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Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Erika Meitner

Tuesday, February 05, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Erika Meitner's Holy Moly Carry Me is the winner of the 2018 Berru Poetry Award in Memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash. As reviewer Emily Heiden writes, the book "taps into national conversations on topics including motherhood, infertility, terrorism, Judaism, school shootings, the 2016 election, and race . . . A real, honest, scared voice [pervades] the work, asking questions like: How are we so vulnerable? How do we care for each other? How can we stay safe? Meitner gives voice to the fears of the moment in this portrait of a very unsettled American time."

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

I would love to go for Sunday morning dim sum with Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, and Barbara Myerhoff.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

My current favorite book no one has heard of is Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman), an amazing novella about crossings and translations.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

There are so many amazing younger Jewish poets writing right now: Jason Schneiderman, Rachel Zucker, Jehanne Dubrow, Rosebud Ben-Oni, sam sax, Chanda Feldman, Robin Beth Schaer, Ilya Kaminsky, Alicia Jo Rabins, Laura Eve Engel, Hadara Bar-Nadav, Matthew Lippman—I could go on and on. In terms of novelists, I am perpetually amazed by Idra Novey, Rachel Kadish, and Eduardo Halfon.

What are you reading right now?

I usually read many books at one time. Right now I'm actually reading two books—Milkman by Anna Burns (which is about Northern Ireland, where I was a Fulbright Fellow in 2015), and Laura Eve Engel's Things That Go (poems, just published this month, which are partially a retelling of the story of Lot's wife).

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

I adore visual art of all kinds—but especially photography, sculpture, and painting—and when I'm back in New York City (or any city, really) I always try to make it to museums or gallery shows for inspiration! The Hilda af Klimt show at the Guggenheim, and the David Wojnarowicz and Andy Warhol shows at the Whitney were both fabulous!

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope my book complicates narratives of Appalachia, and moves people beyond stereotypes. I also hope it challenges readers to think about the ways in which we often see people as 'other,' and to consider what it really means to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Image credit: Toya Earley

New Categories and Honors for the 66th National Jewish Book Awards

Thursday, August 18, 2016 | Permalink

Celebrating its 66th year, Jewish Book Council is pleased to announce two new developments for the National Jewish Book Awards. Starting this year, a new category focused on book clubs has been added to the program: The Debby and Ken Miller Book Club Award, dedicated to promoting Jewish continuity for the next generation, will recognize outstanding work of fiction or nonfiction that inspires meaningful conversation about Jewish life, identity, practice, or history. The award recognizes the power of books to inspire Jewish community and thought-provoking discussions.

Additionally, the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry is newly named the Berru Award in Memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash, dedicated to honor the memories of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash, who were respected leaders in their Northern New Jersey community for over 50 years. A dynamic couple with both substance and style, Ruth and Bernie Weinflash were not just avid readers but were astute critics, honing in on what spoke to both them as well as the world at large.

The National Jewish Book Awards are presented at a celebratory gathering each spring, following the publication of the books under consideration. The evening includes a dinner and ceremony for the winning authors and is attended by the authors and leading names in Jewish publishing and literature.

The National Jewish Book Awards program began in 1950 when the Jewish Book Council presented awards to authors of Jewish books at its annual meeting. Past notable literary winners include Chaim Grade, Deborah Lipstadt, Bernard Malamud, Michael Oren, Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Jonathan Safran Foer, Deborah Dash Moore, and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.

Today, the National Jewish Book Awards honor exceptional Jewish literature in over 20 different categories annually. Guidelines for submission and the online application, which must be completed by October 7, 2016 to qualify for this year’s nominations, can be found on Jewish Book Council’s website to submit a book for this year’s awards. Please contact with any questions regarding submissions or reservations for the spring ceremony.

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The Origins of Oskar: Where Jewish Children's Book Characters Come From

Tuesday, March 08, 2016 | Permalink

In honor of the 65th National Jewish Book Awards, Jewish Book Council asked some of this year's winners to share their top rules for writing an award-winning book. Richard Simon, recipient of the 2015 award for Children’s Literature—together with his wife and co-author, Tanya—for Oskar and the Eight Blessings, decided to go in a different direction entirely.

