Not even the dreary cold of a damp winter’s day could deter more than 2,000 people from celebrating Jewish literature and their authors. Bundled in cashmere and boots, the crowd waited in long lines for their favorite storytellers to pontificate on their craft. The event amounted to more than just a “celebration of Jewish books”; it was a celebration of Jewish community, identity and the penetration of Jewish value into mainstream media.
The week-long program began Monday night and culminated with a carnival of festivities for the whole family on Sunday Nov. 11. The fair blanketed the AJU campus giving writers a unique opportunity to discuss their work among an admiring crowd of kin; for the audience of readers, a chance to hear their literary heroes reveal the subtext beneath the stories they know and love.
Here’s a breakdown of the discussions I caught:
Kushner set the tone for the week with his proud declaration of being a gay, Jewish playwright in America. He discussed how identity politics has informed his writing and allowed him to explore the facets of his own character through those that he writes. Though he is unsure that his time is best spent learning Torah and Talmud to the exclusion of other great literature and art, he said his interest in Jewish religious worship is on the rise. I won’t attempt to encapsulate his rap on Israel here, but you can listen to excerpts yourself.
My favorite speaker of the week, Kushner was brilliant and candid. He stayed late into the night signing books and generously listening to the outpour of stories that met him with each hand shake.
The idea of The Red Tent revisiting a biblical story from a new (and feminist) perspective made it a juicy read, but Anita Diamant failed to excite with her dull explanations of how she came to be considered “a Jewish author.” Though the title no longer bothers her.
The avuncular, suspenders-wearing broadcaster is undoubtedly an entertainer. With surefire wit, he reflected on his humble beginnings in Miami radio to becoming one of the most successful hosts in television. He considers Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton the two most brilliant men he’s ever met and if Nixon were alive, he’d hire him to be an analyst at CNN. He spoke of Clinton’s love for Yitzhak Rabin and added that if Rabin hadn’t been killed, he would have died from chainsmoking. King lamented the current state of media and how his network would cancel an interview with Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, for a shot at Lindsey Lohan.
Schmuley Boteach rocked the room with his progressive views of the American family. The reason for the depraved states of Lohan and Spears and Hilton? Lack of love at home. These are the “attention seekers” that fuel American culture. He even admitted to being one himself. The solution? “Shalom in the Home.” Improve family by improving marriage. As a cultural and religious critic of contemporary American values, he hesitated before he said, “I believe Jewish pride is more important than Jewish education.”
If judging by numbers, this was the best loved author at the fair. Fans packed the Gindi to hear a handsome and somewhat effeminate Chabon discuss how fatherhood has changed his life. Complete and total immersion in novel writing is a distant dream and when he can, he escapes to the Chateau Marmont to delve inside his own head.
Rabbi David Wolpe and Sam Harris:
Can something like “faith” unproved by science be real? The only event of the fest to sell out, Rabbi Wolpe’s hometown cheerleaders came out in full force to hear their beloved rabbi obliterate Sam Harris’s scientific claims against God and religion. Being that neither side believes the other has a cogent argument, it’s a difficult debate to have, but Wolpe did it much better with Stephen J. Gould back in ‘99. Harris was just uninteresting. It was the end of faith in science and religion being treated in the same realm - they are simply categorically different!
(Top photo by Luke Ford: The Jewish Journal’s Kimber Sax, Susan Freudenheim and Rob Eshman flanked by the winners of the JJ essay-writing contest on “What does it mean to be the people of the book?”)