Dancing and tweeting - my Jewish Book Week experience

By Hester Abrams , March 6, 2014
Book Week guests: Ruby Wax, Kathy Lette and Maureen Lipman

Book Week guests: Ruby Wax, Kathy Lette and Maureen Lipman

So the festival’s over for another year. We’ve rolled down the banners and are writing our thank-you notes before launching into planning for 2015.

Over nine days, thousands of people descended on Kings Place, the arts venue at London’s King’s Cross, to experience 64 events featuring more than 160 artists – a complex and enriching celebration of Jewish life and learning quite possibly unique in the world.

“Jewish Book Week has become one of the great events of contemporary culture – astounding there’s nothing like it in New York, ” tweeted Simon Schama, on his way home after conducting a moving interview with Otto Dov Kulka. The octogenarian Hebrew University historian was crowned winner of the 2014 Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize for his extraordinary memoir of childhood and curiosity in Auschwitz.

A place to test opinions and discover new ideas, the festival proves the enduring attraction of live events even as reading becomes a minority sport. We have found our feet in our third year at Kings Place and there’s a hugely uplifting spirit to full houses and foyers crammed with friends.

Among the throng, I sit there and wonder. I have read most of the books, so I can easily live-tweet from the first of Israeli writer Ari Shavit’s two talks: he speaks aloud the paradoxes and slogans written in his new analysis of Zionism and Israeli politics - all very quotable.

We swing from heart-searing pathos to comedy - the unknowability of Kulka’s death camp experience is followed by the side-splitting Ruby Wax and Kathy Lette before 60 minutes of wonder sets in as Ian McEwan coaxes David Grossman to share his heart’s wisdom.

Backstage with our small team, I miss many hours including true gems of world literature and Judaism; colleagues re-appear in the green room flushed with pride at another successful session.

“No one would have ever thought it cool to be at Jewish Book Week,” mused writer Clive Sinclair, veteran speaker and visitor of many a past festival.

There’s a room full of punk rockers, black leather and chains, a constant image-stream of fan memorabilia displayed on the screen overhead. Elsewhere a woman is shocking the frumers with her feminist take on the Talmud.

I go out to check on the signing queues, and am accosted less often than is traditional among Jews (Kings Place is so refreshingly civilised that no one can queue barge or double park).

JBW has always been ecumenical – “cross-communal” in fashionable parlance – but our focus on culture allows us to push further and curate a London festival for everyone.

We chose books this year that asked how we live now – from privacy to mindfulness, friendship and betrayal, rebellion to belonging. We filled the halls with music and art.

By the end I’ve lost track: I’ve given up checking if speakers are following our directions. People turn up without reminders and I’m swept off my feet.

Fresh from the UK launch of his memoir Little Failure, about emigrating to the US, Russian-American Gary Shteyngart is buttonholed in the bar by comedian Arnold Brown: “You didn’t have enough anti-semitism in it!” he says.

In truth, antisemitism and the Holocaust was far from absent in the festival, and with memoir and history from writers like Rita Goldberg and Thomas Harding, we’re a long way from an end to examining it. We heard new warnings from Andrew Hussey over Muslim-Jewish relations in France.

But if I associate just one idea with this year’s festival it would be the triumph of optimism. Ari Shavit praised Israel’s extraordinary vitality despite the odds. Zdenka Fantlova, 92, survivor of many concentration camps, exuded fortitude and love. It was hard not to sense the presence of life – to note, in Kulka’s words, the reality that on some days there were blue skies over Auschwitz.

I rush out in time to join our first-ever disruption, a minutely planned but unannounced Fiddler on the Roof flashmob - 50 people bursting into song

“L'Chaim! To Life! To Life!” we chorused. And to Book Week.

Hester Abrams is director of Jewish Book Week. Recordings of many of this year’s festival events will be published shortly. Visit www.jewishbookweek.com

Last updated: 1:18pm, March 7 2014