Jewish Book Week 2015: Enjoy that family feeling

Books are at the very heart of Jewish life


Books are at the very heart of Jewish life, and Jewish Book Week was formally established in the wake of efforts to eradicate European Judaism, its people and its culture, forever. The Nazis publicly burned Jewish books as a symbol of their intent to destroy the Jewish legacy. But 63 years on from the festival's inception in 1952, we are proud to continue to celebrate the impact of Judaism on world literature and thought.

This year, the festival is featuring another aspect at the heart of Judaism - the family. Throughout history, the family unit has been the bedrock of Jewish religion, culture and society and a setting for debate, rivalry and colossal creativity.

Intergenerational narratives weave their way through the festival and the idea for the theme of fathers and daughters arose when Jonathan Sperber's Karl Marx and Rachel Holmes's Eleanor Marx pitched up on my desk. The biography of the lesser-known daughter proved every bit as absorbing as that of her renowned father. So we asked Simon Schama and his daughter Chloe to explore his influences on her professional choices.

In similar vein, we invited Stephen and Tamsin Waley-Cohen to compare the twists and turns of their creative, professional lives through the prism of family, interspersed with Tamsin's wonderful music.

Confronted with this year's crop of books, the inter-generational field became competitive… fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and mothers and sons seemed to pop up everywhere. One literary festival gem, Doron Rabinovici's Elsewhere, takes in a good many of the possible permutations, as well as featuring an airline scene funnier than the sequences in Airplane! Need I say it takes place on El Al.

The aspirations, trials and passions of the nouveau riche and haute Jewish bourgeoisie are brought to life through two novels. Charles Lewinsky's Melnitz tells the story of four generations of a Swiss Jewish family, stretching from 1870 to 1937, and G B Stern's The Matriarch traces a family dynasty through Europe over the course of over 100 years - from the Napoleonic Wars to the aftermath of the Great War, from Vienna to West London. These expansive fictions may occupy the literary genre of what one festival chair, Leo Robson, in this week's New Statesman calls the dreaded s-word: sagas, but they are fabulous novels.

Also featured are a number of highly personal, family recollections. Hermann Simon's Gone to Ground pieces together the arresting, sometimes deeply shocking, story of his mother, Marie Jalowicz Simon, who survived the Second World War by throwing away her yellow star and using every means available to stay alive. Of A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, Göran Rosenberg's heart-wrenching tribute to his father's tragically short life, Robert Low said in his JC review, "it is my book of the year by some distance." Barbara Winton unveils her biography of her inimitable father, Sir Nicholas - his rescue operation of hundreds of Czech children in 1938-9 being only one, albeit breathtaking episode, in a rich and varied life. Moving to the post-war era, New York Times columnist, Roger Cohen, and biographer, Lyndall Gordon, offer searing memoirs of their mothers, whose fragile health were further destabilised by societal changes.

On a lighter note, John Simons and his son Paul talk to fashion-lover Robert Elms about the eternal allure of the Ivy league look, which Simons brought to Britain in the '60s. And, as 21st-century families often diverge from the traditional model, Andrew Solomon explores some of these alternative families in a joint JBW and JW3 brunch, as well as examining challenges confronting both children and their parents in his powerful, multi-faceted study of family life, Far From the Tree.

Family ties continue to weave their magic throughout the festival. The New Yorker's famous drama critic John Lahr confided to Deborah Treisman, another of our speakers, in a recent podcast, that the impetus to get inside the head of his father Bert Lahr, the actor who played the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz, drew him to the theatre and probably played a strong part in keeping him there.

Parents exercise their power over their children long after their demise.

But families are only one complex strand in a multi-dimensional festival. By the time you read this article, Thursday's performance of our Genius of Gershwin will have taken place and we will be on the eve of the festival proper. The family gathering has begun.

Join us!

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