Prestigious Book Prize Seeks More Popular Profile

By Jennifer Siegel

Published March 03, 2006, issue of March 03, 2006.
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In less than a decade, the Koret International Jewish Book Awards have earned a reputation for spotlighting excellence. The only problem is that unless you’re an aficionado of the Jewish literary scene, you’ve probably never heard of them.

Now, in a dramatic shift, the backers of the awards — the San Francisco-based Koret Foundation Funds — are working to achieve a higher public profile by shifting their emphasis from scholarly excellence to greater popular accessibility. The key component of the plan is to place the awards under the auspices of Jewish Family & Life!, is a 10-year-old Newton, Mass.-based nonprofit known for its network of Web sites and youth publications.

The goal is to be “the next best thing to a Jewish Oprah,” said Rabbi Yosef Abramowitz, Jewish Family CEO and incoming Koret chief, in reference to the talk show host’s famous book club. “We’re going to maintain excellence as one of the criteria” for winning, “but we’re going to add the criteria of accessibility. It’s not about the power of ideas, it’s about the power of presentation.”

As things stand now, for most writers on Jewish themes, garnering must-read status usually boils down to making a brief presentation to the almost 100 book fair coordinators who attend an annual meeting sponsored by the Jewish Book Council. Since its founding in 1947, the council has been seen as the major arbiter of taste for Jewish readers, both for helping to coordinate book events at synagogues and Jewish community centers and for administering the National Jewish Book Awards, a showcase for Jewish works in myriad categories, known for its more popular bent.

Under the direction of Steven Zipperstein, director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University, the Korets often honored excellent — if little known — writers.

Last year, the Koret prize in fiction went to South African Tony Eprile, whose novel “The Persistence of Memory” beat out Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.” Many Koret award winners, including Eprile’s book, have been seen as difficult or scholarly works unlikely to be embraced by a more general Jewish readership.

“I’m all for literature being accessible, but there are different ways to make it accessible,” Eprile said. “It would be a shame if [the Korets] became another affirmation for a book [discussed] on NPR or Oprah.”

Zipperstein told the Forward that the Koret Foundation recently had become “quite interested in an award that showcased somewhat more popular books” and, as a result, he decided to focus on other projects.

Abramowitz has several plans for raising the profile of the Korets. The announcement of the winners will be moved from April to November in order to coincide with Jewish book month, and the onset of the Hanukkah gift-buying rush. Several new partnerships have been established. One of them is

with the Union for Reform Judaism, which will award its own annual prize for an emerging fiction writer as part of the Korets. The National Foundation for Jewish Culture will announce the Koret award winners in the annual literary supplement that it produces for Jewish newspapers.

A full-page advertisement announcing the award finalists and winners will be taken out in The New York Times Book Review, and Abramowitz will create tie-ins for the Web sites managed by Jewish Family, including a People’s Choice award managed through

The end result, Abramowitz hopes, will be a slate of awards that combine excellence with accessibility.

“We want to change the brand equity, essentially, of the Jewish people in the public imagination,” Abramowitz said. “Book awards tend to be somewhat removed from the reading public, and through this next phase of the Koret book awards there’s going to be an innovative democratization of access.”

Abramowitz said that popularizing the Korets is one important way to determine that vast numbers of American Jews who are not religiously active but nevertheless identify strongly with the Jewish people and Jewish values.

“Religion has been the central touch point and framework in which we’ve been organized for about 200 years since Napoleon,” Abramowitz said. But “that does not work for the majority of Jews. We think that peoplehood is the grand unified field theory — if we can call it that — of the 21st century.”

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