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Turning a New Page

This year, Los Angeles' most ambitious Jewish book festival will take place outside the city.

by Michael Aushenker

November 7, 2002 | 7:00 pm

(From left) Alice Berlin and Judy Blustein browse at JCC of Metropolitan Detroit's book fair.

(From left) Alice Berlin and Judy Blustein browse at JCC of Metropolitan Detroit's book fair.

When is a city's Jewish book festival not actually located in that city? When it's based in Los Angeles. For the first time in five years, Los Angeles' Jewish Book Festival will not take place in L.A. proper, even as Jewish book fairs in smaller communities nationwide attract thousands of readers each year. So why can't Los Angeles stage such a festival?

It's not from a lack of trying. Every November, Los Angeles has hosted some semblance of a festival to commemorate Jewish Book Month -- until now. This year's most comprehensive will be the Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys' fourth annual Jewish book festival, where authors Jonathan Safran Foer ("Everything is Illuminated"), Nicole Krauss ("Man Walks Into a Room") and Joseph Telushkin ("Golden Land") will appear in communities such as Pasadena, Ontario, Arcadia, Montclair and Upland. In other words, not the City of Los Angeles.

Until last year, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) held its annual Jewish Book Festival with lackluster results. The 2000 event featured only 10 authors. In 2001, following Sept. 11 and an organizational restructuring of JCCGLA, which has yet to be resolved, the festival amounted to three visiting authors.

Conversely, the festival hosted annually northeast of Los Angeles by San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys' federation -- no relation to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, but under the same United Jewish Communities umbrella -- has been growing. This month, it will host a 19-event Jewish Book Month celebration that organizers estimate will attract 35-200 people for each lecture, signing and family/children event.

Marilyn Weintraub, who oversees the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys' book festival, said her organization uses its communities' assets. In addition to placing ads in area synagogues, libraries and outlets, such as Vroman's Bookstore, their book festival capitalizes on Pasadena's wealth of historic homes as backdrops for signings.

"These are unique personal settings that are different than typical venues the authors go to," said Larry Harris, director of the Jewish Federation of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys.

Unlike in Los Angeles, JCC-sponsored book fairs are thriving nationwide. JCC of Louisville, Ky., will welcome Iddo Netanyahu ("Yoni's Last Battle") and Foer. The David Posnack JCC in Davie, Fla., will feature Leonard Nimoy ("Shekhina") and Anne Roiphe ("Marriage: A Fine Predicament"). The Barshop Jewish Community Center of San Antonio will receive Washington Post sportswriter Jane Leavy ("Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy").

In 2000, about 650 Angelenos attended JCCGLA's festival. Compare this with the JCC of Metropolitan Detroit-sponsored, 10-day Jewish Book Festival, which attracts 15,000-20,000 readers annually.

So why can't Los Angeles draw such numbers? West Valley JCC program director Seville Porush, who in 1997 created what evolved into JCCGLA's Jewish Book Fair, blamed "a difference in communities," citing geographical and social distance.

It is unlike Detroit, where Detroit Jewish News Editor Robert Sklar considers the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit's annual Jewish Book Fair "an integral part of Detroit's Jewish community."

"We have a very cohesive Jewish community on a lot of levels," Sklar said. "The book fair, unlike other affairs in town, is the major event where Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform [Jews] come together and feel very comfortable in a cultural Jewish setting rather than a religious setting. It has been the most successful and sustained example of that."

Jewish Book Council Director Carolyn Starman Hessel, who works with 70 Jewish book fairs nationwide, stressed that America's three largest Jewish populations all lack a formidable Jewish book fair.

"People in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago don't need a Jewish fair," she said.

Jonathan Fass, last year's JCCGLA book fair coordinator, told The Journal that "Los Angeles is on the media tour for every major author. They have offices here."

Hessel said that in Detroit, "people wait a whole year until the Jewish book fair comes to Detroit. So it's a cultural experience."

While Harris admitted that the San Gabriel Valley region "is not as an attractive area for authors to travel to as Los Angeles would be," his festival fills a void and serves as "a public service announcement for the federation."

The November timing of Jewish Book Month became a logistical liability for JCCGLA.

"The books would come out here a little later than they did back East," Porush said. "Nobody had heard of them or their books yet."

Another factor contributing to Los Angeles' underfed book fair tradition is limited resources. In 2000, JCCGLA amassed a $10,000 book fair budget, culled from community grants, which shrank to less than $3,000 in 2001. Compare that to San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, which averages $15,000 for its festival.

Professionalism, Hessel emphasized, is also crucial -- cities such as St. Louis, Houston, Miami and San Diego draw big numbers "because they have the best coordinators and festival committees. That will make or break a book fair."

In Detroit, Sklar credits the guiding hand of Irwin Shaw, founder of Detroit's Jewish Book Fair and former executive director of JCC of Metro Detroit, for its success. The nonagenarian just suffered a stroke. However, he has attended all 51 Jewish book fairs.

"He's an unassuming kind of guy who has had his finger on the pulse of this community all 51 years," Sklar said, "and he's the reason it's been able to overcome all the dips over the years."

So what would it take to mount a large-scale Jewish book fair here? About $70,000-$100,000, according to Abigail Yasgur, the director of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles-based Jewish Community Library.

With the JCCGLA Jewish Book Fair dissolved, West Valley JCC has gone back to holding individual signings. Hessel believes thinking small is not a bad idea.

"I really don't think there's a lack of interest [in Los Angeles]," Hessel said. "Smaller venues might be the answer. In New York, we did them for a few years. They are very labor-intensive, difficult to run. It has to be a cooperative, community effort, not just a JCC effort."

Such an effort is easier when a community is geographically and demographically tightly knit.

"Detroit is the 11th largest Jewish community nationwide," Sklar said. "Yet from per-capita spending to Jewish education to Jewish culture, we rank a lot higher. That's directly correlated with the fact that the community goes back 100 years and there hasn't been a vast amount of turnover, nor a vast influx of new members. We've remained steady. It's helped maintain a sense of community."

So even as San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys grow their own festival, is there hope that Los Angeles can cultivate a festival tradition deserving of its 600,000 Jews?

"I'm always looking for funds to operate a Jewish book fair," Yasgur said.

Gady Levy, dean at the University of Judaism's (UJ) Department of Continuing Education, also champions the idea. The UJ is currently in the early stages of exploring a book festival. "The challenge is a good thing," said Levy, who led the wildly successful 2002 Public Lecture Series where speakers included President Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Barak. This year, Levy is undeterred by Los Angeles' checkered Jewish literature fair history. "There is a need in the community, and as long as it's done well with reasonable expectations and good marketing, I think there's a great potential. We have a very large community to sustain it."

"It would be nice if it could ever get going," a skeptical Porush said. "I don't know that it would. But I think that it's important that nobody abandon books."

For now, a cohesive Los Angeles Jewish book festival remains a chapter yet to be written.

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