2020 Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature Announced

Nov. 23, 2020


The winners of the 2020 Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature were announced at a recent live virtual ceremony presented by the Koffler Centre of the Arts. The prize in each of the four award categories was $10,000.

Sarah Leavitt won in the fiction category for her graphic novel Agnes, Murderess (Freehand Books), based on the legend of the Scottish-born British Columbian killer Agnes McVee. The book “explores and then metaphorizes the ways in which childhood and adolescent trauma can pursue us into adulthood, shaping our obsessions, our decisions and our actions,” Andrew Woodrow-Butcher wrote in Quill and Quire.

At the awards ceremony, Leavitt said that although McVee isn’t Jewish, the character is an outsider who feels Jewish to her.

“I always felt when I was writing about Agnes that she is hovering around the edges of the world and trying to figure out what she is looking at because she felt like a complete outsider,” Leavitt said. “And when I was growing up in small towns in Maine and in the Maritime provinces, I always felt like an outsider as a Jew. Agnes to me feels like an honourary Jew.”

The history prize went to Matti Friedman for Spies of No Country (Signal, McClelland & Stewart), about Jewish spies who operated from Beirut during the Israeli War of Independence, from 1947 to 1949. Part of Israel’s first intelligence station in an Arab nation, the four men hailed from the Arab world – Syria and Yemen. 

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Friedman quoted spy novelist Johnle Carré, who observed that espionage is the secret theatre of our society.

“Countries have covered stories and hidden themselves, just like their spies, and our clandestine basements conceal insights into the world above ground,” Friedman said. “This observation is why I was drawn to these men and this strange adventure. Who they are has something important to tell us about the country they helped create.”

The awards jury’s favourite for non-fiction was Naomi K. Lewis’ Tiny Lights for Travellers (University of Alberta Press), a memoir about a journey she embarked on after her family found a diary documenting her grandfather’s escape from Nazi-occupied Holland in 1942. Travelling from Amsterdam to Lyon, Lewis retraced his journey to freedom.

Lewis included excerpts from her grandfather’s diary in her book and said she sees him as a co-writer. “I can only hope that he would have approved of how I followed, included and elaborated on his words.”

She added her grandparents and other family members have grappled with issues of identity and belonging and what it means to be Jewish in a sometimes hostile world.

“By researching and writing this book and by speaking to readers, I’ve come to understand more clearly that there are as many ways to be Jewish as there are Jews. Receiving this award has provided me a form of acceptance and a kind of closure that means a great deal to me,” she said.

The young adult/children’s literature winner was Broken Strings (Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers), co-authored by Kathy Kacer and Eric Walters. “Broken Strings seamlessly blends themes of young love, artistic identity, 9/11, grief and the Auschwitz orchestra into a moving and insightful young adult novel,” the awards jury, comprised of authors Judy Batalion, Allan Levine and Shani Mootoo, said in a release.

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Kacer said that writing the book gave her the chance to write about an aspect of Holocaust history she had long wanted to explore – the orchestras made up of Jewish musicians who performed on the train platforms of death camps, “playing those unsuspecting new prisoners to their death.”

A child of Holocaust survivors, Kacer has dedicated her life and career to writing about the Holocaust for young readers. “This was one more chance to pass important history on to the next generation,” she said.

Kacer added that as co-writers, she and Walters, an award-winning author of young adult fiction, developed “a seamless working relationship, trusting where the story was going, challenging those moments that didn’t quite work for one of us and rewriting and rewriting until it sounded exactly as we wanted it to.”

The 2020 Vine Awards shortlists included:

Fiction: David Bezmozgis, Immigrant City (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd) and David Szalay, Turbulence (McClelland & Stewart).

History: Zelda Abramson & John Lynch, The Montreal Shtetl: Making Home After the Holocaust (Between the Lines), and Heidi J.S. Tworek, News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900-1945 (Harvard University Press).

Non-fiction: Ayelet Tsabari, The Art of Leaving (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd) and Diana Wichtel, Driving to Treblinka (Heritage House Publishing).

Young adult/children’s literature: Edeet Ravel, A Boy Is Not a Bird(Groundwood Books) and Kathy Kacer, Masters of Silence (Annick Press).

The books can be purchased at benmcnallybooks.com.

Hamilton Jewish Book Fair, Holocaust Education Week Combine

Oct. 30, 2020


Holocaust heroes and survivors. Mossad spies. Infamous Nazis. Wealthy Jews who once controlled Shanghai.

These and other inviting subjects are set to be explored at Hamilton’s Jewish Book Fair and Holocaust Education Week.

Usually separate events, the celebration of Jewish books and Shoah memorial has been combined into a series of online programs this year.

Gustavo Rymberg, CEO of the Hamilton Jewish Federation, said that in the age of COVID, merging the events made sense.

