Banking on Jewish books

The Sami Rohr literary prize, the largest cash prize of its kind, will give emerging writers the room to write...and breath.

tamar yellin 88 (photo credit: )
tamar yellin 88
(photo credit: )
It's been a very good year for Tamar Yellin. Last fall, the British writer and teacher won Hadassah magazine's Ribalow Prize for her 2005 novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher, as well as the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Literature for Kafka in Bronteland. This week, Genizah bagged yet another honor when it won the first Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, an award for outstanding work by an emerging writer that carries a whopping $100,000 purse. "I'm thrilled and feeling slightly dizzy," said Yellin, reached at her home on the Yorkshire moors in the north of England. That's understandable. The Rohr Prize is the largest in the Jewish literary world, and one of the largest literary awards of any kind. Part of the burgeoning world of literary prizes in general, which are increasing at a rate far outpacing the publication of new works of fiction, the Rohr Prize is emblematic both of the heightened stature of Jewish literature and of the Jewish community's growing willingness to support Jewish art and culture as a vital part of Jewish identity building. "This does announce how much value certain people ascribe to Jewish literature," said Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University and one of the Rohr Prize judges. "In that sense it's important because it's not just a valuable prize, it's a statement about values." The prize was established last April by Rohr's children to honor the philanthropist's 80th birthday. It will be given in alternating years to new works of fiction and non-fiction on themes of Jewish interest, and is meant to recognize the "unique role" of writers in transmitting Jewish values. "So many Jews are preoccupied with Jewish identity - what does it mean, does it matter, is it cultural, theological, national?" said Rebecca Goldstein, author of last year's prize-winning Betraying Spinoza and a Rohr Prize judge. "There's a sense that our literary world, our writers, should provide the answers. As people look less to rabbis and organized religion, they are looking to writers for this." The prize also has practical implications. "I see it as a subsidy for future writing," Rohr explained by e-mail. "Very often great talent is lost because of the press of the day-to-day need to earn a basic living. The prize should alleviate this pressure, giving the winning writer the necessary "oxygen" and peace of mind to progress in his or her writing." In fact, Yellin said the prize money will "definitely" help her "feel more secure" as she works on a forthcoming novel. The business of handing out Jewish book awards is tricky, says Stanford University Jewish studies professor Steven Zipperstein, former chair of the Koret Jewish Book Awards. Jewish communal leaders are "preoccupied with Jewish continuity," he said, whereas great artists rarely are. That doesn't mean that "subversive or disquieting" books do not help sustain Jewish culture. "One of the crucial features of a book award is its willingness to look at the quality of the work and not presume that only work that views Jewish life in a particular way merits commendation," he said. "That's a very tough line to walk." The five finalists for the Rohr Prize all deal openly with conflict. They all focus on troubled family relationships, two deal with the Holocaust and two are set in Israel. So what makes a book Jewish? The author, the theme, both? Sometimes it's easy to determine - for instance, when a book is about the Holocaust. In fact, Goldstein said, the Holocaust turned up more frequently than any other theme among the two dozen semifinalists. "It used to be almost untouchable, and now it's interesting how many young writers turn to it," she said. "It almost supplies the answer to what constitutes Jewish identity." On the other hand, the judges winnowed out several books from Israel that Goldstein said were "very strong contenders," but which she and her colleagues considered "not specifically Jewish, except that they were set in Israel." Yellin questioned that stance. "I would say a novel that portrays life in Israel is of Jewish interest," she said. Pointing to another finalist, Yael Hedaya's Accidents, a love story set in modern-day Jerusalem, she said the novel "doesn't wear its Jewish identity on its sleeve but it's still very Jewish." The Genizah at the House of Shepher, on the other hand, is unarguably a Jewish-themed work. It tells of an English Jewish woman's search for a Hebrew text buried in her family's home in Jerusalem, and is interwoven with the story of her great-grandfather's 19th-century emigration from England to Jerusalem and her father's return to England a century later. Wisse called the book "beautifully textured, as if it were made of Jewish threads woven through the English language." She said its theme of dislocation and wandering is the central story of Jewish history. "The book creates a very interesting connection between the family's intricate nature and the history of the Jews, who were also suspended, like this family, between the Land of Israel and the places where they have made their homes," Wisse said. In some ways it also parallels Yellin's life as the daughter of an English mother and Jerusalem-born father. Yellin grew up in England but visited her father's family in Israel every year, and was conscious of her in-between status. "I had a very strong sense that England was my home and Israel was my home," she said. "That feeling is reflected in my novel." (JTA)