(JTA) — When Carolyn Starman Hessel joined the New York-based Jewish Book Council in 1994 – at the request of friend Marsha Posner – she knew nothing about the publishing world.
Since then, she’s been called the “Jewish Oprah” for her ability to help authors find audiences, and has enjoyed enormous clout and influence among publishers.
The soon-to-be retired director, who says she simply learned “on the job,” helped launch the career of novelist and short-story writer Nathan Englander, when in 1999 she sent the then little-known author on a 38-city tour. And she has assisted countless others, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Francesca Segal and Dara Horn, by connecting them to Jewish book fair coordinators.
Safran Foer, whose 2002 debut novel “Everything is Illuminated” won the National Jewish Book Award – and then went on to collect numerous other honors – told JTA that going on the book tour with the Jewish Book Council and meeting Hessel when he was 23 or 24 was “the most helpful thing that ever happened to me.”
“I don’t know that I would have had a chance without it,” he added.
Hessel’s retirement, effective March 30, represents a major sea change for the Jewish Book Council, which has long been synonymous with its director.
Under her stewardship, the Jewish Book Council — founded in 1925 and funded through a combination of donations and programming revenue — has expanded its activities and influence. The council’s mission, according to its website, is to promote the “reading, writing, publishing and distribution of quality Jewish content books in English” and to serve as the “coordinating body of Jewish literary activity in North America.”
Its budget in 2012, the most recent year for which tax forms are publicly available, was $914,000.
Early in her tenure at the Council, Hessel launched its annual event at the BookExpo America (BEA) convention. There, Jewish authors and authors of books on Jewish subjects give two-minute pitches to Jewish book fair directors and other event coordinators who use the pitches to decide which authors to bring to speak at their programs. What started as a group of book fair coordinators “sitting on the floor” in a hotel room has become a major gathering that brings together more than 200 authors and 150 book fair directors each year.
Hessel also partnered with philanthropist George Rohr to establish a prize in honor of his father, Sami, for writers of fiction and nonfiction who are early in their careers. She is planning to continue her involvement with the prize even after retiring.
What’s next for the Jewish Book Council remains to be seen. Not only is Hessel retiring, but the group’s president of the past decade, Lawrence Krule, is also stepping down. Hessel’s successor has not yet been hired.
Englander describes Hessel as a “keen-eyed arbiter of what makes for a good, solid culturally Jewish book.”
The lavish fundraising dinner the Jewish Book Council hosted last month honoring Hessel and Krule attracted prominent American Jewish writers and featured speeches by Emory University’s Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies Deborah Lipstadt, “Jewish Literacy” author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Rabbi David Wolpe, whose most recent book “David: A Divided Heart” was just optioned to be produced as a movie.
The writers Hessel has helped are remarkably loyal to her. When JTA, where she is a board member, sent some of them emails requesting quotes, not only did almost all of them respond with alacrity, but many requested that we call them so they could have an opportunity to sing her praises.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history who has written or edited more than 30 books, said in an email, “A great many authors (including me) know that we owe a good portion of our success to Carolyn. She read our manuscripts, advised us, encouraged us, promoted us, and was always available to us. Her loyalty explains why so many are loyal to her.”
The 2011 winner of the Sami Rohr prize, Austin Ratner, who is now a JBC board member, said that Hessel has given American Jewish writers “a home base within the larger literary world” and brought “a Jewish sense of extended family to that larger world.”
She is also known for her willingness to mentor individual writers, perhaps reflecting her initial career in education. She taught Hebrew school for many years, then worked for the Jewish Educational Service of North America and the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, both of which have since closed.
In a recent meeting with Gon Ben Ari, a young expat Israeli writer in New York, Hessel said she advised him, “Become familiar with American culture. Play the game the way Americans play.”
She added that since Ben Ari is “cute,” she is sure “every single grandmother will come up to him” to either suggest a single granddaughter or buy his book.
Herself a grandmother, the Brooklyn-born Hessel has been married for 55 years and is a mother of four. Although she declined to give her age, she mentioned that she was four years behind novelist Erich Segal (who was born in 1937) at Midwood High School, a Brooklyn public school whose numerous notable Jewish alumni include Woody Allen.
Diminutive in height, Hessel is meticulously put together: her hair always in a perfect coif and, as JBC’s outgoing chair Lawrence Krule told JTA, “she has the best nails in town.”
While many in publishing fret about changes in the industry and the impact of technology, Hessel is nonplussed. “We will always have the written word,” she says, adding, “I don’t care if it is an e-book or on a piece of stone, since it is the word that is important – the idea behind it.”
Hessel is neither a literary snob nor a prudish librarian.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis in his speech at the dinner said that when he told Hessel he’d written a novel, her first question was, “Does it have sex?”
Before he had answered the question, she said, “Add more sex. People like sex.”
But Gordis said that when the conversation turned to the novel’s content, it “quickly became clear that Carolyn was about as knowledgeable about the book industry as virtually anyone I’d ever met. She knew every agent, every editor, every publisher.”
As well, “she had a keen sense of market, of quality. And she had a love of books and a deep, abiding commitment to Jewish literature, Jewish writing, Jewish authors.”