Recent Reads: The J-Word, by Andrew Sanger

As a Jewish-American, I’m very interested in the experiences of Jews in other countries, past or present, factual or fictional. Andrew Sanger‘s debut novel, The J-Word, presents one such glimpse into 21st-century Jewish life–in England–by focusing on octogenarian Jack Silver and his family. (If Sanger’s name is familiar, that may be because you’ve seen him guest-blog right here on My Machberet.)

What I found here–apart from certain figures of speech, a pronounced recurrence of teatime, and a greater focus on “football” (soccer) than we tend to find in American literature–were many similarities with threads of Jewish experience in the United States. To be sure, Jack’s long-sustained quest to become truly “English” and fully assimilated is a situation quite familiar to readers of Jewish-American literature. The incorporation of prayer snippets and Yiddishims is another link (anyone needing refreshers or translations will find them in footnotes and a glossary). But the book also reflects newer aspects of Jewish contemporary experience that cannot fail to resonate in an American reader just as they might in an English one.

Take, for instance, these musings from Jack, shortly after he is attacked by a gang in what is clearly an anti-Semitic hate crime:

Maybe the answer is education. An intelligent, aware population. That, he realised, was an impossibility. Some of the best educated people hate Jews. So a liberal, tolerant society? He grimaced at the thought. In his mind he saw ranks of pale, thin-lipped English men and women saying ‘we’re not antisemitic,’ the readers and writers of the Guardian and the Independent, sympathising with suicide attackers, calling for boycotts and spreading hatred of Israel. He laughed bitterly. ‘Oh no, it’s only Israel and its supporters we hate,’ he said, ‘not Jews.’ The Guardian and the Independent and the BBC are leading us to the next Holocaust. Then they will be able to report on it with horrified condemnations. What about the Jews who take that side, too – Harold Pinter and the rest? Fools!

Now, I happen to be a reader who appreciates a good dose of politics in fiction, and I also happen to be someone who discerns with increasing frustration in some American media outlets much of the same content/opinion that Jack highlights here on the English side. In other words, I am sympathetic to Jack’s particular political views. I admire Sanger’s writing here very much. It takes bravery to write like this. It also takes skill. Whatever Sanger’s personal views might be, these few lines convey at least as much power and conviction as might a full-fledged op-ed. But undoubtedly, some readers may not share my enthusiasm on these points.

I haven’t done justice here to this novel, which merits a much more detailed examination, so I will send you to some other sources. Meantime, I’m quite glad that I’ve had the opportunity to read The J-Word, and (disclosure!) I’m grateful to the publisher for the review copy.

Further Resources:

Live and "Virtual" Literary Events to Share

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York has announced its May-August programs, which feature a number of book- and literary-focused events. Participating authors include Louis Begley, Ruth Reichl, Daphne Merkin, Kai Bird, Dani Shapiro, and Judith Shulevitz (among others).

Also announced this week: the “downloadable festival” from London’s Jewish Book Week. “All sessions are one hour long with the exception of the 8.30 pm ones which can last up to an hour and a half and the morning workshops.” An amazing lineup to enjoy and learn from at your leisure.

Jewish Book Week 2010: Guest Post by Andrew Sanger

Jewish Book Week 2010

by Andrew Sanger

This year, London’s Jewish Book Week coincides with Purim. Plenty of extra fun is promised as an unlikely band of comedians and academics get together to put on a Purim Spiel “with a contemporary twist and some all-new conspiracy theories.”

Jewish Book Week is not just Europe’s biggest festival of writing for, about and by Jews. It’s a highlight of the UK’s non-Jewish literary calendar, too. Few other events in Britain attract so many highbrow and high-profile speakers. In fact, the modest billing as a “book week” doesn’t do justice to a culture-fest delving the whole eclectic mix of arts, science, politics and ideas.

The venue is surprisingly low-key – three conference rooms in a dated 3-star hotel in the heart of Bloomsbury, traditionally London’s literary district – and in the typically British way there’s nothing slick about it and no razzmatazz.

Yet during the course of the week, as many as 10,000 visitors come to browse, buy and, most of all, attend a succession of talks and debates with an astonishing array of leading journalists, novelists, historians, philosophers, playwrights, actors and broadcasters.

There are quite a few non-Jews among them. The 2010 programme includes talks by the popular mathematician Professor Marcus du Sautoy and former Sixties activist and present-day Leftist political writer Tariq Ali (who is of Pakistani Muslim origin).

Of course, the “Jewish” in Jewish Book Week covers the whole spectrum, from militantly secular to devoutly Orthodox. Among this year’s speakers are the anti-Zionist novelist Will Self, the fertility expert Professor Robert Winston (who manages to combine being a leading scientist and a lord with being an observant Jew) and Britain’s Orthodox Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

The biggest names are usually scheduled for 7 p.m. and 8.30 p.m., but the show is open all day long. There’s something going on all the time.

