Sunday, June 24, 2007


Excerpts from:
Star Search

Over three evenings last month, several dozen writers gathered in the airy sanctuary of Hebrew Union College for a bizarre rite of passage: the Jewish book tour casting call. In a combination of “The Gong Show” and speed-dating, they each had two minutes to pitch their books to the Jewish Book Network, 100 cultural programmers from Jewish community centers, or J.C.C.’s, synagogues and libraries nationwide. An M.C. ruthlessly held up a sign when one minute was up and cheerily announced “on deck” to prepare the next speaker.

Joyce Antler, a professor at Brandeis University, presented “You Never Call! You Never Write!,” her academic history of the Jewish mother, while Dr. Loren Fishman talked up “Sciatica Solutions.” Martin Lemelman pushed his memoir, “Mendel’s Daughter,” with the promise “I could come to your J.C.C. with a PowerPoint presentation to explain how I came to write ... about the well that saved my mother’s life in the forests of Poland.” M. J. Rose explained that her novel “The Reincarnationist” stemmed from her deep belief in reincarnation and marked a departure from her “very sexual nine previous novels.” Two British Jewish novelists, Howard Jacobson and Charlotte Mendelson, riffed on how America “gets” Jews while England doesn’t. Meanwhile, programmers took notes on the authors’ book topics — and sense of humor, stage presence, poise and, probably, hairlines.

With its wild shifts in tone and quality, the annual conference offered a chaotic cross-section of American Jewish life — and of the current state of publishing. Holocaust memoirs vied for time with cookbooks and diet books, books on how to pray and why not to pray, books on motorcycles, punk rock and drug addiction, first novels and graphic novels, nonfiction reportage and novels with soft-porn covers.

The auditions and centralized tours were the brainchild of Carolyn Starman Hessel, who has become a formidable power in the publishing industry in her 13 years as the director of the Jewish Book Council, which runs the Jewish Book Network.

Authors routinely say audience members seem less interested in their books than in marrying them off. “I have been asked, ‘Are you single?’ at nearly every event, and despite answering that I am married, have then sat through the parade of eligible Jewish men in most towns,” said Jennifer Gilmore, who toured with her first novel, “Golden Country.”

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