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Jewish Book Week: Kings banquet ends on high note

JC literary editor Gerald Jacobs looks back over a successful Jewish Book Week powered by women in harmony

    Jacqui Dankworth, back to close the show after acclaim at last year’s festival, offered American Songbook delights (Photo: JAMES DEAVIN)
    Jacqui Dankworth, back to close the show after acclaim at last year’s festival, offered American Songbook delights (Photo: JAMES DEAVIN)

    Jewish Book Week — a cerebral, entertaining, reflective and passionate gathering at Kings Place, near London’s King’s Cross station — has a distinctive atmosphere, half way between a party and an academic symposium. This year, the emotional component of that atmosphere was heightened.

    Shortly before the opening date, the popular teacher of Jewish literature, Maureen Kendler, died. She was scheduled to interview Martin Goodman at JBW 2018 about his book, A History of Judaism. Later, on the eve of the festival, the celebrated Guardian columnist, Michele Hanson, died after a stroke. She had appeared at Book Week six years ago.

    Then, as the talks, readings, arguments and gossip got under way, a third death occurred. Clive Sinclair — writer, columnist, critic, my predecessor as the JC’s literary editor and, above all, a good friend for well over three decades — was a brilliantly funny and observant master of prose. He wrote novels, short stories, acute and sardonic reviews and was an enthralling commentator on America’s west and westerns.

    But there was also the happy coincidence at JBW 2018, the last under the direction of Lucy Silver, that International Women’s Day fell smack in the middle of it. Silver and the splendid women who preceded her in running the festival in both its former, commodious home at the Royal National Hotel and its present uber-fashionable location — Marilyn Lehrer, Anne Webber, Marion Cohen, Geraldine D’Amico, Hester Abrams — have presided over an expansion and growth that has cemented Jewish Book Week as a vital part of not just Jewish but British cultural life.

    Two of Silver’s particular contributions have been the exuberant inclusion of music, and her extension of content well beyond a strictly Jewish constituency.

    Combining both of these aspects this year was Radio 3 presenter Clemency Burton-Hill talking about her chunky new book, Year of Wonder, aimed primarily at readers new to, ignorant of, or just wanting to find out more about classical music. Along with cellist and baritone Simon Wallfisch, she also played, to an attentive audience, recordings of recommended pieces. Their first choice was Bach’s St Matthew Passion, surely a first at a Jewish cultural event!

    What wasn’t a first, at this one, but a second was the return of singer Jacqui Dankworth, along with Charlie Wood and their jazz combo, to provide, as last year, a fabulous finale carved out of the conspicuously Jewish American songbook. This, last Sunday night, was the icing on a cake that in the preceding days had contained such cherries as the classy combination of Maureen Lipman and Melanie Phillips on the opening Sunday — a day when JBW enjoyed its highest-ever attendance figures. Phillips provided startling revelations about her time at the Guardian, the paper which, she declared in a kind of consummate irony, “made me what I am today”.

    A significant part of the Lipman and Phillips conversation focused on Israel and the Middle East, as did several others, including Lyn Julius on Jews from Arab lands, justice for whom, Julius asserted, “should be part of a peace settlement”; Enemies and Neighbours, in which Ian Black spoke about his book on “Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017” to Jonathan Freedland; and, of course, the Israel at 70, session featuring the frail but still feisty Yael Dayan castigating the present Israeli leadership.

    One of the most engaging of the events was about the pains and pleasures of life as a junior doctor, based on books by Rachel Clarke — who gave up being a journalist to become a doctor — and Adam Kay — who gave up being a doctor to become a comedy writer, a transition vividly apparent in Kay’s hilarious anecdotes. Clarke, too, had stories to tell, and the often poignant extracts read by the pair, especially those about the political context of hospital medicine, were compelling.

    Skilfully steered by chairman Daniel Glaser, this session was probably the most punctuated by applause I have ever heard in any Jewish Book Week. One recollection of Kay’s prompted tears in the audience. Pity Jeremy Hunt wasn’t there.

    In another session, on “borders”, there were a few gasps among those who had listened to Tim Marshall arguing that Israel’s separation wall had “saved hundreds of lives” after an audience member proposed that, “surely international law is more important than some people feeling safer.” Marshall was explaining, as he does in his new book, “why we’re living in an age of walls”.

    Elsewhere, Simon Schama, at breathless pace, and Elif Shafak drew parallels between Jews and Turks. Rebecca Abrams described how she uncovered the previously hidden Jewish treasures of Oxford’s Ashmolean museum — and wrote a book about it. And Douglas Murray spoke to a packed-out, largely adoring crowd. I suspect this was mainly on account of his views on Islamists — and on Jeremy Corbyn — rather than his main topic of immigration.

    Authors Anne Applebaum, Arkady Ostrovsky and Shaun Walker took part in an authoritative and absorbing discussion about Putin’s Russia. A day earlier, Putin’s scourge, Bill Browder, high-profile American accuser of Russia for interfering with the US election, had to dash off from a meaty JBW session on fake news to appear on Newsnight to talk about the poison attack in Salisbury.

    American scholar Stephen Greenblatt gave a brilliant, illuminating talk on the cultural impact of Adam and Eve and later acted as intellectual referee between Howard Jacobson, forcefully arguing that Shakespeare “is a novelist” writing for the page, and Janet Suzman dramatically urging that, no, the stage is his province. David Hare interviewed Nick Hytner. Antony Sher described how he suffered stage fright at his barmitzvah. And George Prochnik compared false messiah Shabbatei Zevi to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys…

    Beyond Kings Place, out at JW3, among a variety of exchanges, that between Vanessa Feltz and June Kenton, purveyor of lingerie to the Queen, was an uproarious baring of souls — and much else.

    For all this and more events too numerous to mention, thanks and farewell to Lucy Silver. The new director has been appointed and, yes, it is a woman, Claudia Rubenstein. Perhaps it’s time for the establishment of a Jewish Women’s Day. The first day of JBW 2019 would be perfect.

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