In the summer of 1969 I was ten years old. The Mets were having their best season ever, and Armstrong and Aldrin took their first steps on the moon, paving the way for me to fulfill my destiny as World’s Youngest Boy Astronaut. I thought a lot about space travel and escape—specifically out of Levittown, Long Island, the predominantly Catholic working class town where I grew up and learned first-hand how anti-Semitism felt.

The week of the moon landing was also the one time a conversation with my grandfather went beyond “How’s school?” or “Quiet, I have to hear this race.”

In the summer of 1969 I was ten years old. The Mets were having their best season ever, and Armstrong and Aldrin took their first steps on the moon, paving the way for me to fulfill my destiny as World’s Youngest Boy Astronaut. I thought a lot about space travel and escape—specifically out of Levittown, Long Island, the predominantly Catholic working class town where I grew up and learned first-hand how anti-Semitism felt.

The week of the moon landing was also the one time a conversation with my grandfather went beyond “How’s school?” or “Quiet, I have to hear this race.”

“When your father was ten, we had some unexpected visitors.” He motioned for me to sit. “Three rabbis from the old country, from the city my father came from. Black coats, black suits, black hats, black beards down to here, the works. All they spoke was Yiddish, not a word of English. I understood them okay, but I don’t speak Yiddish, so Grandma had to translate for me. I couldn’t figure out how the hell they even got to New York, forget about how they tracked me down to Avenue K.”

“Why did they have to track you down?” I suspected gambling debts, but thought better of saying so.

He rubbed his forehead and winced more than smiled. “It was crazy. They said my grandfather, their big rabbi, had died, and they had to find his successor.” He shook his head. “I said, ‘You’re telling me you don’t got enough rabbis over there to do the job?’ They said, ‘We got plenty rabbis, but nobody in the lineage.’ Turns out the big rabbi had to be the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son, going back God knows how long.”

He went on. “I told them they couldn’t have found anyone more wrong for the job. I barely had a bar mitzvah, and I hadn’t been in a shul since. I don’t know Hebrew. I can’t speak Yiddish. I’m the exact opposite of a rabbi. Do I have to eat a ham and cheese sandwich on Pesach to prove it?”

This made me laugh.

“You should try it, it’s good. Especially with a milkshake.” He winked. “Anyway, they’re not buying. ‘Don’t worry,’ they say. ‘We’ll teach you everything,’ they say: ‘Hebrew, Yiddish, Torah, Talmud— you’ll learn it all, because you have the blood. And our city will be saved because we will once again have a leader who will guide us through these dark times.’”

He stared into his sweating drink and took a slow sip. “I told them, ‘No.’”

I leaned forward, “What happened when they got back?”

My grandfather blinked and looked at me. “What do you mean?”

“Without a new big rabbi—did they get in trouble?”

My grandfather could be brokenhearted about a losing horse for five minutes, but he was never on his worst day anything close to sentimental. At that moment, though, he took my hands in his giant calloused ones. “Richie, that was just a couple of years before the war. They were all killed.”

Decades later, I had a daughter. Two years ago she turned seven, and I found myself gazing into her eyes as she asked me why Jews were being attacked in France, and what exactly the Holocaust was. I immediately thought back to Grandpa and our conversation. Remembering how my own awakening to the Holocaust was framed by helpless rage, I didn’t want my daughter to feel that, even as I didn’t want to revise history to protect her.

Tanya and I talked about what we wanted our daughter to take away from the stories of brutality that our people had endured. Our answers were the same: that you can survive. And so we told her, but we balanced death with life, and tempered loss with hope. We told her about the Nazis, about accommodation and complicity, and about the camps—then we told her stories of cunning, of will, of survival.

And in this telling the character of Oskar was born. Oskar is the spirit of survival, the part of me, of Jews, of all oppressed people, that can escape, mourn, and be born into a new life. He is for me the embodiment of not forgetting, never forgetting, but also refusing to let memory be delineated only by grief. Oskar was born because I needed the example of his life.

Over time I have found a way to make peace with the fact of the Holocaust, if not the details, although I along with every Jew on the planet will forever live in its shadow. Kristallnacht in particular had always disturbed me. Why didn’t they all flee? The three rabbis—why did they go back? And did my grandfather feel guilt? Of course he did, or he might have chosen a different way to tell me. To spare me, as I was sparing my own child.

