Adventures on the Jewish book festival circuit


For me, the falling of leaves heralds Jewish book festival month. Before I go any further, yes I know we wrote about the Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s literary festival last week and again this week (we needed to correct some misinformation). And, I know we wrote a lovely editorial about the importance of these festivals to the larger Jewish community. But what we haven’t written about, and what you may not know, is what it’s like to be an author on tour.

So, I’m here to give you that behind-the-scenes tour.

I was fortunate enough to tour twice and have spoken at all three of our local JCCs. The process begins in December. Sponsored by the Jewish Book Council and headed by the inimitable Carolyn Starman Hessel (it is rumored that she can sell tens of thousands of copies of any book she favors), the tour is open to any author who is either Jewish or has written a book on a Jewish topic. The book must also have been published the year of the festival.

Publishers send hundreds of copies of the book (or galley, which is a bound draft of a book that has not gone through final publication) to the JBC. The council then distributes the copies to all the JCCs across the country that will be hosting a book festival.

The big event, what they call “speed dating,” is in May — two to three days before the Book Expo (which is the huge event where publishers display their fall collection of books for book-store chains). It always takes place in New York and for the Jewish Book Council event, it’s usually in a Jewish location, (my first was at Hebrew Union College and the second at a large synagogue). In the audience are usually two representatives from each JCC — one, the staff member in charge and the second, the primary volunteer. Authors are given two minutes to explain who they are and what their book is about. More than just the facts, authors try to give a sense of their personalities and what they would be like when presenting to an audience. And, when I say two minutes, I mean two minutes. Think of it this way: if the author ignores the rules of the JBC presentation, why should one assume he’ll honor the requests of the individual JCC?

Two minutes is not easy. It goes by quickly, so you want to pack a lot into a brief amount of time, but you also don’t want to seem like you’re packing a lot in. You want to be charming and lovely and warm and funny and engaging and interesting — you want to make them want you.

I thought I had it made. Easy.

Luckily, in 2007, I was taking a class with Erica Brown. Barbara Winnik, a fellow student in the class, was, at the time, the staff member responsible for the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington book festival. (By the way, the JCCGW festival was and is one of the largest and most respected on the tour). She recognized my name as one of the authors who would be touring and offered to help me with my presentation. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d need her help, but didn’t feel like I could or should say no.

I remember so clearly. Barbara sitting at the conference table and me giving my lovely, warm, dramatic presentation about why moms should not only make Shabbat special for their families, but how my book would help them. Barbara looked at her watch. She made big X marks on her piece of paper. She frowned.

I was distracted.

She was testing me. She was purposefully doing all the things to throw me off. She gave me advice about my presentation and sent me on my way.

Needless to say, I was a little thrown.

The evening came for the speed dating. I found my chair. Thanks to Barbara’s preparation, the presentation went wonderfully. After the speeches, we had hors d’oeuvre and spoke one-on-one with community reps. Everyone went back to their communities, discussed what they learned at speed dating with their committees and sent their wish lists to the Book Council who create the tour schedules for the authors. In July, authors receive their list of appearances.

I thought I would meet so many of my fellow authors touring. I didn’t. We were each on individual schedules. “You’ll see the country,” I remember my husband saying. But I really didn’t. Here’s what I saw — airport, volunteer car, hotel, JCC.

I was picked up at the airport by a volunteer who was quite often a young mom (because young moms are my audience). They would apologize for their messy minivans and I would sympathize and say that my van looked similar, and we would commiserate about our busy schedules. I would check into the hotel and change from my cute traveling outfit into my cute speaking outfit (I was able to pack the same outfit to wear to each event, because really, if I’m speaking one day in LA and the next in Detroit, who’s going to know I was repeating dresses?)

The JCC staff members who picked me up at the hotel and took me to the J would always give me a tour of their most amazing JCC that they were oh, so very proud of. I saw the pools, the gymnasiums, the preschool classrooms, the art galleries, the donor walls. All were beautiful and all looked pretty much the same. My presentations varied from speeches in front of hundreds (Detroit and LA) to leading Shabbat dinners (Atlanta — I opened the festival that year), to doing arts and crafts projects with children while the parents talked among themselves in a corner (Rochester).

I met countless people who were working on books of their own and wanted advice on how to get published. I met women who followed me online through my website. I inspired moms of preschoolers to bake challah and moms of teens to roll their eyes. The hardest question I was asked was from a woman who wanted advice on what she should say to her non-Jewish daughter-in-law who kept her very much at arms’ length. She wanted to give her grandchildren some sort of connection to their Jewish heritage, but the daughter-in-law was clearly not receptive. I didn’t know how to answer that one.

I changed from someone who was uncomfortable flying to someone who could navigate any airport with ease. I made certain I had my airplane essentials — gum, chocolate and junky magazines that I would only dare read on an airplane or at a nail salon. I learned to enjoy the quiet nights at the hotel and appreciate the tumult of my life with the little children I was missing back home.

I would leave each event, fueled by adrenaline. It was hard to fall asleep those nights. I would be gone for a week at a time, traveling and speaking to a different city each day.

I marvelled at how no matter where I was — be it Texas or New York or Florida, everyone in the room felt familiar — as if I had known them all of my life. Every community felt like my community.

And then I got to do it all over again a few years later, only this time, with a co-author, my daughter.

Every once in a while I hear from someone I met. I wish I remembered everyone. I’ll get an email starting, “We met when you spoke in Atlanta.” It made me realize how impactful these events are — how inspiring Jewish book festivals are to both authors and readers, how much they are a microcosm of the larger Jewish community.

All of this is my way of urging you to go. The DCJCC festival is happening now; its counterpart at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia is scheduled from Nov. 2 through 13; and the one at the JCCGW is Nov. 8-17.

Go. Read. Discuss. And if the authors you meet seem tired, they are. But know they are happy to be.

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