People of the book

The Rohr family translates a love for literature into action.

Rohr family (photo credit: HERSCHEL GUTMAN)
Rohr family
(photo credit: HERSCHEL GUTMAN)
Jews have a reputation for being prolific writers and voracious readers, and despite Pew reports about growing intermarriage and assimilation, literature by Jews, primarily for Jews and on ev- ery imaginable Jewish theme continues to flood the marketplace – with the encouragement of various literary organizations, institutions, agents and publishers.
Arguably in the forefront of those who encourage and promote Jewish literature is the New York-headquartered Jewish Book Council.
Founded in Boston in 1925, the JBC had modest beginnings.
Fanny Goldstein, a librarian at the West End branch of the Boston Public Library, decided to exhibit some of the library’s Jewish Books under the title of Jewish Book Week.
Within two years, Jewish communities in other parts of America adopted the idea, displaying books that were mainly in Yiddish or Hebrew. The majority of American Jews at that time were immigrants, which explains the paucity of English-language books on Jewish subjects in the first half of the 20th century.
Up until 1940, Jewish Book Week coincided with Shavuot. In 1940, it was moved to Hanukkah, and has remained a staple of the Hanukkah festival in the US.
Naturally, committees were established to run Jewish Book Weeks, and in 1943, the National Committee for Jewish Book Week, having grown in scope, became the Jewish Book Council – and continued to grow.
In Israel, JBC is familiar not only to literary agents, publishers and immigrants of American background, but also to visitors to the International Book Fair in Jerusalem, in which JBC has been a long-time participant.
In addition to a large board of directors and a national advisory board, the JBC networks with more than 100 Jewish organizations and institutions across America promoting book-related cultural events and programs.
It also publishes a regular newsletter, book reviews and news about authors.
In addition, it administers several literary awards, the most prestigious of which is the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, which is the largest monetary prize awarded for Jewish literature worldwide.
It is presented for fiction and non-fiction in alternating years.
The presentation ceremonies are held in alternating years in Jerusalem and New York. This year’s ceremony was held at the end of July at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, a first-time venue for the Sami Rohr Prize ceremony, but one that is likely to be used again in 2020.
THE ROHR family established the Sami Rohr Prize in 2006 in honor of the 80th birthday of Sami Rohr, who was a great lover of Jewish writing, but did not confine himself to Jewish literature alone. The family concurrently established the Jewish Literary Institute, a forum that aims to ensure the continuity of Jewish literature.
Unlike many other competitions, the Sami Rohr contest does not encourage submissions. Books for consideration are selected by an independent panel of judges whose task is not easy. An indication of how prolific the Jewish literary output is in every imaginable genre in any given year can best be assessed by the JBC’s list of book reviewers, who number close to 500.
Very often, the name of someone associated with an ongoing prize of any kind is nothing more than that.
The general public knows little or nothing about the person honored in perpetuity.
For example, the best-known prize in the world is probably the multi-disciplinary Nobel Prize, which includes a prize for literature, several of the recipients of which have been Jewish – among them Henri Bergson, Nelly Sachs, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joseph Brodsky, Nadine Gordimer, Imre Kertesz, Elfriede Jelinek (whose father was Jewish) and Harold Pinter. In Israel, it was anticipated on more than one occasion that Amos Oz would also be a recipient, but so far the prize has eluded him. The above winners did not always write on Jewish subjects, but most have something of a Jewish nature in some of their writings.
Rohr, who died in August 2012, was among those who helped to lay the groundwork for the revival of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. He was reputed to have donated more than $250 million to Jewish causes, primarily to causes run by Chabad-Lubavitch.
Born in Germany, Rohr grew up in Berlin in a wellto-do family. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, his father realized that there was no future for Jews in Germany, and the family fled first to Belgium, then France and finally Switzerland. After the war, the family moved to Paris, and in 1950 Rohr moved to Bogota, the capital of Colombia, where he had an aunt. It was in Bogota that he met his late wife Charlotte, an Auschwitz survivor. It was also in Bogota that he made his fortune in real estate. Rohr became well known for his charitable largesse. He gave generously to Jews who came from abroad to collect money for various projects in their respective communities and he encouraged his employees to give to them as well.
At a dinner in New York in 2006 in which he was honored by Chabad, Rohr explained that he became so deeply involved with the global hassidic movement because the Chabad emissaries were different from the others. They didn’t just come to ask for money. They wanted to know about the people who were responding to their call. They wanted to know if they were married, if they had children, where their children went to school, and invariably they wanted the male donors to put on tefillin. It was this attitude that prompted Rohr to give more to Chabad emissaries than he gave to others.
He also valued his meetings with the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, which resulted in his doing so much to restore Jewish life in Russia and beyond.
