Prestigious Book Prize Seeks More Popular Profile

By Jennifer Siegel

Published March 03, 2006, issue of March 03, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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 JBooks.com.

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.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.