Remarks from Michael W. Twitty, Dani Shapiro, Maayan Eitan, Ellen Frankel, Michael Frank, and Shoshana Nambi for the 72nd National Jewish Book Awards Celebration on March 1st, 2023
Michael W. Twitty
We Jews and Black folks, in Venn Diagram together and apart represent the test of the promise of America, the America’s as a place of freedom. Along with the ongoing saga of indigenous peoples and waves of immigrants looking for salvation beyond the systems of upheaval. We have fought together and apart we have made community and had conflict and we have become family in unlikely places in defiance of the West’s original sins of antisemitism and anti-Blackness.
Despite the accusations and libels we are not imposters we are witnesses, we are agents of moral suasion and social justice…we are not enemies we are healers, strivers and pilgrims. We are a challenge to the lie the human is not a world, and that the world is only as good as its end. And we are visible. And Black and Jewish lives matter. We will always defy erasure.
Thank you for this award. I stand here with Dr. Marcie Cohen Ferris, Rabbi Gil Marks of blessed memory, Joan Nathan Faye Levy and Claudia Roden. This blessing and opportunity is frankly my own corner of both Black history and Jewish history. You have no idea how I never dreamed my lot in life would be making the thing I love the most…history.
To my Ancestors and the tzaddikim who walked before us,
Lo Ahavti Dai
What makes a novel a Jewish novel? Does it need to be written by a Jew? Or have a rabbi as its protagonist, or a cantor, or maybe a psychoanalyst? Does it need to be set in Israel, or wartime France – or Scarsdale?
The late great David Foster Wallace once shared this parable: two young fish are swimming along when they cross paths with an older fish. The older fish calls out: “Hey guys! How’s the water?” and then swims on. A few moments later, one of the young fish turns to the other and asks: “What’s water?”
To me, as a human being and as a novelist, Jewishness is the water I swim in. It is as inseparable from me as the other deepest aspects of my identity: wife, mother, daughter, friend, writer. And a Jewish novel is one that is suffused with Jewishness to its core, which can mean many things. When Signal Fires first came out, I received an annoyed note from a reader, who asked why I was representing Jewish families who ate non-kosher food, or drove on Shabbos.
I thought about this question a lot. Was I misrepresenting my Jewish characters – or was I representing, in Signal Fires, a slice of Jewish life in America – an America in which Jews have been able to ask: what is water?
We’re living now in a time when we cannot afford not to know the water we’re swimming in, or to ignore the realities and exigencies of being Jews today – and I wanted to write a novel in which my characters are indelibly Jewish, in their gestures, their dialogue, their memories, their choices, to the point where it is simply unspoken fact. Sarah has a memory of Noah Kantrowitz throwing up in the neighbor’s azalea bush after his bar mitzvah. Peter refers to a trip to Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve of 1999 as “Erev Armageddon.” And of course, there’s the guilt, the worry, the parental love, the grief, the shame these families face as they live their lives, Jewish to their core, perhaps for this reason most of all: they never stop asking questions. They’re living their lives, yes, their modern, assimilated lives, but if asked, they know exactly what water is. Like starme, it would be the first thing they’d say when asked to define themselves.
In closing, I’m deeply honored to be receiving the JJ Greenberg Memorial Award in Fiction, and very grateful to the JBC. If it’s true, what the character Waldo says in my novel, that nothing ever really truly vanishes, then perhaps my dad is here at this moment, and if he is, I know he is kvelling.
I started writing Love a decade ago, and it was published, in Hebrew, almost three years ago to this day. There is something anachronistic – completely misplaced in time – in speaking, tonight, about a book that, at least for me, belongs so much in the past. And yet perhaps it would only be possible to speak about a book titled “love” anachronistically. “The experience of eros”, we’re told by Anne Carson, “is a study in the ambiguities of time”. “The lover’s real desire”, Carson continues, “is to elude the certainties of physics and float in the ambiguities of a space-time where absent is present and ‘now’ can include ‘then’ without ceasing to be ‘now’”.
And so I would like to mention, tonight, not only the ambiguities of that amorous “space-time where absent is present”, but also the always already ambiguous meeting-place of languages, in my case Hebrew and English, and the ambiguities of translation. I translated Love on a whim, never imagining that it would travel this far; and I would like to thank the Jewish Book Council and the judges for the Jane Weitzman Award for Hebrew Fiction in Translation for helping it elude some of the certainties of literary markets and of my own limited imagination. Thank you for making my book present. I hope that I managed to make the English translation somehow include its Hebrew origin, without ceasing to be English.
I came to New York a few days ago from Tel Aviv, where I have lived for the past eight years. For anyone wishing to hold to democratic and humanistic values, Israel is a challenging place to live in today – perhaps it always had been. I don’t know whether literature can influence politics, or how. Yet I would still like to believe in the intrinsic power of literature and writing as such. Thus I’d like to conclude my remarks tonight with a quote by George Steiner. “[W]hen the text is the homeland”, Steiner wrote, “even when it is rooted only in the exact remembrance and seeking of a handful of wanderers, nomads of the word, it cannot be extinguished. Time is truth’s passport”, Steiner adds, “and its native ground. What better lodging for the Jew?”
