Nobelist Eric Kandel Witty and Cerebral at Jewish Book Council Awards

By Masha Leon

Published April 04, 2013, issue of April 12, 2013.
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“You’ll walk out of this room with a slightly different brain than you walked into it, because of [the evening’s] experience,” said neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize winner and the recipient of the Jewish Book Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award, at the JBC’s National Book Award Ceremony, held on March 14 at the Center for Jewish History

The evening’s co-hosts, author and New York Times columnist Samuel Freedman and Abigail Pogrebin, author and former “60 Minutes” producer for Mike Wallace, alluded to the sexist jokes made by Seth MacFarlane when he hosted the February 24 presentation of the Oscars: Freedman reconfigured an offensive line, “We saw your boobs,” into “We read your books.” Apropos MacFarlane’s “ill-considered joke about how Jews run Hollywood,” as Freedman put it, he said, “The problem is that Jews actually do run the publishing business,” to which Pogrebin added that it is “not so secret is that it isn’t Jews who run the publishing world, it is one tiny but mighty Jew with impeccable book judgment and incredible nails: [JBC Director] Carolyn Hessel!”

Eric Kandel
Karen Leon
Eric Kandel

Among the 16 award-winning books was Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy’s “Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame” (Twelve, 2012), about which Tracy said, “Jews have shaped sports in exactly the same sort of way as Jews have shaped Hollywood — by being innovators. “ Among the book’s 50 essays is one by Simon Schama that highlights the life of Daniel Mendoza, the great Jewish boxer of late 18th-century London.

The winner in the Sephardic culture category was Tirtsah Levie Bernfeld, whose book ,“Poverty and Welfare Among the Portuguese Jews in Early Modern Amsterdam” (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012), showcases a city “ that is tolerant of dissident views…. Conversos fleeing persecution from the Iberian Peninsula [who] created out of nothing a Jewish community that quickly became renowned across the world. “I wanted to let the poor speak for themselves…. I discovered small details of a world in which the rich or those on welfare — people living on the margins of society — were given the place they deserve.”

“I was not encouraged in the U.K .to write a book that dealt with Jewish themes,” said Francesca Segal, author of “The Innocents” (Voice, 2012). Her book won the JJ Greenberg Memorial Award for fiction. In a mellifluous British accent, Segal explained that the book “explores and gently satirizes the social climate of a suburban Jewish community in contemporary Northwest London…. I understand that in America there is support and appreciation of contemporary Jewish fiction, and that is both humbling and inspiring.” Edith Everett presented The Everett Family Foundation’s Jewish Book of the Year Award to Howard Rock, Annie Polland, Daniel Soyer, Jeffrey Gurock and editor Deborah Dash Moore for the three-volume “City of Promises: The History of the Jews of New York” (New York University Press, 2012).

“You may be surprised that this is the first scholarly comprehensive history of Jews in the City of New York,” Moore said. “At its peak, 2 million Jews lived in New York City… [it] became the largest Jewish city in the 20th century.” Soyer stated: “I come from a family who have been Jewish New Yorkers for three centuries now. My son is fifth or sixth generation — depending on how you count. “ Rock said, “American Jewish historians would do well to pay as much attention to early American Jewish history as American historians do to Colonial or Revolutionary and early national eras.”

“Eric is quite an extraordinary mensch,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin said of honoree Kandel. “He writes a book on memory” —“In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2006) — “and for the Jews, memory is the essential thing. Memory is enjoined in the Bible six times…. The Seder: If we Jews did not perpetuate that story every year, we as a people would no longer exist. The story of the Exodus has influenced more movements of social change than any other story in recorded literature. When Kandel won the Nobel Prize, they made it known in Vienna that ‘an Austrian’ won the Nobel Prize. Kandel told them, ‘It was not an Austrian, but a Jewish American Nobel Prize winner.’ He got a call from Austria’s president, who asked how this can be ‘made right.’ Kandel told him, ‘There is still an avenue here named for Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna whom Hitler cited in ‘Mein Kampf.’ Why don’t you rename the street?’ Guess what: He had an impact”: The name was changed. Telushkin concluded: “P.S. We are both alumni of the Yeshiva of Flatbush.”

Wearing his signature red bowtie, Kandel described how as an 8-year-old he witnessed Kristallnacht; when he was 9, he and his 14-year old brother crossed the Atlantic alone to live with their grandparents in New York. “Though I only lived one year under the Nazi regime, “ he said, “the bewilderment, poverty, humiliation and fear that I experienced that last year in Vienna remained the defining period of my life. It fostered a profound and long-lasting gratitude for the life I found in the United States.”

Switching gears, a chipper Kandel looked down from the lectern at his wife and told the audience, “I started dating [Denise Brystyn], and one night I told her [regarding neuroscience], ‘I really enjoy this stuff… I can see making a living with this. I don’t have any money. We want to have a family, raise children.’ Slamming her hand on the table, she said: ‘Absurd! Money is of no significance.’ She has not uttered those magic words ever since.” The audience roared! Kandel continued: “Once in a while, reflecting back upon my years in science, I find myself filled with wonder to be doing what I am doing. I entered Harvard to become a historian, left to become a psychoanalyst, only to abandon both careers to follow my intuition that the road to real understanding of the mind must pass through the cellular pathways of the brain.”

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