Dangling kites, whirling kaleidoscopes, a baby swing draped in a crimson blanket: it’s always a surprise what household props Anita Miller will use to set the stage when her synagogue book group meets to discuss its latest choice.
“I like to take a theme from the book and create a scene,” says Miller, co-founder of Montreal’s Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem’s book club, and its regular host at her home.
In its fifth year, the Cote St. Luc-area group illustrates the popular and fast-growing interest among synagogues and temples to offer literary enthusiasts a forum to review and talk about books.
While open to all, these programs attract a largely over-50 following of mostly women and not a few men who, by their own admission, are avid readers or credit the experience with broadening their reading tastes.
The book clubs indeed cut a wide swath in their choice of material, with some avoiding biographies, bestsellers and non-fiction, while others insist on a Jewish connection through theme or author.
Discussion styles swing from casual – a freewheeling talk around a swimming pool recently kicked off Temple Kol Ami’s book group in Thornhill, Ont. – to more structured, notably guest reviewers taking the podium at Ottawa’s Agudath Israel for a 40-minute book review followed by a moderated discussion.
This month marks the return of many reading clubs from summer break, during which participants, like those at Beth Shalom in Edmonton, use the time to dive into the upcoming season’s reading list circulated in the spring.
Typically, contemporary fiction with Jewish content or a Jewish author mark the selections of Beth Shalom’s Women’s League book group, notes chairwoman Moira Sacks.
Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America; The Coffee Trader, a chronicle of 17th-century Dutch Jewry by David Liss, and British author Naomi Alderman’s tale of Orthodox Disobedience are among the novels that have generated buzz while satisfying the selection criteria.
Rotating through various members’ homes, the informal meetings underscore the approach taken by the Edmonton group, which is not so much interested in literary style as “understanding how a novel relates to Judaism historically or in the present,” says Sacks, noting, for example, that reading Disobedience “takes us out of our comfort level of being Conservative [affiliated] Jewish women.”
Like fellow bibliophiles undeterred by the cold of a Canadian winter, Sheila Baslaw of Ottawa “hates to miss” even a single get-together of Agudath Israel’s Malca Pass book group. “It brings people together to talk,” says Baslaw of the opportunity to socialize with others who enjoy reading.
One of the longest-running synagogue book programs and with several original members from its start almost 18 years ago, the Ottawa club attracts up to 30 participants when it meets – as it will six times from now to next May – to hear guest reviewers drawn from local academia, as well as its own membership.
At Malca Pass, which shares the name of the synagogue’s library that purchases copies of titles to circulate among club members, the journey from bookshelf to book club is a rigorous one.
Sophie Kohn Kaminsky, chairwoman of a volunteer committee that decides the choice of titles, says deliberations begin months in advance. Relying on suggestions, Jewish websites and award nominations for prizes such as the Giller, the committee draws up a preliminary list, which is then filtered for certain criteria. Those that make the final cut “must be acknowledged as significant works of literature,” says Kohn Kaminsky. “We’re not looking at bestsellers.”
At least half the choices aim to have a Jewish author or content specific to Jews, and central to the vetting process, she noted, is whether a book is discussable, in print and easily available.
“We’re opening people’s minds and giving them the opportunity to explore something they may not be familiar with,” Kohn Kaminsky says.
On tap for this season is an international roster that includes Meir Shalev’s A Pigeon and a Boy, Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes and Catherine Gildiner’s Too Close to the Falls.
While finding itself in the “push pull” of whether to include fiction as well as non-fiction, the book group at London, Ont.’s Temple Israel is certain about one thing: its selections must have a Jewish theme, says organizer Vivian Macdonald.
The newly formed group, which meets the last Thursday of the month, already counts up to a dozen members, and its literary eye has been cast on the likes of Maggie Anton’s Rashi’s Daughter and Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree.
“It’s a discipline, an encouragement to read,” says Macdonald of the benefits to an audience of hearing a book review. “It’s helping people to think about what they are reading instead of just reading [a book] from front to back.”
Many book club regulars agree they are reading more and welcome the exchange of ideas. “It gives us a chance to put our minds in another gear and shmooze together,” says Michael Rozenek, a longtime participant in Tifereth Beth David’s book group.
Not only does he appreciate hearing what fellow congregants have to say, but as he puts it, “we get the women’s perspective” on the books under discussion.