Shabbat Surfing: Literary Blast-from-the-Past Edition

“Jewish literature” doesn’t mean just one thing. Or even a dozen things.

Jewish literature has been a home of mine both personally and professionally, and yet I am always startled at the diversity of what falls into that category. This year was the thirteenth annual Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival here at the DCJCC, and there are always more new and interesting books than we can fit into an eleven-day festival.

In honor of the great writers we’ve had here in the past, and in anticipation of the coming podcasts from this year’s festival, we’re revisiting some of the great discussions that we’ve captured in recent years.

We love a richly woven novel with challenging characters, and that was just one reason we loved Rebecca Goldstein and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. (You, too? Look out for Ursula Hegi’s Children and Fire podcast.)

There are so many sides when talking about Israel and defense. Last year, Joel Chasnoff told us about life in the Israeli Army, in hilarious and touching stories. (There were fewer laughs this year at the panel on Israel, Loose Nukes and the End of the World.)

Lucette Lagnado is a DCJCC favorite, and she spoke with us about the by-gone Jewish community of Cairo, including The Man in the Sharkskin Suit in 2009. (We liked her new memoir so much, we asked her back to the festival this year for The Arrogant Years.)

We’re moved by those who have deep passionate and personal relationships to Judaism. One of the most captivating figures of our time was Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Often known as simply The Rebbe, Samuel Heilman discussed his Life and Afterlife in 2010. (This year, Jay Michaelson’s scholarship of and intense connection to the Torah came through in his remarks on God vs. Gay?.)

But don’t knock pop culture. We had a great time with Sean Wilentz, talking about Bob Dylan. (And then this year during the World Series, we got to chat about the legendary Howard Cosell.)

Connect to “the old family business,” whatever it might be – Allegra Goodman reads from The Cookbook Collector with one family’s strange connection to the books. (More personally, Alicia Oltuski took us inside the family diamond business during this festival, and brought engaging historical insights into this traditionally Jewish industry.)

The diaspora has meant that Jews have long been a global people. Still, we always want to hear about Jews in unusual places – even if “unusual” is a relative term. We’ve learned about Iraqi Jews in Jessica Jiji’s historical novel and Jewish Gauchos in Argentina from Judith Friendenberg. (If you are similarly globally-curious, watch for this year’s podcasts that bring us to a variety of Russian empire experiences – Jews in Odessa with Charles King, and the panel on Glasnost’s Children, discussing the modern Russian immigrant experience.)

In the coming weeks, we’ll post podcasts gathered in the past two weeks. They only further the argument that there really is no one definition of Jewish literature.

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From the Archives: Allegra Goodman reads from “The Cookbook Collector”

This was recorded live at the Washington DCJCC’s Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival on October 24, 2010.

Right click and “save link as” to download as an MP3.

Or listen online:

Top 8 reasons you should be at the Jewish Literary Festival

By Dana Mulhauser, Festival committee member extraordinaire

The Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival is now eight days into its eleven-day run, and I’ve been having a shockingly fun time attending events. “Why,” you ask me, “is that so shocking? Shouldn’t you, Dana, a member of the festival committee, have known how much fun the festival would be?”

O imaginary blog reader, thank you for being so inquisitive. Here is my answer for you. I expected to learn things from this festival and to add a few books to my reading list. I was unprepared for how riotously entertaining it would be.

So, in honor of the eighth day of the festival (and in preparation for Hannukah, which comes early this year), I offer you brief descriptions of eight entertaining elements of the literary festival:

1) Food. Not only did the festival provide me with brunch on Sunday, it even included babka. Do you think the National Book Festival has babka?

2.) Being read to. One author explained that, while she’s glad people listen to her audiobooks, she herself has no input into which actors do the readings or how they interpret the work. With that in mind, it’s it doubly lovely to hear an author read her own work — squeaky voices, silly accents, and all.

3) Spending time at the J. Yesterday I saw, entering the doors at the same time, two women carrying yoga mats, a man holding four books to be signed, and a woman eating a plate of roast chicken.

4) Great questions. At the Joel Chasnoff event, an American Air Force colonel asked why Israeli army officers dress like slobs. And yes, when asking the question, the officer stood at attention, shirt neatly tucked, pants pressed, and shoes shined.

5.) Great answers. Yesterday, someone told Allegra Goodman which part of her last book she thought was lousy. The author answered with such grace, thougtfulness, and aplomb that it made me want to read the book all the more (and to be her friend).

6.) Comfortable chairs. Really.

7.) Lively debate. I’m not sure what was better theater: watching Leon Wieseltier banter with Ruth Franklin, watching Ruth Franklin banter with her questioners, or watching the audience watch everyone else’s bantering.

8.) The audience. Any crowd of readers is going to be a good crowd, but these have seemed particularly friendly. I’ve run into old friends, conversed with total strangers, and gotten more suggestions for new books than I know what to do with.

So there you have it. Lucky for you all, there are three more days of the festival to go. So come debate capitalism and the Jews with Jerry Muller, hear a little historical romance with Jessica Jiji, and nosh with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. I’ll see you there.

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