Israel's 60th is high on the London Book Week agenda

"Jewish Book Week is one of the few Jewish forums where both the Left and the Right are in attendance, " says journalist Jonathan Freedland.

stack books 88 (photo credit: )
stack books 88
(photo credit: )
Attended by over 12,000 people in 2007, London's Jewish Book Week, held this year from February 23 to March 2, is one of the city's biggest literary festivals. Now in its 56th year, Jewish Book Week is also the second oldest in the UK as a whole (only Cheltenham has lasted longer). For Jonathan Freedland, writer and Guardian journalist, the week-long festival is a highlight of the Jewish and literary year. "Jewish Book Week is one of the few occasions in the Anglo-Jewish calendar where this community punches above its weight. It attracts the very best writers around, Jewish and non-Jewish - from Salman Rushdie to Martin Amis to David Grossman or, this year, Zadie Smith. The audience is always large and deeply engaged." This year promises to be bigger than ever, with Israel's 60th anniversary being used as a catalyst to foster discussion. "Jewish Book Week is one of the few Jewish forums where both the Left and the Right are in attendance. Normally the two sides speak about each other, but rarely to each other," remarks Freedland. "At Book Week, you will get stout defenders of Israeli policy in direct conversation with those who believe that Israel has taken a wrong turn. And because it is a literary festival, they are obliged to make their cases fluently and accurately." "Israel at 60 is obviously high on the agenda," says festival director Geraldine D'Amico, who's also quick to point out the diversity of authors, some unrelated to Israel, taking part in the event. Apart from Zadie Smith, there will be appearances by major novelists like Monica Ali, Amy Bloom, Linda Grant, Sayed Kashua and Adam Thirlwell. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz will discuss the cost of war, Lisa Goldman will talk about the art of blogging and Jacqueline Wilson explores children's diaries. There are psychoanalysts (Adam Phillips and Susie Orbach), crime writers (Jed Rubenfeld and Matt Rees) and philosophers (Yirmiyahu Yovel and Sari Nusseibeh). Irreverent memoirist Shalom Auslander will appear with A.L. Kennedy, and playwright, novelist and poet Arnold Wesker will speak both on his own and together with Daniel Gavron. For Lisa Appagnesi, president of English PEN (part of the worldwide writers' association) and author of the forthcoming Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors, this diversity is a reflection of London's Jewish community. "Although it has a Jewish base, Jewish Book Week reaches out to writers with ideas from many different spheres. Its existence marks London's Jewish community as one that cares about a broad literary and intellectual culture." These are sentiments are echoed by Rees, who besides discussing his own book about Bethlehem detective Omar Youssef, will interview Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua. "Jewish Book Week is delightfully broad and eclectic," Rees says. "It suggests that the English Jewish community has a side to it which is very open and engaged with issues which we might not think of as specifically Jewish." For D'Amico, the challenge is to create a program that will satisfy the festival's core Jewish audience and attract literary fans from outside the community. "For me, what constitutes a Jewish book festival is not that the authors are Jewish," she argues. "For example, one of the things I find important about being Jewish is the Diaspora, which is why I can invite someone like Zadie Smith. She is not Jewish, but she thinks about identity and what it means to be part of the Diaspora." D'Amico admits that including big-name authors is partly a consequence of much-needed publicity. But at times, celebrities can pose their own problems, as D'Amico discovered last year when Nora Ephron dropped out at the last minute. But the occasional drawback is a fair exchange for creating a line-up largely composed of "fantastic speakers who have really important things to say and have to be heard." Israel's 60th anniversary has drawn an important lineup of speakers too - figures well known to Israeli audiences, but less familiar to those in the UK. D'Amico points to sessions featuring Sari Nusseibeh, Shlomo Avineri talking about Theodor Herzl, and Menahem Brinker discussing secular Judaism. Iconic Israeli photographer David Rubinger will talk about recording almost the entire history of Israel on film, Ron Leshem will talk about his book, upon which the Oscar nominated film Beaufort is based, and a specially-made documentary featuring Alan Yentob talking to Amos Oz will also be screened. "[Book Week is taking place] a few months before Israel's official celebrations," admits D'Amico, "but I think we are the first big event addressing Israel at 60, and we're trying to do so in the most balanced possible way."