Producing the JLF: event planning and a literature degree

The JLF2023 core team, l - r  Janine Rodgers, Caryn Gootkin - co-chair, Beryl Eichenberger, Vanessa Valkin - co-chair, Joanne Jowell

By Vanessa Valkin, co-director/chair of the SA Jewish Literary festival

Reflecting on the past eight months of producing the South African Jewish Literary Festival (JLF), it was (as I said in my welcome speech) ‘a mix of planning a giant Bar Mitzvah and taking a university literature course.’ Everyone on the programming team: my amazing co-chair Caryn Gootkin, fellow programmers Joanne Jowell (JLF co-founder), Beryl Eichenberger, Janine Rodgers and I, pondered away hours over possible panels and moderators and tried to read as many of the books as possible.

The day itself, 21 March – Human Rights Day, was a very carefully orchestrated symphony of 28 sessions and 70 presenters running simultaneously over an eight-hour period.  Thus it was hugely stressful when, a few days before, we were informed that the EFF might shut down the country on Monday 20 March, preventing our Johannesburg presenters from flying. We were also informed that one of our moderators had Covid. And finally, last minute desperate requests for tickets were overwhelming us. While we were sure we would have enough space, there were concerns that we would run out of food…we are all Jewish mothers after-all.

Well… relief ensued! Malema did not close Oliver Tambo Airport, the sick presenter attended on zoom and there were enough delicious poke bowls from Stanley Norrie for everyone! But most significantly, the Festival was an electric day with 600 attendees, and dare-I-say, an astounding success. We have been flooded with rave reviews. Our audience has told us how they laughed, cried, were inspired, and how much they learnt. It was most beneficial for our partners too: The Book Lounge had great sales and the Gitlin Library was energised with lots of extra visits. The JLF team are still basking in the glory of it all.

While I was fortunate enough to hear our international guest Simon Sebag Montefiore talk about his historical tome ‘The World’, I was sorry I never got to sit in more sessions. One of the more emotional panels that I both read of in local press and heard much about was: ‘The personal in the  political’ where Judge Dennis Davis chatted with three authors whose political consciousness shaped their lives as well as their memoirs. London based therapist John Schlapobersky, who was arrested as a Wits university student and forced to leave South Africa; Denis Hirson who now lives in Paris and left in 1973 after his father was released from prison; and former human rights lawyer David Dison whose novel covers the traumas of modern day South Africa. Denis and John had been at Wits together and Denis organised a student protest after John was arrested. David and John’s fathers were soldiers in the same regiment in World War II. In thanking us, John wrote the following of his experience at the Festival, “It was a life-rewarding time … Points of connection like these cannot be anticipated, replicated or brought to order – they’re the gifts of synchrony on a very wide sea of acquaintance.  Thank you for bringing us together.”

We are beyond thrilled that such moments did evolve and I am so grateful to our devoted and highly capable JLF team!

Jewish Literary Festival

• Read the April 2023 Edition – Click here to start reading.

• To advertise in the Cape Jewish Chronicle and on this website – kindly contact Lynette Roodt on 021 464 6736 or email For more information and advertising rate card click here.

• Sign up for our newsletter and never miss another issue.

• Please support the Cape Jewish Chronicle with a voluntary Subscription for 2023. For payment info click here.

• Visit our Portal to the Jewish Community to see a list of all the Jewish organisations in Cape Town with links to their websites.

Follow the Cape Jewish Chronicle: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | LinkedIn


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here