Marvin Caplan loved to read. There was always a stack of books on his night table and he was in his local branch of the Hamilton Public Library so often that the staff knew him by sight.
So it was an easy decision for organizers of a new Jewish book festival in Hamilton, Ont., to name it in honour of the former city councillor, business operator and realtor.
The inaugural Marvin Caplan Jewish Book Festival wraps up on Nov. 24 with a presentation by author Ariel Burger on his volume Witness: Lessons From Elie Wiesel’s Classroom.
Caplan died from a heart attack in 2017 at the age of 75.
Gustavo Rymberg, CEO of the Hamilton Jewish Federation, said the event was designed as a way to introduce the local community to the best Jewish writing of the year and as outreach to the broader community.
“It’s not a new idea. It’s something that a lot of Jewish communities are doing in the month of November because it is Jewish book month,” he said. “It’s a great experience because it allows the writers to connect with the communities, and the communities have a great chance to meet them, learn more about them and talk to them.
“It’s also a great outreach program because you attract people who are Jewish and non-Jewish. These are books for everyone.”
In addition to Burger, presentations at the festival included titles on the Holocaust-era Kindertransport; the tale of a Polish resistance fighter who infiltrated Auschwitz in an effort to tell the world what was happening; and the story of an Israeli doctor who saved the life of a Palestinian man whose family had been killed in an IDF operation.
While all four books are on Jewish topics, Burger is the only Jewish author. He was Wiesel’s student, teaching assistant and friend.
“The idea is to have this as an annual event where people can meet to learn about Jewish authors and Jewish topics,” Rymberg said. “It’s very exciting. It’s something new and different for Hamilton – a new way to bring something cultural to Hamilton.”
“We thought it was important to do this now because it was Holocaust Education Week, and given what is happening in the city around anti-Semitism,” he added, referring to a troubling spate of anti-Semitic incidents in Hamilton and its surrounding area that garnered the city the title of the hate crime capital of Canada in a national study of incidents.
The four books selected for the festival were chosen from the 2019 catalogue of 250 titles issued by the New York-based Jewish Book Council. A local committee, including Caplan’s widow, Judi, made the final decisions.
Judi Caplain said that, for her, there was just no better way to remember her husband.
“He was a non-stop reader. He always had a pile of books going on any subject,” she said. “He read constantly, anything and everything, many, many subjects and genres. I thought this was the perfect way to honour him.”
“As a kid growing up, he was non-stop with science fiction, but after that, he would read philosophy, Jewish history, anything to do with Judaism, political stuff – and when he was in the clothing business, there was marketing and anything to do with that,” she said. “His interests were just all over the place and he could carry on a conversation about just about anything.”
The festival, she said, would have humbled her husband.
“I wanted some way to honour him that spoke to my family, that spoke to myself and people around us who didn’t really know him. It just seemed right,” she said. “It just seemed to be the right thing to do.”
In addition to reading for his own interest, Caplan was involved in reading programs sponsored by Hamilton’s Rotary Club and in literacy campaigns aimed at helping immigrants.
The festival’s final session on Nov. 24 will be held at 2 p.m. at J Hamilton, 1605 Main St. W. Register in advance at jewishhamilton.org.