Up-and-coming authors can often be heard at lunchtime talks. I was lucky enough to be a speaker myself last year, at a “Meet The Author” event. These take place in the early evening, when many people drop in after finishing work. An interview about my novel The J-Word was followed by comments and questions that turned into a terrific discussion on the issues the book raises about secular Jewish identity.

Friendly, intelligent and informal, talks usually end with a book signing, perhaps a chance to exchange a few thoughts of your own with the author or even to continue in the JBW café.

Andrew Sanger is a well-established travel writer living in London, England. He has contributed to a wide range of British newspapers and news-stand magazines, and is the author of more than 30 guidebooks. His first novel, The J-Word, published in England in 2009 to wide acclaim, has just been released in the United States.

Jewish Book Week: Past and Present

Jewish Book Week, an annual London event, will release its 2010 program (slated to take place from February 27-March 7), on January 7.

In the meantime, however, you can enjoy a plethora of recordings from past festival sessions. Truly, the site provides an amazing trove of podcasts and videos to enjoy. (I’ve started with one from last year featuring Philippe Grimbert discussing his autobiographical novel.)

Kisufim 2009: The Jerusalem Conference of Jewish Writers and Poets

The good news: Just yesterday, I found out about Kisufim 2009: The Jerusalem Conference of Jewish Writers and Poets (courtesy of the Foundation for Jewish Culture e-newsletter).

The bad news: Just yesterday, I just found out about Kisufim 2009: The Jerusalem Conference of Jewish Writers and Poets.

You see, this conference is slated for December 7-10, 2009. As in: next week. As in: way too late for me to arrange a trip to Israel around it. I have been very much focused on finding a literary-oriented event around which to plan my next trip to Israel, and this would have been fantastic.

Here’s a description of what I’ll be missing:

“The significance of Jewish creativity, in Israel and throughout the world, is increasing during a period characterized by a Jewish absence from post-Holocaust Europe. Also evident is the need for close, unmediated contact between contemporary Israeli and Jewish literature worldwide.

The conference provides a venue for an experiential encounter and for clarification of textual and cultural issues concerning the writer’s identity, focusing on questions such as the meaning of Exile today, the identity of text and place and the function of translation in a literary work with a Jewish identity and the change that Jewish literature has undergone from the Second World War and the establishment of the State of Israel to the present. It is no coincidence that the Hebrew acronym for this gathering is Kisufim (yearnings). Jerusalem has been the heart of yearning in Jewish literature for many generations. We have a special opportunity to continue the process that began in 2007 with the first Kisufim Conference by gathering for four days and nights at Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Beit Avi-Chai, with the participation of the best Jewish literary creators in today’s world, in various languages, to discuss literary works with a Jewish connection and identity.

This international meeting of Jewish creative writers encourages encounter between Israeli creativity – in Hebrew and other languages – and world Jewish creativity that is both multilingual and multicultural.

The Conference will include poetry and prose-reading evenings, workshops and meetings with poets and writers in various languages, as well as meetings among writers and poets who share a common language, such as Russian, English, French, Hungarian, Serbian and Spanish, from Israel and all over the world.

The Kisufim Conference seeks to elucidate and reinforce ties with various types of Jewish literature and increase public awareness of literary issues. By bringing together the creative and intellectual powers of Jewish writers, poets and publishers, wherever they may be, it reinforces mutual ties and increases translation efforts.

The international writers are: Miriam Anisimov (France), Jonathan Rosen (USA), Dara Horn (USA), Rodger Kamenetz (USA), Linda Grant (UK), Marcelo Birmajer (Argentina), Ilan Stavans (Mexico/USA), Emmanuel Moses (France) Robert Schindel (Austria), Esther Bendahan (Spain), Lucette Lagnado (Egypt/USA), Lisa Ginzburg (Italy), Geza Rohrig (Hungary/USA), Angel Wagenstein (Bulgaria), Alessandro Piperno (Italy) and Norman Manea (Romania/USA)

The list of Israeli writers include: Aharon Applefeld, Hava Pinhas-Cohen, Dov Elbaum, Nava Semel, Asaf Inbari, Michal Govrin, Yehoshua Sobol, Eli Amir, Rafi Veichert, Yoel Hoffman, Eshkol Nevo, Meron C. Izakson, Menachem Lorberbaum, Roni Somek, Yisrael Pincas, Itamar Yaoz-Kest, Tal Nitzan, Yisrael Eliraz, Haviva Pedaya, Admiel Kosman, Zeruya Shalev, Eyal Megged, Yochi Brandes, Hagit Grossman, Sabina Messig, Ori Bernstein, Anna Shomlo (Serbian), Linda Zisquit (English), David Markish (Russian), Peter Cole(English), Karen Alkalay-Gut (English)”

There’s a full program you can download at the site for further information.

Anyone going? Want to write a guest post for this blog? Please contact me if so.