It was also in 2006, that his family honored him by initiating the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in categories of history, biography, contemporary Jewish life, Jewish scholarship and current affairs.
ROHR WAS religiously observant and a very cultured man. He was fluent in several languages, studied Talmud and Torah on a daily basis – even taught a little – and read a wide selection of non-Jewish literature.
In 1981, he and his wife moved to Florida, where he became a leading force in the Bal Harbor community.
His three children – George Rohr, Evelyn Rohr Katz and Lillian Rohr Tabacinic – grew up surrounded by books.
Rohr was a great believer in giving people the opportunity to go beyond what they thought was their potential. He did it with young architects in his real estate projects, with his children in whatever it was they undertook, and with emerging writers, who he believed had so much more of themselves to give.
He was thrilled with what his family had chosen to give him for his 80th birthday because it meant that winners of the prize could devote themselves almost entirely to their writing instead of having to do it parttime while working to support themselves and their families. If they didn’t have to worry about money, they would have more time in which to write. If this helped them to become established writers, with publishers giving them an advance on a book, they wouldn’t need to work in any other profession unless they particularly wanted to.
The prize was awarded for the first time in 2007 and Rohr had a wonderful time talking to the winners.
In April 2012, just a few months before Rohr died at the age of 86, the awards ceremony was held in Jerusalem at the King David Hotel, which is a hop, skip and a jump from Montefiore’s windmill. The runner-up for the prize was British historian Abigail Green, the author of Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero.
Green happens to be a distant relative of Montefiore’s on her mother’s side, and Rohr almost held up the award proceedings because he was so engrossed in his conversation with her.
His body was brought to Jerusalem and he is buried on the Mount of Olives.
AS THEY are each year, his three children were in attendance for this year’s awards ceremony at which five writers were presented with prizes. Green was also present, as were several other former recipients of Sami Rohr awards.
Ilana Kurshan. (Jewish Book Council)Ilana Kurshan. (Jewish Book Council)
The first prize, $100,000, went to Ilana Kurshan for her book If All the Seas Were Ink. The second prize of $18,000, known as the Choice Award, went to Sara Hirschhorn for her book City on a Hilltop; and three Fellow Awards of $5,000 each went to Yair Mintzker for his book The Many Deaths of Jew Süss, Shari Rabin for her book Jews on the Frontier and Chanan Tigay for The Lost Book of Moses.
Kurshan, who was born in New York, lives in Jerusalem. American-born Hirschhorn was until recently teaching Israel and Jewish studies at Oxford University, but will be a visiting professor at Northwestern University this coming fall; Mintzker and Tigay were born in Jerusalem and live in the United States, and Rabin, who grew up in Wisconsin and Georgia, is an assistant professor of Jewish studies at the Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston.
At dinner, prior to the ceremony, I happened to be seated alongside Mintzker, who has been living in the US for some 20 years, and is a professor of history at Princeton University.
Shari Rabin. (Jewish Book Council)Shari Rabin. (Jewish Book Council)
Asked how he was chosen for the award, Mintzker replied: “I haven’t got the faintest idea.”
Earlier in the day there had been a discussion about the merits of fiction vs non-fiction and a brief review of the discussion was held at dinner between Mintzker and well-known Jerusalem-based literary agent Deborah Harris.
As an academic, Mintzker didn’t feel comfortable with fiction. He’s a person who likes to see copious footnotes on a page.
“It’s difficult to be out of your natural habitat,” he said. “People don’t take you seriously when you have a popular book.”
Referring to a recently popular book that was written by an academic in a non-academic style, even though it wasn’t fiction, Mintzker said that the author had lost all academic credibility, but that his comment was not intended as a criticism – merely as an observation. It would seem that when ideas about somewhat esoteric subjects are rephrased into a language that goes down well with the masses, the author is sacrificed on the altar of academia.
It was interesting to listen to gossip about writers and their writings as distinct from political gossip. In the latter case, the gossip is usually malicious. With literature, it’s more analytical. Harris, whose own favorite reading material is biographies, does not like to meet with budding authors until after their work has been assessed by her stable of editors. If she spent time talking to every author who wants to give her a manuscript, she would never get her work done. Her website has information about which editor deals with any specific genre, and manuscripts should be forwarded accordingly.
Coincidentally, Kurshan is one of those editors.
Judging by the roar of the audience when she rose to speak at the awards ceremony, Kurshan, who is also a translator and a writer of think pieces for various publications, has a lot of fans who appreciate her talents.
Overseeing anything and everything to do with the Rohr awards is Carolyn Starman Hessel, the director of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the emeritus director of JBC. Starman Hessel is always delighted to expand the literary forum to which all winners automatically become members, and she happily welcomed them at the start of the dinner.
