Jewish literary awards to go on despite Koffler hiatus

As they watch the usual awards get handed out, book lovers who attend the upcoming Canadian Jewish Literary Awards ceremony next October will likely have reason to ponder the familiar question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

In a plot twist reminiscent of Mutiny On The Bounty, a group of jury members is preparing to stage the awards at York University next October even though the hosting organization, the Koffler Centre for the Arts, recently announced that the 27-year-old awards would be taking a hiatus in 2015 while Koffler rethinks their future.

“We’re putting on the awards because we want to fill a void,” said Ed Trapunski, one of six jurors who say it would be unfair to authors and publishers if the awards were to miss a year.

Koffler declared the hiatus last December after the jury seemed unwilling to accept some proposed new guidelines and changes for the awards, which included set terms for jury members and a reduction in the number of categories from the present nine (and more in some years) to only four.

“They wanted to eliminate the Yiddish, Holocaust and Scholarship categories,” Trapunski said. “Those of us on the jury felt very strongly that these are very strong aspects of Jewish books, and we wanted to maintain these categories.”

The matter arose after a 10-year sponsorship arrangement for the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards ended in June 2014. Unwilling to run the awards at a deficit, the Koffler had proposed fewer awards and higher cash prizes that would raise the media profile of the awards. The Koffler contends that the proposed changes – more in keeping with the idealized model of Canada’s famous Giller Prize – would make it easier to find new sponsors.

With the assistance of juror Sara Horowitz, acting director of the Jewish studies program at York University, financial and logistical support for the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards is to be supplied this year and perhaps into the future by the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University and other Jewish studies programs at Concordia, McGill and the universities of Toronto, Ottawa and Western Ontario.

Meanwhile, the Koffler Centre has indicated it will release its plans for the awards in early May. “We decided to put the awards on hiatus to figure them out,” said Koffler executive director Cathy Jonasson. “We fully intend to continue with them. We want people to pay attention to them.”

Founded by then-professor Adam Fuerstenberg about 1988, the Canadian Jewish Book Awards began as an independent entity and operated as such for many years, even after it fell some years ago under the auspices of the former Bathurst Jewish Community Centre, which supplied administrative assistance.

Did the committee lose its independence when the Koffler Centre took it over after the BJCC’s demise? “That’s a good question,” Fuerstenberg said. “I don’t really remember. I was just told that we were being moved over, but there wasn’t anything like an actual written contract that I recall.”

The point may be moot, however, since Trapunski indicates the current six-person steering committee would be glad to turn the awards back to the Koffler in 2016. “We’re not anti-Koffler in any way,” he said. “We just want to fill a void without suspending the awards for a year.”

Natalie Kertes, Koffler’s director of literary programs and daughter of prominent author Joseph Kertes, said, “I wish them the very best of luck. I’m of the mind that the more support there is out there for Canadian Jewish books, the better the audience numbers will be and the better the book world will be for it. I think, in general, authors deserve as much recognition as they can get.” 

The Canadian Jewish Literary Awards are being sponsored and administered by York University’s Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies and partners. Submissions deadline is the end of May and the awards ceremony is slated for Oct. 18. The committee is also seeking donations. Please visit the website for more information.