Koret awards ditch academia for more popular writers

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The people have spoken, and they spake Foer.

“Everything is Illuminated,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s tragi-comic tale of a young American Jew’s journey through Ukraine in search of his grandfather’s roots, is the first winner of JBooks.com’s people’s choice award for the decade’s best work of Jewish fiction.

The award, and a $5,000 check, will be presented Nov. 15 at the Koret International Jewish Book Awards ceremony in San Francisco.

That doesn’t mean Foer’s novel really is the decade’s best Jewish book, not by the usual standards. It means that the more than 1,500 readers who cast their votes in the six-week online contest liked it better than the other five contenders, a list judges whittled down from 115 readers’ suggestions.

The credence one gives such an award depends on whether one prefers a laurel wreath bestowed by the crowd or the critics.

Online voting tends to draw a younger audience, and is subject to ballot box-stuffing, organizers admit, although they say they weeded out suspicious patterns.

Certainly the contest, which ran Sept. 6 to Oct. 16, got lots of folks involved in choosing their favorite Jewish book, and that’s what the organizers wanted.

“The idea is to give readers access to the awards,” to reward “what people are reading and enjoying and talking about,” says project manager Jane Hadley.

The People’s Choice Award is part of current efforts to make Jewish books more accessible — or, rather, to reward those books that are more accessible, a conscious goal of the newly restyled Koret awards. The Koret awards are being run this year for the first time by Jewish Family and Life in cooperation with the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

The Koret awards, sponsored by the Koret Family Foundation since 1998, have been “criticized as too heavy and highbrow,” says newly appointed Jewish Family and Life CEO Amir Cohen. “We’ve brought it down a notch. It’s still prestigious, but it speaks to a larger piece of the Jewish book-reading public.”

Jewish Family and Life founder Yossi Abramowitz, chair of the awards steering committee, says the new Koret awards are actively trying to influence Jewish book-buying.

“Our goal is not only to honor excellence, but to help book clubs in their buying decisions and influence Jewish culture,” says Abramowitz, speaking from his home in Israel.

Noting that most Jewish book clubs are “still overwhelmingly women, highly educated, meeting informally,” he says the changes were “very much made with these book clubs and these women in mind.”

The changes were also made with younger readers in mind. Along with the five Koret awards, three other groups are honoring emerging Jewish writers during the same ceremony.

The Koret ceremony has been moved from April to November, to coincide with the year’s biggest book-buying season. Categories have been tweaked to attract entries that readers and book groups are more likely to purchase.

Fiction, the mainstay of most book clubs, remains untouched, but gone are the categories of history and biography, autobiography and literary studies, which, say Koret organizers, tended to reward books too scholarly or esoteric to appeal to lay readers. They were replaced by Jewish life and living, a more wide-ranging category that drew 127 entries this year, more than any other.

The winners, and many of the finalists, were not always the obvious choices.

In the Jewish life and living category, Rochel Berman’s “Dignity Beyond Death,” a gentle, somewhat obscure book about Jewish burial societies, beat out Deborah Lipstadt’s better-known “History on Trial,” the chronicle of the author’s well-publicized legal battle against Holocaust denier David Irving.

And while Israeli author David Grossman is well known to American Jewish readers both for his prize-winning books and his leftist politics, “Her Body Knows,” which took this year’s fiction award, is “sexy, very racy,” says Abramowitz, “an interesting choice.”

Is this wrong? That depends on how one understands the role of book awards. Are they meant to reward the most rarefied tastes, or those of most people? Should they honor literary or academic excellence, or books that readers will want to devour?

The market for Jewish books is hot, and book clubs are fast proliferating. If awards want to be relevant, organizers say, they need to be part of the popular dialogue, even as they encourage excellence.

The National Jewish Book Awards, administered by the Jewish Book Council, have been edging in that direction for years. Council director Carolyn Hessel, the prime mover behind the fast-multiplying Jewish book fairs that take place every fall during Jewish Book Month, is an unabashed fan of promoting books that people will want to read.

There are 82 Jewish book fairs scheduled this year from late October through February, she says, and the council is sending 150 authors on speaking tours. The combination, she asserts, sells “a hell of a lot of books.”

Neither Hessel nor the folks involved with the Koret awards will say their awards compete with each other.

“The more the merrier,” Cohen of Jewish Family insists. Both groups actively promote Jewish Book Month, which runs from mid-November through mid-December, and they have flipped their ceremonies to avoid conflict.

The National Jewish Book Awards, which used to be held in December, are scheduled for March 6 in New York.

Publishers like that just fine.

Larry Yudelson, founder of the year-old Judaica publisher Ben Yehuda Press, says that more book awards mean that more books will be brought to the public’s attention. An award “gets people to notice a book, to read beyond the cover.”

And if the academic world feels slighted with the new emphasis on accessibility, there’s an easy solution. “Come up with a third award,” he suggests.

Winners of the 2006 Koret Jewish Book Awards

The following are the announced winners of this year’s Koret Jewish Book Awards:

Jewish Life & Living (underwritten by the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture): “Dignity Beyond Death” by Rochel Berman.

Fiction (underwritten by the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation): “Her Body Knows” by David Grossman.

Jewish Thought: “Betraying Spinoza” by Rebecca Goldstein.

Babaganewz Children’s Literature: “Before You Were Born” by Howard Schwartz, illustrated by Kristina Swarner.

Other awards to be presented at the Koret International Jewish Book Awards ceremony:

JBooks.Com People’s Choice Award for the Decade’s Best Work of Jewish Fiction: “Everything is Illuminated,” Jonathan Safran Foer.

National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Samuel Goldberg & Sons Foundation Prize for Emerging Writer of Jewish Fiction: Kevin Haworth for “The Discontinuity of Small Things.”

Anne and Robert Cowan Writer’s Award of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund: Julie Orringer.

Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction: “Kafka in Bronteland” by Tamar Yellin.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].