessel became director of the National Jewish Book Council, awards for books written in Hebrew and Yiddish were given on the basis of more traditional categories, such as “Children’s Picture Book,” and “Israel.”
Despite the small-town feel of the night’s gathering, the council generates big business in the publishing world. Each May, around the time of the Book Expo held in New York, the council hosts a conference where authors can pitch their new works to Jewish Community Centers across the United States; the programmers then decide which writers to invite to do readings and events in their hometowns. Writers are allotted two minutes to sell themselves, and authors who have participated in the conference tend to refer to it as an “audition.” “It’s like Jewish American Idol,” said Segal, this year’s winner of the National Jewish Book Award for fiction. “I ended up doing a 20-city tour. Without it, my publisher would have sent me to a few bookstores in a couple of cities.” Each year, the council sends 250 authors on tour.
Hessel is the materfamilias of this Jewish literary set. “When Carolyn asks you for something, you say ‘yes,’ ” said Samuel Freedman, the journalist, Tablet contributor, and Columbia Journalism School professor, who had postponed his honeymoon—he got married last weekend—in order to co-host the awards ceremony. The diminutive Hessel, who is in her seventies, wears inch-long nails that appear to be indestructible; she has a tender manner, casually taking people by the hand or the forearm when she speaks to them. “It’s impossible to explain the power of Carolyn. She’s a firebrand. She’s an energy source,” said Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the co-founder of Ms. magazine. Another guest referred to Hessel as “one of the most powerful women in publishing.” But Hessel’s knowledge is specific to Jewish publishing; her focus has been on bringing books to small Jewish communities. “New York is a different planet,” Hessel told me. “I want to get books across the Hudson River.” Prior to her current post, Hessel, who was born in Brooklyn, worked in Jewish education. “I didn’t know the difference between HarperCollins and Random House,” she said.
Jewish readership is such a significant audience that no writers, in Hessel’s experience, have ever expressed reservations about becoming branded as too niche. (The council’s tagline is the “Prosen People.”) “I’ve never heard anyone say ‘I don’t want to be known as a Jewish author,’ ” Hessel said. “Look at Philip Roth. It helps!” Being known as a “Jewish author” does not seem to disqualify writers from appealing to general audiences in the way that being known as, say, a “women’s writer” does. “Look at the best-seller list,” Hessel likes to say.
The winners of this year’s book awards had been announced before the ceremony, with writers’ thank-you speeches printed in the evening’s program, but writers were brought up on stage, Oscars style, and given a chance to say “thank you,” again. There were the expected shout-outs—to spouses, “the children,” and Emma Goldman. There were the expected jokes; my notes, by this part of the evening, turned into a catalog of one-liners, with a personal system for noting how well each had gone over: “Lots of Jews in Hollywood—ha ha”; “Seders are too long—ha ha ha”; “Lots of psychiatrists on the Upper West Side—ha.” The dinner portion of the evening resembled a bar mitzvah, except that the party favors were free books from Random House, the hamotzi was done by Nobel Laureate Eric R. Kandel—the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award—and organizers agreed to the idea of putting onion rings on top of the salad.
At the awards dinner Women’s Studies table, where I was seated, Pogrebin chatted with her daughter Abigail Pogrebin, an author and the M.C. of the evening’s ceremony (and a Tablet magazine contributor). While the Pogrebins were eating their entrees, Hessel came by to praise Letty’s granddaughter, whom she had met at the launch for the Bronfman Haggadah earlier this week.
People leafed through their party-favors during some of the longer acceptance speeches, but after the ceremony was over they eagerly waited in line to buy the winning books. “We are the people of the book,” Hessel said. “It’s part of our identity.”
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