“Instead of asking people to register separately for both events we’d do them together,” he told the CJR. “It’s also a chance for some of our young families to get familiar with Holocaust Education Week.

“We think it’s important for our young people to learn about that now and not wait for a teacher to bring it up in school,” he added.

“Everyone has a responsibility to talk about the Holocaust, not only in educational settings but conversations need to take place at home. It is shocking that a large number of young Canadians are unaware that over six million Jewish men, women and children were killed during the Holocaust.”

The plan for this year is to centre around nine books – five during book festival events Nov. 1-4 and four during Holocaust week, Nov. 8-12.

Leading off the book festival is Jonathan Kaufman presenting on his book The Last King of Shanghai. It chronicles the moral compromises, foresight and generosity of two extraordinary Jewish families – the Sassoons and the Kadoories – who ruled over Chinese business and politics for more than 175 years.

Both originally from Baghdad, they profited from the Opium Wars that tore China apart and then survived the communist takeover of the country.

Now the director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, Kaufman spent 30 years and won a Pulitzer Prize covering China for the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News.

In an interview, Kaufman said the idea for the book was born in the late 1970s when, newly arrived in China, he began to see traces of a century of Jewish influence on the country.

In addition to being a story of wealth and power, Kaufman said the book adds an important piece to our understanding of Jewish history.

“We tend to think of Jewish history as the stories of poor European immigrants who work hard and rise to great heights,” he said. “This is another part of the history of Jews who also worked hard and climbed to great heights.”

Kaufman is also the author of A Hole in the Heart of the World: Being Jewish in Eastern Europe and Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America, which won a National Jewish Book Award.

The book festival will also include presentations on Red Sea Spies, the true story of the Mossad operation that used a diving resort on the coast of Somalia as a cover to rescue thousands of Ethiopian Jews and smuggle them to Israel. The book was written by long-time BBC Middle East correspondent Raffi Berg.

On Nov. 2, former New York Times reporter Howard Blum will discuss his book Night of the Assassins: The Untold Story of Hitler’s Plot to Kill FDR, Churchill and Stalin. It’s the true story of a Nazi plot to destroy the leaders of the Allies during their Tehran conference in 1943. With their leaders dead, the German hope was that the stricken Allies would then be willing to make peace with the Third Reich.

Concealed, to be presented Nov. 3 by author Esther Amini, tells the story of her struggles growing up in Queens, N.Y. in the 1960s – the daughter of Jewish-Iranian refugees trying to find a balance between her parents’ traditions and her longing for American freedom.

The final book festival presentation is slated for Nov.4. The title for that night will be Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, Bess Kalb’s recounting of family lore and secrets from her grandmother chronicling the lives of four generations of women and the men who loved them.

Holocaust Education Week events kick off Nov. 8 with a presentation of Toronto author Kathy Kacer’s true story, The Brushmaker’s Daughter.

It tells the tale of a 12-year-old German-Jewish girl and her blind father on the run from the Nazis. They are sheltered by brush factory owner Otto Weidt, who employs blind Jewish workers in his factory, determined to save as many as he can.

Kacer, a former psychologist, has written often about the Holocaust and the people who struggled against it. In an interview, she said “as soon as I heard about this, I knew it would be the next story I would tell. The example of individuals who exhibit that kind of moral strength is a great one, especially today. Capturing stories like this is even more important today. We still have a small window of opportunity today to capture those stories.”

Kacer added that while the central character of the story is fictional, Weidt and his factory are historical. Weidt and all the people he helped are now dead but the factory itself survives and has been turned into a museum.

Capturing Holocaust stories, she added, is important because her parents were both survivors: Her mother hid during the war while her father survived a concentration camp.

On Nov. 9, author A. J. Sidransky will discuss his novel The Interpreter, the story of a 23-year-old American G.I. Kurt Berlin, who returns to Europe to help interrogate captured Nazis as part of a program to recruit them to work against the Soviet Union in the coming Cold War.

Former Nazi hunter David Marwell will discuss his book Mengele: Unmasking the “Angel of Death” on Nov. 10. The book explores how an ambitious researcher could become a faithful servant of the Nazi cause.

Marwell served as chief of investigative research at the U. S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations in the 1980s and worked on the hunt for the notorious “Angel of Death” Dr. Josef Mengele.

The final book presentation for the week is slated for Nov. 12, when journalist Peter Ross Range will discuss The Unfathomable Ascent, his detailing of Adolf Hitler’s eight-year march to the pinnacle of German politics.

Holocaust Education Week also incorporates the virtual exhibit Vad Vashem: Shoah: How Was it Humanly Possible, and the Nov. 15 special presentation Voices of our Holocaust Survivors with young Hamiltonians interviewing Holocaust survivors.

Times and details for all events are available at https://jewishhamilton.org/2020jewishbookfestival