Montreal-born writer wins fiction prize at Canadian Jewish Literary Awards

Sigal Samuel

A great many books by Canadian authors with Jewish themes and subjects are published each year, and choosing the best ones is not always easy, according to Edward Trapunski, host and chair of the jury of the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards, which held its annual awards ceremony on Oct. 30 at York University in Toronto.

“The challenge for the jury is to recognize only eight books,” he said. “The jury did its best to be scrupulously fair to every book.”

Montreal-born writer Sigal Samuel won the fiction prize for her first novel The Mystics of Mile End (Freehand Books), a family saga set in Montreal that explores “Kaballah, queer culture and physics.”

“The book is not only rich in characters, but rich in ideas,” said jury member Andrea Knight, who is co-publisher of the recently launched New Jewish Press. In accepting the award, Samuel related that she came upon her knowledge of Jewish esotoric books honestly: her father is a professor of Jewish mysticism in Montreal. Each day after school, she experienced “a second curriculum reading the Zohar and Isaac Luria from when I was eight or nine years old, and it continues to this day,” she said.

Samuel currently lives in Brooklyn where she is a writer and editor for the Forward, but some award recipients travelled even greater distances. “I came all the way from Warsaw,” said Agata Tuszynka, writer of A Family History of Fear, which won the Holocaust prize.

“Isaac Bashevis Singer used to say that the writer needs to have an address. For me, my address is Warsaw Poland and my language is Polish.” In her book, which was published by Knopf in English translation, she tells the story of her discovery at age 19 that she was Jewish and that her mother was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto.

“This book has been with me for years, along with the secret,” she said. “In an instant I was not the one that I thought I was – from the moment my mother told me I was Jewish.”

Toronto professor and Holocaust scholar Michael Marrus accepted the History prize for his book Lessons of the Holocaust (U of T Press), an examination of how historians have treated the Holocaust and the difficulty of extracting simple lessons from that singular and complex catastrophe.READ EXCERPT

 “I’m very glad that I got this book off my chest,”Marrus said, adding that because of the book’s personal nature, he was able to dispense with his usual footnotes.

Two other scholarly works also won prizes. Columbia University Press’s Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination, by Carleton University professor Sarah Phillips Casteel won in the Scholarship category; and Northwestern University Press’s H. G. Adler: Life, Literature, Legacy, edited by Julia Creet, Sara R. Horowitz and Amira Bojadzija-Dan, received the prize for Jewish Thought and Culture.


 “Adler vowed that if he survived Theresienstadt, he would write about that experience in every genre he could imagine,” Creet said. In England after the war, Adler wrote several novels in German that were modernist allegories, but “nobody in Germany wanted to publish allegories about the Holocaust” back then, she said.

Translator Helen Mintz won the Yiddish prize for Vilna, My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz, published by Syracuse University Press. According to the awards booklet, Vilna itself “is the central character” in these stories, but Karpinowitz’s Vilna “is not of the yeshiva and the synagogue, but of the street and of the marketplace, befitting a vibrant secular city.”

Two books set in Toronto were also honoured. Local children’s author Anne Dublin won the youth literature prize for 44 Hours or Strike! (Second Story Press) a story about two Jewish sisters in the dressmakers’ strike of 1931. Howard Akler was recognized in the biography/memoir category for Men of Action (Coach House Books), a meditative chronicle written after his father undergoes emergency brain surgery and lapses into a long intermittent coma before dying.

Coming just weeks after the downtown-based Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature, the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards amply demonstrates that the annual cornucopia of Jewish-themed books produced in Canada can easily feed both worthy endeavours.

Like the Vine Awards, the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards paid tribute to Adam Fuerstenberg, the late literary professor who founded the original Canadian Jewish Books Awards about 1987, from which both groups derive. Trapunski noted that Fuerstenberg served on last year’s jury and attended last year’s awards ceremony.

“That was the last public event he ever attended,” Trapunski said.