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Jewish Journal

Book Month Sparks Literary Landslide

by Rachel Brand

November 6, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Last year, when Leonard Lawrence learned that the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) had to cancel its annual book fair as a result of restructuring within the organization, he vowed to not let it happen again.

"We saw it as a challenge that Mount Sinai could rise up to," said Lawrence, general manager of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries.

This year, Lawrence's call to duty has placed the book festival back on the map with a bit of a twist. Unlike the traditional book fairs of previous years, this year's book festival, co-sponsored by Mount Sinai and JCCGLA, will cater to children.

"We really wanted to create a niche that doesn't currently exist," said Nina Lieberman Giladi, JCCGLA executive vice president. "There's so much focus on literacy and the value of reading for children lately. All the feedback that I'm getting from all of our early childhood education directors is that literacy is the number one issue for parents when they're choosing where to put their children in school."

The joint effort will take place on Sunday, Nov. 16, at Mount Sinai's Simi Valley Memorial Park with the first ever Children's Bookfest, which will donate $1 for every attendee to local firefighters and police officers in appreciation for their efforts during the recent wildfires. The event will feature performances by Parachute Express, the Los Angeles Children's Museum Theatre Project and Jewish puppeteer Len Levitt. In addition there will be mezuzah and book-binding workshops and a story writing contest.

The Children's Bookfest is one of many events scheduled in and around Los Angeles as part of the nationwide Jewish Book Month, which has been celebrated in November for more than 50 years. Recent years have seen a renaissance of Jewish book festivals, typically sponsored by a city's Jewish community center. Larger cities like Los Angeles often have smaller festivals and book signings, rather than one large fair, said Carolyn Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council for the national JCC Association.

"Jewish book month is growing bigger and bigger, and the enthusiasm and the amount of time and effort has grown tremendously and it shows," Hessel said.

This year, with five different programs scheduled for Jewish Book Month in the Los Angeles area, organizations from Simi Valley to the San Gabriel Valley are working to ensure that there is something available for Jews of all ages and denominations.

The most extensive book festival is being hosted by the Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. The festival, which runs through Dec. 3, is taking place at various bookstores, synagogues and private homes from Whittier to Pasadena. It will feature 14 authors, including Jane Levy ("Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legend"), Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis ("In God's Mirror"), Sylvia Rouss ("Sammy Spider") and Leslie Epstein ("San Remo Drive: A Novel from Memory").

"We're a large geographic area, and you have people living in Jewish pockets," said Marilyn Weintraub, Federation assistant director. "This gives us the chance to mingle with others in the Jewish community."

Elsewhere, the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles (JCLLA) will kick off its Jewish Book Month programming on Nov. 10, with rabbi and author Adin Steinsaltz (see story, page 36), who will talk about his new book, "Opening the Tanya." Programming continues throughout the month with other authors, such as Robert A. Rosenstone (see story, page 38), and creative programming, including a music and story extravaganza at The Grove, with storyteller David Steinberg, musician Shep Rosenman and entertainer Ditza Zakai.

Library Director Abigail Yasgur said that one of the main audiences that JCLLA considered in its programming this year was young adults and teens.

"The young adult audience in libraries is sometimes a hard match," Yasgur said. "But I know that our teens read.... They're checking things out. The teen audience is a great audience. You just have to find a way in."

Programs include young adult author Gloria Miklowitz ("The Enemy Has a Face"), Holocaust survivor and author Sonia Levitin ("Faith and Generosity") and a performance by Jewish rapper Etan G.

Promoting literacy among an even younger audience, KOREH L.A., a program that pairs volunteer "reading partners" with students in the first through third grades at public schools throughout Los Angeles, will offer three training sessions during the month (see story, page 24).

In addition to the Children's Bookfest, Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries will stage the first Association of Jewish Libraries' Western Regional Jewish Children's Literature Conference in partnership with Sinai Temple. The Nov. 9 event will offer educators, librarians and aspiring authors of Jewish literature an opportunity to learn from leading writers, publishers and illustrators in the field.

The conference opens with a keynote address by Caldecott Medal recipient Eric Kimmel. Other presenters include author Jane Breskin Zalben, who will speak on "Common Threads ... Writing and Illustrating Picture Books to Young Adult Fiction in the Era of 2003," and Adaire Klein, director of the library and archives at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, who will moderate a panel on "Portraying the Holocaust in Children's Literature."

Lawrence hopes that other community institutions will follow Mount Sinai's lead.

"I think it's incumbent upon every community institution to share the burden of maintaining cultural events for the community," Lawrence said. "We are the people of the book, and it's important for the Jewish community to support their authors, publishers and book sellers ... specifically those that write on topics that affect the Jewish world and America in general."

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