Richard Simon is chair of the language department at an independent school and is co-author of a successful off-Broadway play. He lives and works with his wife and co-author, Tanya Simon, in Westchester, New York.

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Nine Rules for Writing Jewish Letters

Monday, March 07, 2016 | Permalink

In honor of the 65th National Jewish Book Awards, Jewish Book Council asked some of this year's winners to share their top rules for writing an award-winning book. Co-authors Alice Nakhimovsky and Roberta Newman, recipients of the 2015 award for Anthologies and Collections for Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl: Yiddish Letter Manuals from Russian and America, decided to stay true to form.

Hamilton, New York, Torah portion Mishpatim, 5776

Dear Roberta, Shining Light of Her Generation,

What is this Jewish Book Council after? They want Nine Rules for Writing Letters. I understand that everyone wants to write a good letter, because how else can we keep in touch, and most importantly keep tabs on our grown-up children, may they live. Frankly it would be better if readers went straight toDear Mendl, Dear Reyzl, from which they can extract letter-writing rules for all situations a Jew might encounter, not just nine of them. For example, what if you are a wife stuck in Europe with three small children while your husband is cavorting with a missus somewhere in Manhattan? What you need in this situation is a good sentence. You need, “I’m writing not with black ink but with the last drops of blood.” That’ll show him.

In the meantime, up here in Hamilton, all is well. Isn’t it wonderful that I can write you a letter and you will get it in a week or so? On the other hand, the Jewish Book Council says it wrote to me, and I haven’t gotten that letter yet, but Hamilton has only one mailman, and maybe he’s ill, poor thing.

From me, your true devoted friend,

Manhattan, Torah portion Terumah, 2016

Dear Alice, may you live,

I'm in good health and hope to hear the same from you. I see from your letter that we have given the Jewish Book Council our first rule: if you are in a bad situation, deploy a good sentence. I’m glad you said that "all is well in Hamilton," because I was afraid you had forgotten Rule 2: speak of health frequently and repetitively.

It's very interesting that you write to me in the week in which we read the Torah portion Mishpatim, because those chapters of the Torah deal with all sorts of regulations. And letter manuals are full of rules. Imagine if those manual readers could text! There would have been much less need for rules. And yet, our abbreviations like LOL, IMHO, CUL8R—do they not resemble the Hebrew acronyms with which Jewish correspondence is replete? Mem-zayin-tet (Mazel Tov), Ayin-mem-shin (Im mishpakhto, with his family)… There are hundreds of them, and they appear in tables. Isn’t that modern?

Of course, the main thing that letter manuals are full of is fake letters for people to copy or just read. And the fake letters are full of drama. So now we can take up Rule 3: Let it all hang out. Anger and sorrow are why you’re writing. No emoticons, though: it would have been considered uncouth and uneducated to express emotions in pictures instead of words. Writing well was what it was all about. Remember when we thought that Jewish literacy in Russia and Poland was so widespread? It didn’t spread to everybody, and even for the educated it only went so far and didn’t necessarily extend to the kind of skills required for everyday life. Letter manuals filled the gap, giving all comers the opportunity to create or simply copy good Yiddish prose. And so, Rule 4: Education counts, even if you got yours from a letter manual. Write grammatically. Spell correctly.

I have to say, dear Alice, I was a little distressed that you dropped out of sight all last week. As a letter manual would put it, “From what I can see you have once again forgotten that you have a friend.” Let that be Rule 5: guilt-tripping is culturally sanctioned. But no more of that from me tonight. Hoping that the mailman in Hamilton will deliver this to you and that you will remain happy and healthy,

Your loyal friend,

Hamilton, New York, Torah portion Tetzaveh, 5776

Dear Roberta, may your light shine,

I received your dear letter with the greatest of joy, which was followed by terrible anxiety because we have only five rules, and we promised nine, and this may lead to some kind of misfortune, God forbid. I know you are busy, going to work every day, so here are four more. Rule 6: Authenticity is over-valued. Writing from America to Europe, it is fine to say one thing to your parents and another to your friend. She won’t talk to them. Rule 7: No politics. No politics in Russia, because there’s a censor, and they don’t like Jews anyway; no politics in America, because this is a commercial genre, and we don’t want to cut off our market. Rule 8: if you’re writing a love letter before 1905, keep in mind that it will be read aloud to the whole family. Post 1905, you’re on your own. Rule 9: If you are writing a business letter to a Russian or an American, practice brevity and restraint. If you are writing to another Jew, why would you bother?

