Lit Fest ’09 Update: Traditional Jewish Folklore Gets an Image Makeover from author Jonathon Keats

When a small, paperback advanced copy book appeared in the Lit Fest office one day many months ago, I didn’t pay much attention. We get hundreds of books sent to us (upon request or not), and a thin paperback is usually something we ignore. But a second copy of the book came, this time it was the final released version – still a paperback.

Though it isn’t a rule that we only host authors of hardcover books during Lit Fest, it is unusual for any of the books we choose to only appear in paperback. But this thin book kept popping up on the shelf and the mix of the big boys’ books. I finally picked it up and read the description.

The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-six by Jonathon Keats.

Ok, interesting title. But then I read on. And I was surprised, amused and pleased. “A liar, a cheat, a degenerate, and a whore. These are the last people one might expect to be virtuous.” Oh! I  thought. THE 36, the Lamed-Vavniks, the 36 righteous individuals that exist across generations. The Jewish mysticism tells us that at any given moment, there are 36 individuals alive, without whom the world would come to an end.

This is a seriously Jewish book! Evoking Sholem Aleichem, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer and all of the other great Jewish storytellers, Jonathon Keats reminds us that Jewish storytelling is alive and well. Not only that, but he makes it a bit more relevant for our time. Though the time and setting of his stories are not defined, these stories clearly don’t take place in 21st Century America. However, it’s also not clear that they take place in 15th Century Europe, either. It is ambiguous. All we know is that these characters live in traditional, rural villages. And here is another twist: they are righteous, but they are not perfect. They use their un-ordinary qualities – theft, prostitution, etc. – for  good! They save the whole village by sleeping with everyone’s husbands, they teach the  villagers moral lessons by stealing what is most important.

Each character plays their role in the village or city, and no matter what the role is, it is crucial to the stability of the town.

Ok, so now you all know that the book is fantastic and interesting. But let’s just visit the author for a moment. Jonathon Keats. Not a huge name, but a huge image. Coming to us from Northern California, Mr. Keats is a writer, author and conceptual artist. He is a character, to put it simply. Some of his credits include: attempting to create God in a petri dish in a lab at UC Berkeley, customizing the metric system for individuals according to their own body’s rhythm, sitting in a gallery and thinking for 24 hours and selling his thoughts as art to patrons. Seriously. Just read his Wikipedia page!

And watch his interview, too:

Oh, and that bowtie. Pretty sure he’ll be sporting that when he visits us for the Lit Fest program “Past Imperfect: New Jewish Fiction” on Thursday, October 22.

Now I’ll be straight with you: yes, I am supposed to be a cheerleader for all of our programs. I mean, I helped plan all of them. But honestly, this fiction panel is one of the best events we’re offering. This panel features  fantastic authors – Binnie Kirshenbaum and Norah Labiner in addition to Keats  – and is moderated by Professor Sheila Jelen, my all-time favorite Jewish studies and English lit professor from my alma mater, University of Maryland. And on top of all of  this, this program features the authors in the Lit Fest that will be travelling  the farthest distances to be with us: from Northern California and Twin Cities, Minnesotta.

So we invite all of you to join us for this fantastic program – which is one of MY favorite’s in the Festival. Get a taste of West Coast, Midwest and East Coast Jewish literature all in one healthy dose. Explore the pasts of multiple Jewish characters, some modern and some not. And most of all, support new Jewish fiction writers, who pour their heart and soul into creating something completely new and original in order to contribute to the great Jewish literary tradition.

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