Life & Culture

‘The widest-ranging Jewish Book Week yet’

Jewish Book Week 2023 kicks off on February 25. Its director Claudia Rubenstein introduces this year’s star-studded programme


In the absence of an Olympic-style opening ceremony or a bottle of champagne to smash on a ship’s bow, at Jewish Book Week we strive to present a really special event to open the festival with. And it would be hard to think of a more fitting start than the evening of February 25 when broadcaster Francine Stock is joined by two outstanding writers, Shalom Auslander and Howard Jacobson. When you take into account the titles of their latest books — Shalom’s novel Mother for Dinner and Howard’s memoir Mother’s Boy — it is fair to assume that the much-mythologised Jewish mother will feature heavily.

That first night — by accident or design! — is a true taste of the Jewish Book Week experience, as having focused on literary matters, we tackle those other Jewish Book Week tentpoles: current affairs, entertainment, history and politics. In Pop Starts we journey back to the first half of the last century with Bob Stanley, author of Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop, in conversation with one of the most beloved British songwriters of the last 60 years, Graham Gouldman, who penned hits for the Hollies, Herman’s Hermits and the Yardbirds before forming 10cc. And to close off night one we have one of our trademark debates, questioning what the future is for American Jews, with JC editor Jake Wallis Simons joined by experts Simon Schama, Zoe Strimpel and Jewish Review of Books editor Abraham Socher.

With the festival up and running we then have the first of our two Sundays at Kings Place. With almost 60 events between them, Sundays February 26 and March 5 are the anchors of this year’s Jewish Book Week. There’s a palpable buzz throughout this state-of-the-art, fully accessible venue — just round the corner from Kings Cross station — as audiences float from a talk here to a performance there, as we make full use of five separate spaces to run several events concurrently. Highlights on the first Sunday include festival favourites Simon Sebag Montefiore, Rebecca Abrams, Philippe Sands and Helena Kennedy, alongside newer voices.

Sunday March 5 will featuresJC and Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland and Anthony Julius in conversation with Hadley Freeman, theatre critic John Lahr discussing Arthur Miller with Nicholas Hytner, together with events on Jewish Pride, the Marx Brothers, short stories, Emeric Pressburger and the secret lives of stones, with speakers including Bill Browder, Janet Suzman and Simon Callow. And our free fringe is back in force on both Sundays, with bite-sized events on everything from the Kindertransport to the Beatles’ hairdresser.

Our digital offering continues in full force, with speakers including New Yorker veteran Adam Gopnik, bestselling novelist Dani Shapiro, former Presidential special envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt and 100-year-old survivor Stella Levi, as well as events on Golda Meir, Mel Brooks, Pope Pius XII and the diamond trade.

Performance has always been a strong part of Jewish Book Week and this year does not disappoint. Tuesday February 28 sees Norman Lebrecht discussing Beethoven, accompanied by acclaimed concert pianist Daniel Lebhardt, anthropologist Hugh Brody talking about his dazzling memoir Landscapes of Silence with readings from Juliet Stevenson, and a very special concert, Barbaric Verses, created and performed by singer Mark Glanville and pianist Marc Verter. On Thursday March 2 we have an hour of poetry, with Jeremy Robson, National Jewish Book Award winner Sarah Blake and Radio 4 regular Rachel Long, as well as Precious Goods, a mix of music and storytelling created by former Tricycle Theatre artistic director Nicholas Kent, featuring Topsy Turvy and Yentl star Allan Cordoner and cellist Gemma Rosefield.
An annual highlight is specially commissioned productions celebrating great writers directed and produced by Tristram Powell and Honor Borwick; on Saturday March 4 the focus is on neurologist and author Oliver Sacks as well as two playwrights inspired by his work, Harold Pinter and Brian Friel. The cast includes BAFTA and Olivier winner Monica Dolan, Geraldine James and Tom Goodman Hill, with the performance followed by a discussion on all three writers.

In theory the programme is complete once we go to press in late December, but a Jewish Book Week is never finished; the late addition this year is panel discussion Israel: A Fragile Democracy?, a response to dramatic developments around the country’s judiciary. Julia Neuberger will be joined by former clerk to the President of the Supreme Court of Israel Natasha Hausdorff, Jonathan Freedland, Simon Schama and Anthony Julius.
This is our most wide-ranging programme, and the most accessible, with more free events than ever, an expanded online series and £5 tickets available for under-30s and the unwaged. We look forward to welcoming you to the festival, in person or online wherever you are.

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