Jewish Authors Talk Politics, Process and Identity at Collingswood Book Festival

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The forecast called for rain, so for the third year in a row the Collingswood Book Festival — the annual event for which the South Jersey town is so well-known — had to be moved to the shelter of the Collingswood High School/Middle School complex.

That didn’t deter attendees, who browsed the many booths of books for sale on the school grounds, and went inside for author panels and book signings on Oct. 1.
It was the culmination of a full week of literary activities, from a crossword puzzle tournament to a “fun run” led by the author of Running: A Love Story.
“The enthusiasm and attendance wasn’t the least bit affected,” said Sharon Neiman-Hackett, the festival’s publicity chair. “True book-lovers come out in any weather. The fest is always about the books and authors.”
This year, many of the festival’s featured authors were Jewish, including chef-restaurateur Michael Solomonov; debut novelist Andy Abramowitz; children’s author Jodi Moore; journalists Matt Katz, Sally Friedman and Maury Z. Levy; and Irene Levy Baker, author of 100 Things to Do in Philadelphia Before You Die.
Solomonov, who was due to attend with Zahav cookbook coauthor Steven Cook, had to cancel his festival appearance, but provided a free dinner as a festival contest giveaway and brought Federal Donuts goodies to volunteers after the fest was through.
Meanwhile, Moore brought a Hebrew-language version of her book When a Dragon Moves In, which, said Neiman-Hackett, “delighted and fascinated many kids.”
Abramowitz, who wrote the novel Thank You, Goodnight — about a middle-aged lawyer who decides to reunite his old one-hit wonder band — spoke early on the fest’s big day with Elizabeth LaBan (The Restaurant Critic’s Wife) on a panel about Philadelphia fiction. Facilitated by moderator Joseph Kenyon, the two Philly residents spoke about the way the city informs each of their narratives.
For Abramowitz, being Jewish also has an impact.
“It absolutely influences my writing,” he said. “I never feel more Jewish than when I’m doing battle with all my various neuroses, and that certainly extends to these neurotic characters who are so consumed with understanding who they are and where they fit in. There’s also a lot of bickering in my book, and I think it’s fair to say that the Jews own bickering.”
There’s only one explicitly Jewish character in Abramowitz’s book, but he said that character, an agent named Alaina, “also happens to be the coolest, which is an example of art not even remotely imitating life.”
Former Inquirer reporter Matt Katz, who now works at WNYC public radio, spoke after Abramowitz about his in-depth coverage of N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, which began with the Christie Chronicles blog at philly.com.
Last year, Katz and a team from WNYC won a Peabody Award for the series “Chris Christie, White House Ambitions and the Abuse of Power.” In January, Katz’s biography of Christie — American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption — was published by Simon & Schuster’s Threshold Editions.
Katz talked to the audience about his professional background, which includes award-winning reporting from Afghanistan, where he lived for a month. Surprisingly, the war-torn country was not the location of his most exciting beat; that was Camden.
“To this day — no offense to Chris Christie — that was the most fascinating beat I ever had. Wherever I went in Camden, there was a compelling story to be told.”
In fact, when his Inquirer editor first suggested he cover Christie, Katz declined.
“I had no interest whatsoever in hanging out in the hallways of the statehouse covering the powers that be,” Katz said. “I felt like I had just been in Afghanistan and Camden where I tried to tell stories from the ground up about what people were experiencing, how people were dealing with their government power, and now I was just going to be covering government power.”
Of course, Katz was ultimately persuaded, but his Jewish identity may have contributed to his reluctance to act as a political insider.
“As a journalist, you’re on the outside looking in, and I do feel there’s something Jewish about that experience — as outsiders who for much of history have operated in foreign lands,” Katz said afterward.
The next three authors — Marianne Aleardi, Maury Z. Levy and Sally Friedman, columnists for SJ Magazine — chose to eschew the podium and presenters’ table. Instead, they pulled chairs into a semicircle and tried to get as close to the audience as possible.
The move made sense given that the three, whose SJ Magazine columns are compiled in the book Worth Repeating: Greatest Hits, Volume 1, all approach writing with some degree of intimacy.
“A lot of the columns I write for SJ Mag are remembrances of growing up,” Levy said later. “And having grown up with a grandfather who wouldn’t turn the lights on or answer the phone on Saturdays because you weren’t supposed to work on Shabbat, I often write about that heritage and the marks it left on me.”
Worth Repeating includes several of Levy’s Jewish-themed columns.
“‘The Night Before Hanukkah’ tells the story of my mad scramble as a kid to buy great gifts for my parents,” Levy said. “‘A Christmas Story’ talks about being one of the few Jewish families in my Mayfair neighborhood.”
For next month’s SJ Magazine, Levy has written a column about the Thanksgiving when his mother served potato latkes and sponge cake and “tried to pass them off as part of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Being Jewish has defined my writing in every way,” said Levy’s colleague Sally Friedman, who pens the “Life Notes” column for SJ Mag. “It is who I am, how I live my life, how I think and feel.”
Only once has this garnered a bad reaction, which she described to the festival audience.
“It was a mean and nasty response — I think [what I wrote] was about Chanukah, something so innocent,” she said. “And it made me realize that yes, there are haters out there who read magazines and newspapers.”
She hastened to add, however: “It will never stop me from writing about who I am.”
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