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Howard Engel honoured at Jewish Book Awards

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A well-rounded octet of books garnered honours and prizes for their authors –  and detective novelist Howard Engel won a special achievement award – last Thursday evening at the 22nd annual Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Awards before a near-capacity crowd in the Al Green Theatre of the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

Winning authors at the awards ceremony. From left,  Eva Wiseman, Allan Levine, Howard Engel, Robin McGrath, Goldie Sigal. [Hudson Taylor photography]

The prestigious fiction prize went to Newfoundland writer Robin McGrath for her novel The Winterhouse, set in a rugged Newfoundland outpost of the 1820s.  The story focuses on the subtle budding romance between a young Jewish trader, Jacob Harris, and Rosehannah Quint, the teenage woman who helps him survive the winter.

Although the fictional Harris doesn’t seem to care much for his Jewish heritage, that’s clearly not the case with McGrath, who converted to Judaism when she was 17 – more than four decades ago.  

The recipient of an earlier Jewish Book Award for a volume of poetry about five years ago, the Goose Bay resident has written about a dozen books, including a folk history of Newfoundland’s Jewish community. Much lore from that book evidently made its way into her novel. “The material in The Winterhouse is fiction, but it’s all rooted in real people and real stories that I heard,” she told The CJN.

McGrath is probably the first writer honoured by the Jewish Book Awards who is an expert on the Inuit and who travels into the bush with them. Because The Winterhouse is so deeply rooted in its rugged natural settings of woods, shoreline and sea, it may be considered an old-fashioned Canadian novel whose theme has more to do with survival than anything else. But it’s also a lovely romance.

Another Canadian region – the Prairies – was also spotlighted at the awards ceremony as Winnipeg author Allan Levine won the history prize for Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba.

 “People forget that the Winnipeg Jewish community is probably one of the greatest Jewish success stories in Canadian Jewish history,” Levine said in accepting the award. “The narrative that the book chronicles is really the history of a determined group of Jewish immigrants and their descendants… to establish in Winnipeg one of the most vibrant and culturally rich Jewish communities in North America.”

Montreal author Goldie Sigal won the prize for Yiddish literature for Stingy Buzi and King Solomon, an illustrated book for children with dialogue balloons in Yiddish, English and transliterated Yiddish. Also for young people, Puppet, the novel by Eva Wiseman, captured the youth literature prize for its historically accurate account of a Hungarian blood libel case of the late 1800s.

 Jewish academics were well represented at this year’s awards. Prof. Michael Marrus claimed the prize in Holocaust literature for Some Measure of Justice, his exploration of the most recent wave of justice-seeking reparation cases over the Holocaust.

 Indiana-based Prof. Jeffrey Veidlinger won the prize for scholarship on a Jewish subject for Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire. The awards jury called it an “impeccably researched book on Jewish cultural and intellectual history [that] explores the grassroots movement by which Russian and Polish Jews engaged with culture in a public way in the early 20th century.”

Toronto poet-essayist Ken Sherman took the prize in Jewish thought and culture for What the Furies Bring, his “lucid and lyrical collection” of essays that was inspired by the terror and tragedy of Sept. 11.

The awarding of the biography and memoir prize added immense spice to the evening. The prize went to David Sax for Save the Deli, a memoir in which he records his odyssey visiting the planet’s most holy shrines related to the vanishing delicatessen. Sax, however, was on his honeymoon and could not attend the ceremony in person. Accepting the award on his behalf was publisher Doug Pepper of McClelland and Stewart, who speculated that deli was the reason so many gastro-enterologists are Jewish.

Engel, author of a series of crime novels featuring the celebrated Jewish detective Benny Cooperman, was honoured with a special achievement award some 30 years after the first of the books, The Suicide Murders, appeared.

“No crime fiction novel had ever been set in Canada with a Canadian hero before Howard did it,” said his former editor, Cynthia Good, formerly of Penguin Canada. “When Engel found an audience for his writing, the floodgates opened for Canadian crime fiction. Howard opened the door for probably 200 writers to come after him.”

Sponsored by the Koffler Centre of the Arts, the awards seem more of a city-wide event now that they are hosted in a downtown venue (Bloor Street and Spadina Avenue) as opposed to suburban North York (Bathurst Street and Sheppard Avenue). Those who gathered for the occasion seemed in possession of a remarkable zeitfleisch over the nearly two-hour ceremony. Not even the cramped lobby, which was clearly insufficient for all the mingling and bookselling that needed to be done, could dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd.

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