Jewish Book Week 2010
by Andrew Sanger
This year, London's Jewish Book Week coincides with Purim. Plenty of extra fun is promised as an unlikely band of comedians and academics get together to put on a Purim Spiel "with a contemporary twist and some all-new conspiracy theories."
Jewish Book Week is not just Europe's biggest festival of writing for, about and by Jews. It's a highlight of the UK’s non-Jewish literary calendar, too. Few other events in Britain attract so many highbrow and high-profile speakers. In fact, the modest billing as a "book week" doesn't do justice to a culture-fest delving the whole eclectic mix of arts, science, politics and ideas.
The venue is surprisingly low-key – three conference rooms in a dated 3-star hotel in the heart of Bloomsbury, traditionally London's literary district – and in the typically British way there's nothing slick about it and no razzmatazz.
Yet during the course of the week, as many as 10,000 visitors come to browse, buy and, most of all, attend a succession of talks and debates with an astonishing array of leading journalists, novelists, historians, philosophers, playwrights, actors and broadcasters.
There are quite a few non-Jews among them. The 2010 programme includes talks by the popular mathematician Professor Marcus du Sautoy and former Sixties activist and present-day Leftist political writer Tariq Ali (who is of Pakistani Muslim origin).
Of course, the "Jewish" in Jewish Book Week covers the whole spectrum, from militantly secular to devoutly Orthodox. Among this year's speakers are the anti-Zionist novelist Will Self, the fertility expert Professor Robert Winston (who manages to combine being a leading scientist and a lord with being an observant Jew) and Britain's Orthodox Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
The biggest names are usually scheduled for 7 p.m. and 8.30 p.m., but the show is open all day long. There's something going on all the time.
Up-and-coming authors can often be heard at lunchtime talks. I was lucky enough to be a speaker myself last year, at a "Meet The Author" event. These take place in the early evening, when many people drop in after finishing work. An interview about my novel The J-Word was followed by comments and questions that turned into a terrific discussion on the issues the book raises about secular Jewish identity.
Friendly, intelligent and informal, talks usually end with a book signing, perhaps a chance to exchange a few thoughts of your own with the author or even to continue in the JBW café.
Andrew Sanger is a well-established travel writer living in London, England. He has contributed to a wide range of British newspapers and news-stand magazines, and is the author of more than 30 guidebooks. His first novel, The J-Word, published in England in 2009 to wide acclaim, has just been released in the United States.