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Beyond Bagels and Nazis - Sam Leith on the Jewish Quartely-Wingate Prize 2013
This week is Jewish Book Week, and sees the announcement of the Jewish Quartely-Wingate Prize 2013. Journalist and author of The Coincidence Engine, Sam Leith, looks at the rich breadth of the Prize's scope, and why this makes for such an interesting and diverse shortlist...
The brief for the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize is wonderfully — and, you could say, appropriately — open to interpretation. What does it mean to explore “themes of Jewish concern in any of its myriad possible forms either explicitly or implicitly” — and who is the “general reader” for whom that exploration is intended to be enlightening? That is the starting point and, to mix a metaphor, the touchstone for the judging process of the award, on the judging panel of which this year I had the honour to serve as the token goy (occasioning multi-recipient emails that might end: “Shabbat shalom and g’mar v’hatima tova and, Sam — Hi!”)
That openness to interpretation was part of what made the process as rich and thought-provoking as it was. Also, as fun. As judges we found ourselves asking things like: “Is a biography of a Nazi ipso facto a book that explores themes of Jewish concern?” Or: “Is this a distinctively Jewish story, or just a story with a lot of Jews in it?” Or: “This is a cookbook. Yes. But does containing bagels make the difference?” These inquiries can become — I was going to say “Jesuitical”, but perhaps “Talmudic” would be the word.
Yet you can make decisions about these things. It’s not meaningless to talk about topics of Jewish interest. If we sometimes differed in emphasis — hard to call, for instance, were a pair of books about the contributions of Jewish scientists to particular areas of physics; can science be Jewish? — we were more or less always able to reach agreement in substance. Our deliberations have been, you’ll be disappointed to learn, amicable. No tantrums, no resignations, no cries of “Clive Lawton! May his name be blotted out!” This shortlist is one that we’re all proud to own.
As the aforementioned token goy, my role, in part, was to represent that “general reader”. In our deliberations we came across some books, for instance, that seemed more hermetic than others: Jew speaking, as it were, unto Jew. While none of us ruled out esoterica — contributions to complex internal debates within Judaism or Jewish identity theory — these contributions needed to provide the outsider with a way in.
Just as my fellow judges, in theory, may have been less equipped to sense when something wasn’t speaking to the outside world, there were other qualities to which I will have been tone-deaf. Clive and Hephzibah, for example, were able to testify — as I could never do with authority — to the social accuracy of one of the books that came very close to being shortlisted, Francesca Segal’s fine first novel The Innocents. This, said Clive, uniquely among the submissions, nailed the North London Jewish world: “I know these people,” he said. I could admire Segal’s coolly well-constructed sentences, but I couldn’t know these people in the way my fellow judges did.
I was looking, finally, for books that would tell me something I didn’t know — which is not just a matter of providing facts or ideas I hadn’t come across, but of giving an entry-point to a Jewish perspective . I was grateful to be introduced, for instance, to some chewy discussions of the political theory of Zionism. I encountered a fresh line on Adorno’s famous (and, to my mind, regrettably silly) remark about poetry being impossible after Auschwitz; my objection was and remains Adorno’s implied ideas about poetry, but seeing it worked through from the Auschwitz end of things was enlarging. I learned from brisk books about prewar antifascism in London and the banjaxed history of Palestinian solidarity movements among Israelis.
On the face of it, it’s a very diverse shortlist indeed — both in subject matter, historical reach, style of approach and genre. We have men and women, Americans and Israelis and Brits, enormous publishers and tiny ones, fat books and thin ones, funny ones and serious ones, novels and short stories and narrative histories. We’re pleased with that diversity, though we didn’t aim for it.
We didn’t arrive at formal criteria of what it meant to be “of Jewish interest”. I think that was right. As one of the books on our shortlist, Bernard Wasserstein’s On the Eve, shows: defining or ringfencing Jewishness, particularly in opposition to particular ideas of non-Jewishness, is something with not only intellectual but moral hazards. It’s a non-neutral move — a decisive contribution to the long, long conversation about wagon-circling versus assimilation.
Instead we took the view that — as per Jonathan Miller’s gag about being “Jew-ish”— “of Jewish interest” was something we couldn’t and shouldn’t define, but we knew it when we saw it. And, more importantly, once you were, as it were, in the corral you competed on literary quality rather than Jewishness. A book could be called Mazel Tov! and tell the story of 400 Hasidic Jews emigrating from Temple Fortune to Jerusalem while reflecting on the Torah and eating gefiltefish, but if it was badly written, it could lose out to a well-written book about koi carp by a guy called Cohen.
The Jewishness, in other words, could enter sideways. Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies, for instance — a tragicomic variation on Henry James’s The Ambassadors — is set between Manhattan and postwar Paris. There the war, and what it meant, no more than lends a sinister perfume to the atmosphere of this very funny, very composed, mercilessly observed cakewalk over the edge of a cliff. One of our nonfiction titles, Stanley and Munro Price’s spry and elegant The Road to the Apocalypse, is actually about an evangelical Christian: yet the beguiling story of the early 19th-century Christian Zionist enthusiast Lewis Way is, as it turns out, illuminating about the modern alliance between the US Christian Right and militant Israeli nationalists.
The Wingate Prize 2013 shortlist in full
Hope: A Tragedy, Shalom Auslander
Swimming Home, Deborah Levy
Scenes from Village Life, Amos Oz
Foreign Bodies, Cynthia Ozick
The Road to the Apocalypse, Stanley and Munro Price
On the Eve, Bernard Wasserstein
The winner, who will receive £4000, will be announced at an event on Wednesday night during Jewish Book Week.