Readers, unite: One Bay, One Book aims to get Bay Area Jews on the same page

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Anyone who’s been part of a book club knows how tricky they can be to coordinate. Now, imagine planning one for the entire Bay Area.

It might sound implausible, but that’s exactly what Eileen Soffer and others at Jewish LearningWorks (formerly the Bureau of Jewish Education) have done. Of course, they had a little help: some 45 Jewish organizations, including synagogues, JCCs, Hillels, day schools, libraries and museums — from Cotati to Los Gatos — are involved.

“One Bay One Book” is designed to connect a diverse range of Bay Area adults in conversation, Jewish learning and interactive events. It will kick off with storytelling Nov. 11 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and close with talks by author Nathan Englander May 5 and 6  at the CJM and Oshman Family JCC, respectively.

Nathan Englander

At the center of the project is Englander’s 2012 book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” comprised of eight compelling short stories about complex familial relationships, Jewish history and how it shapes the future.

Each partnering organization will hold at least one event between December and May 2013 that will be free, open to the public and will use Englander’s stories as conversation-starters.

“The Bay Area is such a diverse, highly educated community that’s so deeply engaged with the arts — it was sort of like, ‘Why haven’t we done this yet?’ ” said Soffer, who has led the planning committee since last spring. “It was a natural fit. And the response from the community, how excited everyone has been since we started talking about it, has only reaffirmed that.”

Soffer said the planning committee studied other citywide reading programs for inspiration, and found that organizers of those programs suggested about eighteen months’ lead time before actually implementing an event.

“But we couldn’t wait a year and a half,” she said. “It just seemed like the perfect way to bring together the broader Jewish community. When you look at the list of partners, these are groups from every background and affiliation … I really think people who might not otherwise interact with one another are going to come together around this book.”

As for the decision to use Englander’s work in the program’s inaugural year, Soffer said it was a tough one, with so many excellent new books containing Jewish themes. But ultimately the planning group felt like a short-story collection would be the perfect entry point for participants. “If someone has only managed to read one of these stories, there’s going to be a discussion for them, there’s going to be thought-provoking material for them to go through on the website,” she said.

Beyond formal events, there are myriad ways to get involved: On Jewish LearningWorks’ website, eight Jewish artists, scholars and writers from throughout the Bay Area will post personal essays, each reflecting on one story from the collection. Materials will be provided for people who want to form their own book clubs in conjunction with the six-month-long community undertaking, while story synopses, discussion questions and message boards will provide a way to follow along for individuals who are unable to attend a community event.

“One Bay, One Book” partners in San Francisco include congregations Beth Israel Judaea, Beth Sholom, Ner Tamid and Sha’ar Zahav, as well as the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Jewish Community High School of the Bay, Moishe House S.F., Hadassah, and the Word for Word Performing Arts Company.

In Berkeley, Congregation Netivot Shalom is one of five organizations taking part in “One Bay, One Book.”

“The Bay Area Jewish community needs more cross-bridge networking, and this is a compelling cultural opportunity unlike many others,” said Netivot Shalom Rabbi Menachem Creditor, who is one of the eight essayists featured on the project’s website. (j. editor Sue Fishkoff also contrubuted an essay.) “If Jewish LearningWorks succeeds at convening a real communal conversation, we will experience these stories — the challenges of the Holocaust, Israel, Judaism, relationships, and trauma — as a large Jewish family. We need this conversation very badly.”

In the North Bay, the Osher Marin JCC and Congregation Gan HaLev (which sponsors an ongoing Jewish book club at the Fairfax Library) are collaborating on a book talk in March; Congregations Beth Ami, Beth David and Rodef Sholom, among others, have also committed to events.

South of San Francisco, bookworms can get in on the action at Hillel at Stanford, area JCCs, Jewish day schools, Stanford’s Taube Center for Jewish Studies, Kehilla Jewish High School, the Palo Alto School for Jewish Education, and nine congregations. At Congreg-ation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, for example, the Dec. 1 community Shabbat service will include a book talk and discussion on “100 Great Jewish Books.”

Jewish LearningWorks will post on its website a calendar that will be updated in coming weeks, as well as supplementary reading materials.

For the Nov. 11 kickoff event at the CJM, monologist Josh Kornbluth, filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, storyteller Liora Brosbe, and other local performers will come together for “What We Talk About: Stories of Identity.”

Soffer said if all goes as planned in the pilot year, next year’s program will be even bigger, with film and food events, and possibly a separate book track for young readers.

But for now, she’s focusing on the vibrant conversations she expects will take place over the coming months. “One thing I’m really proud of is that this program is set up to welcome anyone, of any background,” she said. “We don’t want people to worry about how they self-identify, if they belong to a certain group, what their perspective is.

“We want to hear them all. What better way to represent this community?”

“One Bay One Book,” through May 2013 at various Bay Area locations.

“What We Talk About: Stories of Identity,” Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. $5-$7.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.