Book Fest draws 23,000


In the view of many of the authors, attendees, volunteers and participants, the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival is not only the biggest event of its kind in North America, but has also become its best.

Under co-chairs Alice Ludmer and Sheri Sherman, with a virtual army of dedicated volunteers, and the professional expertise of Book Festival Director Marcia Evers Levy and JCC Cultural Arts Director Zelda Sparks, “the Festival is amazingly efficient, going like clockwork even with the mobs of people, the large number of authors and the thousands of details involved in an event of this scope,” said one long-time enthusiast of the event. She added, “I come to the Jewish Book Festival every year; it is like a free education, and I’m always sad when it’s over.”

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The above reaction was typical of many at the festival, which ended last week and involved more than 30 authors of books of fiction and non-fiction, serious and funny, shocking and poignant, over a 12-day period, mostly at the Carlyn H. Wohl Building of the Jewish Community Center of St. Louis. Now in its 29th year, the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival has grown to become the largest event of its kind in the United States and Canada, with several authors, such as TV Star Trek legend Leonard Nimoy and children-and-adult author Judith Viorst making return engagements.

According to Levy, who has been festival director for the past 10 years, the 2007 event drew a combined total of more than 23,000 attendees, including an estimated 1,400 who attended the opening night keynote program with TV star Paul Reiser; several 500-plus audiences for such authors as Judith Viorst, the popular humorist and social commentator, and Dennis Ross, the former major Middle East peace negotiator in both the administrations of Presidents George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton. The Jewish Festival Book Store did a brisk business over the 11 days of the event, often selling out and having to re-order many of the featured books, which the authors were available to autograph after each presentation.

Sherman and Ludmer had warm praise for Levy and Sparks for their professionalism and enthusiasm. “It was truly a labor of love for Alice and me, and our hardworking volunteers,” said Sherman, “and once again our Book Festival director, Marcia Evers Levy and JCC Cultural Arts Director Zelda Sparks did a terrific job.” Sherman added, “All of our terrific authors were friendy, accessible and approachable, and many of them were blown away by the size and scope of our Book Festival.” Observed Ludmer, “For the past couple of years we have known that ours had grown into the biggest Jewish Book Festival; many of the authors, volunteers and especially the attendees said it also has become the best event of its kind in North America. I was so impressed by the work of our committees; they had such passion. I especially appreciate working with Alice Ludmer, my co-chair. Those 11 days were quite intense, unique and wonderful.”

Ludmer expressed similar sentiments about the festival.

“Sheri Sherman and I envisioned the 2007 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival as a picture puzzle. If we could assemble all the pieces correctly, it would create a great picture. However, instead of a store bought picture puzzle, we had to find all the pieces ourselves, starting with a strong committee. Each member represented a piece of our puzzle. Fortunately, the pieces were vibrant and fit beautifully. The authors were also key puzzle pieces with each having their own unique talents, each having to fit perfectly. We made a beautiful picture. The 2007 festival was an overwhelming success. Sheri and I consistently heard from both audience and authors that they look forward to participating in future St. Louis Jewish Book Festivals. We are linked to a proud St. Louis Jewish community tradition. I can truly say it was a labor of love.”

Levy was espcially moved by some of the unplanned events and comments at the 2007 Jewish Book Festival. “One loyal attendee, a radiology nurse, told me that she has timed her next year’s two-week vacation to coincide with the Festival so she does not have to miss any of the presentations. Also, when Markus Zusak, the young author of the highly praised The Book Thief, appeared, he was practically greeted like a rock star by students from Belleville East and Parkway West high schools, whose book clubs selected his novel for reading. We also had sponsors among local Jewish book groups, such as the Serious Book Group and the Ala Carte Book Group, and at least one new book group which formed as a result of people getting together at the festival.”

Limitations of space precludes a detailed report on each of the more than 30 author presentations, but the following are some highlights of a representative sample.

* Gary Belsky, editor-in-chief of ESPN Magazine, and co-author of 23 Ways to Get to First Base, warmed his local audience with an affectionate look back on his days as a student at H. F. Epstein Hebrew Academy in St. Louis, where his then-classmate, David Makovsky, suggested that he do some intern journalism at the St. Louis Jewish Light. “I am really grateful that the St. Louis Jewish Light and later the St. Louis Business Journal really gave me my start in journalism,” Belsky said. He also regaled his audience with anecdotes from his book, a collection of “totally irrelevant, absolutely essential sports knoweldge.”

* A. J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically, and previously of The Know-it-All, about his completion of the reading of every volume of the Encyclopedia Judaica, shared with his audience his equally unique journey, as a self-described secular Jew, of his effort to observe all of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments contained in the Hebrew Bible. “I even managed to stone an adulterer, when I threw pebbles at a man in a park who taunted me with his confessed adultery,” Jacobs said.

* Lucinda Franks, author of My Father’s Secret War, held her audience in rapt attention as she described the dramatic, true life story of her discovery of the fact that her father had led a secret life during World War II as a spy for the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA. “The discovery, painful as it was at first, resulted in my being reconciled with my father after we had drifted apart for some years,” Franks told the audience.

* Naomi Ragen, the popular novelist, playwright and columnist from Israel, spoke about her latest novel, The Saturday Wife, about a sexy, blonde rabbi’s wife named Delilah, “an unbearable congregation and a baffled (rabbi) husband.” Ragen delighted the audience with descriptions of her inspirations for the title and other characters and how she balances her careers in Israel as a novelist, playwright and columnist who deals with often divisive issues. “Some of my fiction fans approve of my columns, and some object to some of my views, but most remain loyal to my fiction,” observed Ragen.

Special programs included a preview event featuring Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who spoke on his new book, The Deadliest Lies: The Myth of the Jewish Lobby and the Rise of Anti-Semitism; a concert event, “The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage,” featuring St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concertmaster David Halen and member musicians of the orchestra, which was held at Congregation B’nai Amoona; and a closing family event, featuring Peter Lane Taylor, on his book The Secret of Priest’s Grotto, the story of several Jewish families who escaped death and Nazis in the Ukraine by hiding for more than a year in the ninth longest cave in the world.

Plans are already underway for the 30th Anniversary St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, Nov. 2-12, 2008.