Jewish Authors’ Oscars

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Last night the Jewish Book Council hosted their annual National Jewish Book Awards, and they were kind enough to invite me. I wasn’t a famous author or a famous book-buyer, but they let me in anyway.

At first my (a) shyness and (b) authory anti-social tendencies and (c) not knowing anybody-ness got the best of me. There was a (parenthetically: really fascinating) exhibit about Thomas Mann and German publishing, and the reception was mostly being held in one room (“mostly” meaning that the drinks table was in there, and therefore, so were all the guests) but spilled over into a second room that was ideal retreating space. I gave it an honorable go, checking out people’s name tags to see if I recognized anyone. The first I spied was Alicia Susskin Ostriker, whose book of poetry >The Book of Seventy I’d read last week, but what would I say? I always appreciate when people tell me that, but then there’s the deadening lack of conversation that’s like, where do we go from here?

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin whizzed by. I worked with him last year on a G-dcast episode, but he was moving too fast to interrupt, although I made a mad dash of it. So I retreated to the exhibit, where I made small talk with two gentlemen who spoke about Thomas Mann like they went to grade school with him, that familiar. After spending about five minutes (that’s long, in the context of a conversation, anyway) trying to explain what my book was about, and failing, I threw the question back at him: “So what do you do?” “Oh,” he replied offhandedly, “I’m an acquisitions editor.” He smirked. And my stomach hit the ground.

I’d kind of composed myself by the time dinner began. I saw Rabbi Telushkin again, and actually spoke to him. Randomly, he asked me where I lived. “Crown Heights,” I told him, to which he raised an eyebrow — he’s working on a book about Lubavitch. He started to grill me about my Chabad connections (I’m not, my wife is, her family is about as Lubavitch as the town of Lubavitch), and, the way that these things go, he used to live with my grandparents-in-law and wrote a book in their house.

The M.C. for the evening came on mic and called for everyone to take their seats. Rabbi Telushkin, who was in the middle of a sentence — he speaks in these long, fluid paragraphs, each like a train with a hundred cars — ignored him. Then the M.C. said something about a “welcoming word from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin” and I broke him off, don’t you have to go? He shrugged and did something with his hands. Carolyn Hessel, who’s the director of the Jewish Book Council and maybe the most important person ever to hold a book in her hands, gave a much-too-polite word. The rabbi grinned at me. I scattered.

Remember how I thought I wouldn’t know what to say to someone whose book I read? I slid into an empty seat at the table. There was one person I knew, a sometimes-editor of mine, and one person I knew but didn’t realise I knew, since we had one of those email-only correspondences (a writing/editing one, not a sketchy Internet one) — and then there was the person whose seat I slid next to, who was Dalia Sofer. Who might have written one of the best books I’ve ever read. Who is probably as close to a rock star as the literary world can offer. Who was introduced to me, and whom, upon meeting, I shrunk about 25 or 30 percent and told, in as natural and un-awkward a voice as I could muster (it was still incredibly awkward and incredibly unnatural) that, geez, The Septembers of Shiraz was pretty technically proficient. Or something. Graciously, she talked to me until I’d un-awkward-ized. And it was simply really cool, in the middle of a room where I was surrounded by people with amazing ideas, to have a straight-up conversation about writing that was pretense-free and unencumbered by all our fancy clothes (my invitation said “casual,” I dressed casual-but-formalish, and I was still underdressed) and the weight of all the grandness and potential in that room, to just talk about how hard it still is to get your ideas onto paper.

I could tell you more about the food, or the people, or the books. I wish I could tell you more about the awards ceremony — the speeches people made, and how incredible it was to take an arbitrary topic, like landlords in mid-20th century Chicago, and listen as an author gripped the microphone and talked about how it was her father’s passion and she never understood what it was all about until she researched this 400-page book about it. For someone like me, to whom reading anything but novels (stories, action, making up stuff) is hard, if not impossible, the night was nearly revolutionary. And it gave me a reading list that should take me straight up till a year from now…right in time for next year’s ceremony.

Posted on March 10, 2010

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