Jewish book awards carries on under new stewardship

Edward Trapunski opens at 2015 Canadian Jewish Literary Awards. KAREN MOCK TWITTER PHOTO
Edward Trapunski opens at 2015 Canadian Jewish Literary Awards. KAREN MOCK TWITTER PHOTO

A new chapter of the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards opened on Oct. 18 as about 150 people gathered in an auditorium at York University in north Toronto for an awards ceremony to honour nine award-winning books and authors.

Top fiction prize went to Nora Gold for Fields of Exile, her well-crafted, dystopic novel of campus life when anti-Semitism, via an anti-Israel apartheid campaign, rears its persistent ugly head.

In her brief acceptance speech, Gold said she hoped the novel would bring about some positive change in the world, even though “the idea of trying to effect social change through literature is heretical” to literary critics, she observed.

“Maybe I thought the magic of literature could work its magic here and help open some hearts and minds – I hope so still,” she said.

Alison Pick won the biography/memoir prize for her memoir Between Gods, a moving account of reclaiming her Jewish identity after her family’s post-Holocaust conversion to Christianity.

“My ancestors died in Auschwitz and my Judaism was gone,” Pick said. “Now, with this book, a new Jewish family was formed.”

Other winners included Suri Rosen, who won in the youth literature category for her book Playing with Matches; Robyn Sarah, who took the poetry prize for her collection My Shoes Are Killing Me; and Ruth Panofsky, who took the Yiddish prize for The Collected Poems of Miriam Waddington: A Critical Edition. (Waddington was a lifelong Yiddishist who translated many Yiddish poems into English).

Although described as an inaugural event, the afternoon ceremony felt very much like a seamless continuation of the 27-year-old annual book awards that retired professor Adam Fuerstenberg founded in Toronto in 1988. (An honorary jury member, Fuerstenberg sat at the back of the hall, watching the proceedings like a proud grandparent.)

The Koffler Centre of the Arts took over administration of the awards in recent years, but when the Koffler announced a hiatus – putting the awards “on the shelf,” so to speak – several jury members decided to carry on the tradition under new auspices.

Jury chair Edward Trapunski thanked the Koffler for its excellent “stewardship” of the awards, but said that jury members were concerned that some books wouldn’t get the recognition they deserved if there had been a hiatus.

“If a book comes out in a year when there are no awards, then that book has lost its chance forever,” he said.

Host of the resurrected awards is the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University, whose former director, CJN columnist Sara Horowitz, is part of the seven-member book awards jury. The value of prizes given out during the afternoon was “the most ever for any Jewish book awards” in Canada, Trapunski said.

Other prize winners were Joseph Hodes, who won in the history category for his study of the Bene Israel Jews of India, From India to Israel: Identity, Immigration, and the Struggle for Religious Identity; Beverley Chalmers, who won in the Holocaust Literature category for Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voices Under Nazi Rule; and James A. Diamond, who won in the Scholarship category for Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon.

Mireille Silcoff took the short fiction prize for her short-story collection Chez l’Arabe, partially written at a time when illness caused her to lose her speaking voice. “In truth, my voice had not disappeared but had moved inward into these stories,” she said.