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.

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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.

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.

A Visit to the New Illinois Holocaust Museum: Guest Post from B.J. Epstein

A Visit to the New Illinois Holocaust Museum

by B.J. Epstein

On my last trip back to my hometown of Chicago, my grandparents, mother, and I went to the new Illinois Holocaust Museum. Now, I’ll admit at the outset that I am very reluctant to criticize any museum that teaches people about the Holocaust and similar events, because I feel that such places are so important. That being said, however, I did feel there was much that ought to be rethought at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

The museum is in a lovely, spacious new purpose-built building (oddly, however, the entrance is at the back of the building). The main exhibit reviews the history of the Holocaust, from pre-war Germany up through the end of the war and what happened to the refugees. It is powerful, as it should be. The information is mainly given via video screens and posters, so there is a strange lack of objects. Perhaps that is intentional, to remind visitors of what victims did not have. But it can also lead to a lack of tangibility to the situation, even though there were a few artifacts as well. Still, the videos included much suvivor testimony and should be viewed by schoolchildren. In the middle of the exhibit is an original rail car, used during World War 2. To stand in that car, to experience how dark and crowded and frightening it must have been, is to get chills and to be moved to tears.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum also has a art exhibit, featuring artists and works from all over the world. Here the focus is not the Holocaust itself but rather “absence”, and as such it looks at Rwanda, Korean women forced to be prostitutes in Japan, the Gulag, and other tragic events.

In addition, there is a video on holocausts in general, an educational center, and, of course, a gift shop.

As I said, I was at the museum with my grandparents. They were not the only older people there. So what I wondered was why there were no benches. The main exhibit snaked its way through the building and each of the many videos was a few minutes long. So it is natural to expect a few chairs or benches, especially for the older visitors. That doesn’t seem to be very well thought-out to me. It is not a welcoming gesture, unless the intention is to make people uncomfortable and aware of how much they have in comparison to Holocaust victims.

Despite these various complaints, I did appreciate my visit to the Illinois Holocaust Museum. Museums like this are important and we owe it to the next generation to take them here and teach them about this tragedy. Perhaps then situations such as the Holocaust itself or, on a smaller scale, what happened at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum last week won’t happen again.

(Editor’s Note: This new museum is located in Skokie, Ill., a place I first learned about via the story of the U.S. Supreme Court case, National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie.)

Letter from Shanghai: Guest Post from BJ Epstein

Remember BJ Epstein‘s guest post about her experiences as a Jew in Sweden? BJ is an intrepid traveler, and now she has graciously agreed to share impressions (and photographs) from her recent trip to China.

Earlier this month, when I went to China for a translation conference, I didn’t expect to learn some Jewish history. I vaguely knew that some Jews had taken refuge in Shanghai during the Second World War, but I didn’t think too much about it. However, a chance meeting at the breakfast buffet in our hotel with another American Jew convinced me and my trusty sidekick (a.k.a my mother) to make learning about the Jews in Shanghai a priority.

With that in mind, on our last full day in the country, we headed off to the old Jewish quarter, a small area centered around the synagogue. The Jewish Refugees Museum is in what used to be Ohel Moishe Synagogue. There, a young Chinese college student enthusiastically told us about how Shanghai warmly welcomed Jews from Europe during World War 2. Ho Fengshan, called the “Chinese Schindler”, was a diplomat in Vienna who gave visas to Jews so they could enter Japanese-controlled Shanghai and come to safety. My mother and I were told that at the height of the war, there were 25,000 Jews in Shanghai, many of whom had Ho to thank for being alive. After he died, he was named a Righteous Among the Nations by Vad Yashem. After the Holocaust, most of the Jews left China to settle in Israel, Australia, and the U.S., and today there are only around 3,000 Jews left, and they apparently have no synagogue. Some of them are descendants of refugees while others are business people who settled in Shanghai to take advantage of the booming Chinese economy.

Our guide also informed us that there is a close partnership today between China and Israel, and this was illustrated at the museum by many pictures of Chinese and Israeli dignitaries shaking hands and exchanging knowledge. Most of the captions were in Chinese, however, so although I could tell that Israel was, for example, sharing knowledge about cows with the Chinese, the circumstances were unclear.

The museum also had photographs showing the small synagogue in use during the 1930s and 40s as well as some artwork created to show the connection between Jews and the Chinese.

It must be said that China is not the most religion-friendly country in the world, so it makes sense that few Jews are left there today. Nevertheless, the people are extremely, and rightfully, proud of their role in saving Jews during the Holocaust. There was testimony at the museum from families who had been turned down by a dozen or more embassies before receiving a visa that allowed them to leave Europe for China and it is sad to think about what would have become of them without Shanghai’s open arms.

Letter from Stockholm

Guest commentary from BJ Epstein, sent via e-mail from Sweden during her recent visit back there.

During my years living in Sweden, I was never quite sure what people found more objectionable — the fact that I was born and raised in the United States or the fact that I am Jewish. Together, those two items proved to be an unpleasant combination.

Jews are a small percentage of the Swedish population (around 0.2%), and a pretty invisible group here. Swedes take pride in their “neutrality” during World War II and in the White Bus movement and so forth, but to them, that was a long time ago. Now, in part because of the situation in Israel and also because of how the United States and its foreign policy is viewed abroad, Swedish Jews receive no sympathy and instead can have serious problems.

Here are a few examples of events that happened while I lived here: a Jewish store-owner was badly beaten up and his store damaged; two young Jewish teachers-in-training were teaching in an inner-city school and were so frequently harassed by their students (who were nearly all from Muslim backgrounds) that they both quit; a man wearing a yarmulke was violently attacked at a subway station; and in one of the major squares in a large city, someone drew graffiti that showed a swastika, a star of David, and an American flag with equal signs between each of the symbols. Not one of these appalling occurrences was discussed in any of the major newspapers, as far as I could tell. I only learned about them from the tiny Jewish press (and, in the last case, from seeing the graffiti myself).

I certainly received a lot of questions about Jews (such as “Jews celebrate Easter, right?” and “Jews are just another kind of Christian, aren’t they?”) that showed that people had learned little about Judaism in school, and I heard a lot of criticism about Israel and about Jews. The critical remarks often proved to me that though people claim that disliking Israeli or its various policies is not the same as being anti-Semitic (and, yes, this is of course true), many people nevertheless offered comments that were both anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic, while disingenuously pretending that this was not the case and that Jews were just oversensitive.

I have now lived elsewhere for over a year and a half, and I was disappointed on my recent trip to Stockholm to see that little has changed. The Mediterranean Museum does not mention a single word about Israel or about Jews and although I know that the small museum can not feature every single country in the Mediterranean area, it does have a prominent exhibit on Islam and on the Muslims of Sweden. Also, there was a large protest against the United States a few days ago, and I saw protesters carrying signs that showed how disgruntled they were with what they termed “Usrael.”

The “foreign” population of Sweden is currently around 10%, and it is growing all the time. I can’t help but wish that all the minorities in Sweden, including the Jews, received better treatment, and could feel more comfortable and welcomed here.