‘Today, many American Jewish are falling out of love with an Israel they don’t know,” observed Yossi Klein Halevi, winner of the Jewish Book Council’s grand prize, on receiving his award at the organization’s annual ceremony March 5 at the Center for Jewish History.
He contrasted the current disillusionment with Israel to the elation that gripped the community just after the Six-Day War, when, he said, “American Jews fell in love with an Israel they didn’t know.”
Klein Halevi was one of 25 winners (from 407 submissions) in 18 categories, including fiction, children’s literature, visual arts, women’s studies, Holocaust and modern Jewish thought and experience. All but three of the winners were in attendance and spoke in accepting their awards during the two-hour event.
The event’s emcee, Ari Goldman, an author and journalism professor, wore a tuxedo to add formality to an evening he described as “haimish,” with much of the audience made up of friends and family of the winners.
In accepting the Jewish Book of the Year Award, sponsored by the Everett Family Foundation, Klein Halevi, who made aliyah from Brooklyn to Jerusalem in 1982, said he wrote his winning opus, “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” for American Jews. “It was an attempt to tell a unified Israeli narrative of an Israel that began to unravel on the seventh day” of the 1967 war. Even today, he noted, that war is seen by some as Israel’s greatest blessing and by others as its greatest curse.
Israel in 2014 is “a far more nuanced society,” in a moment of crisis and opportunity, he said, with the Jewish state representing “the depths of Jewish history” and the American Jewish community epitomizing “the width and expansion” of the Jewish people.
“We need a transfusion,” he said in closing. “We need to understand each other” in order to work more closely together.
That point was also made by Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, whose best-selling “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” won in the history category. He noted in his remarks that both Israel and the American Jewish community “are challenged today” and need to “reach out, one to the other” and “fight together for our future.” He said he hopes his book will help “re-energize this feeling of solidarity.”
Other highlights of the evening included the award in the Holocaust category to Randolph Braham, 92, for “The Geographical Encyclopedia of the Holocaust in Hungary,” a three-volume work of scholarship. He has written more than 100 books in his long career. Speaking eloquently and without notes, the author said it was important to set the record straight about the Hungarian government, which he accused of falsifying the facts about the Shoah to deflect all blame on the Nazis.
“Without memory there is no history,” he said.
Peter Waldor, winner in the poetry category for “Who Touches Everything,” said his book was unique, noting that it was the only one that could fit into the breast pocket of a man’s suit. He pulled out a copy and read one of his poems aloud.
Larry Krule, president of the council, announced that he will be stepping down at the end of his term and that Carolyn Starman Hessel, the director for more than two decades, will leave her post a year from now.
She will continue her role directing the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, affiliated with the book council.
Hessel is credited with rescuing the book council and transforming it, with the financial support of the late Henry Everett and his wife, Edith, into a major influence in the Jewish literary world. She told The Jewish Week the day after the award ceremony that she sees her work as “building community,” and takes pride in increasing awareness of Jewish literature “as a discipline unto itself.
“I believe in the authors,” she said. “They are the future. Someone has to be their advocate.”