SIX PEOPLE ARE arguing around a table at the Jewish Federation in Monrovia for the third day in a row. The stacks of books in front of them have grown shorter, but most of the two hundred or so that arrived in May still line the entrance to Kim Banaji’s office. We’re still trading off, comparing notes, rethinking our picks. It is the first week in June, just days since four of our members returned from the Jewish Book Council (JBC)’s annual convention in New York, and the committee has only two days before we have to submit our first-choice requests for authors.
New York Times bestsellers, top-line entertainers, Pulitzer and National Jewish Book Award winners. Poets, novelists, scientists, chefs and sportswriters. Humorists and historians, survivors, rabbis and rebels….
Every autumn, the Jewish Book Festival, now in its 20th year, brings them all to the communities of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys for a month-plus of readings, Sunday bagel brunches, Saturday evening galas, and other special events. Last year’s Festival brought in record crowds, including a significant number of newcomers, and raised expectations yet again for the coming season.
Because we’re part of the JBC national network, we’re competing for authors with bigger festivals like San Diego, Dallas and Cherry Hill. And yet against the odds, our modest size and our format, we do get our share of leading authors, many of whom tell us this is one Festival they’d come back to without reservations. Some have even rearranged their tour schedules to fit us in.
How did we get here?
Committee Chair Myra Weiss, of Beth Shalom in Whittier, was one of the Festival’s founding members.
“Our starting idea was that we had no money and what could we do? So we looked for three or four local Jewish authors who might be willing to speak at area synagogues without a fee. Even though we were a real shoestring operation, we got good authors, we sold books, and members from other synagogues started joining the committee. But it must have been an idea whose time was happening because just around then, the Jewish Book Council was born.”
Since then, our Jewish Book Festival has grown to ten or more events throughout our widespread community. A typical single-weekend festival or an author series at the JCC is easier, but with the help of our community partners, we’ve gained larger and larger audiences and authors from around the country and overseas. Our partners—congregations from Glendale to Ontario, Jewish schools and organizations, the University of La Verne—are the backbone of our Festival and make it possible by co-hosting. They provide venues and receptions, get the word out to their members, and come up with innovative themes for their author events. The Literary Circle, with more than 100 individual, family, foundation and organizational members, helps us meet the costs of bringing authors to our community.
Our planning year starts in February or March, when we start reading and looking for new books and authors, most at the national or international level, but some from our local community as well. From the moment reader copies arrive from the JBC until the convention in late May, we read and discuss as many books as we can, looking for ones our diverse audiences will like.
Some of our congregations thrive on current affairs, history, or science. Two are large enough and have the sound setups for Saturday evening galas with live music. Some congregations want to dig into new fiction, and some like to cook. We look for a balance between heavy and light, male- and female-oriented genres, popular and scholarly, and books that fit both older and younger interests.
Then there are special-interest events: The University of La Verne’s annual Kristallnacht commemoration, the author luncheon at a local restaurant or country club, and the Moms’ Night Out all have different core audiences and book demands.
The JBC convention in New York is the central event for Jewish book festival organizers all over the US. It’s been described as an unholy mix of speed-dating and “American Idol” auditions, a grueling two-day marathon of more than 200 back-to-back author presentations, two minutes apiece. Our committee members attend for just one reason: there’s no better way to hear as many authors as possible in person, talk to our prospective choices afterward and get a feel for how they’d fare with our audiences. Then it’s back home to fine-tune our requests as a group.
Kim Banaji, the Federation’s program and community outreach coordinator, only came on board two years ago, but she’s hit the ground running. She’s both the official liaison to our committee and an active member with a passion for literature, and she’s pushed us forward quickly. In addition to shouldering her share of the readings and debates, she coordinates the logistical framework of the Festival—outreach to Literary Circle members, community partners and the JBC; arranging author travel, book orders, outside venue contracts, and more. At the Federation she coordinates with executive director Jason Moss and marketing and communications coordinator Shira Liff-Grieff to collect and analyze Festival event attendance data from the past season and plan this year’s marketing and outreach campaign. The Federation’s office manager, Karen Galeana, wears a second hat as a talented graphic designer and lays out the Festival brochure, mailers and posters. She and Liff-Grieff create the Jewish Book Festival’s online communications as well.
Back at what we hope is the last meeting before we submit our author wishlist to the JBC, we’re still trying to balance the final picks and fill any remaining gaps in a way that will suit each venue. We’ve mapped out most of our first choices for each event, but we need worthy second and third options in case an author we want isn’t available or the publication date of their book is delayed.
This is it for us as avid readers. From now until the Festival opens in late October, we must start co-chairing, working with our authors on their presentations and our intro speeches, and nailing down the specifics for each event with our community co-hosts.
As the list takes shape, our newest committee member puts author names into categories on the whiteboard so we can see if we’re missing anything. We have a couple of lively picks for the Mom’s Night Out event, the Saturday night galas, and the luncheon. What about the University of La Verne, though? Of all the regular events on our list, this is probably the most sensitive. Although there’s no shortage of Holocaust-related books at the JBC in any given year, what we select has to be worthy of both the occasion and the university audience. We pick a third alternate and agree to read a fourth galley that’s just arrived.
Eventually the board is filled. We have as broad a balance as we can get, and our alternates for each venue all work well, not just our ideal first requests. We have a Festival.
We look around the table at each other, and someone says, “Lunch?”
Deborah Noble is a contributing writer to JLifeSGPV and a member of the Jewish Book Festival Committee.