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Jewish Journal

Abridged Book Fair

by Michael Aushenker

November 15, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Where have all the readers gone?

Each year during November -- designated as Jewish Book Month -- Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) holds its annual Jewish Book Festival in a city with 600,000 Jews. While book fairs sponsored by JCCs in other cities with substantially smaller Jewish populations continue to flourish, JCCGLA endeavor does not appear to be on the same page.

Take last year's JCCGLA festival. The 2000 installment featured 10 authors, including hot newcomer Myla Goldberg ("Bee Season"), Nomi Eve ("The Family Orchard") and Rich Cohen ("The Avengers"). This year, with only three authors scheduled -- Rochelle Krich ("Shadows of Sin"), Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, (co-author of "Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul"), and Yossi Klein Halevi ("At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden") -- the 2001 event sounds more like a book signing than a festival.

"We lose money," Jonathan Fass told The Journal last year. "But the goal of Jewish education is not to turn a profit. It's to help Jews grow Jewishly."

For the past two years, Fass, the director of Jewish Life and Learning at JCCGLA, which is a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has coordinated Los Angeles' Jewish Book Festival, created by Seville Porush in 1997 to promote Jewish authors and/or books with Jewish themes.

This year, Fass told The Journal, "Internally, we felt that the community's dollars were best-used in other places. We repositioned those community dollars in other programming. The nation's mind is on other things."

This year's L.A. Book Festival cost about $3,000, as compared to last year's $10,000 program, which was three times larger. The festivals are underwritten by community grants, and the amount of funds sought is dependent on the size and scale of festival programming that year.

With grants from the California Council for the Humanities, Milken Family Foundation and Charles I. Brown Foundation, the L.A. Jewish Book Festival will continue this year, although on a smaller scale.

Regarding available talent, Fass said, "This year, the pool was a little smaller," adding that at least one author dropped out due to travel concerns related to Sept. 11. The festival, which does not charge admission, foots the travel and lodging expenses for its guest authors, who do not charge for their appearances.

Attendance here might also be a problem. Last year, about 650 Angelenos attended JCCGLA's Jewish Book festival. Compare this to the book festival sponsored by JCC of Metropolitan Detroit: held over 10 days at West Bloomfield and Oak Park, Mich., Detroit's festival attracted 15,000 people last year.

This month, Detroit's Jewish Book Festival boasted a litany of big names, including Rabbi Harold Kushner ("When Bad Things Happen to Good People"), New York Times' Frank Rich and Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

So why the dramatic difference in a city with far fewer Jews than Los Angeles?

Detroit's fair is "the oldest and the largest," Elaine Schonberger, director of the Detroit book fair, told The Journal. "This book fair started in 1952 and has been the model for all of the others. It's very prestigious and prominent."

Detroit isn't the only metropolis where the JCC Book Festival has a bigger following. Wendy Wasserstein's lecture this month in West Hartford, Conn., sponsored by the Greater Hartford JCC's Jewish Book Fair, sold out quickly. And more than 20,000 people attended the St. Louis counterpart, which celebrates its 23rd year this month. (That's the numerical equivalent of one-third of the city's Jewish population.)

However, in St. Louis, Jews aren't the only ones attending, since there is no general book festival in St. Louis, said Marcia Levy, director of the St. Louis fair. "Each year, we get more and more people from the general community."

It's the caliber of book industry stars that has undeniably brought this event to the mainstream. More than 600 people attended last year's appearance of "Enchanted Love" author Marianne Williamson.

"Most people didn't even know she was Jewish," Levy said.

The St. Louis JCC book fair charges admission for each event. The authors appear gratis at the festival. However, St. Louis JCC does pay its keynote speaker (this year Alan Dershowitz).

Fass believes that Los Angeles' book fair is the victim of an abundance of riches -- an eternal stream of bookstore signings, college lectures, and local TV show appearances.

"L.A. is on the media tour for every major author. They have offices here," Fass said. "A lot of the other book fairs take place in cities with [fewer] Jewish events. Some of the smaller cities, it's part of their larger programming."

Not so, say festival organizers from Detroit and St. Louis.

"The book fest is not our only event," said Levy, noting that several happenings staged in her community last year drew big crowds and big stars, such as Jay Leno and Mandy Patinkin.

Perhaps Los Angeles shouldn't feel inadequate. New York City, the publishing world's Mecca, doesn't even have a Jewish book festival.

"In New York City, you don't need it. But once you get west of the Hudson..." said Carolyn Starman Hessel, director of Jewish Book Council, which coordinates talent for 70 affiliates, including Fass.

Hessel believes that the book festival is a case where size doesn't matter. Meanwhile, Fass will continue to pragmatically explore ways of catering the JCC's book festival to the appetite of our city, but not at the expense of community dollars.

"We've been learning what works and what doesn't in a huge city like L.A.," Fass said.

Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins appears at the West Valley JCC Bernard Milken Community Campus on Nov. 27 at 7 p.m.; Rochelle Krich appears at the Westside JCC on Nov. 26 at 7 p.m. and at West Valley JCC on Dec. 4 at 7 p.m.; Yossi Klein Halevy appears at the Westside JCC on Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. For more information on Westside appearances call (323) 938-2531, ext. 2207. For West Valley appearances, call (818) 464-3300.

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