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.
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.