Directorial debut

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Here’s a little trivia you might not know about Scott Berzon, the new director of the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival:

• His wife Jamie was his first girlfriend, back when the two were in fourth or fifth grade, he can’t quite remember. His dad took them on a “date” to see the movie “The Golden Child.” They eventually reconnected during their college years.

• He is a published poet.

• He recently took up soccer and plays in a 40-and-over league. He’s only 39 but reports his age poses no threat to the opposing team.


He’s also extremely affable and excited about the upcoming Jewish book festival, which takes place Nov. 2-16. He’s a bit nervous too, not knowing exactly what to expect since he’s only been on the job since February. He replaced festival director Marcia Evers Levy, who resigned from the position after 15 years. 

“When I first got the job I thought, ‘This is a two-week-long festival. What the heck will I be doing the rest of the year?’” says Berzon during a recent, wide-ranging interview. “What I have found is that there are so many moving parts to putting this festival together, both large and small. There are more than 15 subcommittees that my two co-chairs (Judi Scissors and Judy Schwartz Jaffe) and I oversee. There are so many duties that go into the finer points of creating this festival.”

Berzon grew up in St. Louis, graduated from Ladue Horton Watkins High School (Class of ’93) and attended the University of Missouri-Columbia before receiving a master’s in fine arts (creative writing) from the University of Michigan. The father of three, ranging in age from 8 to 13, he had worked in the textbook industry before coming to the festival. Although promoting new textbooks at college campuses was his main duty, the companies he had worked for published many books intended to appeal to the masses. “I knew the book world well because (these companies) had robust trade lists with everything from cookbooks to fiction,” he explains.

Still, becoming familiar with Jewish authors is a whole other knish. Part of what helps is spending a few days in New York at the Jewish Book Council’s annual confab, which promotes hundreds of authors to Jewish book programs around the country. Berzon likened the format of meeting authors there to speed-dating, explaining they have only two minutes to sell their book and let their personality shine. 

“The thing is most anyone can put on a good performance in two minutes,” he says. “But if this person is speaking for 45 minutes, can they hold an audience and keep them excited?”

That same thinking goes into choosing a keynote speaker. Ideally, it should be a well-known Jewish personality who will pack a crowd; even better if he or she has a new book. But as Berzon notes, not all well-known Jewish personalities are created equal.

“Unfortunately, the name isn’t everything,” says Berzon. “Just because someone has amazing credentials and everyone may know them, they may be a stinker in terms of their public speaking abilities. You want to find a way to sniff that out.”

The other contributing factor to a keynote: Price. Sure, Jon Stewart and Barbra Streisand would draw thousands, but their fees are upwards of six figures. “That rules out a fair number right away,” Berzon says.

This year’s keynote is 90-year-old Theodore Bikel, best known for his portrayal of Teyve in “Fiddler on the Roof,” performing the role in excess of 2,000 times. He also stars in the new documentary, “Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem,” based on his one-man show, “Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears.” The documentary premiered in July at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. (Rumor has it the film will be shown as part of the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival in June.)

Admittedly, Theo, as he likes to be called, wasn’t on Berzon’s radar until Jewish Film Festival director Zelda Sparks noted that 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the Broadway debut of “Fiddler.” The idea crystalized when New Jewish Theatre artistic director Kathleen Sitzer mentioned she had a video of an impromptu concert Bikel did at a conference she was attending. “She showed me it and that’s what I needed to see,” says Berzon. “He was so engaging and funny — a real mensch. You could see it. I knew he would be right for the festival.”

Of course, whether a veteran actor like Bikel will attract younger audiences to the festival remains to be seen. Berzon knows that he needs to bring in the young, without losing his core, older audience. Achieving that goal is a challenge. 

“Across the board, everyone wants younger audiences at these events but no one has found the magic way to do this,” he says. “Younger people have