Exciting new chapter for Contra Costa Jewish book fest

Reports of the Contra Costa Jewish Book Festival’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

When the JCC in Walnut Creek closed in December 2011, it looked as if the festival — a 23-year tradition held there every November to coincide with Jewish Book Month — might go kaput.

But the festival has reinvented itself and is back on track, with 14 programs scheduled at several local venues over the next few months. A few key words added to the event’s name reflect its new strategy: Under One Tent Contra Costa Jewish Book Festival.

Instead of the Contra Costa JCC and Jewish Federation of the East Bay organizing, operating and hosting the entire festival, this year all of the participating organizations will work separately to host their programs, select books and secure funding — but they will collaborate on promotion and other “one tent” aspects of putting on events.

Riva Gambert, director of the federation’s Partnership for Israel and the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival, was among those to present the idea at a summer meeting of leaders from Contra Costa County synagogues and the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living.

“Our suggestion was that the book festival was possible if we worked both independently and together,” said Gambert. “There was great excitement to do this. The meeting made people feel very good about the strengths of the Contra Costa community and its ability to collaborate.”

The festival, which Gambert has organized for years, usually took place over a span of about two weeks, with book talks happening every day at the JCC to coincide with Jewish Book Month in November.

This year, starting Oct. 19, programs will be held in Danville, Lafayette and Walnut Creek, with one outlier in Berkeley.

On Oct. 28, Congregation B’nai Shalom will host a talk by Marin County educator Madeline Levine, author of “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success.” The CCJCC and the Contra Costa Jewish Day School will co-sponsor. (The school also will host or co-host events for the younger set.)

“I think the ‘under one tent’ paradigm showcases the strengths of the local community, and I think that it may lead to more joint ventures on other issues,” said Gambert. Jo-Ann Jacobson, vice president of the CCJCC (which still exists as a nonprofit) and a chair of the festival for seven years, also sees the new approach encouraging “much more buy-in from each organization.”

The festival begins with an Oct. 19 talk by Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger. In “My Father’s Voice: Reflections on Neuroscience and Immortality,” he discusses recent scientific discoveries and how they challenge Jewish assumptions about the soul. Mecklenburger will make another appearance, on Jan. 12, to talk about his earlier book “Our Religious Brains.”

Several events about Jewish humor are on the bill. David Misch will discuss “Funny: The Book” on Nov. 3; Victoria Zackheim will share stories from the anthology “Exit Laughing” on Nov. 18; and psychologist Nily Shiryon will give a two-part talk on the psychology of Jewish humor, on Nov. 13 and 20 at the Reutlinger Center.

Other speakers include Mordechai Bar-On, a founder of Peace Now, whose topic is “The Life and Legend of Moshe Dayan” on Oct. 30 at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, and British historian Alex Kershaw on “The Liberator,” the story of a soldier’s 500-day odyssey from the beaches of Sicily to Dachau, who will appear at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley on Nov. 8.

Exciting new chapter for Contra Costa Jewish book fest, Oct. 19 through April 17. www.jfed.org/bookfestival

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.