Literary London

A cherished staple of the cultural calendar, Jewish Book Week is celebrating its 60th anniversary.

London 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia)
London 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia)
London’s Jewish Book Week – which will take place between the 18th and 26th of this month – is celebrating its 60th anniversary. The second-oldest book festival in the United Kingdom, it is a cherished staple of the literary calendar; it has quite possibly done more than any single event to promote Jewish culture and literature in the country. Nonetheless, it is only now that Geraldine D’Amico, as she prepares to step down as director of the festival this year after seven years at the helm, feels that the festival is approaching its full potential.
After several years at the Royal National Hotel in Bloomsbury, Jewish Book Week – or JBW, as it is more commonly called – will be moving a mile or so up the road to Kings Place in King’s Cross. But instead of seeing the move as a break with tradition, D’Amico points out that it is rather the end of the process of establishing JBW within the mainstream of British literary and intellectual culture.
“It’s always been interesting to see how far we could interest our audiences in various issues, how far we could take the festival to other audiences,” she explains by telephone.
“Moving the festival from where it has been for the last 18 years to a new venue – a venue where events and talks are held all the time, a venue with its own program – was for me the last step of seeing how far we could go, opening up the festival to people beyond the community.”
Jewish Book Week first took place in 1952, organized by the UK’s Jewish Book Council. The council had been founded in 1948 by barrister George Webber to promote the reading of books on all aspects of Jewish thought and culture. The first JBW was a relatively modest affair, building on the successes of previous events in Glasgow, Manchester and London on either side of the Second World War. But it quickly secured an important place in the cultural life of the Jewish community. It satisfied a hunger for cultural events in the austere postwar period. Ecumenical in outlook from the start, it provided a unifying umbrella for the disparate sectors of the Jewish community.
By the 1980s, JBW had expanded in scale and importance to the point that not only had it become a genuinely nationwide celebration with satellite events across the country, but it had also gained recognition beyond the Jewish community. It was publicized by the national press and major book retailers ran promotions to tie in with the week of events. As the festival expanded to two full weekends, so did the prestige of its speaker line-up. Many significant Jewish writers of the last half-century have spoken at JBW – a good few of them before they attained widespread success. Beyond this, JBW has played host to a wide range of literary and intellectual figures from outside the community, including Salman Rushdie, Niall Ferguson, Martin Amis and the late Christopher Hitchens. This year Umberto Eco will be talking about his new book. But success of this magnitude brought challenges of its own; organizing the week had gone beyond the means of part-time volunteers and the Jewish Book Council appointed a full-time director.
Geraldine D’Amico accepted the post with impeccable literary credentials; she had been the cultural attaché to the French Embassy in London. Still, taking on stewardship of JBW demanded personal re-evaluation.
“Even though I am Jewish, I am not a practicing Jew, I didn’t consider myself a member of the community,” she reminisces. “The first few years were not just about shaping the festival, but also asking myself questions about my Jewishness.”
D’Amico took lessons on the Jewish faith for a year, spent a month in Israel and started to read the Bible in an attempt to immerse herself in the context of Jewish culture. “I felt that if I did the job, I needed to understand the culture and the issues and my own relation to them.”
INHERENT TO the ecumenical approach of JBW is acknowledgment of the broad range of views and opinions within the community. Interestingly, this has never posed much of a challenge from the religious perspective.
This year’s program, for instance, includes a discussion by Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, and mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on the at times uneasy relationship between science and religion. Other talks, about rabbinical creativity in the modern age and the history of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, will be held comfortably alongside talks about coexistence in the Middle East and the canon of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.
