Canadian Jewish Literary Awards announces 2015 winners

Among the winners announced for this year’s Canadian Jewish Literary Awards are two authors with very different stories.

Alison Pick won in the biography category for her 2014 memoir Between Gods (Doubleday Canada), and Ryerson University professor Ruth Panofsky will take the prize in the Yiddish category for her work The Collected Poems of Miriam Waddington: A Critical Edition (University of Ottawa Press).

The awards ceremony, which will honour writers in a total of nine categories, including novel, scholarship, history, youth literature, poetry, Holocaust literature and short fiction, was held Oct. 18 at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall at York University.

The Canadian Jewish Literary Awards were created last year to fill the void left when the Koffler Centre for the Arts, which long ran the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards, discontinued the event.

The goal is to pay tribute to what are deemed the best books written by Canadian authors across genres and featuring Jewish themes.

Between Gods chronicles the Toronto-based poet and Booker Prize-nominated author’s journey to uncover her father’s hidden Jewish roots, the stories of her relatives who perished in the Holocaust and her ultimate conversion, as an adult on the verge of marrying a non-Jewish man, from secular Christianity to Judaism.

But the story is also very much about Pick’s recurring episodes of depression, her speculation about intergenerational trauma and relationship struggles.

“I feel like it’s a Jewish book in the sense that the main theme, for me, is my uncovering the family secret [of being Jewish]. It’s about me feeling a strong resonance with Judaism and making my way back to it,” Pick explained.

As with any story that’s told well, she said, the more particular details are woven into it, the more it paradoxically bears a kind of universal quality.

“People might to relate to the specific content of this struggle, but everyone can relate to the different themes [the book] includes regarding what it means to be human, to suffer, to face adversity, to find oneself. I think of this as both a Jewish and a universal book,” she said.

Since finishing the memoir, which closes when Pick gives birth to a daughter, her life has been transformed by raising a child – and a Jewish child, at that, Pick said.

“There’s taking her to shul, celebrating Jewish holidays, making Shabbat in our home. It’s pretty cool to see the ways in which my daughter takes Judaism for granted in a way that I was never able to,” she said.

Panofsky, a professor of English whose research includes Jewish Canadian writers, said she was “absolutely thrilled” to learn she’d won, though she admitted she was surprised to learn it was in the Yiddish category, which recognizes books either in Yiddish or about Yiddish culture.

“I was delighted the committee saw the importance of framing Waddington as a Yiddishist,” Panofsky said.

The Collected Poems of Miriam Waddington is the first scholarly edition of the poetry of Waddington, a translator and the first Jewish Canadian woman to publish poetry written in Canada. She died in 2004.

In addition to 50 poems – both published and unpublished – that Panofsky selected from Waddington’s archives, the two-volume collection includes various translations of poems that Waddington did from Yiddish, German and Russian into English.

Panofsky wrote the book’s introduction, as well as supplementary notes.

“Many moons ago, as a young graduate student, I did my master’s paper on Waddington’s poetry. I met her at York University at the time, and she was kind and generous to me and encouraged me in my interest. We remained in contact over the years,” Panofsky said.

She first took on the project of compiling Waddington’s work as part of a collaborative project called Editing Modernism in Canada, which involves publishing works of poetry, fiction and non-fiction that were either never published or are long out of print.

 ”I accepted the offer somewhat naively not knowing how big a project it would become,” Panofsky said. “But I love Waddington’s poetry and this gave me a chance to go back and undertake new archival work of hers, which was terrifically interesting.”