The sold-out debut Jewish Literary Festival took place under a winter’s sun on the Gardens Community Centre Campus, on Sunday 22 May.
Held in association with the Jacob Gitlin Library, with the Cape Jewish Chronicle as its media partner, the event formed part of the Jewish community’s 175th anniversary celebrations. It was the first of its kind in South Africa, although its creation was inspired by similar Jewish literary events held regularly around the world such as the London Jewish Book Week.
Co-founders Joanne Jowell, Viv Anstey and Cindy Moritz, supported by treasurer Gary Anstey, spent over a year planning the day which turned out to be brimful of interesting, engaging and often entertaining sessions. The format of the day comprised seven different sessions every hour in seven time slots, making for a whopping 49 sessions in all.
Visitors were spoilt for choice and amid the glowing praise for the day the most common regret was being Justine Joseph Adam Mendelsohn unable to hear every session on the programme.
A generous sponsorship from Exclusive Books meant a well-stocked pop-up book shop materialised on campus for the day, providing a useful complement to the sessions in which presenters referred to must- have reads. An independent book shop carried those books unavailable through the retailer, making for a comprehensive selection to ably satisfy the local Jewish literary appetite. The Shine Literacy project, which aims to build a nation of readers, along with BookDash, creators of open licence children’s books, added to the diverse offering on the piazza.
Every presenter had something valuable to add to the programme owing to careful and deliberate planning by the programming team, which included Caryn Gootkin and Janet Kriseman along with the three co-founders. Diverse interest and opinion contributed to a balanced schedule on the day, which deliberately had no religious or political agenda. This day was a celebration of Jewish literary culture.
Author Anne Landsman, who has strong connections to Cape Town but now lives in New York, brought her international perspective on What makes a book Jewish? in a panel discussion with Rabbi Sam Thurgood, acclaimed Wits academic Marcia Leveson, moderated by the inimitable Dennis Davis. She also shared how each of her novels reflects a specific time in her life in Three books, three lives: An author’s journey.
Other sessions ranged from Milton Shain’s discussion of his recently- published A Perfect Storm which covered antisemitism in the 1930s and ‘40s, Tony Leon’s take on being White, Jewish and Zionist: The new trifecta for bigotry in South Africa an the world?, Karina Sczcurek on The Gordimer of my heart, Marianne Thamm talking to Steven Robins about his book Letters of Stone and the burden of history on children, to a discussion around the contemporary Jewish table chaired by Beryl Eichenberger (who was also our publicity supremo).
Further topics discussed included Veronica Belling, Zola Piatka Shuman and Joy Wilkin on Storytelling through Yiddish theatre, Leading a Jewish community, where Lance Katz interviewed Ann Harris, Writing taboo: letting the skeletons out of the closet discussed by Joanne Jowell, Leslie Swartz and Rahla Xenopolous, Community papers: keeping it parev while maintaining the juice? which included the editor of this paper (which was also the festival’s media partner) as well as The Big Issue’s Janna Joseph and The Jewish Report’s Vanessa Valkin with Lisa Chait as moderator.
Representing Johannesburg voices were Batya Bricker on Esther: the queen you thought you knew, Gus Silber speaking on social entrepreneurship, Nechama Brodie, who re-told the story of slavery in the Cape, Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak on their new book Continental Shift (Kevin also spoke with John Matisonn on God, Spies and Lies), Marilyn Cohen-de Villiers on her books and inspiration, Lori Milner on creating a toolkit for working women, Ian Mann on Conscious Capitalism and Jack Bloom’s 30 Nights in a Shack — A politician’s journey’.
Jacqui Chaskalson, Jeanne Freed Power and Lois Bloch Leonard Suransky and Philip Weinstein There was so much more — 93 presenters in all. As one visitor wrote post event: “The sessions were fascinating and the audience were so stimulated by the topics that question times were as interesting as the discussions!”
Parents could indulge their own interests owing to a comprehensive and tightly-run children’s programme, designed and run by Nicole Levin and Jenny Marin, which kept the youngsters engaged and enchanted with varied readings, workshops and other book- related activities by authors Patricia Schonstein, Dorothy Kowen and Elena Agnello among others.
Great coffee flowed freely from morning to evening and Stanley Norrie catered a lunch-on-the-go which kept everyone suitably fuelled and warm for the chock-full day.
The JLF was intended as a celebration of the written word and its centrality to Jewish life. It delivered a literary feast with something for everyone. All who took part were swept away by words. Whether it was solving cryptic crosswords, hearing the shtetl come alive, grappling with God, Spies and Lies, or deciphering poetry — words ruled the day. To quote another visitor: “There was a palpable buzz and sense of excitement and appreciation.”
The inaugural festival fulfilled its objective of adding value to the local Jewish community’s cultural calendar. It is hoped that the Jewish and literary communities recognise its worth and that support will be forthcoming for future Jewish Literary Festivals.
Follow the JLF throughout the year on www.jewishliteraryfestival.co.za