On Monday evening the winner of the 2016 Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize was announced amidst bagels and chatter in the Marlborough Contemporary Gallery in London. This is a prize that recognises books of Jewish interest to the general reader and potentially opens people’s eyes to literature that they would not otherwise have considered reading.
I am not one of the judges, nor a writer, but when I was asked if I would be the Prize’s Director this year I was more than happy to agree. I’ve spent a considerable chunk of my working life thinking about what being Jewish means and how to make Judaism’s stories and traditions more accessible to people who might feel it’s a closed off world, one that is neither relevant nor interesting to them. For a long time, I’ve believed that the arts have the ability to open both doors and minds and I believe that a Jewish book prize is one way of doing just that. Not only does the prize shine a light on work that might otherwise not be read but, with its judges (not all of whom are Jewish), the award also brings together different perspectives of what being Jewish and Jewish interest mean in the UK in 2016.
We live in a multicultural world where telling our stories and becoming aware of similar threads running through our different stories can bring us together. In a world where we all seem keen to victimise the “other”, this seems more relevant and important to me now than ever. Giving a voice and a space to Jewish experiences and telling the world about them shouldn’t be taken for granted and should be something that we make the most of. The prize provides a unique opportunity to question what being Jewish might mean, what Jewish interest is and why it might be interesting – not just to Jews but to the wider world.
From my vantage point I could see how it took the belief of many organisations to make the prize happen. The judges often discussed and debated in JW3, the first Jewish Community Centre and arts venue of its kind to exist in London. Part of my working life was spent building the first programme at the JCC for London (now JW3) as its Creative Director, before it had any walls at all. When JW3 opened its Chief Executive, Raymond Simonson said that he was fed up with the Jewish conversation just being about Israel or anti-Semitism. “I want to talk about Curb Your Enthusiasm instead, and the paintings of Chagall, the music of Amy Winehouse and Woody Allen films,” he said. That openness and ongoing commitment to redefining the Jewish conversation combined with the vibrancy of a place where “Jewish stuff is loud and proud” made JW3 a natural partner for a prize which questions what Jewish interest means and looks to define it in the broadest of terms. In the same way that Simonson has successfully created a Jewish place that people who might never think of going to synagogue will go to, the Wingate Prize looks to open people’s eyes to books that they may otherwise never have considered reading.
The Wingate Foundation created the prize almost 40 years ago. Together with their partner, the Jewish Quarterly, there is an ongoing commitment to shining a light on how important and relevant Jewish interest books are for the general reader today. What choosing a book for the “general reader” means was much debated throughout the year. The books should be accessible and engaging, informative and well written and, of course, Jewish. But perhaps they could be more than that and perhaps the concept of what a “general reader” might want to read could also be challenged by the prize. When the shortlist was chosen the chair of judges, Samantha Ellis said of the seven books that they illustrated “the richness and diversity of Jewish themes.” The books moved, amused, gripped, provoked and absorbed our judges and I hope that readers everywhere will want to pick them up too.
Throughout the year my role has varied. I sometimes saw myself as a kind of Executive Producer – it was my job to make sure that all the pieces of the jigsaw were on the table and that by the end of the process the puzzle would be completed. In reality that meant making sure that the judges would bring different perspectives to the prize – be that in terms of age, gender, religion and Jewish experience (or lack of it). It meant ensuring that publishers and writers knew about the prize and wanted to submit work to it and that all the possible books were tracked down. It meant working with partners and press to ensure that “the general reader” was aware of the prize and the chosen books, creating events and opportunities to showcase both it and them – and both JW3 and Jewish Book Week were vital in that. Directing the prize has also meant working with a small, dedicated and wonderful team who ensured that all this could happen – we moved a lot of books, ordered a lot of sandwiches and also had a lot of fun. Whilst not a judge I sat in many meetings, read some (although not all) of the books on our lists and, I hope, was able to bring a neutral and helicopter view to the table, when appropriate.
The prize exists because writers still have much to say about their Jewish experiences in 2016. Would they still write about those experiences without a prize? I’m sure they would. When we approached publishers to call in books at the start of the process we were overwhelmed with how much was being written of Jewish interest today all around the world, and whilst some of what arrived was somewhat predictable, much of it was not. However, giving that writing focus, providing an opportunity to celebrate it and to learn from it – and its diversity – is not to be taken for granted.
Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL is a book that the judges have chosen and is a book that they think “must be read”. It’s not a book that I would have chosen to pick up or look at if the prize had not shone a light on it – but it’s one that I think I will keep coming back to in years to come. And perhaps that’s the point of the prize -it opens doors it gets people to open and read books and perhaps most importantly it opens minds.
The 2016 Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize Shortlist (which I hope you will read at least some of)
• Ishmael’s Oranges by Claire Hajaj
• J by Howard Jacobson
• The Life of Saul Bellow by Zachary Leader
• Between Gods by Alison Pick
• The Impossible Exile by George Prochnik
• The Liberation of the Camps by Dan Stone
• KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann
This article was originally published on Huffington Post UK.