An Author’s Visit to a Jewish Book Festival: Guest Post by Jessica Handler

Jessica Handler’s affecting memoir, Invisible Sisters, remains one of my most memorable reads for 2009. When I saw that Jessica, a Jewish Book Network author, was to appear on a panel of memoirists at a Jewish Book Festival earlier this month, I e-mailed to ask if she’d report on the experience. Jessica graciously agreed, and I am happy to present the resulting guest post. Please welcome Jessica Handler.

About a month ago, my good friend G. asked me, “So, what is the Jewish platform for your book?”

She’d read Invisible Sisters, and that evening we were practicing our digital video connection for my upcoming visit to her book group, in a city 700 miles from mine. I was surprised that she asked about Invisible Sisters and Judaism. She is Modern Orthodox, a Jew by choice. She sends out email Purim cards every year, photos of herself, her husband, and their children, decked out as King Ahashverus, Queen Esther, and (boooo) Haman. She makes an effort to find the Jewish connection in every part of her life. Is it so difficult to locate that connection in this memoir?

Her question gets me wondering about the Jewish presence in my book. I wrote Invisible Sisters with my family’s Judaism very much on my mind, although our practice was what my mother called cultural Judaism. I didn’t grow up religious, but secular Judaism was key to our identity. Jewish artists, writers, and musicians like Marc Chagall, Maurice Sendak, and Leonard Bernstein were revered in my family. My father swore in Yiddish. The Jewish “parts” of the book are no more evident or distinct than the Jewish “parts” of my appearance. I have dark hair, but my sister Sarah was blonde. I have my grandmother’s diamond Magen David, but because necklaces make me uncomfortable, I don’t usually wear it. I don’t look Jewish, as the saying goes, but maybe my point is: what is Jewish, really?

My Judaism is as integrated in to the book as my multi-faceted self.

Which leads me to Jewish Book Festivals. In the spring, I participated in the Jewish Book Council‘s “speed dating” get-together in New York, at which I pitched my book in a two-minute speech to Jewish Book Festival representatives. And then, like the many other authors there that night and the night before, I went home to wait for the good word.

Six months later, I’m in the Atlanta airport, waiting for a flight to a city in the Midwest, where I am to participate on a Jewish Book Festival panel.

About a week before our event, the two other panelists and I met by phone, then by email, to get to know each other a little bit and discuss the commonalities in our books. We decide that although our memoirs differ in topic and tone, they are each about family, survival, and identity. That’s our common ground.

At breakfast in our hotel, I run into one of the panelists. I recognize her from her book jacket photo, and, I figure, she recognizes me from mine. She’s energetic and cheerful. We have buffet breakfast, scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, toast, and coffee. We talk nonstop about our books, about families in general, politics, baseball. We have a mutual friend in another city. We hit it off.

I find that I am expected, over the course of this day, to eat a lot.

We are taken to brunch by a lovely woman: a festival macher. We talk book business. I try out a co-panelist’s Kindle and decide I like it. I have what the menu calls tuna salad salad, I guess to distinguish it from tuna salad sandwich.

Over brunch we decide further that our common ground is family lore, the Jewish ability to make it out of constricting circumstances, a kind of optimism and faith in the future. I soon learn that in Hebrew, the word for “Egypt” (as in what we escaped from) is a word that also means “constriction.” The word is Mitsrayim. Pressed in.

And then it’s two o’clock, and we’ve had our pictures taken, and we’ve fixed our hair and our lipstick, and a charming woman – a social worker – introduces us to an attentive audience. We get up, one by one, and read short selections from our books. We talk about our stories, why we wrote what we did. One of us is mostly funny, another mostly serious, another takes the historical view. We take questions, and every single one is thoughtful and engaging.

We sign books, and I’m thrilled and touched to see a long line waiting for us. A woman buys Invisible Sisters for her synagogue library. I am stymied by what to write but decide on “May we always practice Tikkun Olam.” This is a theme of my book. It was a theme in my family. I’m pleased with this dedication.

A Jewish Book Festival is an optimistic, celebratory event for Jews, for readers, and for writers. As I write this, I imagine rooms across the country – gymnasiums, auditoriums, conference centers, theaters – filled with book lovers gathered to listen, to think, to question. That people come on a Wednesday afternoon, a Tuesday night, a Sunday morning to hear about books and ideas, to meet authors, and to share ideas makes us people of the book, indeed.

Please click here to learn more about Invisible Sisters and its author, Jessica Handler.