TORONTO — Eight books and their authors were honoured with awards last week at the 20th annual Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards.
The awards ceremony attracted some 350 people to the Leah Posluns
Theatre in Toronto for an evening of shmoozing and celebration of
literary talent hosted by the Koffler Centre of the Arts.
TOP RIGHT: Anna Porter. LEFT: John Miller, winner of the award in fiction, together with the award sponsor, Beatrice Fischer.
Top fiction prize went to Toronto writer John Miller for his second novel, A Sharp Intake of Breath (Dundurn), which focuses on characters in a left-wing Jewish family in Toronto in the 1930s, one of whom goes to jail for stealing a diamond, another of whom is a friend of the radical Emma Goldman.
“I’ve loved these characters so much, and I’m thrilled that you seem moved by this story,” Miller told jury members in accepting the award.
The novel won out over Nancy Huston’s Fault Lines, a tale of Holocaust survival that has been a bestseller in its original French in France and was nominated for that country’s Prix Goncourt, as well as Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize. Huston, a Canadian who lives in France, won a previous Canadian Jewish Book Award in fiction for her 1998 novel, The Mark of the Angel.
As in past years, the awards committee received more than 100 submissions. While the jury has been expanded by several members, the number of prize categories has been reduced to eight from the 10 or 11 awards that were often given in previous years.
Anna Porter, TOP RIGHT, recipient of a recent Rogers Writers’ Trust Non-fiction Prize, won the history prize for Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of Rezso Kasztner, Unknown Hero of the Holocaust (Douglas & McIntyre). The award came as “a huge surprise – I wasn’t expecting it,” Porter told The CJN.
Father and daughter co-authors Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett won the prize in biography and memoir for their gorgeous and glowingly received coffee-table book They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust (University of California Press). The book is filled with Kirshenblatt’s naive folk art paintings of remembered scenes from his beloved Polish hometown before World War II, with a text his daughter assembled from many interviews with him.
Looking very much in the pink and still actively painting at 92 years of age, Kirshenblatt was perhaps this year’s most senior award recipient.
Henia Reinhartz won the Yad Vashem Award in Holocaust Memoir and Literature for Bits and Pieces, a book published by the Azrieli Foundation that contains “bits and pieces” of her gruelling story of wartime survival in the Lodz Ghetto and other Nazi settings, as well as her life after the war. Reinhartz, a sister of novelist Chava Rosenfarb, told The CJN she hoped the award would draw readers to her book.
Rabbi Tina Grimberg won the prize for youth literature for Out of Line: Growing Up Soviet (Tundra Books), a poignant memoir of her childhood in Soviet Ukraine in the 1960s and ’70s that is suitable for all ages. Rabbi Grimberg, spiritual leader of Reconstructionist Congregation Darchei Noam, has written what the jury described as “an eye-opening account of Jewish family life against the backdrop of a drab, often hypocritical and sometimes overtly anti-Semitic Communist society.”
The prize for poetry went to Ruth Panofsky for Laike and Nahum: A Poem in Two Voices (Inanna Publications), a long narrative poem that captures the voices of the author’s grandparents, who were Russian-Jewish immigrants to Montreal in the early 1900s. Panofsky, who teaches at Ryerson University, is an authority on Canadian novelist Adele Wiseman and previous author of The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman.
Continuing on the theme of immigration, author Marc Miller won the Yiddish literature prize for his English-language study Representing the Immigrant Experience: Morris Rosenfeld and the Emergence of Yiddish Literature in America (Syracuse University Press). Miller was unable to attend the awards ceremony in person.
The award for scholarship on a Jewish subject went to James A. Diamond for Converts, Heretics and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider (University of Notre Dame Press). The work focuses on Maimonides’ appropriation of marginal figures who, in the great Jewish philosopher’s hands, become a metaphor for larger, more substantive theological and philosophical issues.
Committee chair Edward Trapunski paid tribute to committee member Adam Fuerstenberg, a professor emeritus of English at Ryerson University, who has been a pivotal figure in the awards since their inception 20 years ago. “Jewish culture in Canada owes him an enormous debt,” Trapunski said. “Without Adam Fuerstenberg, there would be no Jewish book awards.”
Toronto author Michael Wex, who won an award in 2007 for his book Born to Kvetch but was in Europe at the time, made up for his previous absenteeism by delivering a short talk on the impossibility of conveying good news in Yiddish, a topic that elicited sustained howls of laughter.
Wex’s specialty is understanding the psychology behind the Yiddish language, thought and expression. To “kvell” with pride, he explained, means to swell up or expand with pleasure, which a person does “because he’s not letting it out where somebody can get hold of it and cast an evil eye on it.” A person may kvell to the point of bursting, and then they “plotz,” he explained.
A relative paid him a supreme compliment by telling him his book was so good he hoped his enemies would never experience the pleasure of reading it, Wex said.
“I’d like to tell all of tonight’s winners, I want their enemies to read their books and to be jealous in spite of themselves,” he quipped.