Post­ed by Nat Bern­stein.

Fif­teen years after Fan­ny Gold­stein estab­lished the first Jew­ish Book Week at the West End Branch of the Boston Pub­lic Library in 1925, a nation­al board for the annu­al event — held in Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties through­out the coun­try by its sec­ond year — was found­ed, with Gold­stein as chairperson.

The Nation­al Com­mit­tee for Jew­ish Book Week quick­ly observed the need for a wider con­ver­sa­tion on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture than one week of book events a year pro­vid­ed. With­in three years of the Committee’s estab­lish­ment, Jew­ish Book Week was expand­ed into a month-long nation­al fes­ti­val, the Nation­al Com­mit­tee for Jew­ish Book Week became the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, and the Jew­ish Book Annu­al, a jour­nal reflect­ing on the year’s events, fig­ures, works, and com­mu­ni­ty inter­ests impact­ing Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and lit­er­a­cy, was found­ed in 1942. The jour­nal ran for 56 years before trans­form­ing into Jew­ish Book World, Jew­ish Book Council’s quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine of book reviews, author inter­views, and edi­to­r­i­al per­spec­tives on each con­cur­rent pub­lish­ing season.

Jew­ish Book Coun­cil is proud to announce the real­iza­tion of its project to cre­ate a dig­i­tized archive of Jew­ish Book Annu­al in part­ner­ship with the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry, pre­sent­ing over half a cen­tu­ry of nation­al dis­course on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture in an inter­ac­tive, search­able for­mat to hon­or the 90th anniver­sary of the first Jew­ish Book Week.

Jew­ish Book Annu­al came into being in the midst of World War II, and the world’s events were very much present in the minds of the journal’s first con­trib­u­tors. From the per­spec­tive of the twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry read­er, Vol­ume I’s cri­tiques and essays are almost over­shad­owed by the intro­duc­to­ry notes from mem­bers of the Nation­al Com­mit­tee for Jew­ish Book Week, stat­ing the impor­tance of ongo­ing Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment in the face of the Nazi eugenic ter­ror­iza­tion of Europe.

That Jew­ish spir­i­tu­al pro­duc­tiv­i­ty could have been main­tained in the past year in the face of the trag­ic con­di­tions con­fronting our brethren in the lands dom­i­nat­ed by the Nazi bar­bar­ians, is a trib­ute to the cre­ative genius of the Jew­ish peo­ple which knows of no cul­tur­al steril­i­ty,” Mordec­cai Soltes, then chair­man of the Nation­al Com­mit­tee for Jew­ish Book Week, begins his intro­duc­to­ry report on A Year of Fruit­ful Activ­i­ty” and achieve­ment in regards to the read­ing, writ­ing, and pub­li­ca­tion of works of Jew­ish interest:

The fact that the pace of pro­duc­tion has been con­sid­er­ably retard­ed in these coun­tries of oppres­sion where all claims of basic human rights are being fla­grant­ly flout­ed by the forces of evil and law­less­ness, impos­es upon those seg­ments of world Jew­ry that reside in lands of equal­i­ty and free­dom a much larg­er share of respon­si­bil­i­ty than they have borne in the past for the nur­tur­ing and strength­en­ing of Jew­ish spir­i­tu­al val­ues. Amer­i­can Jew­ry in par­tic­u­lar must become vig­or­ous­ly pro­duc­tive, to coun­ter­bal­ance in some mea­sure the wan­ton destruc­tion of Euro­pean Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties that have pre­vi­ous­ly served as reser­voirs of Jew­ish cul­tur­al influ­ence from which we have drunk freely.

To sat­is­fy this com­pelling need in some degree the Nation­al Com­mit­tee for Jew­ish Book Week was orga­nized. It has aimed to revive among both young and old the tra­di­tion­al zeal for Jew­ish knowl­edge and cus­tom of set­ting aside time peri­od­i­cal­ly for the read­ing of the Jew­ish Clas­sics as well as con­tem­po­rary works; to incul­cate in fam­i­lies an atti­tude of eager­ness to spir­i­tu­al­ize the atmos­phere in the Jew­ish home by assign­ing a place of hon­or in it to a shelf or case of Jew­ish books, and dis­cussing their con­tents infor­mal­ly around the fam­i­ly table; to fur­ther the judi­cious prac­tice of aug­ment­ing con­stant­ly the col­lec­tions in libraries of syn­a­gogues, schools, Cen­ters and oth­er Jew­ish insti­tu­tions, and uti­liz­ing them to enrich the pro­grams of clubs, study cir­cles, for­mal class­es, dis­cus­sion groups, etc. Final­ly, it was felt that by extend­ing the cir­cle of read­ers more gift­ed authors would be stim­u­lat­ed to devote them­selves assid­u­ous­ly to Jew­ish writ­ing, there­by con­tribut­ing ulti­mate­ly towards the ele­va­tion of the stan­dards of Amer­i­can Jew­ish literature.”

Oth­ers point­ed to the sig­nif­i­cance of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture to the reli­gious and spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence of Judaism in the Unit­ed States at the time — and since: Jew­ish Book Week should serve to make us aware of our defi­cien­cy, to call our atten­tion to worth­while Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture which is avail­able, to fos­ter with­in us a greater sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty as patrons of the Jew­ish book, and thus to help cure our patho­log­i­cal con­di­tion of spir­i­tu­al illit­er­a­cy,” Israel Gold­stein, then pres­i­dent of the Syn­a­gogue Coun­cil of Amer­i­ca, chimes in.

We gen­er­al­ly speak of cre­ative writ­ing.’ But there is also cre­ative read­ing,’” Louis Finkel­stein adds:

Cre­ative read­ing is that type of read­ing which through the exer­cise of crit­i­cal fac­ul­ty and the demand for con­tin­u­al­ly improved stan­dards, stim­u­lates writ­ers to their best efforts. An age of cre­ative read­ers makes for lit­er­a­ture which is immor­tal. The peri­ods of the great cre­ative artists of the past may be said to have owed their dis­tinc­tion not mere­ly to few par­tic­u­lar­ly gift­ed men, but per­haps even more to the demands of a high­ly trained, intel­li­gent, if lim­it­ed pub­lic, able to influ­ence the gen­er­al taste.

Our age can­not, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, be called one of cre­ative read­ing, and today the most pop­u­lar books are like­ly to be those of ephemer­al val­ue. The lack of inter­est in books on Judaism is a reflec­tion of this gen­er­al con­di­tion. Grave as the sit­u­a­tion is for civ­i­liza­tion gen­er­al­ly, it presents a spe­cial dan­ger to Judaism.I earnest­ly hope that Jew­ish Book Week will result in a larg­er pub­lic for lit­er­a­ture on Judaism, includ­ing the real con­tri­bu­tions that are now being made by writ­ers in this country.”

Read the first vol­ume of Jew­ish Book Annu­al below, or vis­it jba​.cjh​.org to browse the entire archive of Jew­ish Book Council’s ear­li­est publications.

Relat­ed Content:

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.