Berkeley Kabbalah scholar wins Koret Book Award

Berkeley scholar Daniel Matt’s lyrical translation of the Zohar, the centerpiece of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, has won the 2003-2004 Koret Jewish Book Award for philosophy and thought.

“The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, Volumes I and II” (Stanford University Press) comprise the first two of 12 volumes anticipated.

Benjamin Harshav’s biography of one of the century’s most beguiling artists, “Marc Chagall and His Times: A Documentary Narrative” (Stanford University Press), won the Koret award for biography/autobiography/literary studies, the Koret Foundation has announced.

Winning authors receive $10,000 and considerable recognition for their contributions to the growing collection of important Jewish books.

Two works tied in the fiction category. Winners are Barbara Honigmann’s “A Love Made Out of Nothing” and “Zohara’s Journey” (David R. Godine), a pair of novellas published in one volume that tell the stories of two women’s wanderings in postwar Europe, and Aharon Megged’s “Foiglman” (The Toby Press). The latter is the story of a Yiddish poet and an Israeli historian helping him to translate and publish his work, and how the intensity of their evolving relationship drives a wedge in the scholar’s long, contented marriage.

In the history category, “The Jewish Enlightenment” by Shmuel Feiner (University of Pennsylvania Press) won for its profound rethinking of the historical impulses and personalities that shaped the movement to articulate the foundations of Jewish modernity.

In an unusual coincidence, only one of the winning books was written originally in English, but its source materials required extensive translation. Underscoring the esteem conferred on the literary art of translation, this year’s judges chose to honor the translators of the three winning books with special recognition. Awards of $2,500 went to John Barrett, who translated Honigmann’s work from the original German; Marganit Weinberger-Rotman, who translated Megged’s novel from the original Hebrew; and Chaya Naor, who translated Feiner’s history from the original Hebrew. Harshav wrote “Chagall” in English, though he and his wife, Barbara, translated hundreds of letters written in Russian, Yiddish, French, German and Hebrew by Chagall and his contemporaries in preparing the biography.

Matt’s award reflects an unusual melding of translation and interpretation. “While translation may be an art, it can also be genuine scholarship of the highest order,” the judges said in reviewing Matt’s work. “Restoring the Zohar to our comprehension, these volumes are a monumental contribution to the history of Jewish thought.”

A new category introduced by the Koret Jewish Book Awards last year offers those 35 years old or younger writing about Jewish themes a $25,000 prize and the opportunity to spend a quarter as writer-in-residence at Stanford University. This year’s winner, 34-year-old Rachel Kadish, is an award-winning writer of both fiction and non-fiction. A 1991 Princeton University graduate who holds a master’s from New York University, she has also published short stories, essays and articles wrestling with issues of Jewish identity and history, and the question of a Jewish future. Her novel, “From a Sealed Room,” which deals with the choices people make when hope and reality argue against each other, was published by Putnam in October 1998, and recently was translated into German.

This is the sixth year Koret Jewish Book Awards have been presented in cooperation with the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. Previous Koret Jewish Book Award winners include Cynthia Ozick, A. B. Yehoshua and Philip Roth.