The winners of the 2018 National Jewish Book Awards include one of Israel’s foremost statesmen, a couple who kept their love alive by hunting Nazis together and the matriarch of Israeli feminism.
Announced on January 9, the winners of the Jewish Book Council’s annuals awards present a broad vision of contemporary Judaism and its interests. Taking home the most prestigious award of the year, that for Jewish Book of the Year, was Beate and Serge Klarsfeld’s “Hunting the Truth,” their shared memoir about their years spent in pursuit of Nazis. “I understood by the mid-1970s that if we didn’t do something, Vichy would be rehabilitated. We had to change the vision of the French,” Serge Klarsfeld told Robert Zaretsky for the Forward. “If we had remained in ordinary times,” he insisted, “we’d have also remained ordinary.”
Ehud Barak won top honors in biography and memoir for “My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace”; writing on a similar theme in the Forward in April, the former Israeli prime minister noted that the questions now facing Israel “are about what kind of country Israel will be in its next seven decades, and the degree to which we remain true to the struggle, sacrifice and the underlying Jewish values I still vividly remember from Israel’s first war in 1948.” Yet Barak wasn’t the only Israeli luminary honored for sharing a complex vision of the country whose birth he witnessed. In his company is the noted Israeli feminist Alice Shalvi’s “Never a Native,” which won the prize for Women’s Studies. In an October profile of Shalvi, Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner described her as the “Orthodox mother of six who was willing to challenge the rabbinate and burn restrictive religious marriage contracts in a fiery demonstration; the devoted educator willing to jeopardize her career by speaking publicly to Palestinians.”
Israeli wasn’t the only foreign country whose recent history dominated the imagination of America’s Jewish readers, as Michael David Lukas’s “The Last Watchman of Old Cairo” was recognized as last year’s best work of fiction. That novel is set around a Cairo synagogue, and Lukas, writing in the Forward last March, recalled that “for centuries — between the 11th and 14th centuries to be exact — Cairo rivaled Jerusalem and Baghdad as a cultural, economic and scholarly capital of the Jewish world.” (Among the finalists for the fiction prize was Gary Shteyngart’s “Lake Success”; in a review of that book for the Forward, Raphael Magarik commented that while “Lake Success” is “explicitly a Trump novel,” Shteyngart has been writing about Trumpian themes for his entire career.)
Ariel Burger’s “Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom” topped the Biography category. In a 2017 reflection on Wiesel’s legacy for the Forward, Burger wrote “In class, we saw [Wiesel] smile, invite a student to speak with the slightest lift of an eyebrow, saw him laugh at his own stories. We saw him fiercely indignant at the continued inaction of world bodies in response to massacres, deportations, and genocides. We heard his calls to us to “do something, anything, to make a difference, however simple, however small.” And Ronen Bergman, immortalized on the Forward’s most recent list of the sexiest Jewish intellectuals alive — he’s number 12 — won laurels for his “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.” Steven J. Zipperstein’s “Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History” was a finalist in the same category; in a May interview with the Forward, Zipperstein said that in choosing the Kishinev pogrom as his subject, he “wanted to build a book around a moment of real catastrophe, and at the same time understand the various mythologies that Jews have constructed whereby all of contemporary Jewish life ends up being catastrophe.”
Yossi Klein Halevi was a finalist for the Book Council’s Book Club Aware for his “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” which, Liam Hoare wrote in the Forward, “seeks to strip away misconceptions” about Judaism. And Shahar M. Pinsker’s “A Rich Brew: How Cafes Created Modern Jewish Culture” was a finalist in the category of Modern Jewish Thought and Experience; as Mikhail Krukitov wrote in the Forward, the book “takes the reader on a journey across the important centers of modern Jewish culture: Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, New York and Tel Aviv.”
The winners will be recognized at a dinner in New York City on March 5.