The ProsenPeople

Dispatch from South Africa's First Jewish Literary Festival, Part II

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 | Permalink

Recently invited to speak at South Africa’s first-ever festival of Jewish literature, The Rowing Lesson author Anne Landsman shares the story of her visit and the discoveries she made there as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

(Read Part I of the essay here.)

In Cape Town, one is never too far from the cawing of sea gulls and the bracing scent of sea spray, with Table Mountain and the peaks surrounding it presiding over the human activities in the city below. The splendor of the natural environment, so close to the buildings and highways, so interwoven in the fabric of everyday life, is ever-present, and I could not help bringing this awareness to the community center on the brilliantly sunny morning of the festival. People milled about a central courtyard waiting to enter the various venues. Days earlier, all 650 tickets to the festival had been sold out and there was a discernible hum of anticipation and excitement in the crowd.

There was something for everyone on the program: a range of offerings for adults as well as programming for young children and teens, which included childcare for the very youngest attendees.

Kevin Bloom spoke to John Matisson about the impact of South Africa’s Jewish journalists; Nechama Brodie gave a talk about slavery in the Cape; Dennis Davis, in conversation with Johnny Copelyn, dealt with the question of whether unions really influenced the character of South Africa’s democracy. The indomitable Albie Sachs, famous for his anti-apartheid activism which cost him an eye and an arm in a car bombing in Maputo in 1988, spoke to Ruth Carneson about surviving childhood trauma.

Jewish topics were discussed by academics including Steven Robbins, author of Letters of Stone, a heartbreaking Holocaust family memoir; Adam Mendelsohn, author of The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire; as well as a panel that dealt with the stories of Jewish country communities across Africa. Tony Leon, the politician who served as leader of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s opposition party, from 1999 to 2007, addressed Zionism head on, and how it is understood in the world right now.

On the literature end of things, Karina Szczurek, André Brink’s widow and a gifted writer in her own right, shared her passionate understanding of South Africa’s Jewish Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer. Aviva Laskov spoke to how writers from different language backgrounds added their voices to Israel’s literary tradition. Poetry and other forms of writing were covered together with Spanish dance, Yiddish theater, motherhood, food, cryptic crossword puzzles, and athletic sports. Theodore Yach, the marathon swimmer who recently completed his 100th ocean swim from Robben Island to Blouberg, Cape Town—a shark-infested, icy cold ordeal of almost 5 miles—explained how he prepares mentally and physically for the challenge.

I spoke too, describing what went into the writing of my novels, how each book grew out of a different phase in my life. For someone who has lived so far away for so long, it was a great thrill to identify deeply familiar faces in the crowd, and to be seen and heard by those who have known me since I was a child. In the Q&A session, I was moved by the thoughtful questions that were asked, as well as a humorous anecdote an audience member told about my late father, on whom my novel The Rowing Lesson is based.

Later in the day, I was on a panel discussing what makes a book Jewish with Rabbi Sam Thurgood, Dennis Davis, and Marcia Leveson. I was excited to be in the company of Dennis Davis, a brilliant and compelling law professor (and now a High Court judge) whom I had heard speak at anti-Apartheid gatherings when I was a student in the late ‘70s; Marcia Leveson, a former University of the Witwatersrand English professor who published People of the Book: Images of the Jew in South African Fiction, 1880-1992; and Rabbi Sam Thurgood, the Rabbi of Beit Midrash Morasha, who recently created a significant and inspiring library of Jewish books there. We had a spirited debate about how narrow or broad the definition should be, in which I found myself arguing for inclusivity, for the term to accommodate as wide a range of Jewish experience as possible.

I came away from Cape Town’s Jewish Literary Festival with a sense of pride at the vibrancy of this small community, and the high level of participation of its members in a completely new endeavor. There was clearly a thirst for intellectual engagement and a desire to hear a wide range of voices reflecting the full panoply of Jewish life. On a personal level, I was touched over and over again by the people I knew, both those who spoke as well as those who attended. After so many years away, I found myself completely at home.