AT THE ceremony in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim auditorium, the five finalists participated in a panel discussion moderated by Rabbi David Wolpe, who asked about them and what had influenced their writing.
Wolpe said that all five had made “extraordinary contributions to Jewish books and by extension to Jewish life.” Emphasizing the importance of words, Wolpe referred to the story of how Moses became a leader. Because of his speech impediment, Moses had initially protested when God told him to speak to the Children of Israel. “But God told him if you want to be effective in the world, you have to have words.”
In honoring the authors, said Wolpe, the Rohr family and the JBC were simultaneously paying tribute to tradition. When introducing each of the writers, Wolpe also presented a synopsis of their books. In Kurshan’s case, he said it was “an engagement of the text and life.” The text was the daf yomi page of Talmud, which she studies every day in the pre-dawn period when her husband and children are still asleep.
Wolpe found the connection between the daf yomi text and Kurshan’s personal life intriguing.
Joseph Süss Oppenheimer was an 18th-century German banker and a court Jew whose powerful antisemitic enemies were determined to divest him of his influence and ultimately to execute him. Mintzker, in his meticulous research, sought to write not only about Oppenheimer’s notorious trial, but also about the people around him and those who were responsible for his death. There are four conflicting versions, none of which is correct, according to Mintzker, but he included them all in his book. As a historian, Mintzker wanted to retell Oppenheimer’s story.
“That’s what I do,” he said by way of explanation of what inspires historians to write. “But you can’t trust anything,” he conceded, saying that all the stories about Oppenheimer are contradictory.
So much Jewish literature about the United States is set in New York or in California that there is a tendency to forget that Jews lived in frontier towns all over America. Many who started their new lives on the East Coast of the goldene medina, moved west and south during the 19th century. Rabin traces some of their journeys, the obstacles they faced and the challenges they overcame, such as how to obtain kosher meat or cobble together a minyan. Many lived an isolated, lonely existence, but their stories make for valuable chapters in American Jewish history.
Because she grew up in the West and the South where Jewish life continues to be vastly different from that on the East Coast, and was aware of the differences in her own life, Rabin realized how much tougher it had been for 19th-century Jews.
Chanan Tigay’s book was destined to one day appear in print. He is the son of Jeffrey Tigay, the noted biblical scholar whose study of Deuteronomy is considered to be a masterpiece. The study took many years, and it wasn’t an ivory-tower affair.
Chanan Tigay grew up listening to discussions and arguments on Deuteronomy. It was almost part of his DNA. His book is about Wilhelm Shapira, a Polish-born dealer in antiquities, who settled in Jerusalem after converting to Christianity.
Many experts rejected Shapira’s purportedly antique merchandise as forgeries. But in 1883 he came up with what appeared to be a version of Deuteronomy different from the version we know today. It was written in Hebrew on strips of leather.
Shapira sought to sell to the British Museum. If it was authentic, it was part of the oldest Bible in the world. Shapira claimed that it was found near the Dead Sea. When one of the great world experts on antiquities declared Shapira’s find to be a forgery, Shapira was distraught. He left London in despair and six months later committed suicide. Though most scholars agreed that the Deuteronomy scroll was in all likelihood a fake, there was still room for doubt, especially after the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in more or less the same place that Shapira had said that his Deuteronomy scroll had been found. The mystery remains.
Kurshan has been keeping a diary since second grade, recording her experiences. She didn’t set out to write a book about herself. Her intention was to write about the pages that she had studied from Talmud. But the more she wrote, the more she realized that her own story coincided with what she had read in the daf yomi.
Hirschhorn dealt not with her personal life, but with other people’s lives, telling the stories of Americans among Israel’s settler population and exploring the reasons why they left the US. She became interested in the subject matter of her book when a contemporary of her father’s moved from Massachusetts to Hebron. His family was similar to hers, and she was curious about what made him and his wife take such a different path.
“Almost everyone who reads a book comes out of the closet and says, ‘That’s my story or the story of a relative,’” said Hirschhorn.
Wolpe was keen to know what the writers had learned from their research and from reading other writers’ books. Mintzker said that “on some level Jews always felt unsafe and insecure.” He also believes that disagreements between Jews are a positive factors. “Disagreements between Jews kept them together. Where there is debate and dispute you have community, and when it stops people move away and the community disintegrates.”
There was consensus that different people read texts differently.
In Kurshan’s view, the writer thinks that he or she is writing a particular book, but it’s interpreted differently by readers. She had thought that she had written a book about Talmud, but readers saw it as a book about her.
“The Talmud is not just a legal text, but a work of literature filled with differences,” she said. “No two people read it the same way and no one person reads it the same way at different times.”
At this very moment, other people of the book are writing other stories.