From Jerry Springer to Dr. Ruth, this year’s festival has something for everyone

BY VICTORIA SIEGEL, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

When organizers of the 2008 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival say that this year there’s something for everyone, they’re not exaggerating…or kidding.

From a Sex and the City star to a former Senior Foreign Communications Coordinator for Israeli prime ministers, this year’s festival promises to grace St. Louis audiences with the variety and high-quality substance they’ve come to expect.

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“We are the largest Jewish book festival in the country,” said Marcia Ever Levy, festival director. “There are around 102 Jewish book festivals and we attract the largest number of attendees.”

She attributes the success of this annual event to the outstanding line-up of authors, the great variety of topics, and the way the authors are treated when they come here. In fact, St. Louis’ reputation is so strong that when Levy attends the annual national publishers’ convention to look for authors, she is actually stopped in the aisles by authors, Jewish and non-Jewish, asking if they can be presenters.

The festival, and its stellar reputation, has been growing for 30 years. It began when Grace Colton was talking to Elinor Schneider, the JCC’s cultural arts director at the time, about a way to feature Jewish authors and Jewish literature for the community,” Levy said. “They had heard that Detroit was doing a Jewish Book Festival so they went there to check it out.”

The first year, the St. Louis festival featured seven authors over eight days and 1,000 people attended. This year’s festival will feature more than 30 authors over 13 days and 23,000 people are expected to attend.

Festival co-chair, Linda Kraus, said that the event is a gift to the community. “To be able to come and listen to all these authors for a reasonable price is a wonderful gift to the entire community. These authors encourage people to attend and in turn, the authors want to come because we get such wonderful crowds.” Kraus was asked to co-chair this year’s event to mark the 30th anniversary because she co-chaired a previous book festival. “For our special anniversaries we always look for someone who has experience chairing a previous festival,” Levy said.

Fellow co-chair, Darla Grossberg, who has been involved on various book festival committees over the years, hopes the book festival encourages people to read more. “The Jewish people have been known as the ‘People of the Book.’ I just want them to be open-minded, to hear the authors, and to see what’s out there.”

Levy said St. Louis audiences like a mix of celebrities and presenters. “We always tell people that the authors you don’t know this year will be a big hit next year or after that,” she said.

A few of the highlights of this festival include:

*Retro Night: Roger Bennett, whose previous books featured his stories about summer camps (which he describes as “where Lord of the Flies meets Fantasy Island”) and bar and bat mitzvahs, brings the history of Jewish music to this party featuring Johnny Mathis singing songs of Yom Kippur, notable album covers, root beer floats, popcorn, and a photo booth.

* Concert Night: A reporter from Los Angeles, Steve Lopez, discovered a homeless man, named Nathaniel Ayers who had been a Juilliard music student. Ayers’ struggle with mental illness landed him on the streets where Lopez found him playing a two-string violin. Through Lopez’s friendship with the director of communications at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Adam Crane (Adam is the son of MegCrane, the senior communications writer for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis), Ayers takes master classes, meets Yo Yo Ma, and receives housing. This story, made into a movie by Dreamworks starring Robert Downey Jr and Jamie Foxx, will be played out at this special musical event at B’nai Amoona Congregation. Members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) will play music based on Ayers’ favorites. Adam, who has since moved back to St. Louis and is now the director of communications for SLSO, will speak.

*Dr. Ruth Westheimer: She will be talking about her new book that helps parents and teens deal with issues like sex, social networking, peer pressure, and more.

*Tatiana De Rosnay: Her book, the number one best seller in France, is a fictional Holocaust story that’s based on history. It’s a story about a young girl who hides her little brother when the police come during the 1942 round-up of Jews in Paris.

* Benyamin Cohen: The founder of American Jewish Life magazine, writes about religion in his warm and hilarious book: My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith.

* Michael Greenberg: This journalist tackles the often-hushed topic of mental health in his book Hurry Down Sunshine. His talk is followed by a discussion led by prominent members of the St. Louis mental health community.

* Jerry Springer (see story on page 2B): While many people associate Springer with his tabloid talk show, there’s much more to this gentleman than just his show. His story of his family’s escape from the Holocaust, as well as the murder of 27 relatives in the camps, is moving and provides insight into who he really is.

* Evan Handler: Known as Harry Goldenblatt from the Sex and the City television series and movie, as well as co-starring in Californication on Showtime, Handler shares his story of surviving incurable cancer and the humor and ironies of life.

Levy acknowledged that organizers could not put on this book festival without the support of generous sponsors and co-sponsors.

“Approximately 50 percent of the festival’s $200,000 budget comes from sponsorships from individuals and corporations. The remaining half of the budget comes from ticket sales, co-sponsorships from the community organizations, and book sales.” And in spite of the economic news, the festival is welcoming a few new sponsors including: David Kodner Personal Jeweler and the Ritz-Carlton. New co-sponsors include such organizations as Bais Abraham, Miriam School and Nusach Hari B’nai Zion.

Also new this year is a raffle. The top prize is a gift from David Kodner: a custom-created, one-of-a-kind white gold and diamond necklace. Tickets are $30 each or four for $100. For more information about the raffle, including where to buy tickets and the other prizes, visit the JCC on the Millstone Campus or call 314-442-3299.

For tickets to the festival, visit both of the JCCs, the concierge desk at Plaza Frontenac, the headquarters of the St. Louis County Library on Lindbergh, West Bank Books, or one of these four branches of Southwest Bank: Creve Coeur East, Creve Coeur West, Des Peres, Sunset Hills. Or call 314-442-3299. Series tickets, which allow you to attend everything from the keynote address to the two bonus events on November 17 and 18th, are $60. Individual events range from $12-35 and can be purchased at the door or in advance.