Mentoring is a reciprocal process, as much about receiving as giving. The Talmud teaches:Harbay lamaditi me’rabotai u‑m’haverai yotair m’rabotai, u‑m’talmidai yotair mekulam. “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my study companions, and from my students, most of all.”
In my eighteen years at the helm of The Jewish Publication Society, I had the privilege and joy of mentoring hundreds of writers, many of them first-time authors like Avivah Zornberg; dozens of staff, board trustees, JPS interns like Miri Pomerantz Dauber and Naomi Firestone-Teeter, professional colleagues, and scholarly advisors. And I learned from them all. Tonight I’d like to single out four of my own mentors.
Dr. Chaim Potok, z”l, occupied my chair as editor-in-chief twenty-five years before me. He taught me the rigors of responsible curation and the boldness of responsible risk-taking. Banker Betsy Cohen, board Trustee, extraordinary donor, and financial genius, taught me how to have a hard head, a soft voice, a strategic eye, and daring ambition in fundraising. Rabbi Gene Borowitz, z”l, taught me how to combine a generosity of spirit with uncompromising integrity, and also how to make space for younger scholars and authors. And Jane Isay, who is here with me tonight, a brilliant trade editor and publisher, and a wise friend, taught me the business. She also provided unstinting moral support when the going got tough.
When I started my job, I commission a calligraphed piece of art from an artist friend. It’s a quotation from Pirke Avot: Eizeh hu m’hubad? Ha‑m’habaid et ha-bri’ot. “Who is worthy of honor? The one who honors others.” I tried to practice this teaching with everyone I met. And lest I forget, the dour portrait of Henrietta Szold, JPS’s first editor, hung across from me on the wall, staring with rabbinic gravitas.
I want to thank the Jewish Book Council for this special honor, named after one of the great mentors in our field, Carolyn Starman Hessel. I am grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to mentor so many others in my publishing career. But to paraphrase the Rabbis: u‑m’talmidai yotair mekulam. From those I have mentored, I have learned most of all.
Stella Levi’s generosity of spirit animates every page of One Hundred Saturdays. Over a span of more than six years Stella opened up to me, challenged me, provoked me, corrected me, encouraged me, and — by the end — changed me. My experience with Stella developed me as a listener; it helped me learn patience; it taught me several things about myself.
It also showed me that a book can take many forms. What I had with Stella — and what I sought to have in turn with the reader — was an encounter: an encounter with the past, an encounter with a fascinating lost world, an encounter with a modern-day Scheherazade.
In trying to understand what this encounter meant, I was helped by Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” where he observes that “telling stories is the art of retelling those we have heard.” Telling as retelling: after my six years with Stella, this resonated with me, and profoundly. “In this way,” Benjamin goes on to say, “the web is woven in which the gift of storytelling is embedded.”
Weaving that web, offering and receiving the gift of storytelling, is not limited to one book, or a single corner of the web. Benjamin refers at one point to the “fundamental role” that storytelling has played in “humanity’s household” — what a beautiful phrase! All of the books being recognized this evening have contributed, each in its own way, to humanity’s household, and One Hundred Saturdays is fortunate to be among them.
Shoshi grew up with her grandparents, who loved her and told her stories. They would take turns telling her and her brothers folk stories about lions and hyenas, firewood gatherers in deep forests who helped a lost boy get back to his family, and the bird with the most beautiful voice that sang and woke up the entire village. They used every opportunity to make up stories with moral teaching, usually about working hard, respecting elders, and being kind to each other.
In a world of 100 kids per classroom, the teacher holding one book that everyone would share, I loved coming back home to hear stories close to me. Stories that I could touch and interact with, stories that my grandpa told humorously.
Stories touch our hearts, and I’m so glad that The Very Best Sukkah: A Story from Uganda, beautifully illustrated by Moran Yegev, resonates with Jewish communities and families around the world. Because it’s a story of joy, community, and kindness.
I’m very grateful to Kalaniot books, my publisher, for giving me a platform to continue my grandparent’s storytelling, to write the story of my childhood memory, the joyul ways that my community, the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda celebrate the holiday of Sukkot and we take care of each other. And to remind all of us that we all win when we work together.
I was raised and continue to be supported and mentored by a village.
For this milestone, I like to thank my friend and family, Hedy Cohen, for making me feel smart and feel that I have something to contribute to our world.
To my friend Marlene Bocast for sending books to read in my teenage years.
To my friend and mentor Harriet Bograd, who passed away last year, she loved to hear stories of Jews around the world and she was always so proud women’s accomplish.
To my amazing daughter, Emunah, for adding so much Joy to my life.
To Hebrew Union College and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in NYC for allowing me to learn and grow as a future rabbi.
Finally, thank you so much to the Jewish Book Council and to the Tracy and Larry Family Award for the recognition of this incredible award and for amplifying Shoshi’s story even wider. Thank you!