The opening of a Jewish literary festival requires a Jewish literary icon. At least that was the thinking behind Faye Moskowitz — the Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival co-chair — in advocating for an opening night with E.L. Doctorow. “Maybe because I’m a writer and maybe because I’m a teacher, but ‘literary festival’ has a certain connotation to me, and that is that it will feature works of literature,” explained Moskowitz. “Not everyone was enchanted with the fact that [Doctorow] spent time reading from his new book (I was terribly excited to have a preview), but I heard from several excited to have heard him. He is an icon and he is 82 years old. He is one of that generation and there are not many left. He and Philip Roth are what we have left. It’s kind of precious to meet and hear these Jewish literature icons.”
But the festival was “perfection” on Monday night, when crime novelist Walter Mosely spoke. “Everything came together,” said Moskowitz. “The speaker, the audience, the amount of time given to reading and to questions. It will be a goal for us to get that kind of balance with other events in the festival in the future.”
But it was also Mosely as a black Jewish writer that reached out and defined community in a unique way. “He made it very clear that he is Jewish because his mother is Jewish and talked about being raised in two worlds where he was discriminated against on either side,” she said, noting that some in the audience may not have even known he was Jewish.
Mosely fit in with the festival committee’s hope to bring in authors who represented the diverse Jewish community. “They don’t call us the people of the book for nothing,” she said. “I’m not aware of a Catholic or Scotch or Irish literary festival. I do think this may be unique to us. But you’re talking about an ethnicity. Jews are an ethnic group. And a religion. It does make us different in that sense.”
Bringing in community also means reaching out to local authors. Readers will have the opportunity to meet local writers on Sunday. Among them is David Bruce Smith, author of a children’s book about Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. For Smith, the festivals support reading, “Reading is important because it gives a person a chance to reflect and think things out deliberately.” Not a fan of ebooks, Smith loves the “three dimensional tactile experience of a book. You can underline it. You can take it off a shelf.”
“I think the book festival is a great thing,” he said. “D.C., Northern Virginia, Rockville all have one. It is a community unifier in much the same way libraries are. Hundreds of people are coming. They are hearing authors, talking to authors, reading authors and learning about a lot of people they may not know.”
Festival director Lili Kalish Gersch talks about the festival as a place where writers and readers can come together and share ideas. She remembers assisting neuroscientist and author Eric Kandel with his signing last year.
“So many people said ‘I’m studying neuroscience because of your books,’” said Gersch. “[It was] such a pivotal influence and such a moving experience to meet in person and share their plans to do further work in a field he’s devoted his life to.”
“We can all stream whatever we want online. But it’s more than sitting and listening to an author speak,” said Gersch. “It’s the opportunity to talk back.”
In addition to events still to come such as Dan Savage and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the festival will host a screening of the film Tiger Eyes, based on the Judy Blume book. Blume’s son and film director, Lawrence Blume, will be on hand and the DCJCC will host a Girls’ Night Out reception before the screening for people to reminisce about their favorite Judy Blume memories over a glass of wine.