Michael David Lukas, author of "The Last Watchman of Old Cairo"
Michael David Lukas, author of "The Last Watchman of Old Cairo" (Photo/Irene Young)

Local author of ‘Watchman of Old Cairo’ wins National Jewish Book Award

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Oakland writer Michael David Lukas has won the 2018 National Jewish Book Award in fiction for his novel “The Last Watchman of Old Cairo.” The awards were announced today by the Jewish Book Council.

Lukas, an assistant professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University, told J. that the news was “extra surprising and extra gratifying and also very welcome.”

His first novel, “The Oracle of Stamboul,” won the 2015 Anne and Robert Cowan Writers Award, presented by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. This is his first National Jewish Book Award.

“It’s a real honor to be among many wonderful people who won this year, and to be a part of this award that goes back to 1949,” Lukas said. “Looking at this long list of writers is humbling — to use an overused word.”

The cover of "The Last Watchman of Old Cairo" by Michael David Lukas“The Last Watchman of Old Cairo,” which is Lukas’ second fictional portrayal of Jewish communities in the former Ottoman empire, imagines a Muslim family that served as security guards for over 1,000 years at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. The synagogue holds a treasure trove of historical Jewish documents known as the Cairo Geniza, which Lukas researched for his novel.

“This was more than a book about the Jews of Cairo,” he said in an earlier interview with J. “It is a book about interconnectedness, and about how Jews interact with other communities in the city.”

Steven J. Zipperstein, a professor of history at Stanford University, was a finalist for his retelling of a historic 1903 riot in Tsarist Russia, “Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History.”

The Jewish book of the year award went to “Hunting the Truth: The Memoirs of Beate and Serge Klarsfeld,” translated from the French by Sam Taylor, about the couple’s lifelong efforts to pursue Nazi war criminals.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak won for his autobiography “My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace,” while Alice Shalvi won in the women’s studies category for her memoir “Never a Native.”

Many of the award-winning books are available at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. A complete list of the 2018 National Jewish Book Award winners and finalists can be found at jewishbookcouncil.org.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.