There is nothing quite like learning your novel has been chosen for an all-community read, especially when the community is the whole of city of Chicago and its environs. This summer I received an invitation to inaugurate the Spertus Institute’s One Book/One Community Program. As it was explained, this would be their way of celebrating Jewish Book Month (during the month before Hanukkah). They were going to model their program on those of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read and One Book/One Chicago.
I had heard of Spertus, which like the Skirball Center in my hometown of Los Angeles, is a center of Jewish culture and learning. The thing is, I have even never been to Chicago (O’Hare doesn’t count) and was a little surprised that my five year old novel, A Day of Small Beginnings, was their choice.
It took a little while to find out why, but when the program materials started to arrive, I read that the Spertus staff and local Jewish librarians had chosen it because of, “the book’s mystical and sometimes surprising plot lines, the intertwined stories of characters across generations and circumstances, and the truly vivid portrait the book paints of what life was like for many eastern European Jews in the early years of the 20th century. A Day of Small Beginnings addresses ideas about Jewish faith on both a very personal level and through the wide lens of political and social change. It examines loss of Jewish family history and cultural heritage against the backdrop of increased freedom and opportunities in the secular world. We have found A Day of Small Beginnings to be meaningful and enjoyable for adults from the 20’s to their 90’ (and beyond).” That pretty much made my day, even with the admonition that this is not a book for children (which I suspect had to do with the sex scenes between my young American modern dance choreographer and her Polish musician).
In no time at all, it seemed, the Spertus program organizers had invited award winning experts to talk about the Jewish storytelling tradition, the art of paper-cutting (featured in the story), “Revolution and Tradition in Modern Jewish Literature,” and a dancer/choreographer to give a lecture/demonstration on “What Makes Jewish Dance?” I was invited to come in for the final event on December 4th to speak there (from the website, the building is a gorgeous modern architectural work with a really interesting use of glass for its façade) and at the library in suburban Wilmette. Throughout the month-long program, they’ll have a display of “Remnants from Freidl’s Poland” at the Spertus library. I’m pretty curious about that.
This week, I opened my mail and found posters, bookmarks and an extraordinary Resource Guide with details about the events, book group Discussion Questions, notice of the “Freidl” exhibition, and best of all, a time-line of Polish history with separate “Time Capsules.” They list what was happening in the world when the story opens in 1906, and when the character of the son visits Poland in 1991, followed by his granddaughter in 1992. There are photographs of places mentioned in the book, including a picture of a pre-war couple strolling the streets of the fairly obscure town of Zwolen, which I fictionalized as Zokoff in the novel. They even included a pronunciation guide for Polish (I could have used that when I visited in 1995 to do research) and a suggested reading list. This kind of attention to understanding the historical context of the story so that people will be prepared to discuss it in their book groups with greater depth, really impressed me.
In a world where we are all distracted by so many types of media and publishers give most novels about six weeks to fly or fall, such gentle care is a great gift not just to me, but to a whole reading community. Ten years ago, when Piper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was chosen to inaugurate the One Book/One Chicago program, she said, “When the people of Chicago assemble in various parts of the city there is no greater honor the novel could receive.” I couldn’t agree more and wish this honor upon Jewish writers for many more years to come at Spertus. In the next few weeks I will be spending some time with my old characters in preparation for this lovely event. I’m looking forward to being with them again and brushing them up for their Chicago debut!
If you know anyone in Chicago who might be interested, feel free to forward this link: http://www.spertus.edu/OneBook. And if not, you can check out the photo of the Spertus building and some other pretty neat things they’re doing!