Authors turn up the volumes at Koret Jewish Book Awards

Yosef Abramowitz took the stage of Kanbar Hall at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, and declared the city to be the “center of the Jewish literary universe.”

For at least that one night, the founder of Jewish Family & Life was correct. On Wednesday, Nov. 15, Abramowitz and several hundred other unabashed bookworms came together for the eighth annual Koret International Jewish Book Awards dinner and ceremonies.

This year the Koret Awards teamed up with Jewish Family & Life, as well as with the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, to add promotional firepower to the proceedings. Prominent figures from the Bay Area Jewish community were in attendance, including philanthropists Tad Taube and Roselyne Swig, S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation CEO Tom Dine and Koret Foundation executive director Jeff Farber.

But all eyes were on the authors and host Theodore Bikel, who said in his opening remarks, “This is a time of incredible creativity in the Jewish world.” To prove it he then introduced the winners one by one, five of whom were there in person.

Rochel Berman won in the category of Jewish life and living for “Dignity Beyond Death,” which chronicles her long membership in a chevra kadishah (Jewish burial society). Berman described the post-mortem rituals as “a splendid opera, a fine-tuned harmony between tasks,” adding that the experience has been “the most profound expression of my Judaism.”

In the category of Jewish thought, Rebecca Goldstein won for “Beyond Spinoza,” her account of the life and work of 17th-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. In accepting the award, she called Spinoza’s approach to philosophy “the most austerely personal system in the Western canon … To get an award for what felt like a series of profound transgressions is bliss.”

On video, People’s Choice winner Jonathan Safran Foer (author of “Everything is Illuminated”) thanked those who voted for him on, especially his mother who, he said, “called in 600 favors.” Foer beat out writers like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick for the honor.

Julie Orringer was on hand to pick up the Cowan Writer’s Award of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund for her short story collection “How to Breathe Underwater.” Claiming her $5,000 prize money, she thanked all involved for giving her “the gift of time to write every day.”

While the crowd enjoyed a dessert of strawberries and chocolate, Bikel and five Koret winners engaged in a brief panel discussion, something Bikel called “always a dicey proposition.” He need not have worried. The authors had a freewheeling conversation about the art of writing.

Said Orringer, when asked if writers can be overly influenced by their literary heroes, “If the worst that can happen is that I can be influenced by Michael Chabon or George Eliot, so be it. Reading [those authors] creates a grapevine of teaching going down generations.”

When asked about any latent prophetic undertones in Jewish letters, children’s literature winner Howard Schwartz said, “If we’re not trying to open the world, I don’t know what we’re here for.” Schwartz and illustrator Kristina Swarner won for “Before You Were Born.”

Responding to Bikel’s question about how to properly write for kids, Schwartz added, “I address them directly, and focus on the story. When they hear the words ‘Once upon a time,’ they go into a trance.”

Taube, president of the Koret Foundation, wrapped up the Book Awards festivities with closing remarks, saying in part, “Writers are uniquely situated to raise issues of fundamental significance. Our traditional structures and institutions are often struggling to reach and teach younger Jews. So we look for alternate paths to enhance our identity and our survival.”

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.