The Jewish Book Council has announced the 2014 finalists for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, the prestigious annual award which happens to be one of the most generous in the literary world, and the biggest certainly in the Jewish literary world, bestowing upon its winners $100,000. Inaugurated in 2006 by the family of Jewish philanthropist Sami Rohr in honor of his 80th birthday, the award switches off yearly between fiction and non-fiction (this year is non-fiction; last year’s winner was Francesca Segal, whose novel The Innocents updated Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence for posh 21st century Jewish London), with books published in the past two years eligible.
This year’s finalists include Sarah Bunin Benor for Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism, Marni Davis for Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, Matti Friedman for The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, Nina S. Spiegel for Embodying Hebrew Culture: Aesthetics, Athletics, and Dance in the Jewish Community of Mandate Palestine, and Eliyahu Stern for The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism.
Lawrence Kaplan reviewed Stern’s The Genius in April, calling the book “the first attempt to undertake an intellectual biography and cultural profile of the Gaon, placing him firmly within the concrete social and political reality of the Vilna of his day—and taking into full account his dizzyingly varied intellectual and literary activity.”
Allan Nadler called Jews and Booze a “major contribution to the economic history of the Jews in the United States,” positioning Davis’ work as an important supplement to other cultural portraits of Prohibiton-era America:
This fascinating, academically sophisticated, and superbly written exposition of the intricate, often precarious, role that Jews played in every aspect of the American alcohol industry—from production in industrial stills to retail sale in bars and speakeasies across the land, and finally to bootlegging, a crime that created the fortunes of some of North America’s most prominent Jewish philanthropic families—turns out to be a wonderful historical companion to HBO’s most explosive series since The Sopranos and to the recent PBS airing of Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition.
Friedman spoke to Vox Tablet when The Aleppo Codex was published, explaining the significance of what was called the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible to ever exist, and tracing the codex’s clandestine journey from Syria to Israel in the late 1950s, and the struggle of the Jews of Aleppo to regain control of their community’s most prized religious artifact.
The winner will be announced Nov. 12.
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.