The Jewish Book Council announced the 2015 finalists for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature today, one of the most generous literary awards around (winners get $100,000). The award switches off yearly between fiction and non-fiction, with books published within the past two years eligible. This year’s prize is for fiction; last year’s nonfiction winner was Matti Friedman for The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible.
The finalists for 2015, who all tell the story of Jewish immigrants in their debut works, are Yelena Akhtiorskaya for Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel, Molly Antopol for The UnAmericans: Stories, Kenneth Bonert for The Lion Seeker: A Novel, Boris Fishman for A Replacement Life: A Novel, and Ayelet Tsabari for The Best Place on Earth: Stories.
Boris Fishman’s debut novel about aging Russian Jewish immigrants and their grandchildren centers on Slava Gelman, a twentysomething aspiring writer who is trying to claw his way out of his family’s post-Soviet Brooklyn neighborhood. A Replacement Life was also a finalist for the 2014 National Jewish Book Awards. Fishman spoke with Vox Tablet’s Sara Ivry last summer about his Soviet emigré family dramedy.
Set in Johannesburg in the 1930s, Kenneth Bonert’s The Lion Seeker focuses on a hard-driving Jewish mother who toughens her son up to fight his way out of poverty in South Africa. Tablet columnist Adam Kirsch described the novel as “the kind of Jewish story Herman Wouk used to write, a natural best-seller in which a carefully rendered, realistic setting frames a melodramatic and romantic plot. It quite deliberately sets out to be a representative epic—the story of how the Jews came to South Africa and what they had to do in order to make it their home.”
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya is about the life of a family of Ukrainian émigrés struggling to adjust to life in the United States. In an interview with Jewcy in September, she talked about her writing, Brighton Beach, and Russian literature in translation. Her novel received rave reviews from The New York Times (“crisp and gorgeous”), the Washington Post (“genius”), and Vogue (“a virtuosic debut”). Akhtiorskaya was named by the National Book Foundation as one of their “5 under 35″ for 2014.
In Ayelet Tsabari’s The Best Place on Earth, she explores Israeli history through characters of Mizrahi background (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) who are at the crossroads of nationalities, religions, and communities.
Molly Antopol was also celebrated as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35 for The UnAmericans. Her stories are set in Tel Aviv, Prague, the Ukraine, with characters who are Israeli and Russian. NPR said of the work, “like individual novels, these stories appeal, satisfy and delight” and that “they’ll make you nostalgic, not just for earlier times, but for another era in short fiction.”