Anne Landsman is the author of The Rowing Lesson, a 2009 finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Related Content:

Dispatch from South Africa's First Jewish Literary Festival, Part I

Monday, August 08, 2016 | Permalink

Recently invited to speak at South Africa’s first-ever festival of Jewish literature, Anne Landsman shares the story of her visit and the discoveries she made there as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

The first-ever Jewish Literary Festival in South Africa took place in Cape Town on May 22, 2016 at the Community Center on Hatfield Street, not too far from the gardens that were planted by the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s to feed their sailors fruits and vegetables en route to the East, thereby bringing European settlers to the tip of Africa for the first time.

This Jewish campus, which includes the Gardens Shul (celebrating its 175th anniversary this year), the Jacob Gitlin Library, the Holocaust Center, the Jewish Museum, and the Café Riteve, is in the very heart of the city, close to the Houses of Parliament, close to where my grandmother once lived, close to the student digs I shared when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at the University of Cape Town. It is also near Highlands House, Cape Town’s Jewish home for the aged, where my mother spent her last days. I had not been back to South Africa since she died in 2010 and was longing to return, so when I was invited to participate in the Jewish Literary Festival, I jumped at the opportunity.

I left South Africa in 1981 and moved to New York City, where I have lived ever since. The Jewish population of New York is 1.1 million, by recent counts, while the Jewish population of Cape Town is around 16,000 souls. Roughly 90 percent of the 80,000 Jews who live in South Africa are of Lithuanian descent, making the South African Jewish community the largest pocket of Litvaks in the world.

As a New Yorker and an Upper West Sider, I take the availability of Jewish life with its vast array of diverse religious and cultural offerings for granted. What would it be like to return to the small, tight-knit community I had known as a young person? And what would the community’s response be to this inaugural celebration of local Jewish culture?

When I asked Cindy Moritz, one of the festival’s founders along with Joanne Jowell and Viv Anstey, why it had come into being now, she explained that nothing like it had existed in the community before, and that, in partnership with the Gitlin Library, it was intended to elevate the profile of Jewish books and literature, emphasizing their role in Jewish culture as well as in the greater society.

“The other answer,” she continued, “is that the political climate has meant the Jewish community is often linked to dissent and negativity when it comes to Israel and reports on the Middle East. This is an opportunity to remind the wider populace of an aspect of cultural value that the Jewish people have contributed in the past, and do still add here and around the world. It seeks to be non-political and non-religious, to embrace all who want to participate.”

Read Part II of Anne Landsman’s dispatch here »

Anne Landsman is the author of The Rowing Lesson, a 2009 finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Related Content:

Anne Landsman Wins the Sunday Times Fiction Prize in South Africa

Thursday, August 20, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Our congratulations go out to Anne Landsman, author of The Rowing Lesson and a 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Finalist, for her recent win at the Sunday Times Fiction Prize in South Africa, which is South Africa’s top literary honor, as well as the largest prize of its kind both in South Africa and Africa.

Please see below for her acceptance speech earlier this month:

2009 M-Net Literary Awards

Monday, June 22, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Congratulations to Anne Landsman, who just returned from South Africa where she accepted the 2009 M-Net Literary Award for her title The Rowing Lesson (which was a Finalist for the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature). Each prize is worth R30 000.

The M-Net Literary Awards were established in 1991 by M-Net (Electronic Media Network), a commercial television station based in South Africa, in order to encourage the writing of quality novels by South African authors, in one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, that could be adapted for the screen.

The complete list of 2009 Winners can be found here.

(Image via, credit:

Mazel Tov to JBC Family

Thursday, May 21, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Mazel Tov to…

Anne Landsman (2009 Finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature) and Maron Waxman (JBW Reviewer) and her husband Nachum Waxman for graduating from Me’ah.

Michael Oren (NETWORK member) for becoming Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S.

Anne Landsman on South Africa, Judaism, and language

Monday, May 04, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

2009 Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Anne Landsman on South Africa, Judaism, and language in The Jewish Week, here.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Anne Landsman

Monday, February 02, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Second up in “Words from our Finalists”…Anne Landsman

Anne…meet our Readers

Readers…meet Anne

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

There is no blueprint for writing fiction, no map, no recipe. The fiction writer stumbles upon his or her story the way an archeologist rubs the dirt off an important historical find. There’s a huge amount of luck involved, lots of calculated guesswork and many hours of looking and thinking. What guides you through the process is curiosity about human beings and their vagaries, and a deep-seated fascination for the way people live their lives.

Who or what has been inspiration for writing fiction?

As far back as I can remember, books were a big part of my life. I remember how much I loved looking at picture books, and the way I would examine and inhabit the images that ran alongside the narrative. As I learned to read, the images diminished and disappeared, and then magically re-appeared within the body of the text, in the writer’s descriptions. For most of my childhood, I lived within the pages of novels. When I was immersed in reading a book, I felt wedded to the characters I was reading about, and sometimes found it hard to accept that other readers had other sorts of relationships with these characters, or saw them in a different light. Even though I grew up in a small South African town, I had a visceral connection with contemporary American Jewish books as my mother fed me a constant diet of Potok, Uris, Malamud and Wouk. New York City neighborhoods glittered in my imagination. I wondered what a frappe was, and what an egg cream tasted like, and one hot summer as I lay indoors reading, reading, reading, I believed that I was Marjorie Morningstar. I loved the tactile nature of books, their smell, the feel of their pages, the illustrations on the cover. I think I began writing fiction as a way to recapture that magic, but from the inside out. I moved from being a dinner-guest to the host at the feast that is the novel.

Who is your intended audience?

I like to think that all kinds of people would be drawn to my work as we all live in families of one kind or another, we all experience the pain of a losing a loved one, the joy of seeing a new life come into the world, as well as all the twists and turns in between. I’m intrigued by family ties, how they get stretched, expanded, broken, renewed by circumstance, history, geography. These are universal concerns, not limited to one particular audience. And being a Jewish writer is such a gift because we straddle several traditions, cultures, histories, giving us access to such a wealth of ideas. I’m a South African, Lithuanian, American Jew who grew up speaking fluent Afrikaans (as my second language), loved Shakespeare, Bronte and Dickens, and went to cheder three times a week. All of these strands influence who I am, and how I write, and they connect with people all over the globe.

Do you think your work speaks predominantly to your generation? Future generations? Or, older generations?

Although both my novels deal with the past, they have contemporary narrators who reflect on both the past and the present, with an eye on what lies ahead. Since one of my main interests as a writer is the workings of memory, and how our lives are built on the complex interface between what we’ve lived through, and what we hope for, I feel that I can speak to future generations as well as older generations as we all find themselves in exactly the same predicament. No one escapes the beginning of life, or the end. And we all have dreams, disappointments and desires along the way.

Who is the reader over your shoulder?

For better or worse, the reader over my shoulder is me, and I tend to be very hard on myself. I’m quick to judge, and this gets in my way. The best advice I could give to an aspiring writer is get out of your own way, immerse yourself fully in your story and, mostly importantly, keep writing.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes. It’s set in the past but this time I’m trying something different. Instead of doing tons and tons of research before writing, I’m doing the research as I go along. I recently wrote a post-it with the phrase “drive-by research” to explain the process to myself. Also, I’m not going for historical accuracy as it has a fairy tale aspect to it, a kind of magic. The language has taken on a life of its own, which is is thrilling but also terrifying. I never quite know if it’s going to keep on coming, or dry up!

What are you reading now?

I just finished the The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, which was begun in 1690, and is the diary of a 44 year-old German Jewish widow and mother of fourteen children. She chronicles her family’s story so that her children will know their own past. She shows a remarkable business sense, a sharp eye for detail and a deep sense of piety. (And this might give you a clue to the time period my next novel is set in…)

When did you decide to become a writer? Where were you?

I’m not sure I ever consciously decided to become a writer. Very early on – I was perhaps six or seven – I remember trying to draw a horse at school. I was happy with how the head turned out but then really struggled with the body and legs. So I drew a giant bag that covered the misshapen body and left just the horse’s head sticking out. I have a blurry memory of the teacher standing behind me, and me telling a story, or thinking about telling the story of how the horse got into the bag. I remember feeling a rush of excitement as I realized all the different possibilities. What was a picture had turned into a narrative.

Later, I was a girl scout in the only girl scout troop in Worcester, the small South African town where I was born and raised. Seamlessly, automatically, I became the troop scribe, and had a badge with a quill on it to prove it. Writing stories always came naturally to me, and I excelled at writing “compositions” at school, which were short stories in miniature. There were no creative writing programs in South Africa and it didn’t occur to me at that time in my life that I could ever write a novel. I left South Africa during the dark days of apartheid and moved to the U.S. where I went to film school and explored the idea of becoming a director or a screenwriter. For several years after graduating, I worked on a screenwriting project about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright but eventually came back to where I started – spinning a story out of an unusual situation that I had imagined all by myself. I finished my first novel when I was pregnant with my first child, and when it was published, I was pregnant with my second. Motherhood – although sometimes lengthening the writing process – has forced me to take myself seriously, fully inhabit my own skin. Writing has become who I am and how I live in the world. Words are my fins, my wings, my shell.

What is the mountaintop for you – how do you define success?

I don’t think it’s possible to define success as a writer, or to ever achieve it, because as you approach what you think it is, it morphs into something else. It’s the ever-receding goal. Once you conquer one peak, you find out that there are many others just behind it. Perhaps it’s better to try to be successful as a human being, knowing yourself and your limitations, as well as your strengths.

How do you write – and what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I write at the Writers Room, a not-for-profit writers’ workspace in downtown Manhattan. I work at whatever desk is available – and this changes from day to day – so there are no permanent talismans or objects on my desk. My talisman is the silent company of others, and the noiseless hum of their concentration. It’s like being in the ocean with a group of surfers, riding the swells and waiting for the next big wave.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

My novel, The Rowing Lesson, is Betsy Klein’s bed-side elegy for her dying father, Harry. It’s her attempt to capture the essence of who he was, before she loses him forever. I think most of us are fascinated by who our parents really were. We get snippets of them. And I think we want more, because we can understand ourselves better when we understand them better. And that’s what’s at the heart of Betsy’s journey. It’s her attempt to see her father clearly, so she can come to terms with him. She summons him up and tries to understand him and when she does, she is finally able to understand herself.

One of the best compliments a reader ever gave me was that he told me that he was in the middle of reading my book when he got a call from his mother to say that his father was dying. During the difficult days that followed, as he flew from the U.K. to South Africa to be with his father, he kept reading The Rowing Lesson. He said it became the companion to his grief.

Along with the enormous lesson that’s learned when a parent dies, the novel celebrates and underscores the sanctity of life, and what it was like to come of age in World War II era-South Africa, and be part of the vibrant and unique Jewish community there.

You can read more about Anne Landsman by visiting her website here.

2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fiction Finalists Announced!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fiction finalists have just been announced!

Congratulations to:

Elisa Albert for The Book of Dahlia (Free Press)

Sana Krasikov for One More Year (Spiegel & Grau)

Anne Landsman for The Rowing Lesson (Soho Press)

Dalia Sofer for The Septembers of Shiraz (Ecco)

Anya Ulinich for Petropolis (Viking Penguin)

Coming soon…words from our finalists…