Keren David

There’s a word missing from ‘book week’

Its stuffed with star names and fascinating events, but not the word ‘Jewish’


Jacobson speaking at Jewish Book Week

February 29, 2024 17:29

London’s overground trainlines have been rebranded, at some stratospheric cost, and not one of the new names has anything vaguely Jewish about them. What a wasted opportunity! The line from Watford Junction to Euston could have been the bagel line, rather than picking out just the one Lioness, and Liverpool Street to Enfield might have been named after the East End’s Jewish tailors. Come, ride the Shmatte Line. Or even the Petticoat Line. But no, the Huguenots got to Spitalfields first, and they have been woven into history on the Weaver Line which hardly has the same zing.

Rebranding exercises are there to be moaned about. I am still annoyed, eight years after the event, that Haringey Council gobbled up my council tax as part of a £86m rebrand consisting of putting its name into a hideous jagged red font to “communicate who we are today” And don’t get me started on the lunatics who removed the vowels from financial advisers Aberdeen, to create the illiterate “abrdn” which conjures up the image of a mumbling drunk, rather than an astute financial guide. If they can’t spell their own name, how can they manage my money?

So I was not all that hopeful when I heard that the 73-year-old Jewish Book Week was getting a new name. How could they possibly improve on Jewish Book Week — a concise name that sums up exactly what it is and what it does? Were we going to get jwsh bk wk, abrdn style? Or a jagged blue and white logo that hurts the eyes and shrieks 1980s youth TV?

None of the above. Instead we have “the Jewish Literary Foundation presents Book Week”, which is the wordiest event name ever, or BookWeek24 (presented by the Jewish Literary Foundation) which lacks a certain element…what could it be? Let me think.

Apparently the change was needed to emphasise the cultural aspect of the week beyond literary writing, and encompassing pop culture and current affairs. Also it emphasises the year-round nature of the newly named Jewish Literary Foundation, of which Book Week is just a strand. A phrase comes to mind. Bathwater24, presented by the Baby Throwing Foundation. Stand by for it to become Bathwater25 next year.

Anyway, ever the optimist, I hope this rebrand will make an already great event even better than it ever was, and certainly a glance at this year’s programme would suggest that this will be the case, as it’s stuffed with star names and fascinating events. Nicholas Hytner, Simon Schama and Lemn Sissay are all speaking. There’s a comedy night, a celebration of Leonard Bernstein with classic songs performed by West End stars, and a staged reading of Kafka. Cricket, film, current affairs, Jewish identity — in a year that might have been swamped by grimness, the brilliant team at the helm has created an event to lift our spirits and remind us that there is far, far more to being Jewish (or even jwsh) than antisemitism or Middle East conflict.

And I am proud to say that I am playing my own part in this year’s event, chairing an event that sold out almost immediately and so was moved to a bigger venue whereupon it promptly sold out again. This had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the book itself, a collection of writing by the prodigiously talented and extremely popular Rina Wolfson who died far, far too young aged 48 in 2021. I’ll be discussing the book with Rina’s husband Paul Harris and her son BZ Gilinsky. I was lucky enough to be Rina’s editor at the JC while she wrote her anonymous Secret Shulgoer column, reviewing 40 synagogues while keeping her identity so cleverly hidden  there were gasps at her funeral when her secret was revealed.

There is more in the book than the shulgoer columns, though, as it reflects Rina’s life, taking in her blog as a young single mother, reflections on Torah readings and the blog she wrote when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Throughout, it reminds you of the power of a good writer someone who can inform and entertain, and who delivers wisdom and insights on every page. And for her family and friends — and people like me who thought they had all the time in the world to become her friend and were proved sadly wrong — it brings back Rina’s voice and gives it a place for eternity.

This is exactly the kind of book that Jewish Book Week — sorry, Bookweek 24 (presented by the Jewish Literary Foundation) — exists to celebrate. Call it whatever you want, it’s an event and an institution that we must cherish and support.

February 29, 2024 17:29

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