Braving a blizzard to select book award winner

Boris Fishman won the 2015 Sophie Brody Medal  for Jewish Literature for his book, ‘A  Replacement Life.’ Author photo: Rob Liguori

By Richard Jackoway, Special to the Jewish Light

After reading hundreds of books during the year, the 10 American Library Association judges weren’t about to let an impending blizzard keep them from selecting the Sophie Brody Medal for Jewish Literature.

So, late last month, the judges, including University City librarian Kathleen Gallagher, holed up in a conference room at the Hilton Chicago debating the relative merits of the nominees.

Around the room were copies of 25 or so books that had made the final cut for the Brody Medal. The winner would be the one the judges thought best represented the “many aspects of the Jewish experience through a lens that expands the reader’s understanding.”

Each judge had a chance to present his or her two or three top choices and then hear the other judges debate the merits of the books. After what Gallagher called a “vigorous but very respectful” discussion, the group unanimously chose Boris Fishman’s debut novel, “A Replacement Life,” which focuses on the relationship between a Holocaust survivor and his grandson.

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While this year no one book that leapt out as a favorite for her, Gallagher said she was very happy that “A Replacement Life” won.

“The story itself had a lot in common with many coming-of-age stories,” Gallagher said, “but he rendered it in a way that is funny and real and very touching.”

On Feb. 1, while most of the rest of Chicago was shut down due the record-setting snowstorm, the ALA announced the Brody Medal winner along witht 10 other books that comprise the Reading List, an annual best-of list of literature for adult readers. 

The task of selecting the Jewish book of the year is a tall one. There are few restrictions on what can be considered. Fiction, non-fiction, even books of poetry count. The book can be authored by a Jew or a non-Jew. The topic can be about modern Judaism or reach back into Jewish history.

Among the few criteria are that the book must be written for adults, possess exceptional literary merit and must have “as its central purpose the exploration of the Jewish experience.”

Committee members spend the year scanning book review magazines looking for likely candidates. Gallagher is assigned to the prestigious Kirkus Reviews. When she finds a book that seems to meet the Brody Medal criteria, she flags it and then reads and summarizes it for the other judges. 

For Gallagher that means reading about 60 books a year. If, contrary to first glance, the book doesn’t really focus on the Jewish experience, she may not read all of it. But otherwise she will read her books, while keeping track of the books the other judges are reading and summarizing.

On the Monday after Thanksgiving, each judge will whittle down the nominees to two or three books.

In 2013, Gallagher fell in love with Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Like Dreamers.” It’s a non-fiction book that weaves together the stories of seven Israeli paratroopers from the Six-Day War and from their different perspectives explores the complexity of modern Israel. It ended up being selected for the Brody Medal last year.

Gallagher said she was surprised how much she liked the book.

“It’s about Army guys. I don’t read books about Army guys,” she said. “But this book to me is really unique. He picked men who represented the whole spectrum of Israeli thought and experience with regard to the settlements and the Palestinians and to every aspect of life. I felt for the first time that he cleaned the lens for me about what’s it’s like to be Israeli.”

In an e-mail interview with the Jewish Light, Halevi said the Brody award is special to him.

“There’s something deeply satisfying about being honored by librarians, who, in this digital era, still cherish books,” Halevi wrote. “And the existence of a special ALA award for Jewish literature is an honor for all those who write about Jewish subjects.”

Gallagher, who isn’t Jewish, was nominated to be a Brody Medal judge by her boss at the University City Library, which has a vibrant Jewish Interest Collection in recognition of the community’s deep Jewish roots.

Judging gives Gallagher, who is the library’s head of Adult Services, deeper insights to the collection.

“It’s such a great connection to the books we work with,” Gallagher said.

But she did question whether she should serve on the Brody Medal committee.

“My immediate reaction was, ‘Is that appropriate for me? I’m not Jewish.’ But he said it was and he was right,” she said.

Gallagher said the committee benefits from each judge bringing his or her own literary knowledge to the judging.

“While like most of my colleagues I have read perhaps a million books in my life, I have not read as many books on this theme,” she said. “So a different committee member might be able to say, ‘Look, this book was done 10 years ago.’ And I think that’s a beautiful criterion for rejection. So maybe I unconsciously weigh (my vote) more toward the immediate experience of reading the book, the writing itself.”

Gallagher has been judging for three years now and plans to judge at least one more year. At her Webster Groves home, the books trickle in, about one a week, all year long. It’s a lot of reading. But for a librarian, it’s also fun.

“It sounds arduous, but it’s a pleasure. It really is,” Gallagher said.

And so, after having taken a few weeks off to read a non-Jewish themed mystery or two, Gallagher is about to embark on selecting the 2016 Brody Medal winner.