The Jewish Book Council: A Tireless Advocate for Jewish Letters

Lonnie Firestone

This week, we continue our series on CANVAS grantees by delving into the Jewish Book Council (JBC), a unique organization indefatigably promoting Jewish authors and their work. As well as piquing your interest in JBC, we hope it inspires you to buy some books. You may also want to see our piece on Paper Brigade, JBC’s yearly journal of Jewish writing.

“In today’s publishing environment, it can be quite hard for any but the best known writers to get attention for a book,” says the novelist Rachel Kadish. 
 
Her own novel, The Weight of Ink, centers on the little-known community of Jewish refugees from the Inquisition that settled in London in the mid-1600s. 
 
By her own admission, “it’s the sort of book that can be a hard sell until it has some word-of-mouth wind in its sails.”
 
What Kadish needed was a network connecting her to readers who had a particular interest in Jewish stories. Fortunately for Kadish, and hundreds of other writers, such a network exists in the Jewish Book Council, “the longest-run­ning orga­ni­za­tion devot­ed exclu­sive­ly to the sup­port and cel­e­bra­tion of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture,” according to its website. 
 
Under the leadership of Executive Director Naomi Firestone-Teeter, JBC nurtures and supports Jewish writing—secular and religious, fiction and nonfiction, from poetry to graphic novels. Or more specifically, JBC supports writers as they introduce their books of Jewish interest to the world.
 
JBC has a long history in Jewish letters. It began with the founding of Jewish Book Week in 1925 at the Boston Public Library, led by Fanny Goldstein, the first Jewish head of a library in Massachusetts. Positive reception in Boston led to the national expansion of Jewish Book Week two years later, and in 1940 the week evolved to Jewish Book Month. In 1944, the committee running the program officially became the Jewish Book Council. 
 
Today, JBC is a robust organization that coordinates book tours for authors; publishes over 300 book reviews and essays per year on its website and in Paper Brigade, its yearly journal; and creates book club guides utilized by thousands of readers around the world.   
 
Firestone-Teeter’s job, as she sees it, is to “fill an important void in the publicity-marketing space, to target a wide group of the Jewish community whom we know read books, engage with literature, and participate in book clubs.” 
 
As a result of these efforts, readers are introduced to far more titles than “the ten books they would’ve heard of in the secular wider press. What we’re doing is finding a host of resources that ensure these books are reaching their intended audience and that people have a broad view of Jewish life and identity.”
 
A unique process of supporting and promoting Jewish letters
 
Jewish writing is essential to the book industry given how avidly Jews write, publish, and purchase books. It comes as no surprise then that JBC maintains constant correspondence with every top publisher as well as with academic and independent publishing companies to stay current on newly published works by Jewish writers.
 
Essential to JBC’s marketing strategy is the JBC Network, which provides authors with the opportunity to meet readers and broaden their audiences.  
 
Firestone-Teeter explains: “Each year, authors of Jewish-interest books sign up for the JBC Network platform, which connects authors to programmers at Jewish nonprofits, including JCCs, synagogues, national organizations, Jewish federations, and museums that are interested in bringing authors into their communities.”
 
Every spring, JBC publishes a guide with information on new books of Jewish interest whose authors have joined the network. Each organization then receives a copy of each book to help them decide if they’d like to have a writer appear for a reading or a talk.
 
Concurrently, JBC programs an annual conference each May featuring a pitch competition in which authors present a two-minute pitch to programmers. 
 
This isn’t Shark Tank, where competitors sink or swim. Firestone-Teeter wants writers to succeed, so her team “coaches authors throughout the spring to help them prepare for their presentations to the JBC Network audience.” 
 
Once organizations select authors and books for their myriad literary festivals and events, JBC coordinates their requests, arranging nearly 1,400 events yearly. This year, the JBC Network program featured a record 284 authors. These numbers are astonishing on their own, but they’re especially amazing when you consider how book tours have decreased dramatically, even before Covid paused in-person events.
 
And the Network is not the only way that JBC promotes Jewish works: Jewish Book Month still takes place in the month preceding Chanukah, coinciding with many organizations’ Jewish Book Festivals.
 
In addition to working with Jewish literary festivals and events, JBC uses its weekly emails and social channels to showcase reviews, essays, excerpts, and stories about the authors themselves, and to disseminate reading lists and book club resources on topics of Jewish interest.
 
JBC itself publishes Jewish writing in its yearly literary journal and on its website. Paper Brigade, the journal, includes interviews, personal essays, literary criticism, visual arts, original fiction, excerpts, translations, and poetry. The most recent issue features works by 28 authors. 
 
The journal features the Paper Brigade Award for New Israeli Fic­tion, celebrating an outstanding work of fiction published in Hebrew. Paper Brigade publishes the winning short story or novel excerpt in both Hebrew and English, introducing readers to talented Israeli writers, as well as providing a foothold in the American literary market. 
 
And Paper Brigade Daily, JBC’s literary website, currently features 140 writers in the form of essays, poetry, excerpts, and interviews. 
 
JBC is also intentional about nurturing writers before publication. For those writers, JBC offers two publishing seminars annually, one for writ­ers of adult books and anoth­er for writ­ers and illus­tra­tors of children’s books. Both events include pan­els with agents, edi­tors, pub­li­cists, and pub­lished authors. 
 
When you take all these efforts together, it’s difficult to think of any other organization that does so much for writers and their work, Jewish or otherwise.

