Writing To Survive: Jewish Book Week 2015

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“Jewish Book Week is really about Jewish survival. Where are Jews truly represented? In books. Their physical existence is precarious – look at Anne Frank. But books endure. And Jews write to survive”.

Embarking on her seventh year at Jewish Book Week, usually as co-chair, along with Gail Sandler, but this year also taking on the heady heights of Festival Director, Lucy Silver is proudly spilling the beans on what she and her talented team have spent the past year assembling.

‘”We’ve grown and we’ve shrunk”, Silver says of the move, three years ago now, to Kings Place. The much in-demand London venue, a swanky combination of chamber music halls, art gallery, offices, and restaurant, is a stone’s throw from the now achingly hip Kings Cross. Day-long children’s programming like ‘Little Bookniks’ and a vast on-site shop of every Jewish-related book in history have had to go, but King’s Place allows back-to-back programming in intimate venues with the option of falling into a bar afterwards.

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Of the must-sees, Silver offers British non-Jewish journalist Sarah Helm’s Ravensbrück, about a women’s only concentration camp; Yuval Harari’s Sapiens; Palestinian lawyer/writer Raja Shehadeh’s Language Of Peace, in conversation with Hay director Peter Florence; a series of events celebrating The New Yorker; and pairings like Simon Schama with daughter Chloe, and Martin Wolf with Mervyn King.

“You need a partnership – interviewer and subject – that you won’t see anywhere else”, explains Silver. You also need to see, or hear, writers that you won’t find anywhere else. “Yes, showcasing young and new writers, and foreign writers, are our two biggest responsibilities”.

Of these, ones to watch are Charles Lewinsky’s Melnitz: A Sweeping Swiss Family Saga; Assaf Gavron’s The Hilltop; Hermann Simon’s Gone To Groundand novels by Jenny Erpenbeck and Dorin Rabinovici.

“Fiction is a very hard sell”, admits Silver. Even in London. ‘We’re a sophisticated, cosmopolitan and metropolitan festival” she beams, “but we’re not alone, as a literary festival, in having difficulty outing new work”.

Other highlights of the 2015 Festival are lovingly-assembled panels that offer rare access into hushed worlds: Going Behind Closed Doors: On Judging Book Prizes, featuring the likes of Sam Leith, Daniel Glaser and Erica Wagner (sponsored by Jewish Quarterly!); and The Contemporary Art Scene, with Frieze Director Matthew Slotover, Sotheby’s Senior Director of Modern Art Philip Hook, and Marlborough Contemporary Director Andrew Renton.

At the end of a long conversation, we ponder what a Jewish book is. We agree that it doesn’t exist. But what does is a Jewish telling. “You’re going to have an intelligent, enquiring voice” offers Silver. “Irony or wit – most certainly; it could possibly be shocking. You will see a Jewish mind at work”. And the subject for that mind? “It always comes back to the displaced person’s experience, doesn’t it, the émigré experience?” Which takes us, neatly, to “the great new publishing phenomenon” that is Yale Jewish Lives – which Silver urges everyone to check out. “We could have featured all of the books. It’s one of the best innovations in the world of Jewish books”. The current catalogue of displaced heroes are Bernstein, Ben-Gurion, Freud, Rothko and Einstein.

Jewish Book Week is at Kings Place, London, from 21 Feb – 1 Mar.

During Jewish Book Week, free digital access to Jewish Quarterly will be available at King’s Place.

Email editorial@jewishquarterly.org to win free tickets to Going Behind Closed Doors: On Judging Book Prizes: Sun 1 March @ 6.30pm, Kings Place.

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