By: Gene Cole
While I only got a taste of it, the Jewish Community Center’s (JCC’s) annual Jewish Book Fest had me feeling both confident in and close to my Jewish identity. Going in, I was definitely worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to enjoy the event properly, as I was only able to attend for a few hours and hadn’t been to any sort of Jewish cultural event — let alone the JCC — in quite a long time. As I left, though, I only wish that I could have stayed longer.
For those who’ve never attended, the festival includes panels and talks featuring Jewish authors and literature about Jewish topics. In an interview with The Peak, director Dana Camil Hewitt noted that the featured authors don’t just write about the Jewish experience, but life overall. Topics ranged from life in Israel, to the history of the diaspora, and even writing for The Simpsons. In my time there, I got to listen to Israeli novelist writer Moshe Sakal talk about his recent book The Diamond Setter. The Book Fest also features a pop-up bookstore within the art gallery of the JCC, selling a massive variety of used books alongside books by all of the speakers
Those boxes and shelves of used books were definitely an unexpected highlight of the evening. Many dated back several decades, ranging from novels to philosophy compilations. Just flipping through the old paper, you could absolutely feel the history and heritage that came with each of them. One in particular had a “Happy Bar Mitzvah” message on the inside cover with a signature from a full family, and felt warm and familiar in a way I rarely feel in a normal used book sale.
As for the panel itself, I felt so lucky to see Sakal among the several other talented writers who presented throughout the week. The panel was more accurately a casual evening of storytelling as he spoke on how all of his identities — his Jewish heritage, queer identity, and family history — influenced him to write both The Diamond Setter, and his previous book, Yolanda.
Sakal gleefully spent the night talking about everything from his husband, his adventures learning about his family history, to even just travelling the world promoting his book. With each story, he laughed and joked as he went, keeping the audience — small as it was due to the snowy weather — engaged the entire time.
What resonated most with me though was Sakal’s pride, something shared among the rest of the room. In talking on his family and sexual identity, he was visibly proud to have been able to write fiction that addressed and included these parts of him, and for so many people to be interested to hear about them. The entire audience felt those emotions alongside him as they asked insightful questions about his life and work to make him feel comfortable and welcome.
This much emotion for a Jewish experience was an incredible thing to have gotten to take in on a Sunday night. When the next JCC Jewish Book Festival rolls around next year, I will definitely attend for even more.