Sami Rohr Finalists Announced

Jewish Nonfiction's Biggest Payday

By Dan Friedman and Ezra Glinter

Published November 25, 2009.
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The finalists for the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize have been announced. The prize, the largest one in Jewish writing ($100,000 to the winner, $25,000 to the first runner-up), alternates each year between fiction and nonfiction and this year its nonfiction’s turn. No man has ever won the prize. The winner will be announced at the end of January. The 2010 award ceremony will be held in Jerusalem on March 31. The five finalists are surveyed below in alphabetical order.


Lila Corwin Berman

Jews have never shied away from talk, but they have not necessarily explained themselves clearly, simply or at all to non-Jews. In her book, “Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity,” (University of California Press) Lila Berman investigates how some of that representation did take place in America during the mid-20th century.

Berman, an assistant professor as well as director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University, went to high school with former Forward features editor Sarah Kricheff, was at Yale with current Forward arts and culture editor Dan Friedman and has written for the Forward.

Despite, or possibly because of her preoccupation with conversation, her current project is about Jewish migration from urban centers: perhaps appropriate for someone in State College, Pa.


Ari Y. Kelman

The distance between Yiddish radio and evangelical prayer music may seem unbridgeable, but for Ari Kelman, it’s all in a day’s work.

An assistant professor of American studies at the University of California, Davis, Kelman co-authored several studies of American Jewish identity with Steven M. Cohen, including a controversial 2007 paper alleging that young non-Orthodox Jews are increasingly unlikely to identify with Israel.

Kelman’s latest book, “Station Identification” (University of California Press), digs into the history of Yiddish radio in America, while his forthcoming projects will focus on the soundtrack to contemporary Christian worship and the context of sound in the age of mechanical reproduction.


Kenneth B. Moss

The Russian Revolution may have been a time of chaos and upheaval, but it framed a particular moment not just for the larger Soviet Union, but also for a particular form of self-conscious Jewish culture in Eastern Europe.

At least so claims, and discusses, Johns Hopkins assistant professor of modern Jewish history, Kenneth B. Moss, in his book “Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution” (Harvard University Press).

Having studied with Steven Zipperstein at Stanford University, Moss is well placed to write about the Jewish encounter with modern ideas of nationhood in Europe and beyond. Having recently tried out some ideas when teaching his graduate course on “Nationalism and Nationhood: Theories and Histories,” he is currently on leave working on that project.


Danya Ruttenberg

Danya Ruttenberg has become a go-to figure over the past few years for her outspoken views on Judaism, sexuality and feminism.

She is the author, most recently, of “The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism” (NYU Press), as well as of “Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism” (Seal Press).

Her 2008 book ““Surprised by God: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Religion” (Beacon Press) takes a more personal view of her relationship with Judaism, documenting her journey from teenage atheism through young adult San Francisco hedonism to spiritual awakening and the rabbinate.


Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Ostrich feathers aren’t the first items that come to mind when the notion of Jewish commerce comes up, the way diamonds, say, might be. But just prior to the First World War the two commodities had nearly the same value by weight, thanks to high demand for women’s headwear.

Sarah Abrevaya Stein, the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA, discusses the predominantly Jewish business and its demise in her book, “Plumes: Ostrich, Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce” (Yale University Press).

Following her first book, “Making Jews Modern: The Yiddish and Ladion Press in the Russian and Ottoman Empires,” Stein once again illuminates an overlooked chapter of Jewish history.


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