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Reflections on the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Finalists

samirohrlogoYesterday, the Jewish Book Council announced the finalists for the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. As the press release notes, this prize “distinguishes the important role of emerging writers in examining the Jewish experience. The award of $100,000—one of the largest literary prizes in the world—honors a specific work as well as the author’s potential to make significant contributions to Jewish literature. A runner-up is awarded $25,000.”

From its beginnings in 2007, the prize has alternated between fiction and nonfiction. This year’s prize will go to a fiction writer, and the finalists are:

  • Shani Boianjiu, for The People of Forever Are Not Afraid
  • Ben Lerner, for Leaving the Atocha Station
  • Stuart Nadler, for The Book of Life
  • Asaf Schurr, for Motti (trans. Todd Hasak-Lowy)
  • Francesca Segal, for The Innocents
  • Before I share some thoughts about this list, I’d like to say a bit more about the prize. I’ve followed it from the start. In 2007, I was thrilled to be invited to attend the celebration of that year’s Rohr Prize winners. I was especially excited because I’d reviewed and admired the work of the overall winner, Tamar Yellin, and the winning book by one of the “Choice Award” recipients, Amir Gutfreund. (Updated: I should have noted that Gutfreund’s winning Our Holocaust was translated from Hebrew-to-English by Jessica Cohen. My bad!) I’d also recently read the other Choice Award title, Michael Lavigne’s Not Me, which impressed me greatly as well. At the ceremony, I was able to meet Yellin and Lavigne and gush appropriately. They were exceedingly gracious.

    How the Rohr Prize finalist list is developed is a mystery. As the prize’s main webpage notes, “Submissions are not accepted.” Here’s what happens: “An advisory panel is charged with searching for eligible works and presents nominations to an independent panel of renowned judges. They convene annually to select the finalists, winner and runner-up. A gala award ceremony is held annually in the Spring.” Over the years, I have been pleased to see an occasional request for title suggestions (several years ago, I recommended one book of fiction that I loved to a prize coordinator when I met her at a conference). But that doesn’t appear to be a systematic practice.

    To return to this year’s list: I’ve read three of the finalist titles. Astute followers of this blog (and my Twitter feed) know that I’m as enthusiastic a fan of Segal’s novel as you’re likely to find. Similarly, I haven’t made a secret of my deep interest in, engagement with–and reservations about–Boianjiu’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid.

    I haven’t (yet) read Schurr’s book, but it’s now on my to-be-read list. I note that Todd Hasak-Lowy (an accomplished writer in his own right) is Motti‘s translator, which raises an important question: When a prize is conferred for the English-language version of a book–especially such a generous prize–how much of the credit (and the award) ought to go to the translator?

    I haven’t read Nadler’s book (a story collection) yet, either. Here I’ll be impolitic: I knew about it when it was published in 2011, but I wasn’t especially motivated to read it. To be fair, The Book of Life was released the week before I underwent major surgery, a time when I wasn’t at my best (or most generous). I have a hazy recollection of being offered (unsolicited) a review copy, saying yes, and then never receiving (or following up on) the promised book. But I’m also self-aware (and honest) enough to admit that when I say I wasn’t feeling especially generous or motivated, it’s also possible that there was a bit of envy at work. After all, I’d published a story collection not long before, and I’d benefited from none of the big-house support that I was seeing Nadler (whose work was completely new to me; it wasn’t as though I had any of the “pre-existing” interest that frequently moves me to snap up new story collections) receive.

    On the other hand, I have read the fifth finalist title–Lerner’s book. I enjoyed it immensely. This, too, is no secret. I never managed to write up a review or commentary of my own, but I’ve been a vocal admirer. And I did point others to one of the early and excellent (and laudatory) reviews that resonated with me.

    But here’s what I can’t quite shake: I didn’t read Leaving the Atocha Station as an especially “Jewish” book. (In fact, I mentioned it on my more “generalist” writing blog, rather than here on My Machberet.)

    Moreover, I don’t recall the Jewish Book Council itself treating Lerner’s book as a “Jewish book” when it was published (in 2011) either. Certainly, unlike the books of Boianjiu/Nadler/Segal (and yours truly!), Leaving the Atocha Station didn’t show any of the usual signs of being part of Jewish literary discussion. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t reviewed in Jewish Book World. Lerner didn’t guest-blog for the Council. The book wasn’t selected as a Twitter Book Club title. I don’t recall seeing it discussed elsewhere in any particularly Jewish contexts, either. Which leaves me wondering what, exactly, made Leaving the Atocha Station–as superb as it is–stand out as exemplifying “the important role of emerging writers in examining the Jewish experience…and the author’s potential to make significant contributions to Jewish literature.”

    So those are my initial thoughts. What are yours?

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    7 Responses »

    1. I have to say I’m with you in the “not feeling so generous” department. A more transparent process might assuage that. Still, I’m looking forward to discovering what’s so great, or so Jewish, about these books.

    2. Agreed, re: Lerner. I really liked his novel, but was surprised to see it on the list. Does just being Jewish make it Jewish literature?

    3. Everyone–thank you so much for the comments. This was a hard post to write, and I wasn’t sure if I should post it. But I’m glad that I have.

      Ellie, I personally don’t subscribe to the view that an author’s Jewishness makes a book intrinsically “Jewish.” For more on that, please see http://www.erikadreifus.com/2012/11/on-jewish-writing-reflections-on-tablet-magazines-new-fiction-series/

    4. Hi Erika,

      Thanks for the interesting post. I have linked it to my Historical Novels Blog at:

      http://www.mediamint.net/page7/files/Contemporary%20Holocaust%20Fiction.html#.UbxpVRai-0g

      or just go to the home page: http://www.mediamint.net and click on Historical Novels blog.

      Thanks for all you do to promote Jewish books and authors.

      • Claire, thanks so much. It seems that you have joined the little club of readers who don’t quite grasp that choice!

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