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Anatomy of a Jewish Literary Prize

Nearly every year, on that day in April when the Koret Jewish Book Awards were to take place at the wood-paneled, hushed environs of New York’s Harvard Club, I’d awake and ask myself, testily, why I had insisted we return to that same stuffy midtown pile. The location was convenient for publishers, book editors and most journalists, and it gave the awards, sponsored by a San Francisco-based foundation, a starchy East Coast branding. But the dimly lit halls — some filled with the carcasses of dead animals — and the building’s staff, who carried themselves with a studied, distant defiance and the sense of having deserved better, exuded something akin to a disjointed, disquieting dream. All this, I admit, made my palms sweat.

In fact, the club’s lavishly understated pretensions contrasted nicely with the straightforward celebration of books at the awards ceremony. The featured speakers were often consciously quirky choices intended to underline not merely the scope but the formlessness, the impossibility of categorizing the best of contemporary Jewish literary and scholarly self-expression. They included Art Spiegelman, Oliver Sachs, A.B. Yehoshua, Cynthia Ozick and E.L. Doctorow. Speaking in that room became one of my most acute recurring pleasures.

Recently I resigned as director of the Koret Jewish Book Awards in the wake of a re-evaluation of the awards’ goals. It seems a good moment to revisit them and review their pertinence.

The idea for the awards was hammered out some 10 or 11 years ago at a series of meetings, most of them held in Napa Valley’s wine country. There, a wide range of Jewish thinkers, writers and academics were brought together over the course of four or five weekends to think about how to contribute to Jewish cultural life. In the end, the meetings were rather more rancorous than useful: Their composition was probably too diverse and, while designed to encourage ongoing, fertile conversations, they resulted in participants speaking in their wake less with one another than might have otherwise been the case. The initial idea was that as Jews who cared deeply about Jewish matters, we could work together to arrive at new, interesting projects; in the end, our differences — cultural, political, religious and otherwise — seemed to loom larger than the similarities. Proximity generated distaste, not empathy.

Still, the idea of the prize coalesced into these gatherings, inspired by a desire to challenge just the sort of barriers that made those Napa meetings so uncomfortable at times. The obstacles we encountered might be rather more amenable to change in the context of a sustained, ongoing project committed to winnowing out and then celebrating the best, most intelligently conceived Jewish books. The idea was that a wide range of insightful readers with a deep, diversified knowledge of Jewish life would be asked to judge the broadest collection of Jewish books, and they would weigh in on those they thought were best. These would be advertised widely, and hopefully they would be rendered that much more accessible.

All this, we knew, was to be played out against an odd, contradictory backdrop. On the one hand, Jewish literary and scholarly life had never looked so good: Jewish studies now flourished in hundreds of universities and colleges, new titles appeared constantly in the field, donors continued to pour money into programs, and more and more Ph.D.s surfaced to teach the subject. And at the same time, there has been an outpouring of Jewish fiction, biography and memoir, some of it superb. A few Jewish novels, like those of Jonathan Safran Foer, have soared in the sales charts and, in turn, have been responsible for whetting publishers’ appetites for more and more books of this sort.

Yet the same book editors hungrily hunting for new talent are painfully aware that there are, in fact, fewer serious readers. No one with eyes or limbs can avoid knowing that there also are fewer good bookstores except, of course, for the two stupendous mega-chains whose appetites seem insatiable. There are fewer spots where one actually can hold a newly released book published by none but the largest house and, in effect, less and less of a literary culture in a country producing more and more deeply, truly interesting books. The intersection between this Jewish literary effervescence and a thriving Jewish academia is, with rare exceptions, vague and intermittent, and rarely meaningful. Scholarship, Jewish or not, seems to many otherwise serious readers and writers leaden, archaic — an artifact of a slower, bygone age.

The awards were designed to throw all these books — the scholarly and the literary — into the same huge, unwieldy cauldron, to have them read by very different readers, to evaluate them with as few presumptions as possible about the requirements of Jewish content and to see which books rose to the top. The first year of the awards’ existence, Brian Morton’s novel “Starting Out in the Evening” (Crown, 1997) — a beautifully observed story built around an aged New York Jewish intellectual who has something of Irving Howe’s girth and mannerisms but little of his literary success — was published. It seemed sensible for it to be considered for the fiction prize. No fewer than five letters requesting copies for the judges were sent to the publisher, without so much as an acknowledgment; finally copies were purchased for the judges, who later gave it the first Koret fiction award. Never did I learn why the publisher was so resistant, or indifferent, but I assumed that the book, not pegged as a “Jewish” novel, was considered unlikely to win a Jewish literary prize.

It was just this sort of parochialism that the awards sought to unsettle. The juries were designed to create useful, creative dissension, to make decisions difficult and to ensure, as best as possible, that the widest range of books was considered. Matching the judges with one another felt, at times, like the planning of an eccentric dinner party, the cobbling together of something that might well be ridiculously explosive or splendidly unpredictable or, perhaps most likely, a combination of the two.

Since launching the awards, I’ve often thought about how today, nostalgia suffuses today so much of our talk about books — their place in contemporary culture, their ostensible prominence in the past, their increasing invisibility or irrelevance. I’ve learned to distrust such notions. I’ve come to appreciate how varied, rich, surprising and, not infrequently, how truly alien a good deal of contemporary Jewish writing is to my own sensibility and preferences. I’ve come to see that a part of my task as a writer and a reader is to figure out how to live with this surprise, and unease, and how to factor all this into what I think of Jewish life. These were the tasks at the forefront of the book awards. Their resolution is certain to be elusive, but these preoccupations are also certain to be crucial as long as Jewish culture remains alive, and alert, and capable of drawing to it writers of ambition and intelligence — as long as it retains the capacity to inspire them to use things Jewish as a source of wisdom and subversion and wonder.

Steven J. Zipperstein is Koshland professor in Jewish culture and history and director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University.




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