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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

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Bonert wins fiction prize at Jewish Book Awards

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Kenneth Bonert Avital zemer photo

Like sunlight diffracted through a prism into a spectrum of colours, the books honoured at the 2014 Stan and Helen Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards represent a diverse assortment of places across the Diaspora, including South Africa, Belarus, Ukraine, Salonika, and Central and Eastern Europe.

Kenneth Bonert took the coveted fiction prize for his acclaimed novel The Lion Seeker, which documents the life of Jewish characters in Johannesburg, who are originally from a shtetl in Lithuania.

Bonert, who was born in South Africa and came to Toronto in 1989 at age 17, based his characters on his  family’s past. “I found when I started to write that a lot of the voices of my relatives and the people I grew up with were strongly embedded in my mind,” he told The CJN prior to receiving the award last week in a ceremony at the Toronto Public Library’s Bram & Bluma Appel Salon.

 “I think the first 18 years of your life are probably the ones that make the most vivid impression. And a lot of writers tend to go back to that period as a sort of wellspring for their imagination. That was certainly the case with this book.”

Although she is a New York-based American whose book focuses on the experiences of the Jews in a predominantly Jewish city in Greece, Renee Levine Melammed won the biography/memoir prize for An Ode to Salonika: The Ladino Verses of Bouena Sarfatty.

The Canadian connection comes through her subject: Salonika-born Bouena Sarfatty Garfinkle, who lived in Montreal for more than half a century after the war. During the Holocaust the Nazis deported and killed almost all of Salonika’s 60,000 Jews. Sarfatty Garfinkle gave Levine Melammed hundreds of her Ladino poems memorializing the community she knew, and the latter translated them and put them into an historical context.

The scholarship prize went to the chronicler of another Nazi-decimated community. Dr. Albert Kaganovitch, originally of Russia and now of Winnipeg, wrote The Long Life and Swift Death of Jewish Rechitsa in Russian but won the prize for the English translation.

As in years past, Holocaust themes dominated the awards. The prize in youth literature went to Winnipeg author Carol Matas for Dear Canada, Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz, while Toronto author Ken Setterington won the Holocaust literature prize for Branded by the Pink Triangle.

Although Setterington isn’t Jewish and his book has no explicitly Jewish theme, it won because it chronicles the Nazi persecution of gay men, who were incarcerated in Nazi work camps and forced to wear pink triangles. 

 The Holocaust also resonates through Correspondences featuring poems by Anne Michaels and portraits by Bernice Eisenstein, each of whom was cited for the poetry award.

Jeffrey Veidlinger’s In the Shadow of the Shtetl presents a portrait of Ukraine as told by local Jewish survivors of the prewar years, the Holocaust and the Stalinist era. Veidlinger interviewed more than 400 elderly Ukrainian Jews, many of whom were still living in their native shtetlach.

The prize for Yiddish translation went to Frieda Forman, editor of The Exile Book of Yiddish Women Writers and the prize for Jewish thought and culture to Josh Lambert for Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews and American Culture.

Over 26 years, some $104,000 in prize money has been handed out to 194 winners.

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