Many ways to tell Jewish stories

Many Jewish stories are told in many different ways in this year's 2013 National Book Awards.

Many ways to tell Jewish stories (photo credit: Katie Freeman)
Many ways to tell Jewish stories
(photo credit: Katie Freeman)
The 2013 National Book Awards, given to the books thought the best published in the United States that year in four categories, show that there are a variety of people telling Jewish stories and ways to tell them. The awards ceremony was held November 20 at the Cipriani Wall Street restaurant in front of a crowd of 700, mainly from the publishing industry. The award format changed slightly this year, in an attempt to bring more attention to the awards, by having a long list of 10 titles in each category announced on the website of the Daily Beast in September and the shortlist of five finalists announced on the Morning Joe television program on October.
In conjunction with the announcement of the finalists this year, was the innovation of a free ebook series The Contenders, which featured excerpts from the books chosen as finalists in each category. The only Jewish winner this year was James McBride in Fiction for his historical novel The Good Lord Bird. Fiction writer E.L. Doctorow, known for his novels Ragtime, World’s Fair and The Book of Daniel, as well as a forthcoming novel Andrew’s Brain (January 2014), received a Lifetime Achievement award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Until now, McBride has been mainly identified with his best-selling 1995 memoir, The Color of Water, about his family and upbringing, with a focus on his mother Ruth McBride Jordan, born to an Orthodox Jewish family in the South who raised 12 biracial children in New York City. In an interview at the National Book Awards finalists reading at the New School in New York City on November 19, the night before he won, McBride told The Jerusalem Post that The Color of Water became the success that it did, due to its embrace by Jewish women opening their homes to have him read to them.
“If not for Jewish readers, I wouldn’t be here.” He added, “you haven’t lived till you have done a coffee klatch in Teaneck, New Jersey.”
This aura of gratitude to readers and their support carried over to the night of the win, when McBride told the Post after the ceremony that he “couldn’t believe it.” The Good Lord Bird is a historical novel about slavery, with a humorous take, perhaps something only a person of both African-American and Jewish heritage would be willing to tackle.
The other fiction nominee of Jewish heritage was Rachel Kushner, whose second novel, The Flamethrowers, was nominated.
When asked by the Post about the role of Israel or Judaism in her work, Kushner explained that though her father and his parents are Jewish, her grandparents were Communists who raised her father without religion. When asked about connection to Israel, she spoke of her love for Herman Melville and his travel diaries about his journey to Palestine in the mid-19th century. She told the Post that when she moved to New York and people asked her what she was doing for the High Holy days, she wasn’t sure what they were referring to, as her childhood in Oregon and California did not include them.
The Jewishness of life in New York that Kushner sensed is clear in the work of one of this year’s five judges for fiction, Gish Jen, author of Mona in the Promised Land and most recently Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Independent Self (2013). Jen, a second-generation Chinese American, grew up in Scarsdale, New York, a Jewish enclave, and in Mona in the Promised Land, explored the question of ethnicity with a protagonist who converts to Judaism. Jen told the Post that though she is Catholic, she is an “honorary Jew” who feels guilty when people assume she is Jewish, because of the novel, and ask what she is doing on the High Holy Days.
A Jewish New York resident, E.L. Doctorow, in his acceptance speech for Lifetime Achievement, spoke prophetically about the dangers of the Internet to free speech and to art. He expressed his fears that, according to a survey by the PEN writers association, writers are beginning to engage in self-censorship to avoid scrutiny by the United States government, reminding all assembled that they are in the “free speech business.”
The other lifetime achievement honoree, Maya Angelou, was moved to break into song in honor of her award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, presented by her longtime friend Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison.
Angelou sang an African-American spiritual about the rainbow placed in the sky in Genesis 9:12-17. She explicated the verses by saying that even though the clouds persist and people think they can’t see changes in the sky, the rainbow still comes out. She told the audience that “People live in direct relation to the ‘sheroes’ and ‘he-roes’ they have. I thank you for honoring me. “ The only one of the nominees that has been to Israel, as far as this reporter can determine, is historian and non-fiction nominee Wendy Lower, whose book Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, had its origins in a presentation she gave at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on her second trip to Israel in July 2010. Lower, who is John K. Roth professor of history at Claremont McKenna College in California and research associate at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, told the Post in a phone interview that she gave an informal presentation on the topic of her book, female brutality by German women on the Nazi eastern front, to a semi-closed gathering mainly of scholars at Yad Vashem. There was so much excitement about her initial findings that the public relations office at Yad Vashem, in looking for what among the papers presented would be “interesting to the press,” sent a copy of Lower’s paper to Isabel Kershner, then writing in Jerusalem for The New York Times. Kershner interviewed Lower at Yad Vashem and her piece “Women’s role in the Holocaust may exceed old notions” brought the book into being.
After the Yad Vashem workshop, Lower went to Kiev to teach doctoral students and junior professors interested in teaching the Holocaust in their courses about ways to teach it. Lower hadn’t known Kershner’s piece came out until she turned on her laptop in her Kiev apartment to find it and notes from a variety of general interest publishers interested in seeing a proposal.
Because of the Yad Vashem presentation, Lower decided to write a book not for an academic press but for a general, crossover audience of non-specialists. She told the Post that without The New York Times exposure, she would never have gone down the path to the nomination for a National Book award. Lower, who is not Jewish, sees her interest in the Holocaust as “a human response, not American or Jewish.”