The ProsenPeople

One Book | One Community: The Middlesteins

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 | Permalink

Beth Schenker is the Director of Programming at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. She has been instrumental in bringing Jewish literary artists like Jonathan Safran-Foer, Nathan Englander, and Jami Attenberg to Spertus Institute’s 100% sustainable building on South Michigan Avenue. In celebration of Jewish Book Month, she organized Spertus Institute’s One Book | One Community initiative, an annual opportunity for the Chicago Jewish community to read, discuss, and learn from a single book. This year’s pick, The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, is a story of love, family, and obsession set in suburban Chicago, grounding the One Book initiative in the program’s hometown. In conjunction with One Book | One Community, Spertus Institute has partnered with several institutions across the Chicagoland area to provide a series of programs related to the book and its themes. In this interview, Beth Schenker discusses why the One Book initiative is important for the Jewish community, and how other communities can get on board.

How did the One Book | One Community project first get started?

Our program started three years ago, when a librarian at Spertus came up with an idea to start a program that would allow the Chicago Jewish community to read a book that explored Jewish themes and Jewish identity. We wanted the book to coincide with National Jewish Book Month, which takes place the month before Hanukkah. Our goal was to have people read this book with friends, discuss it, and then have an opportunity to meet the author. The initiative was an immediate success, and we’ve been doing it ever since.

How did you decide which book to select for the One Book initiative?

We’ve always put together a group of people who select the book. This committee looks for lots of things – readability, themes, availability. Basically, we’re looking for a book that touches on Jewish themes and values but that everyone – not just Jews – will find interesting.

What was your favorite part about planning the One Book | One Community initiative?

What I love most about this program is that it includes the Jewish community as a whole, and that it has the power to connect people through learning beyond the Spertus Institute doors. There are One Book | One Community programs all over Chicagoland and across the country. They’re connecting over a book that we’ve selected, and knowing that we’re getting people to read, explore, and discover new things about their community is a great thing.

What kind of values do you hope to demonstrate in spearheading the One Book | One Community initiative?

Reading, of course, is the biggest value. I feel it’s very important for people to learn how to read a book on a level beyond just the story, to learn how to analyze it and explore its themes. But we also want to promote the idea that reading is a social tool. It creates opportunities to discuss and learn things about ourselves and our communities. Along those same lines, reading allows for curiosity. It forces you to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and learn about the world around you. These aren’t just Jewish values. They’re universal values.

How did you decide which events to include in this year’s One Book initiative?

In planning the One Book programming, I wanted to include events that were engaging enough that even if you didn’t read the book you’d still find the programs interesting. Take our Jews and Chinese Food event, for example. This event was all about learning – learning how to cook, about the history of Jews and Chinese food, about the kosher dietary laws – and people were going to relate to it whether they read the book or not. I wanted it to feel inclusive, not exclusive. Reading should always be thought of as a way to connect people, and that’s what we try to accomplish will all of our events.

What would you suggest readers do to take full advantage of the One Book initiative?

My idea was to have readers use this book as a jumping off point. This book touches on a lot of great themes – Chicago history, family, Judaism, intergenerational issues, love – and I think it’s important for readers to explore those themes to the fullest. It’s an excellent opportunity for readers to learn about the history of their own communities, or about their own family lineage. There are no limits to how much you can do with this book. That’s what I love about it.

How can other communities benefit from a One Book | One Community program?

At Spertus, we believe that a learning Jewish community is a vibrant Jewish community. But the same can be said for any kind of community. When people read together and share ideas, they’re building relationships, developing open-mindedness, and stimulating their creativity. That’s why I’d recommend that community leaders think about starting their own One Book programs. It’s as simple as picking a book and starting a discussion group.

What else can other communities do to engage readers?

Keep your eyes open. Sometimes, to find the thing that best exemplifies the themes of a book, you have to look away from the page. Find an exhibit by a local artist that depicts the same landscape as the book, or a musician that sings about similar themes. Look for local journalists that write about local themes, and ask them if they’d like to come back home to discuss the history of their community. There are all kinds of ways for people to connect with their communities in ways that are fun and interesting. That’s what One Book | One Community is all about.

Read more about this year's events and find a discussion guide for The Middlesteins here. Want to start your own One Book | One Community program? Visit JBC Book Clubs for tips, book recommendations, and discussion questions or email for ideas on what your community can do to engage readers. 

One Book, One Community: Spertus

Wednesday, October 24, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Last year, Spertus planned a fantastic line-up around Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum's A Day of Small Beginnings for their One Book, One Community program, featured during Jewish Book Month. This year, Spertus's One Book, One Community program will feature National Jewish Book Award finalist Mary Glickman's One More River

Events include a kick-off screening of Shalom Ya'll on November 10th, a book discussion on November 29th, and three presentations by Mary at locations across the area. You can find information about all of the One Book, One Community events here. And, don't forget to download Spertus's reader's guide for One More River here, which includes discussion questions, an interview, Southern Jewish recipes, historical bites about Jews in the South, and more.

Browse JBC's website for more information on Mary and her books:

One More River (review, interview, book club questions)
Home in the Morning (review, book club questions)
Twitter Book Club transcript for Home in the Morning

Find out more about Mary Glickman and One More River here: