Monday, March 25, 2013

Jewish Book Club

The National Jewish Book Awards host America’s most lucrative literary prize

By Jessica Weisberg

JewishBookAwardsThe winner of the Sami Rohr Literary Prize—which, at $100,000, is one of the most generous literary awards in the world—won’t be announced until April, but many of the finalists, along with some 150 writers, editors, and publishers, attended the National Jewish Book Awards, held last night at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. Sitting for dinner at what people took to calling the “Rohr Kids Table,” writers, both nominated and not, gossiped nervously about the five finalists: Francesca Segal (The Innocents), Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station), Stuart Nadler (The Book of Life), Shani Boianjiu (The People Forever Are Not Afraid), and Asaf Shurr (Motti). “If you don’t hear by 10 a.m., you didn’t get it,” said Allison Amend, a novelist and Rohr finalist in 2011, to Boianjiu, who was visiting New York from Israel.

The Rohr Prize is intended for an emerging writer of Jewish literature—but the way the award defines “Jewish literature” is somewhat vague. “We look for books written with a Jewish pen and Jewish eyes, that have a kernel of Jewish content,” said Carolyn Starman Hessel, the director of the Jewish Book Council, which hosts the awards. “Strong feelings of Jewish identity now might change the writers’ focus in the future.” There are no submissions; finalists are nominated by a panel of judges. “Otherwise, I’d have to rent out the Empire State Building,” to house all the eager entries, Hessel said.

All of the council’s other awards are submission-based and define Jewish literature in a more straightforward way, recognizing books about Jewish people and history; there are categories like “Education and Jewish Identity” and “Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice.” In 1992, when Hessel became director of the National Jewish Book Council, awards for books written in Hebrew and Yiddish were given on the basis of more traditional categories, such as “Children’s Picture Book,” and “Israel.”

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