Meet the new ‘Jewish Oprah’

Naomi Firestone-Teeter  Photo courtesy of the Jewish Book Council
Naomi Firestone-Teeter
Photo courtesy of the Jewish Book Council

Naomi Firestone-Teeter is the new executive director of the Jewish Book Council, which promotes the reading, writing, publishing and distribution of English-language Jewish books. Firestone-Teeter, whose predecessor Carolyn Hessel has been called “the Jewish Oprah,” has been working her way up in the organization since graduating from Emory University in 2006, serving most recently as its associate director. Here, the 31-year-old exec talks about her new job and her passion for Jewish scribes.

What interested you in this kind of work?

I studied literature in college, a passion of mine from as early as I can remember, so the importance of both having literature in my own life as I moved forward, and helping to cultivate that interest in others has been one of my key drivers. In academic environments, reading and literature are a natural part of the culture, but beyond these institutions it often requires effort to both keep up with one’s reading and also create situations in which one can engage with others about what they’re reading. On the Jewish side, I grew up in a family that took Judaism very seriously and was surrounded (literally, wall to wall in some rooms) by both Jewish and secular texts.

How does the Internet affect reading habits?

I think the Internet is a very exciting place for the literary community and has created many new paths for discovery for readers and many new opportunities for authors to find their readers. Essentially, in a way, it mirrors what has always existed — mega-sites serving a similar function as big-box stores that sell books and smaller, literary sites serving a role that’s similar to independent bookstores (with both usually working in tandem with their physical counterpart). But it has expanded opportunities across the board. People have more access to authors and more opportunities to engage with others about their ideas — even if they’re not geographically in the same area — including publishers.

What literary sites do you recommend?

For all things Jewish and literary, obviously everyone should be using Jewish Book Council’s online resources. But for more general literary resources, some of my favorite sites include Electric Literature, PEN American Center, Largehearted Boy, One Story, MobyLives! and Words Without Borders, among others.

Who are your favorite Jewish authors? 

My list is constantly changing, and I work with so many incredible authors, that this is truly an impossible question to answer. I can say, though, that in the current crop of writers, I’m very excited about the most recent batch of Sami Rohr Prize winners and finalists: Ayelet Tsabari, Kenneth Bonert, Molly Antopol, Boris Fishman and Yelena Akhtiorskaya. And of course, I’m over the moon about the nine authors who are participating in JBC’s literary series Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation.

Do you have time to keep up with all the required reading?

It’s definitely difficult to keep up, as I’m also in two book clubs, both of which started about a year after college and are still going strong. I do the best I can and always have a towering stack of books at my bedside, much to my husband’s chagrin. I don’t have time to read books by non-Jewish authors, but I make time. I think it’s important for me both personally and professionally to be in tune with what’s happening in the literary scene in general — as well as filling in classics, Jewish and non-Jewish.

What Jewish literary trends have you been noticing lately?

One of the most obvious trends has been the influence of immigrants. Both as Americans and as Jews, we are a nation of immigrants and this is represented in our literature. We’re also seeing more about more great works by Jewish authors from around the world that have been translated into English, and new publishers who are devoted to bringing these works to the United States.

– ­JTA News & Features

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