There is no better way spend a Wednesday evening than by sitting in a beautiful museum hall listening to writers discuss Jewish literature—for me, anyway. And the night would be especially noteworthy were it to include a reception featuring wine, babka, and black-and-white cookies. This dream became a reality last night at The Jewish Museum in New York, where author Idra Novey was awarded the Jewish Book Council’s 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for her debut novel Ways to Disappear. And with it, $100,000. The Choice Award ($18,000) went to Daniel Torday, for The Last Flight of Poxl West.
Three runners-up (or “fellows”)—Paul Goldberg for The Yid; Adam Ehrlich Sachs for Inherited Disorders; and Rebecca Schiff for The Bed Moved—received $5,000 apiece, all thanks to the magnanimity of the family of late Jewish literature lover Sami Rohr.
Before these distinctions were announced, all five of the prize’s finalists sat on a panel moderated by Tablet contributor David Wolpe, of Los Angeles’s Sinai Temple, and the audience was treated to a rare glimpse inside the minds of the writers we admire. Because the prize alternates each year between fiction and nonfiction, the books nominated for this year’s prize, in fiction, were published in both 2015 and 2016. The books—four novels and one short story collection (Schiff)—are diverse in style, form, and content: They are about Soviet Jews, literary translators, fathers and sons, young women, dubious war heroes.
The finalists discussed their creative processes (Torday, for instance, discussed being a “sculptor” rather than a “painter” when it came to his writing), how they choose (or are chosen by) their subject matter, how they envision the trajectories of their careers, and—my personal favorite—what is Jewish about their work. They even gave fiction recommendations—Leonard Michaels, Mikhail Bulgakov, Annie Dillard—to the audience members, many of whom immediately took out their pens in order to scribble on their programs the names of authors that were thrown out. (It was an exciting night for Pittsburgh natives such as myself: in addition to Torday’s mention of Dillard, one of Pittsburgh’s brilliant writers, Sachs hails from the great post-industrial city and Novey from its surrounding areas, with her novel partially set there as well.)
The star of the evening, Novey, is mainly a poet and, like the protagonist of her award-winning novel, a literary translator. Torday, the second-place winner, wrote an essay for Tablet about family narratives and myths, and The Last Flight of Poxl West (his first novel–he previously published a novella, The Sensualist), for which he was honored, deals with much this same theme. The Last Flight of Poxl West also earned him the National Jewish Book Award in 2015.
“It was exciting to see how many people came out to support Jewish literature,” newly minted Fellow Rebecca Schiff, who was featured last year on Unorthodox, told me. “I was honored to be nominated for The Bed Moved, and to be in the company of such intellectually engaged and thoughtful writers.”
My own sentiments precisely: It was inspiring to see these five writers, all still in the early stages of their careers, share this particular stage. If they are indeed the heirs of the great Jewish literary tradition, we are in good hands.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that the Choice award prize is $25,000. It’s $18,000.
Miranda Cooper is an editorial intern at Tablet. Follow her on Twitter here.