From me, your devoted friend,

Alice Nakhimovsky is a professor of Russian and Jewish Studies at Colgate University, where she directs the Program in Russian and Eurasian Studies. Roberta Newman is an independent scholar, currently the Director of Digital Initiatives at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

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Interview: Laura Amy Schlitz

Tuesday, February 09, 2016 | Permalink

with Michal Hoschander Malen

Jewish Book Council and Laura Amy Schlitz sat down to talk about Laura’s young adult novel The Hired Girl, which recently won both the Sydney Taylor Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award, as part of a blog tour through the Association of Jewish Libraries

Michal Hoschander Malen: Joan is a character absolutely bursting with personality, charm, wit and exuberance. Did you model her on anyone in life or in literature?

Laura Amy Schlitz: No, I didn’t—in fact, I seldom base a major character on anyone I know. When I begin a novel, I know I’m going to spend a lot of time with the people in it, so I like to begin by not knowing them too well. That way, there are mysteries to solve. Curiosity helps me to keep writing.

MHM: Joan is remarkably free of prejudice, unusual in her time (and in any other). She is also very open to the world around her and able to learn from a variety of people and experiences, also a struggle for many young people. Joan develops these characteristics in spite of a singularly harsh youth. Do you think young readers can subtly learn something from this?

LAS: Now here I disagree with you: I think Joan shares many of the prejudices of her time. Joan is a girl of the early twentieth century, a time when religious prejudice and ethnic stereotypes were rife. Early in the book, for example, Joan takes pride in telling Malka that her forebears were Scottish and German, not Irish; she shares the widely held belief that the Irish were inferior. When she first meets Kitty, Anna’s Irish cook, she observes that her kitchen is spotless, and discards her belief that the Irish are dirty.

And while similar prejudices and stereotypes of the time make Joan’s love for David is truly forbidden and her friendship with the Rosenbachs is triumphant, Joan is largely insulated from antisemitism in the country. She lives in a very small world, and most of what she knows about the Jews--or thinks she knows--comes from Ivanhoe and the Bible. When she first meets the Rosenbachs, she’s dependent on them for a safe place to sleep. By the time she discovers that they’re Jewish, she has already been won over by Solly’s kindness and Mrs. Rosenbach’s elegance. The Rosenbachs are the kind of people Joan aspires to be: cultivated, literary, and—this is important to Joan—fashionably dressed.

If Joan is admirable, it’s because she thinks for herself. She has prejudices, but they aren’t deep-rooted, and she’s not psychologically driven to despise others. I try not to think didactically when I write a story, but I would be delighted if young readers sought to emulate Joan by seeing the world for themselves.

MHM: The diary format enables the reader to see much of what makes Joan tick. It also helps us appreciate her incredible sense of humor. Did you plan from the outset to use this format or did you consider telling the story in another way?

LAS: I intended to write the book as a diary from the very beginning. I was coming off another book, Splendors and Glooms, which had five protagonists and multiple points of view. I promised myself that if I ever escaped from Splendors and Glooms, I would write a book from a single point of view.

My decision coincided with a special gift from a student at the Park School, where I work. A child named Lance (he is a young man now) gave me a blank book as a Christmas present. It had a leather cover, thick creamy pages, and a ribbon marker. It was almost too beautiful to spoil with writing, but I thought, I’m going to write in it anyway; I’m going to write straight through. Writing in that book helped me remember that the story was a diary. I wrote easily and spontaneously. I think Joan’s humor is a reflection of my joy when the words came so quickly.

MHM: The history of the era comes vividly to life in the pages of the book, from Joan’s farm life to the vibrant Baltimore Jewish community of the time. What kinds of research did you do to make the period details feel so right?

LAS: I began the book knowing the period fairly well, because I set a previous novel, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, in 1909. I had general books on the period: books about houses and clothing and Victorian America. But I needed a lot of specific research—especially about domestic technology, because Joan does so much housework. Mrs. Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book was a great help to me in planning meals and figuring out how to keep the meat and milk dishes separate.

