Highlights and one shining moment from past St. Louis Jewish Book Festivals

Author Saul Bellow addresses the audience during his keynote talk at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival in 1988. Light File Photo: David M. Henschel  

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Marking its 36th – or “Double-Chai” – anniversary, the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival started Sunday with a keynote speech by the legendary Theodore Bikel. It continues with more than 30 authors through Nov. 16.

Bikel, 90, best known for his portrayal of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” was described by many in the audience as perhaps the “best ever” among the festival’s 36 keynote speakers. As one who has attended all 36, I can attest that Bikel’s remarks were unmatched.

They centered on his love of books, especially childhood memories of Yiddish-language children’s books, including his beloved father’s multivolume set of “The Collected Stories of Sholom Aleichem.” That set includes Aleichem’s creation of Tevye the Dairyman. 

Bikel not only regaled the audience with reflections on his long career as Tevye and other classic roles, such as Zorba and his Oscar-nominated Southern sheriff in the movie “The Defiant Ones,” but also played guitar and sang several songs ranging from the rousing to the amusing to the poignant.

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The festival has had more than 1,000 author events since its inception. Here are some of the other best-of-the-best highlights from festival keynotes and events over the 36 years.

• Saul Bellow, a towering figure in American Jewish literature and one of a small group of Jewish authors to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, surveyed the state of American Jewish literature in 1988. He paid proper tribute to fellow Jewish literary giants such as Philip Roth, whom he mentored; Isaac Bashevis Singer; and Bernard Malamud. Bellow graciously fielded questions about his acclaimed novels but declined to pick a favorite among contemporary novelists, stressing that each author deserves respect and acclaim for his or her work.

• Goldie Hawn, the dazzling actress who first gained national notice on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” and won an Oscar for her role in “Cactus Flower,” proved in her 2003 talk that she has more intellectual depth than some of her ditzy characters. Fran Drescher of “The Nanny” proved similarly thoughtful in 2005 as she discussed her refusal to disguise her brash East Coast Jewish accent, and indeed capitalized on it.

• Richard Dreyfuss, the Oscar-winning star of “Goodbye Girl” whose acting credits also  include “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” demonstrated in his 1998 keynote remarks an appreciation of American history by teaming up with “What if” author Harry Turtledove to imagine what the world would be like if certain historical events had turned out differently.

• Although not a keynote speaker, Sid Caesar, the legendary star of “Your Show of Shows” with Carl Reiner, offered a moving and candid talk in the early 1980s about battling depression, alcohol and drugs, and what led to his recovery.

A keynote address that was one of the most moving was by Reiner, who addressed the 17th Jewish Book Festival on the fateful evening of Saturday, Nov. 4, 1995. Reiner, whose comedic genius was part of Caesar’s “Show of Shows” and the “2,000-year-old man” comedy sketches with Mel Brooks, faced the greatest challenge of any of the previous speakers. 

That   afternoon, Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister and former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, was assassinated by a Jewish religious fanatic. The news hit much of the Jewish community, and myself, with the same impact as learning of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Many wondered whether the festival would cancel the event. 

As it turned out, the gathering of 1,500 members of the local Jewish community for Reiner’s talk was like a collective shiva call. When Jews are in mourning, our tradition wisely requires the mourners to be with other people. Paying respects to those who are mourning is a major mitzvah, which benefits both the mourners and those who try to comfort them. 

Reiner immediately put the audience at ease by sharing his own pain and anguish as a Jew and as an American over the loss of Rabin. He recalled the show-business maxim “the show must go on” as having guided him to complete the taping of a “Dick Van Dyke Show” episode the afternoon of JFK’s assassination. 

He also shared a similar experience when he had to go forward with a USO show in front of 10,000 U.S. soldiers on April 12, 1945, just hours after it was learned that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had led the nation through the Great Depression and to the brink of total victory in World War II, had died. 

After offering comforting words of tribute to Rabin, Reiner then went on to share numerous funny anecdotes about his long comedy career with Caesar and Brooks.

Those of us who recall that evening remember that Reiner is not only a terrific entertainer  but, like Bikel, a real mensch. 

‘Cohnipedia’ is the ongoing feature by Editor-in-Chief Emeritus  Robert A. Cohn, chronicling St. Louis’ Jewish history. Read more Cohnipedia columns online at  stljewishlight.com/cohn.