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Ayelet Tsabari Wins 2015 Sami Rohr Prize

Debut story collection about Mizrahi Jews nabs $100,000 literary award

Tal Trachtman Alroy
February 23, 2015
(The Best Place on Earth; Ayelet Tsabari)
(The Best Place on Earth; Ayelet Tsabari)

Ayelet Tsabari, author of The Best Place on Earth: Stories, has been named the winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. The $100,000 prize, which is one of the most generous literary awards, alternates between fiction and non-fiction yearly (last year’s nonfiction winner was Matti Friedman for his book The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible). Kenneth Bonert, author of The Lion Seeker: A Novel, was named this year’s runner-up and will be awarded $25,000.

In Tsabari’s debut story collection, 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.

“I grew up not seeing myself and my family in literature, so writing The Best Place on Earth was a way to create the characters that were missing from my childhood stories,” Tsabari said in a statement. “By portraying characters of Mizrahi background I was hoping to complicate readers’ perceptions of Israel and Jewishness, and to expand and broaden their ideas of what a Jewish story and Jewish experience can be.”

Set in Johannesburg in the 1930s, Kenneth Bonert’s novel focuses on a hard-driving Jewish mother who toughens her son up to fight his way out of poverty in South Africa. A third-generation South African Jew, Bonert produced an absorbing first novel that Adam Kirsch described 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.”

The other finalists for 2015, all of whom were born outside the United States and tell the story of Jewish immigrants in their debut works, were Yelena Akhtiorskaya for Panic in a Suitcase: A Novel, Molly Antopol for The UnAmericans: Stories, and Boris Fishman for A Replacement Life: A Novel

Tal Trachtman Alroy is an intern at Tablet.