Daniel E. Sutherland’s Americans and Their Servants was helpful, because Americans differed from Englishmen in their view of domestic service—the very term “hired girl” is an American euphemism meant to distinguish the paid laborer from the slave. Another book that helped me with Joan’s place in the workforce was Nan Enstad’s Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.

For local history, I was greatly indebted to Isaac M. Fein’s The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920. I also used Gerald Sorin’s The Jewish People in America and Philip Kahn’s Uncommon Threads: Threads That Wove the Fabric of Baltimore Jewish Life. I was lucky enough to find a history book from 1910, The Jews of Baltimore, by Isador Blum.

I bought a sheaf of women’s magazines from 1900 at a yard sale—they were helpful for period details. I consulted my grandmother’s girlhood diary from 1912. One valuable resource was a facsimile 1908 catalog from Sears Roebuck, which told me what things cost—money is of course important to Joan, because before she joined the Rosenbach household, she never had any.

MHM: Can you tell us a bit more about the Jewish community you describe? Are any of the characters in the book from that community based on people who really lived there?

LAS: I first became aware of the Jewish community around Reservoir Hill when three of my friends—Hillary Jacobs, Julie Schwait, and Michelle Feller-Kopman—were researching a Centennial history of the Park School, where I’ve worked for 25 years. I knew that it had been founded as a progressive school for Jewish andChristian children, but I hadn’t known much about the founders. Many of them were German Jews, and some of them lived in Eutaw Place. As my three friends explored the archives, they showed me documents, letters, photographs, and ephemera. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and I took to driving around Eutaw Place in search of a house for Joan to clean.

This is as good a time as any to remind my readers that The Hired Girl is a work of fiction. I tried to make it as accurate as possible, but I took full advantage of the magical powers with which all storytellers are endowed. For example, I placed a park bench where I’m pretty sure there wasn’t one. I conjured up heat waves and thunderstorms without consulting the National Weather Service. And I created the Columbia Parnassus Touring Company with one stroke of my magic wand—though the Academy of Music was real. The Rosenbachs were not real people. But like the founders of the Park School, they were cultivated, intellectual, and forward thinking.

MHM: What do you think will happen to Joan as she continues her journey into the big, wide world and expands her education? Will her natural warmth lead her to toward establishing her own family?

LAS: At the end of every novel, I lead my characters up a hill where they can see down in every direction. From there, they can choose where to go next. If I’ve left them in a promising place, I feel I’ve done my job, and I bid them Godspeed.

Joan has some interesting possibilities to explore. After graduation, she could become a teacher or a librarian, two fields that were open to women at that time; she might go on to college; she may well become a writer—she certainly spends a lot of time scribbling. I don’t know whether she’ll marry or not. She’s ardent and romantic, but she also grew up seeing what a miserable business marriage can be. My guess is that if she marries, she’ll find her profession first.

I worry a little bit about my dear Rosenbachs, because World War I is on the way. The German heritage of which Mrs. Rosenbach is so proud is about to become a liability. I don’t want David or Solly to have to fight in the trenches, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to escape it. (I ought to have had more foresight and given them flat feet.) If David survives the war, he’ll probably become a pretty good society painter, though he might not be quite as talented as Joan thinks he is.

Mimi will definitely run the department store.

Michal Hoschander Malen is a retired librarian and editor of reference books. She is Jewish Book Council's editor on books for young readers.

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2012 National Jewish Book Awardees on the Visiting Scribe

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Congratulations to all of our 2012 National Jewish Book Award winners and finalists! It's particularly lovely to see so many past Visiting Scribes on the list. Read their posts below (featured on their book's page), and find a complete list of winners and finalists here.


2012 National Jewish Book Awards

Friday, June 15, 2012 | Permalink

The 2012 National Jewish Book Award Guidelines are now available:

2012 National Jewish Book Award Guidelines and Submission Form

2011 National Jewish Book Award Guidelines and Submission Forms

Wednesday, June 15, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The guidelines and submission forms for the 2011 National Jewish Book Awards are now available here. This year’s submission deadline is October 5, 2011. NO submissions will be accepted after that date. The winners will be announced in early January, 2012.

Any questions? Email me: