Nobody remembers whether the Torah has ever won a book award before.
But this year’s National Jewish Book Award for non-fiction goes to “Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary,” edited by David Lieber and Jules Harlow (Jewish Publication Society). It’s the Conservative movement’s new volume of the Torah text and commentary, the first new edition published in 70 years.
According to Carolyn Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council, which hands out the awards, the “tremendous impact” this book has had on the community played a role in the judges’ choice.
Ten years in the making, “Etz Hayim” has an “all-star editorial cast” (Publisher’s Weekly) including Rabbi Harold Kushner and the late Chaim Potok. Its commentary reflects recent archaeological findings, textual interpretation and, for the first time, the opinions of women rabbis. Forty-one essays by rabbis and scholars reflect both traditional methods of Bible study and modern critical scholarship.
Rabbi Harlow, literary editor of the volume, told The Jewish Week that “the most striking thing is that a little over 2,500 years ago, in the time of Ezra, Jewish teachers began to teach and interpret Torah to other Jews. It’s a big privilege to be part of that chain, which can be broken by one generation.”
Since some critics of the work have said that the editors treat the Bible as though it didn’t happen, the book’s inclusion in the non-fiction category “settles that,” Harlow says.
The 52nd Annual National Jewish Book Awards will be given out on Oct. 30 to launch National Jewish Book Month.
Jonathan Safran Foer took the fiction prize for his novel “Everything is Illuminated” (Houghton Mifflin), a highly praised debut about a young American Jewish writer’s fantastical search for his European roots. The 20-something novelist joins recent previous winners Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Aharon Apelfeld.
Other winners in the 15 categories include “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews-A History” by James Carroll (Houghton Mifflin) for History and “Stalin’s Secret Pogrom” by Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir Naumov (Yale University Press/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum) in Eastern European Studies. Alexandra Zapruder won in the Holocaust category for her new book, “Salvaged Pages” (Yale University Press). And the Children’s Literature Prize went to Norman Finkelstein’s “Forged in Freedom: Shaping the Jewish-American Experience” (Jewish Publication Society).