Life & Culture

Jewish Book Week: This is our festival of ideas

As the 2016 Jewish Book Week programme is released, Gerald Jacobs speaks to the event’s director about JBW’s impact and broadening appeal


'The festival will always reflect the taste of its director," Lucy Silver boldly asserts. Now in her second year of directing Jewish Book Week - the 2016 programme for which has just been released - she can draw on a breadth of interests that offers a clue to JBW's continuing success.

The range of events - 78 in all - that Lucy Silver is currently overseeing is extraordinary. Both factual and fictional, it extends from Moses to Einstein, whiteness to wine, and banking to biography.

Among a legion of participants are Simon Schama (presenting a Jewish addendum to his Face of Britain TV series); Tracy Chevalier (unveiling her new novel); Avivah Zornberg; Edmund de Waal; Jason Solomons; Barry Norman; Frederic Raphael and David Pryce-Jones. Kicking it all off, on the eve of Valentine's Day, is Hadley Freeman.

And, since all this reflects the director's taste, it is no surprise that Glasgow-born-and-bred Silver's background is multi-faceted. "I studied a variety of subjects, all of which have informed my choices," she says. "I was a psychoanalytic psychotherapist; worked at UCL for many years with students; my first degree was in English, my second was an MA in philosophy. Then I took an MPhil course at the Courtauld, which I didn't complete because I had a child. Then I did psychology and psychoanalysis."

But breadth does not imply a lack of discrimination. "I'm a 19th-century, classic fiction person," she says. "As for Jewish literature, in my teens and early 20s I read all of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow - whose biographer Zachary Leader will be speaking at JBW 2016 - Malamud, Philip Roth, as well as Chaim Potok. Loved them all. Great Jewish writers always display an irony and a quest: what is it like to be living in New York or London in the 20th or 21st century? Always questioning, always curious."

Now, as she casts her mind - and a sprinkling of approbatory adjectives ("fabulous" "exciting" "excellent") - across the coming festival's many subjects and writers, the formidably enthusiastic director comes across like a gleeful Scottish song-thrush rapidly hopping from one branch to another.

No wonder the stalwarts come back year after year - people like Schama, Jacobson, Neuberger, Aaronvitch, lawyer Helena Kennedy ("people now think she's Jewish") actor Henry Goodman ("he's so good"), and A B Yehoshua ("I think he has been here more times than anybody else").

Silver is a long-standing member of JBW's organising body, the Jewish Book Council, and therefore knows that the melting-pot approach to programming has proved increasingly successful over the years as the festival has grown and moved from place to place, arriving in 2012 at its present, conducive home at Kings Place, part of London's great Kings Cross transformation, where 15,000 tickets were sold for last year's Book Week.

And, while autonomous in making her selection of books and subjects, she seems to be in tune with the council's trustees. "They would doubtless voice any objections but so far nobody has," she says. "They do read for me, though, and offer ideas. I am always open to suggestions. We have meetings and discuss, for example, moderators for individual events." More specifically, "after last year's very successful musical opening with a Gershwin show, we discussed the idea of, this time, opening with Rodgers and Hammerstein - and a little bit of Hart - and that will now happen."

From its origins in small gatherings in pre-war Glasgow and Manchester, and having been propelled into an annual literary celebration by an academic lawyer called George Webber in 1952, Book Week has today become a significant event not only in the Jewish calendar but also in the cultural life of London and beyond.

It is certainly at the heart of the capacious and confident flowering of Jewish culture in recent decades that encompasses such glories as Limmud, the Jewish film and music festivals, JW3, Spiro Ark, the Ben Uri, the Jewish Museum, various courses and classes, and so on from one end of the UK to the other. Silver is clearly proud, too, of the non-Jewish presence - whether on the stage or in the audience - that has become a feature of Book Week in modern times.

"It's a reflection of the world opening out. We regard Book Week of particular but not exclusive interest to Jewish people. And we take a liberal, open-minded view of what it means to be Jewish, of Israel, and of Jews in the diaspora."

As if endorsing this approach, last year's hottest ticket was for Ari Shavit talking about his provocative book, My Promised Land, in which he passionately both praises and castigates the state of Israel. "We were pretty much the first to present him in this country," says Silver. "It was such an amazing event that, after he'd flown home, he came back to do a second, unscheduled session for us.

We primarily engage with Jewish ideas and writing, but we've opened up to a bit of multiculturalism in the form of the big ideas around that will probably have an impact on all our futures.

"Last year, we were criticised for not putting on enough Judaism events, so this year we are putting on lots of interesting stuff on Judaism - not that you're not going to find it elsewhere. You are going to find the riches of Judaism in many organisations. We want to put on the whole panoply of what's out there. Judaism is obviously a significant part of it but we also want to put on what other people don't but which are of interest to Jewish people. What's out there that is exciting - science, neuroscience, big 'theories of everything'…

"JBW always reflects what's around, what people are actually thinking and talking about. Genetics - including Jewish genetics - for instance. And we are covering science, health, politics, history, the Holocaust, spies, and sex" - Scary Old Sex, that is, the title of a collection of revealing stories by "one of New York's top psychoanalysts, Arlene Heyman, former student, and then mistress, of Bernard Malamud."

Lucy Silver is certainly aiming high with what will be the Jewish Chronicle Evening, hosting JBW 2016's pivotal debate with Jonathan Freedland, Howard Jacobson and Melanie Phillips among those recruited to discuss what Silver refers to as, "life, death and everything in between". (She later pins it down more modestly to, "the critical challenges confronting us as Jews in 2016").

By now, keen JC readers will have noticed within JBW's line-up the names of some of the paper's regular columnists. And David Aaronovitch (on Party Animals, a memoir of his Communist youth), Oliver Kamm (making his JBW debut), and Daniel Finkelstein (speaking to his fellow member of the House of Lords, former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, another JBW regular) will be keeping company with Freedland and Phillips.

JC readers might also spot in the programme authors of the odd title that has already been reviewed in our pages. Jeremy Gavron, for example, speaking about his acclaimed book, A Woman On The Edge Of Time, in which he confronts the fact of his mother's suicide when he was four-years-old; and "the new queen of Scandinavian noir", Kristina Ohlsson, with her thriller, The Chosen.

The 2016 schedule includes an impressive number of events outside the main festival. Along with the podcasts, lunch-time talks and school sessions, other events will be held in Leeds, Manchester, Bournemouth, Oxford, Liverpool and Edinburgh. And, for the first time, there will be a JBW Fringe.

And, when it's over, Lucy Silver and her team will start planning for 2017. There's no stopping the JBW juggernaut (it's not even confined to a week but lasts nine days). As its director says, "Jews do have a special relationship with books."

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