The Jewish Book Festival

Open book with hand drawn landscapeEvery fall I look forward to the announcement in the mail and in JLife, about our Jewish Federation’s annual Jewish Book Festival. I send the dates to friends and begin planning. The festival’s 21st year lineup is one certain to get you off the couch and away from electronic distractions with its promise to nourish your mind and soul. The best part is that, with most talks free, it’s an affordable way to spend several enjoyable hours being enlightened, entertained and fed. The Jewish Book Festival highlights Jewish authors and books on Jewish subjects in an accessible, engaging and popular platform.
If you’ve never attended the Jewish Book Festival, make 2019 the year to go because the topics are fascinating and diverse: from Adult Nonfiction and Fiction, Children’s Books, Cooking & Food to Holocaust, Philosophy & Ethics and Family & Parenting; from Feminism & Women’s Studies and History to Israel & Zionism, Judaism and Memoir, there’s something for everyone. I’m usually lured by the subject on tap more than by a particular book or author, so come for the stimulating subjects and stay for the wonderful authors and books.

If you enjoy hearing about how history and the arts intersect with Jewish identity and humanity, mark your calendars for talks by Ariel Burger author of Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, Mark Cohen, author of Not Bad for Delancey Street: The Rise of Billy Rose, Rebecca Erbelding, author of Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe, Sasha Sagan with her debut, For Small Creatures Such as We: Finding Wonder and Meaning in Our Unlikely World and Tom Segev, author of A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion. They’ll delve into eye-opening Jewish content by focusing on individuals who contributed profoundly to the Jewish-American experience or on topics certain to pique your curiosity and maybe change your perspective.

Dr. Ariel Burger brings his unique and thoughtful perspective to light as he shares how his relationship with Elie Wiesel profoundly influenced his life. At age 15, the author first met the Nobel laureate and then went on to become his student, his teaching assistant and ultimately a teacher himself. “At a moment when the loss of civility is eroding human connection, I draw on my teachers’ lives and wisdom to help promote civility and kindness. My mission is to help counter superficiality with nuance, to replace estrangement with encounter and to empower people to be creative and kind citizens of the world.” On Saturday, November 17 attendees will hear what lasting lessons Burger learned from his time spent in the classroom with Wiesel as well as his own experience as a rabbi, an educator and artist, and how they apply to the world at large.

New York history comes alive via the colorful personality of Billy Rose who was once married to “Funny Girl” Fanny Brice. “A little man with a Napoleonic penchant for the colossal and magnificent, Billy Rose is the country’s No. 1 purveyor of mass entertainment,” according to Life Magazine in 1936. In addition to being an impresario, philanthropist, theater owner and supporter of Israel, who knew Rose also wrote songs? He collaborated on many hits including “Me and My Shadow” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”
On Saturday, December 7 at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, Sasha Sagan will discuss her book, For Small Creatures Such as We: Finding Wonder and Meaning in Our Unlikely World, followed by a dessert reception and musical performance. As new parents, Sasha and her husband wanted to create new rituals for their daughter based on her experience growing up in the secular household of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. This subject resonates with me as someone who, for my entire married life, has lived far away from family and yearned for meaningful new traditions that would celebrate the marvels of life as sought by Sagan. Combining the wisdom of her parents with the powerful messages she saw at the heart of religious observances, Sagan’s written an inspiring guidebook on how people can bring a sense of joy and wonder into their homes.

Meet the real David Ben-Gurion, born David Gruen in Plonsk, Poland, 1886, courtesy of Tom Segev in his definitive biography of Israel’s founder, A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion. Born and raised a committed Zionist, Ben-Gurion often chose controversial approaches to achieve his ultimate goal, statehood for the land of Israel. Segev will show how the legacy of one of the twentieth century’s leading figures remains a “complex and contentious” one.

If you’re drawn to stories of immigration struggles in the face of persecution, look no further than the incredible ones Rebecca Erbelding will reveal at the Sunday, November 10 University of La Verne reception event at 4:00 pm marking Kristalnacht. I always thought the Roosevelt Administration did nothing to help in the plight of European Jews, but apparently in 1944 the president created the War Refugee Board that for 20 months ran an international operation in an effort to help in undercover ways. Exhaustive research has enabled Holocaust historian Erbelding to bring the “little-known” and wily way a team, spearheaded by a young Treasury lawyer named John Pehle, sought any means possible to help save Europe’s Jews. At times this involved forgery, money laundering, purchasing weapons and ransom negotiations. I don’t know why this information remained buried for so long and cannot wait to find out why the government waited until 1944 to finally get involved.

All the events provide an opportunity to gain new insight and a motivation to know more. The Jewish Book Festival helps you get inside the head of a book’s creator on how the book came to be, along with an insider’s look at a subject they’ve researched extensively and have lived with for many years as the book took shape. It’s also a chance to get out of the house, meet like-minded individuals and strengthen your bond with the Jewish community while exposing yourself to myriad aspects of Jewish life, history and culture. Whether you pick a topic you love or test the waters of one you’ve been eager to explore, you’re bound to experience personal growth. New this year is the Saturday night series which you can turn into a date night or a group get-together. Just remember, since many authors are traveling long distance or on tour around the country, there’s only one chance to catch their presentations, so take advantage of this specially curated opportunity.


The 2019 Jewish Book Festival Lineup


  • Sunday, 10-26 at 7:30 pm A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben Gurion by Tom Segev
  • Monday, 10-27 at 10:00 am The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist by Julien Gorbach
  • Friday, 11-1 at 10:00 am Yes She Can: 10 Stories of Hope & Change from Young Female Staffers of the Obama White House Complied by Molly Dillon (reservations required)
  • Monday, 11-10 at 4:00 pm Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe by Rebecca Erbelding
  • Wednesday, 11-13 at 7:30 pm The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats by Daniel Stone
  • Saturday, 11-16 at 7:30 pm Not Bad for Delancey Street: The Rise of Billy Rose by Mark Cohen
  • Sunday, 11-17 at 4:00 pm Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger
  • Thursday, 11-21 at 7:30 pm Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim by Barbara Ostfeld
  • Saturday, 12-7 at 6:30 pm For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World by Sasha Sagan
  • Sunday, 12-8 at 10:00 am Barnyard Bubbe’s Hanukkah by Joni Klein-Higger and Barbara Sharf


ronna mandel is a contributing writer to jlife magazine. she can be reached at



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