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Vine Awards celebrate Canadian Jewish literature

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The winners and donors of the Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature. From left, Hugues Théorêt, Julija Sukys, Lillian Glowinsky, Norman Glowinsky, Deborah Katz and Laurie Gelman. (Alex Rose photo)

Four authors are each going home $10,000 richer after the annual Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature were handed out on Oct. 11 in downtown Toronto.

Awards were handed out in four categories: fiction, won by Laurie Gelman for Class Mom, a novel about kindergarten parent politics; non-fiction, which went to Julija Sukys for Siberian Exile: Blood, War and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning, a story about her paternal grandparents; history, awarded to Hugues Théorêt for The Blue Shirts, a chronicle of an anti-Semitic movement in Quebec; and children’s/young adult, won by Deborah Katz for her book Rare is Everywhere, a picture book about rare animals.

The winning books were chosen from a short list of three finalists per category, whittled down from an original roster of nearly 60 submissions.

This year’s ceremony marked the third presentation of the Vine Awards, named after Helen and Stan Vine, parents of Lillian Glowinsky, one of the awards’ main donors, along with her husband, Norman.

The contest, which is presented by the Koffler Centre for the Arts, a Jewish cultural organization that supports and engages with a diverse array of art forms, is open to any book written by a Canadian Jewish author or written by a Canadian author about a Jewish subject.

Sukys said she was thrilled when she found out she had been selected as a winner. But she was also surprised because, by her own admission, her book is “a very dark book,” recounting the story of her paternal grandmother – an innocent woman taken from her home in Lithuania and imprisoned in Siberia for 17 years – and grandfather, who she discovered was a police chief in a small Lithuanian town during 1941, when 700 Jews were massacred.

“It’s a book that doesn’t offer a whole lot of hope, and it isn’t a super-optimistic book,” she said.

Sukys added that she was impressed by “the sort of imagination” shown in choosing her book as a winner, “in part because I’m not Jewish … and in part because this was a book about a story that was happening alongside the Holocaust, in a sense.”

READ: CANADIAN JEWISH LITERARY AWARD WINNERS ANNOUNCED

Sukys had high praise for the three-person jury of Beverly Chalmers, Joseph Kertes and Lee Maracle, who read and judged each submission.

“They’re a diverse group of people, and I think people who are interested in stories that are perhaps not always front and centre,” she said. “They’re interested in histories and oral histories and women’s histories and forgotten histories and invisible people.”

The jurists are, indeed, esteemed writers with their own accolades. Chalmers has doctoral degrees in medicine and psychology, and her 2015 book, Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voices under Nazi Rule, won a Vine Award. Kertes is a Hungarian-born Canadian who founded the creative writing and comedy programs at Humber College, and has also won Jewish literature awards for his writing, notably his 2008 novel, Gratitude. Maracle is an indigenous poet and author of the Stó:lo First Nation and an officer of the Order of Canada.

Katz was also appreciative that her book had been chosen as a winner. “I am so grateful for this award and really excited to have been recognized by the Koffler Centre of the Arts for this award. I think it’s wonderful that they provide an avenue to recognize Jewish authors and authors who write about topics of Jewish relevance, and I hope that this will help propel the book forward into its next chapter,” she said.

Her book, Rare is Everywhere, uses pictures and descriptions of rare animals as a way to teach children to embrace differences in themselves and others. Katz was inspired to write the book because of her work as a nurse, where she saw lots of children who felt isolated by their differences.

“I kept coming across children who felt like they were different for some reason, whether they had a health condition, or a disability, or some other difference, even a cultural difference or their family status that made them feel like they were the only ones in the world,” she said. “I wanted to be able to show them that, actually, differences are everywhere – that if you take a bird’s-eye view, you can see those differences, and they make us stronger.”

During her acceptance speech, Katz shared a story from the mother of a young child with a medical condition. The mother reads Katz’s book to her son every night because he relates to one of the animals, and excitedly says, “That’s me! That’s me!” every time they get to the page with the blue lobster, his favourite character.