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Jewish Journal

Nextbook cuts wide swath in Jewish cultural world—from dot-org to real life

by Saul Austerlitz

April 19, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Just four years ago, Nextbook got its start as an organization committed to promoting public library programs dedicated to Jewish topics. In short order, the ever-evolving nonprofit has conquered a swath of territory in the contested realm of Jewish arts and ideas, steadily expanding while maintaining its focus on Jewish cultural and intellectual life.

Nextbook is the brainchild of Keren Keshet -- the Rainbow Foundation -- which sought to establish a single portal into the world of Jewish culture. Keren Keshet, an Israeli organization bankrolled by a wealthy American, Zalman C. Bernstein, originally managed Nextbook directly before spinning it off into an independent nonprofit in 2004. Its initial focus was public programming, with three cities -- Seattle, Chicago and Washington, D.C. -- selected to receive innovative Jewish programming in local libraries. This concentration soon spawned other, more elaborate offshoots that expanded Nextbook into a national Jewish brand.

First to arrive was the Nextbook Web site, a compendium of the best new Jewish-themed writing on the Internet that is supplemented by original essays commissioned by Nextbook's editorial staff. Newsweek recently described Nextbook's site as a cross between Slate, the New York Review of Books and online intellectual clearinghouse Arts & Letters Daily, combining links to Jewish content around the Web with New Yorker-esque essays and personal material.

Next came the Nextbook book series organized by novelist and essayist Jonathan Rosen, publishing short books on Jewish themes that include David Mamet's "The Wicked Son," a polemic on anti-Semitism. Having released seven books to date, beginning with Robert Pinsky's "The Life of David," Nextbook plans to put out three to four books every year.

Now, under the guidance of program director Matthew Brogan, Nextbook is seeking to become a prominent player in the Jewish life of America's foremost cities, with the first in a planned series of annual festivals in Los Angeles and New York.

Brogan, who previously served as executive director of Seattle Arts & Lectures, has been Nextbook's program director for four years. Under his tutelage, Nextbook has expanded to nearly 20 staff members, including Rosen and Joanna Smith Rakoff, who edits the Web site.

Each expansion has been fraught with difficulty, but for Brogan, each has also provided exciting opportunities for growth. The publication of Nextbook's first book by Pinsky was one such highlight. "Books take a long time to develop, so when the first one came out, it was very exciting," Brogan said.

The introductory Nextbook podcasts, which began in the summer of 2005, were similarly groundbreaking. "It was great to feel like we were part of developing a whole new media for cultural stories."

Tackling so many diverse media, Nextbook is not particularly interested in, or threatened by, the competition. With books, public programs, podcasts and a Web site, Nextbook has its fingers in too many pies to be easily comparable to any other cultural organization -- Jewish or otherwise.

Nextbook will make its first foray into Los Angeles this weekend with "Acting Jewish," which will include film, lectures and conversations with authors. It will take place on Saturday evening, April 21, and Sunday, April 22, at UCLA. The event will be followed by a similar one on April 29 in New York, on the relationship of Jesus to Jewish culture, titled "What's He Doing Here?"

"Obviously [these two cities are] centers of Jewish population, but they're also very important creative centers," Brogan said. "Nextbook is a place that celebrates Jewish creativity and Jewish culture and should be active in those places."

Inspired by Mamet's exploration of Jewish identities and his ultimatum to Jews to be "in or out," the festival's theme focuses on the image of today's Jewry in contemporary culture.

Mamet "talks about how Jews have been represented in popular culture," Brogan said. "We wanted to take that thread and spin it out into a festival and bring in perspectives of other people. Some of them don't necessarily agree with David's perspective on it, and some of them do."

The festival will feature New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik on Jewish comedy (see Gopnik interview by The Journal's Susan Freudenhein), Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan on the work of Max Davidson, Adam Goldberg and Laura Silverman in conversation about Jewish characters and Mamet himself on the depiction of Jews in American culture, in conversation with Jewish Journal Tommywood columnist Tom Teicholz.

In organizing the event, Nextbook collaborated with Los Angeles arts event planners, Community Arts Resources. Its president, Aaron Paley, is also the founder of Yiddishkeit Los Angeles.

"It's possible that between the people who come to the events and the kind of coverage it gets, it may actually spur some discussion about how Jews are portrayed in the media and some bit of consciousness amongst ourselves about what that looks like," Paley said.

"This is the place where the decisions are being made. When you're writing that next script and you're saying, 'Well, is this going to be a Jewish character? No, I'm going to make it an Italian character.'"

The Hollywood-heavy guest list for "Acting Jewish" is testament both to Nextbook's impressive Rolodex and its desire to please Los Angeles' Jewish community on its own terms.

"In New York, the festival we're doing is on Jesus and Jewish culture. Now I don't know how well that would go over in L.A.," Brogan said. "It's more intellectual, in that it's about intellectual, religious and social traditions, and it's not in any way connected with popular culture, so that way it's a little more challenging to draw an audience in some ways. I think there is an audience for that in New York, and the kinds of people who can talk about the subject are more likely in New York or in Boston." Los Angeles, by contrast, offered a wealth of opportunity to talk about culture, and by doing so reveal the breadth of Nextbook's interests.

"We're interested in Sarah Silverman and Larry David and Molly Goldberg and contemporary music, but we're also interested in the sorts of subjects that we're covering in the New York festival."

For details on "Acting Jewish," visit www.nextbook.org/festivals or call the UCLA box office, (310) 825-2101. A festival pass is $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Lunch by Angeli is $10 preordered and $15 at the door.

Saul Austerlitz is a music critic and author of "Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video From the Beatles to the White Stripes." {--Tracker Pixel for Entry--}

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