Honoring Jewish Literature



It’s like the Pulitzer Prize of the Jewish literary community.

The National Jewish Book Awards have been honoring notable works for more than 50 years, gaining status as a mark of excellence in both secular and religious communities. But the awards’ special place in the Jewish community holds a little extra significance for some of those who organize and receive them.

“The biggest thing is to get that kind of recognition from your peers and your community,” says Samuel G. Freedman, 47, a former New York Times reporter and journalism professor at Columbia University who won the 2000 nonfiction award for Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.

This year’s 53rd annual awards reception will be held in December at the Center for Jewish History in New York. Though the awards officially started in 1948, their origins stem from a Jewish book week that began in the mid ’20s. The week grew into a month, held in the springtime to coincide with the Jewish scholar’s holiday, Lag B’omer. By the early ’40s the book month was shifted closer to the secular book-buying season in the fall, and now usually takes place one month before Hanukah.

“The goal of the awards is to heighten awareness of the best books on Jewish topics each year,” says Carolyn Starman Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council, which administrates the awards.

The Jewish Book Council (which is a partner of JBooks.com), developed as an outgrowth of the book month under the Jewish Welfare Board, a rabbinical association established to help Jewish servicemen. The council publishes the Jewish Book Annual, a compilation of essays, and Jewish Book World, a catalogue listing of the latest books. Their latest venture is the Jewish Book Network, a group for book fair organizers.

Over the awards’ history, acclaimed authors such as Philip Roth, Herman Wouk, and Cynthia Ozick have been honored with Literary Achievement Awards. Writers and publishers from across the world enter books in various categories, some of which receive more than 70 entries. The submissions must deal with Jewish subject matter, although authors of any religion may be considered. Panels of judges, including community members, select winners over the summer and announce them just before Jewish Book Month. In addition to recognition, winners receive money and a plaque.

Most importantly, though, the awards increase book sales and catch public attention, book council members say. Libraries and publishers seek out prizewinning authors when looking for new material. And over the years, the secular world has given higher esteem to the National Jewish Book Awards, says Marcia Weiss Posner, a member of the Book Council's board of directors. “It’s not a little private get-together anymore,” Posner says. “It’s an official award and it has been copied by other organizations.”

Winning the honor gave author Norman H. Finkelstein, of Framingham, Mass., an insight into the niche market, especially at the awards ceremony. “It’s like a who’s who of the Jewish publishing world. It’s mind-boggling being in the same room with all of those luminaries,” says Finkelstein, 62, a teacher and librarian. He’s won two awards for children’s literature, first, in 1998 for Heeding the Call: Jewish Voices in America’s Civil Rights Struggle, and in 2002 for Forged in Freedom. “Above all it’s just very gratifying to have one’s work recognized and to receive such a prestigious award,” he says. “I was humbled going through it the first time and even more so the second.”

The council continually modifies the judging categories depending on what donors want to honor and the kinds of submissions they receive. “Many of the books that are winning now are not the type of books that are for academics only, that only six people in the world will read. They have a broader appeal,” Hessel says.

In the past few years, more fiction and books dealing with American Jewish community interests have been submitted, but fewer about Israel. There has also been a resurgence of Holocaust memoirs.

“That population [of survivors] is dying out and they’re writing, they want their words remembered,” Hessel says.

Alexandra Zapruder, who won the 2002 Holocaust Studies award, helped judge that category this year. The 33-year-old author from Washington, DC, has plans to tour book fairs in at least 10 cities with her Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust. “When it came time for Jewish book fairs, there was a lot of interest,” she says. “I’m sure it was because the book was awarded the National Jewish Book Award.”