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The best in contemporary Jewish literature will be celebrated Wednesday evening in San Francisco with the awarding of the Koret International Jewish Book Awards.
The ceremony, hosted by Oscar-nominated actor Theodore Bikel, marks the beginning of International Jewish Book month, and the eighth year of the Koret Awards, which were established in cooperation with the National Foundation for Jewish Culture to promote new Jewish books and their authors.
Among this year's winners is Israel's David Grossman, who will receive the fiction award for his novel Her Body Knows. The author will accept his prize with a video message, choosing not to attend the ceremony in person following the death of his son during Israel's war with Hizbullah this summer.
As part of a new, revitalized set of prizes, this year's Koret Awards include a People's Choice Award, with book fans deciding the winner by voting online at Jbooks.com, a web magazine devoted to the world of Jewish books and culture. Voters chose among 115 unique works written between January 1995 and December 2004, with the prize eventually going to young Brooklyn novelist Jonathan Safran Foer for his 2002 debut novel, Everything is Illuminated.
"I know there are some very, very wonderful authors who were on that list, and I'm incredibly honored," Safran Foer said after learning he'd won the prize.
"The People's Choice Award was very popular, and an opportunity to resurrect some of the best writing of the decade, giving us an opportunity to really spotlight what's out there in Jewish fiction," said Jane Hadley, an organizer of the awards.
The rest of the awards were decided by a panel of judges, with over 375 books nominated by publishers from across the US and Canada.
Though the books all have Jewish themes, authors of any religion were eligible for the prizes, which honor excellence in writing, Jewish character development and interpretation of Jewish themes and values, Hadley said.
Prizes include the Jewish Life and Living Award, which was won this year by Rochel Berman for Dignity Beyond Death; the Jewish Thought Award, which went to Rebecca Goldstein for Betraying Spinoza; and a children's literature award that went to author Howard Schwartz and illustrator Kristina Swarner for Before You Were Born.
Schwartz wrote his book about the angel Lailah, the guardian of the human soul who first appears in the Talmud and then in Midrash Tanhuma.
He said he was proud to be a Jewish writer, "particularly in these times, which are fairly chaotic. Any writer who can be part of a tradition is very fortunate, and I'm very happy to be able to receive and transmit that tradition."
His mother, he said, told him the stories that ultimately inspired his prize-winning book.
He'll join Berman and Goldstein at the awards ceremony, which is being held for the second year in San Francisco rather than New York.
Wednesday's ceremony will also see the National Foundation for Jewish Culture present its Goldberg Prize to Kevin Haworth for The Discontinuity of Small Things, the Anne and Robert Cowan Award of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund to How to Breathe Underwater author Julie Orringer, and the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction to Tamar Yellin for Kafka in Bronteland.