From Dear Mr. Dickens. Image: Charles Dickens Museum

Reflections from Jewish writers 

Rachel Kadish believes that JBC’s support has made a measurable impact on the success of her book. When The Weight of Ink came out, Kadish recalls, “it did not receive any mainstream newspaper reviews in the US. In a situation like that, a book can easily disappear without a ripple.” 

But Kadish was part of the JBC Network.

“After I was finished with my book touring,” she says, “I compared the map of my Jewish Book Council book tour with my book’s sales map. The maps are almost identical. I feel strongly that the JBC book tour helped not only with direct sales, but with the word of mouth that makes all the difference.” 

Another writer, Marra Gad, felt some uncertainty about being a first-time memoirist as she determined how to promote her book, The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl

The book documents her path to self-acceptance as a biracial Jewish woman, blending complex family dynamics and personal exploration. But Gad lacked “a large public footprint,” so she turned to JBC, which, for her, was an “invaluable resource.”

The JBC “celebrates [writers], giving us a built-in community of supporters that want to read our books, promote them, and to lift up Jewish stories and the voices of Jewish authors,” she says. 

Gad also appreciates JBC’s professionalism.  

“That the system is so streamlined and well-practiced makes the experience a pleasure, and the staff, led by the absolutely incredible Naomi Firestone-Teeter, always makes itself available to be of support, which was something that I remain deeply grateful for from my time doing the JBC circuit with my memoir.”

Expanding the idea of Jewish writing 

As avid readers know, there are several evergreen topics in Jewish writing—to name just a few, the Holocaust, depictions of distinct Jewish communities, and first-person accounts of coming into or leaving Judaism. 

Jai Chakrabarti’s novel, A Play for the End of the World, combines source materials that may be both familiar and new to Jewish readers: as he describes it, the book “explores a moment of Holocaust history involving the Warsaw Ghetto, the orphanage of Polish-Jewish educator Janusz Korczak, and a play Korczak staged that was written by the Indian playwright Rabindranath Tagore.” 

Chakrabarti notes that by working with JBC, “I’ve been able to have conversations with many Jewish communities across the country, and I’ve learned about shared connections: I’ve learned of the stories of survivors, of those inspired by the life of Janusz Korczak, and also those for whom art was and is a precious resource in the darkest of times.”

For writer Nancy Churnin, the Jewish subject matter of her picture book, Dear Mr. Dickens, is “deeply personal.” Churnin had admired Charles Dickens but felt dismayed by his portrayal of Jews in the novel Oliver Twist. She learned that a Jewish woman, Eliza Davis, had written to Dickens in the mid-1800s expressing that same sentiment, and the two forged an ongoing correspondence. 

Churnin’s book depicts the unlikely epistolary relationship that developed between Davis and the famous writer. 

Dear Mr. Dickens has received wide praise, and JBC’s efforts in promoting the book forged new opportunities for Churnin. Jewish Book Council outreach led directly to radio and podcast interviews, and a feature in The Dallas Morning News

The book even made a splash in Britain: London’s Charles Dickens Museum built a virtual educational program for students based on the book, and is collaborating with the Jewish Museum London on programming, such as encouraging children to write letters to people in positions of influence.

“One thing that’s interesting about the literary space,” Firestone-Teeter reflects, “is that it’s an intersection of the arts and the Jewish community. You’ll have artists, musicians, and filmmakers who are writing memoirs or creating visual arts books or exploring their work through the written word in different forms. And you’ll also have Jewish leaders and rabbis, and then you’ll have people who are born writers and are focused on literary fiction or narrative nonfiction. It’s an intersection. It allows us to be part of the wider Jewish community.”

“A celebration of excellence”

The National Jewish Book Awards began in 1950, and today the JBC honors books in 18-20 categories each year (such as debut fiction, children’s picture books, and biography). The JBC invites over 100 judges to consider nearly 700 submissions by category.  

Authors submit their books in the summer. Final decisions are made in December, and each March JBC hosts a culminating event. 

“It’s a celebration of excellence,” Firestone-Teeter says. “We have awards ranging from debuts to scholarship in modern Jewish thought, biographies and memoirs, and our book of the year.”

JBC also presents Natan Notable Books twice each year to celebrate books that spark conversations relevant to themes of Jewish community, Jewish identity, and Israel. (The Natan Fund works with philanthropists to support creative initiatives in Jewish communities.) 

Each of these awards are deeply meaningful to writers: they affirm a writer’s talents within an established literary sphere and lead directly to increased sales, speaking engagements, and collaborative opportunities. 

Rachel Kadish’s novel, The Weight of Ink, received a National Jewish Book Award in the Book Club category. Jai Chakrabarti’s novel, A Play for the End of the World, won a National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction, and Nancy Churnin received the National Jewish Book Award for children’s fiction with Dear Mr. Dickens.

When Churnin got the call, she asked if Firestone-Teeter “really had said what I thought she had said or if I’d dreamed it,” Churnin recalls. “Requests for interviews and presentations have been streaming in because of the National Jewish Book Award.” 

It’s not hyperbole to say that JBC transforms the careers of Jewish writers. 

As Rachel Kadish puts it, “This is what people who care about serious Jewish literature hope for: that such books will have strong support from arts organizations, will cross over into general readership, and that a diversity of voices and subjects will be embraced.”

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