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Jewish book week

21 March 07 words: James Walker
The last few months has seen a national celebration of Jewish culture in a variety of forms

James Walker and Jonathon Wilson
James walker and Jonathon Wilson

The last few months has seen a national celebration of Jewish culture in a variety of forms. Firstly there was the hugely successful UK Jewish Film festival which toured the UK from January to March 2007, of which Nottingham was one of the eleven host cities. The four selected films shown were Three Mothers, Be Fruitful and Multiply, First Lesson in Peace and The Syrian Bride. Not a Woody Allen in sight. Elsewhere the Guardian’s excellent Comment is Free website launched a week of the Independent Jewish Voices network which saw over a thousand posts to the blog, covering the entire gamut of emotions.

This was accompanied by the Jewish Book Week which ran from the 24th February to the 4th March. Among the many readings and events were fresh approaches to reading the Bible from renowned scholars and philosophers, Israel as seen through the eyes of a new generation of writers and artists and of course the obligatory ponderings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. One of my personal favourites was Taboos which did exactly what it says on the packet. Led by the award winning journalist, broadcaster and author David Aaronovitch, Taboos asked a variety of pressing questions such as ‘how do we react towards offensive cartoons’ to ‘can we make fun of the holocaust?’ Similarly, Benjamin Pogrund, co-editor of Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israel Dialogue was one not to miss.

However, the clear highlight for me was spending an evening with Jonathan Wilson at West Bridgford library discussing the British publication of his novel A Palestine Affair. Not to mention of course dunking biscuits with Five Leaves publisher Ross Bradshaw - a man who from his Nottingham base has done more to promote Jewish culture than most.

The Librarians Toilet sign

Five Leaves is a small publisher based in Nottingham. As well as specialising in secular Jewish culture they have also published works on subjects ranging from education, gardening, identity politics and social history – to name but a few. Like Leftlion, Five Leaves are also keen to promote local authors and subjects with the recent Sunday Night and Monday Morning being a particular favourite. Being a small publisher (i.e. you won’t find them stocked in Hyson Green Asda) means that they are able to publish non-commercial material of interest as well as smaller scale projects such as pamphlets, allowing later day Martin Luther’s to pin them to church doors - always a problem with a hardback. But they also have well known commercial writers on their books as well, most notable being David Belbin, Michael Rosen and Marge Piercy as well as a Booker Prize winning novel Holiday by Stanley Middleton.

Free of the crass mass production of Harper Collins et al, Five Leaves have been able to concentrate on more specialised works which is why they are so invaluable to events such as the Jewish book week. Chatting with Ross Bradshaw I felt positively embarrassed at my lack of knowledge on the subject, something which is easily remedied by selecting from their diverse range of titles which includes educational When Joseph met Molly: A Reader on Yiddish Film poetry The Art of Blessing the Day new fiction The Slow Mirror and other Stories historical East End Jewish Radicals:1875-1914) to art The Vanished Shtetl: Paintings by Stanislaw Brunstein which consists mainly of images of the lost world of Jewish Poland.

A Palestine Affair by Jonathan Wilson is Five Leaves latest offering. The book was originally published in the USA by Pantheon/Anchor, a division of Random House but Five Leaves have been granted the British distribution rights. The book is based on real life events and takes place in British-occupied Palestine after World War I, following the fortunes of a London painter and his American wife who witness the murder of an Orthodox Jew. She is later drawn into an affair with the British investigating officer, while he seeks solace in painting. The two had come to Palestine – what we now know as Israel, to escape grief and instead are forced to confront the political and personal issues they had left behind.

Jonathan Wilson read the opening pages from the book to a delighted West Bridgeford audience before returning to his surrogate American home where he has lived since 1976. However, we can proudly claim him as one of our own as he spent two years at Nottingham University. So there!

Wilson is a regular writer for the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review and so it should come as no surprise that his talk was an engaging historical insight, littered with witty anecdotes which kept the audience amused, including a hardcore librarian who had much advice for the author. For an insight into the mind of a librarian please see the photograph taken from the male toilets. We may well enter it for this year’s Turner Prize…

I will be interviewing Wilson in the forthcoming weeks to discuss his time in Nottingham, his new novel and his current project – which uses pictures this time to illustrate how humanity is unable to pick up on signs of impending disaster. Until then get on the Five Leaves website, order some Gondi and Falafel from your local Jewish takeaway and revel in the knowledge that there is more to Jewish culture than Woody Allen and dominate matriarchs.

Five Leaves website

James Walker website

Jewish Socialist - quarterly magazine
London Jewish Cultural Centre
Jewish Book Week
Mendele: the Yiddishist Webzine
Totally Jewish web magazine
The Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group


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