Koret Awards go digital with online voting

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It’s not exactly “American Idol,” with its 40 gazillion votes phoned in and text-messaged every week, but the Koret International Jewish Book Awards are about to go a bit more high-tech and a lot more democratic.

That’s because the S.F.-based Koret Foundation, which finances and sponsors the awards, brought in the Jewish media organization Jewish Family & Life! to manage the awards starting this year. And JFL CEO Yosef Abromowitz is already promising big changes.

“There’s a startling explosion of phenomenal Jewish books,” he says. “We want to recognize excellence both to honor the writers and publishers, and also because we want to be of service to the end users: the consumer.”

Right out of the gate, Abromowitz is making one major change. In addition to the standard categories of fiction, Jewish life and living, children’s books and Jewish thought, there is a new award category starting this year: the People’s Choice, for which bibliophiles use the Internet to nominate their favorite Jewish book.

“Anyone can nominate a book anywhere in the world,” says Abromowitz. “We want to give the underdog and the dark horse the opportunity to be honored.”

An “A-list” judging panel will announce the finalists, then the panel’s five to 10 choices will be announced on Labor Day in the New York Times Review of Books.

In addition, the awards themselves will now be handed out in November during Jewish Book Month (the Hebrew month of Kislev), just in time for the Chanukah gift-buying season. In the past, awards have been announced in late February.

“Jewish Book Month has existed on a low burner for 20 years,” adds Abromowitz, “but it’s about to go mainstream in the public imagination.”

Moreover, the site for the awards ceremony has been moved to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, reflecting the Bay Area origins of the awards. The ceremony will take place Nov. 15.

The history of the awards goes back to 1998. The brainchild of Stanford University Jewish Studies professor Steve Zipperstein, the Koret Book Awards have grown into one of the most prestigious prizes of its kind. But after eight years, Zipperstein is stepping down.

“Steve Zipperstein is a genius,” says Abromowitz. “He established the awards to bring a higher level of dignity and respectability to honoring the world of Jewish letters than had existed before.”

With this changing of the guard, Abromowitz hopes to bring his penchant for “big picture” thinking to the book awards. “There’s a lot of creativity in Jewish life,” he says, “but little in the context of a larger vision for the transformation of the Jewish people.

“So we’re going to leverage our print and Internet publications in the service of the newly re-branded Koret International Jewish Book Awards. We’re bringing a lot of reach and intellectual firepower to this.”

JFL print and Web publications include Shma, Babaganews, GenerationJ.com and Jbooks.com.

As in the past, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture will continue to team up with the book awards, especially with its annual Jewish Literary Supplement that runs in American Jewish newspapers (including this one), reaching up to 300,000 readers coast to coast.

The deadline for submissions is May 31. Finalists will be announced in September with notification of winners taking place in October.

That may seem like a long time from now, but until then, when it comes to the Koret International Jewish Book Awards, the irrepressible Abromowitz will likely remain as excited as Tom Cruise on Oprah’s sofa.

“If peoplehood is the new grand unifying theory of the 21st century,” he says, “then two of the characteristics of peoplehood are values and time. Reading is a Jewish value.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.