The political dimension has proven more contentious, however. Past speakers at JBW, like Melanie Phillips, who has argued at length about the threat of Islamism to the United Kingdom, and Jacqueline Rose, a sharp critic of modern Zionism, are always bound to upset sensibilities. Last year, Jonathan Hoffman, vicepresident of the Zionist Federation of the United Kingdom, called for a boycott of the festival following the inclusion of Israeli left-wing journalist Gideon Levy.
Now D’Amico is sanguine about these disruptions, careful to note that the proposed boycott had no discernible effect on JBW. “Last year was probably our best in terms of attendance,” she says. But she emphasizes that this is beside the point. At the time, D’Amico pointed out that the tradition of JBW “is based on dialogue and debate”; fostering intelligent discussion, as she sees it, about the issues that matter to a modern Jewish community.
“Actually, I would say that we look more at dialogue than debate,” she says now. “I think that debate is more polarized, I think it means that you are for or against an issue. In my experience, things are not in black or white. There are usually a lot of gray areas, and it is the gray areas that [we] are usually interested in.”
JBW, she says, presents the issues to audiences with the expectation that they are mature enough to engage constructively. “I think our audiences have proven themselves intelligent enough that they can take in what they hear and ask their own questions at the end of the session. What we ask of people is this: come and listen and make up your own mind.”
Taking this spirit of dialogue further, JBW will be experimenting with a novel innovation this year. “After some of our events, we will set up tables with a moderator and invite people to continue the conversation.”
D’Amico hopes that audiences will embrace the spirit of the gesture. “That’s what I would like people to do: start talking to their neighbors, say ‘what do you think?’ even if they don’t know that person.”
JBW HAS evolved significantly from its original remit, “to compile and circulate widely a list of Jewish books and to foster in Anglo-Jewry the reading and love of books.” While Anglo Jewry remains at its core, it is by no means the only consideration in curating the festival.
“JBW has always been about the Jewish experience and Jewish literature and issues. It is not about participants being Jewish,” D’Amico says. “It’s one of the things that I’ve had to explain over and over again: you do not have to be Jewish to speak at JBW or to attend JBW. But on the other hand, being Jewish is not enough to entitle one to speak at JBW.”
So how does one negotiate the intersection between Jewish and general interests? D’Amico avers to the notion of a “Jewish experience.”
“Jews in the UK today are very well integrated,” she observes. “But for me, I think that what is interesting is to look at how people today are still going through the same issues that our community did in the past.” History repeats itself, and the relative success of Jewish integration in the UK offers valuable lessons for newer immigrants.
She thinks that this same quality ought to imbue the Jewish community with a sense of perspective. “For me, the Jewish experience should also make you attuned to what other people are experiencing today, when it was something that was experienced by Jews 100 years ago.”
SIXTY YEARS is good reason for celebration; it’s also a good opportunity for taking stock.
“I hope that there is an element of pride that the community can generate such events,” D’Amico says.
“I think our role is to help people think... I do hope it is like throwing a pebble in the water, seeing what kind of ripples it creates.” Naturally, JBW this year will recognize the milestone with a special program – curated with the input of previous participants, both speakers and audience. “The idea was to get more people involved, to think of JBW as something they cared about and that was theirs.”
JBW also took on the “impossible” task of selecting 60 great Jewish books of the past 60 years.
What was D’Amico’s choice? Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. “It is an amazing book, and I can’t believe the number of people who do not know it.”
And her highlights of the last seven years? This is probably an unfair question, akin to asking a mother to name her favorite child. But she tackles it gamely.
“Probably those sessions when we had readings of classic texts,” she says, referring to an event last year in which British actor Henry Goodman read the work of Stefan Zweig, interspersed with live music from the writer’s collection of scores.
“These were very special moments, when you have a text brought back to life; the quality of listening in the room was just amazing,” says D’Amico, and off she dives into her history of JBW, throwing out names like Etgar Keret, David Grossman, Edmund de Waal and Shalom Auslander.
Geraldine D’Amico will miss JBW, one senses. And, certainly, the festival will miss her, too.
JBW 2012 takes place in London from February 18 to 26.

An extensive archive of audio and video recordings of past events is available on its website,