Jonathan Foer's award-winning book, "Everything Is Illuminated," is a fictionalized road trip to a Ukrainian shtetl, mirroring the young author's own family history quest. Crime fiction writer Rochelle Krich, the Orthodox daughter of Holocaust survivors, is starting a new series with the release of "Blues in the Night." Howard Blum, a former New York Times reporter, chronicles the clandestine World War II exploits of the British army's Jewish Brigade Group in "The Brigade."
This trio, along with five other visiting authors and several nationally known speakers, will share their stories and sign books in a series of O.C. events Nov. 7-24. Hundreds of autograph-hungry readers are expected at the fourth annual Jewish book festival, organized by Orange County's Jewish Community Center.
Similar festivals are scheduled in 70 other communities in the month prior to Chanukah, which begins Nov. 29. The New York-based Jewish Book Council sponsors November's declaration as "Jewish Book Month." Together, the events will ring up nearly $3 million in direct and ancillary sales of books with Jewish content or written by Jewish authors, according to estimates by publishers, said Carolyn Starman Hessel, the council's executive director. "There's been a renaissance in Jewish literacy," she said, reflected in the success of local festivals, the survival of niche Jewish publishers such as Vermont-based Jewish Lights and the growth of synagogue book clubs.
Yet outside the nation's two largest Jewish population centers of New York and Los Angeles, book stores carry few selections on Jewish topics. Some festivals stock 4,000 titles, becoming a rare opportunity to see and touch the breadth of modern Jewish literature. Even the book-filled Judaica stores in Los Angeles -- which will not officially hold a book festival this year -- cater largely to the Orthodox community.
"The JCC brings in titles I can't take in, like politics," said Julie Ghodsi, who with her husband, Shahrokh, in 1990 started Costa Mesa's Golden Dreidle, which can boast of the county's largest Jewish book collection. Her stock is weighted towards cooking, children, travel, the Holocaust and introductory Judaism.
"I have limited space and people come to me for life-cycle books," she said.
Even in retail-rich Orange County, the Jewish inventory is slim at a mainstream shop such as B. Dalton Bookseller in Laguna Hills' mall. Of one aisle devoted to religion, the Jewish section takes three shelves, an anemic 100 individual titles.
At the JCC? A smorgasbord of over 1,000 titles will be offered in a conference room stripped of its tables and sofas and transformed into an all-Jewish book bazaar by event coordinator Donna Van Slyke and an army of 50 volunteers. Bookshelves temporarily emptied and heisted from every office at the Jewish campus will be refilled by genre. Merchandizing expertise is coming from the staff of Waldenbooks in Mission Viejo, which is serving as the JCC's temporary book distributor.
Among the book groupings will be children's, fiction, nonfiction, humor and cooking. New this year is a section devoted to contemporary Israeli authors, whose work is mostly in Hebrew. Two well-read, Israeli-born locals, Ivy Dashti and Yaffi Sevy, will describe the books at a Nov. 14 event provided by Steimatzky, an Israeli bookseller with franchise stores a Tarzana and Beverly Hills.
"It's a wonderful environment to bring the community together," said Hessel, who thinks that festival events often appeal to Jews who avoid synagogue. "'I can't go.' 'I won't know what to do.' You never hear that about a book fair."
In fact, the festival includes some atypical events that are a reflection of the local Jewish community's willingness to cross-collaborate. In addition to mostly evening appearances by authors, the line-up includes a single performance of "Shylock," a one-man play by Mark Leiren-Young about art and political correctness; and a debate between ideological opposites, Michael Lerner and Dennis Prager. The latter events are sponsored by the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League and the Community Scholar Program, respectively.
The independent book council plays a considerable behind-the-scenes role in raising awareness for Jewish authors. The group sponsors the National Jewish Book Awards, presented annually to the authors of the best works in 14 categories. And since 1999, the council has also eased the lives of local event organizers by gathering authors to an annual beauty-pageant conference where festival planners size up potential candidates. Van Slyke selected from 50 authors willing to travel west.
As a measure of Jewish book festival influence on an individual author's sales, last year's appearances prompted a fourth printing by publisher Simon & Schuster of Samuel G. Freedman's "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry," Hessel said. Freedman, a Columbia University professor, trekked to nearly 30 cities.
"I can easily sell 300 copies if the author is speaking," she said.
The festival is not a moneymaker for the JCC, which will receive about 10 percent of the proceeds, said David Ho, Waldenbook's district manager. He expects sales of $20,000, or about 50 percent of the merchandise stocked.
Authors submit to a jampacked monthlong schedule touring the country. The various festivals split their expenses, a bookkeeping tangle administered by the council. This year, Blum gets the mileage prize, visiting 32 cities in four weeks, including stops in Orange County and an appearance at the San Gabriel-Pomona Valley Jewish book festival.
The JCC's "store" will also take to the road to accommodate author appearances at the venues of sponsoring synagogues. Tickets to individual events vary and some are likely to be sold out.
Except where noted, author events take place at 7:30 p.m. at Orange County's Jewish Community Center, 250 E. Baker St., Costa Mesa. Ticket prices to individual events vary.
Nov. 7 Jonathan Safron Foer, noon.
Nov. 7 Dennis Prager vs. Rabbi Michael
Lerner, debate, Newport Beach's
Temple Bat Yahm
Nov. 10 Rabbi Harold Kushner, Tustin's
Congregation B'nai Israel
Nov. 10 Sheila Kaufman, private home,
Nov. 11 Robin Glasser, 9:30 a.m.
Nov. 12 Sharon Boorstin
Nov. 14 Israeli lit lovers: Ivy Dashti and
Nov. 16 Vivian Wayne
Nov. 18Mark Leiren-Young's play, "Shylock"
Nov. 20 Rochelle Krich
Nov. 21 Howard Blum
Nov. 24 Leonard Nimoy