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)

Oakland author Michael David Lukas wins $100k Jewish literature prize for ‘Watchman of Old Cairo’

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Oakland writer Michael David Lukas, an assistant professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University, has won the 2019 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for his novel “The Last Watchman of Old Cairo.”

The Rohr Prize, the largest literary prize of its kind, is a program of the Jewish Book Council and carries an award of $100,000. It honors emerging writers who explore the Jewish experience in a work of fiction or nonfiction.

The April 30 announcement follows the news in January that Lukas had won the 2018 National Jewish Book Award in fiction.

From the cover of "The Last Watchman of Old Cairo" by Michael David Lukas“The Last Watchman of Old Cairo” 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 valuable collection of historical Jewish documents known as the Cairo Geniza, which Lukas researched for his novel. The action of the novel extends from 11th-century Cairo to the 19th century, to the present day.

The prize announcement describes Lukas’ book as “impressive and beautifully written.”

It is Lukas’ second fictional portrayal of Jewish communities in the former Ottoman empire. He is also author of “The Oracle of Stamboul.”

Recognition also went to Dalia Rosenfeld, author of the short-story collection “The Worlds We Think We Know,” who won $18,000 as the Choice Award winner; and to Sami Rohr Prize Fellows Rachel Kadish (“The Weight of Ink”), Mark Sarvas (“Memento Park”) and Margot Singer (“Underground Fugue”), who will receive $5,000 each.

“The extraordinary work of each of these five emerging authors is a blessing to the Jewish world. We are delighted to be a part of this well-earned recognition,” George Rohr said in the announcement of this year’s winners.

In the press release, Lukas responded, “What an honor to be chosen for this prize, and to have my name listed alongside such an amazing group of writers. I am deeply grate­ful to the administrators of the Sami Rohr Prize, the Jewish Book Council, and to the Rohr family.”

Choice award winner Dalia Rosenfeld added, “I am honored to be part of this community of writers, and grateful to the Rohr family for its generous support of cultivating Jewish fiction and the careers of writers who care about it.”

The awards will be conferred at a private ceremony at the Moise Safra Center in New York City.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.