On one wall hang his diplomas -- for master's and doctorate degrees in education from Pepperdine University; on another are photographs of Levy with President Clinton, Shimon Peres, Madeline Albright and other luminaries from the wildly successful public lecture series he launched for the university five years ago.
A new bookshelf, overflowing with volumes, testifies to Levy's latest and perhaps most ambitious endeavor: the Celebration of Jewish Books, which begins on Monday and extends through an all-day festival on Sunday. The celebration will offer lectures and signings with 40 authors -- including big names, such as Larry King, Michael Chabon, Kirk Douglas and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) -- plus music and dance performances, food and a thousand titles for sale, provided by Borders and the Hebrew-language bookseller Steimatzky.
Levy, the 38-year-old dean of AJU's Whizin Center for Continuing Education, says he enjoyed the annual book fairs he attended as a child in Tel Aviv, so he was intrigued by a 2002 Jewish Journal story about how Los Angeles could not sustain its own festival.
The void certainly wasn't for a lack of trying, the story noted; the Jewish community centers had hosted a fair, but the budgets were low (generally $3,000 to $10,000), attendance was poor, and the program had died out soon after the turn of the millennium. If Los Angeles was home to 600,000 Jews, why were we fest-less?
Levy didn't think the reason had to do with Los Angeles' vast geography: "If you create a good event, people will drive," he said. "This city provides a lot of opportunities for us to be entertained, to do things by ourselves or with our families, some of them Jewish, some not Jewish, so people really have to pick and choose," he added. "In order to put a book festival on your radar, it has to be 'big.' You need 'big' authors to provide name recognition, and to offer people access to the authors of the books they actually read."
This week, Levy's theory will be put to the test with evening conversations with Pulizter Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels in America" and the screenplay for "Munich"), Sam Harris and Rabbi David Wolpe, Israeli novelist Ram Oren and cookbook authors Judy Zeidler, Judy Bart Kancigor and Joan Nathan. The festival's budget is $225,000, much of it provided by a two-year grant from the Jewish Community Foundation.
Participants will be able to feast on a three-course meal hosted by the cookbook writers and walk through a life-sized replica of Anne Frank's attic hiding place; popular writers such as Naomi Ragen ("The Saturday Wife") and Judith Viorst ("Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days") will fly in for the festival's family day on Nov. 11.
"I felt that if I did an event just with local authors, it could be very interesting, but I didn't think it would be enough to get the several thousand participants we're hoping for," Levy said. "When you have a number of best-selling authors in one place at one time, that makes an event."
Levy knows well how celebrities can create (and sustain) an event. In 2002, he revived the campus's public lecture series -- despite some who protested that the old series had lost money -- by hiring the biggest "name" he could think of to launch the program: President Clinton. He got Clinton by assiduously networking, creating relationships with agents -- and allotting funding for the president's five-figure fee. The investment paid off when the just-retired president sold out the Universal Amphitheater, which helped convince other leaders to sign on to the now world-class program (Tony Blair is on the 2008 roster).
The fact that the lecture series has drawn such speakers as Al Gore and Henry Kissinger helped impress the literary agents Levy approached for the celebration. He paid to hire four "celebrity" authors (Kushner, for one, will receive $15,000) and then was able to engage other writers who were eager to appear on the same "ticket" sans fee (but with travel expenses reimbursed). He found them by flying to New York with his festival chair, Emily Corleto, and two staff members to hear 200 authors pitch their work over three days at the annual conference of the Jewish Book Council.
Most authors who declined to attend the celebration did so because of scheduling issues -- although "Maus's" Art Spiegelman had a more unusual reason: "He insisted on smoking on the stage, which is forbidden by the Fire Department, so that was a deal-breaker," Levy said.
In order to draw as large an audience as possible, Levy planned events to appeal to diverse populations: To reach Israelis, he invited Ram Oren, whom he describes as "the Danielle Steele of Israel" (see sidebar). Authors such as Handler and Viorst, as well as a student essay contest, will appeal to families with young children; Kushner should draw theater enthusiasts as well as those who are curious about the controversy over his "Munich" script (some deemed it anti-Israel).
Levy said he read a number of articles on Kushner before reaching out to him. "I wanted to make sure he wasn't going to come here with a political agenda," he said. "As an educator, I think it's important to bring speakers of many different backgrounds," he added. "One of my goals is to give people access to figures who might be controversial, or even misunderstood, and allow them to ask their own questions. When you read something in the media, it's all about the 'spin,' but when you can ask someone a question in person, and they're sitting right there on the stage -- you can't get closer than that."
For more information, visit http://www.celebrationofjewishbooks.com. The Jewish Journal is a co-sponsor of the event.