Last spring, Jewish LearningWorks set out to plan an event that was so expansive and far-reaching, some thought it sounded unfeasible: an organized, interactive book club for the entire Bay Area Jewish community.
A year later, with 48 partner-organizations and some 1,000 readers involved — from Cotati to Danville to San Jose — organizers think it’s safe to declare the pilot year of “One Bay One Book” a rousing success.
At the center of it all was the much-buzzed-about short-story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” by Nathan Englander.
The book program, which kicked off with a sold-out storytelling event at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco on Nov. 11, concluded last weekend with onstage conversations with the author at the CJM and Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.
“We really did achieve our goal of having a community-wide conversation,” said Eileen Soffer, head of the planning committee that organized the inaugural program.
“We really didn’t know how the partnerships would pan out … but in the end I think it was great that the different types of organizations could direct what kind of discussion or event they wanted to have,” she added, referring to the JCCs, day schools, libraries and synagogues that signed on before the program’s launch.
Hillel at Stanford hosted a conversation over dinner, facilitated by a faculty member, while day schools organized discussions for parents. (Due to some of the book’s heavier themes, the program was for adults only, but Soffer says a separate track for younger readers is possible next year.) A talk geared toward senior citizens was held at Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco, while “synagogues and JCCs were able to really reach out and bring nonmembers into the fold,” said Soffer. “We kept hearing that people were able to cross that member barrier.”
Groups of readers also participated by holding their own book clubs, with assistance from the Jewish Community Library’s “book club in a box” offering. Jewish LearningWorks put together sets of 12 books and loaned them out to 23 groups in all, said Soffer. And people who wanted to read on their own could access information and essays online by local Jewish “thought leaders” and join discussions on message boards.
“I think reading can be such a private and personal act, but when you get into a conversation about it, it can really become a very deep exchange — people told us about some very meaningful conversations about Jewish identity and our relationship to the past, memory, secrecy,” said Soffer.
Jim Scheinman, a Los Altos resident, facilitated a book discussion at Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City that drew 35 people, about half of them congregants. Scheinman said the discourse helped him to engage with the book on a deeper level.
“It was interesting just to see how different people thought, what they found meaningful,” he said. “Some of the first people who raised their hands to talk said, ‘This is really depressing, challenging stuff’ … and then there were other people who found it hilarious in places. I hadn’t realized I shared a lot of those viewpoints myself until someone else talked about them.”
Scheinman said the discussion also helped the group to identify themes that weave through the eight stories in Englander’s collection.
“For one, we all agreed that this is a Holocaust survivor story — so much of the book is built on the fact of the Jewish community having survived the Holocaust and how it has thrived afterward, and how we deal with that consciously or unconsciously,” he said.
Another theme identified was connected to Englander’s experience growing up Orthodox and becoming secular as an adult. “I think in some ways he points out the hypocrisy of Orthodoxy, pretty scathingly,” Scheinman said, “and on the other hand he also shows the beauty of it, how tight-knit it is … [the message] isn’t ever clear-cut.”
That very well might have been Englander’s intention. When the 43-year-old writer took to the stage May 5 in San Francisco and May 6 in Palo Alto, he talked about his writing process (disciplined), his themes (memory, obsession, guilt, revenge) and his book (a finalist for the Pulitzer).
Aside from his reluctance to be pigeonholed as a “Jewish” or any other kind of genre-writer (“I don’t sit down to ‘write about Jews,’ ” he said to a crowd of about 200 at the Oshman Family JCC), Englander said several times that he leaves much in his stories open to reader interpretation. That’s because the reality of what happens in a story is less important to him than the concept it explores.
When one audience member asked what it meant when the protagonist in “Sister Hills” finally chops down a Palestinian olive tree on her Judean Hills property, Englander noted that some readers took it as a left-wing critique of the settlements, while others felt it demonstrated Jewish determination to remain on the land. The uncertainty is intentional, he said, and meant to generate conversation.
That sort of dialogue is in part why this collection was chosen for One Bay One Book, said Soffer: It contains many jumping-off points for debating and discussing essential questions of Jewish and human experience.
As for next year, Soffer said she hopes partners have the chance to expand their programming around the book, venturing into film, food and other interactive events; she also encourages organizations interested in becoming partners to get in touch.
But that’s next time. For now, Soffer says she’s “thrilled.”
“Looking over the responses to some of the surveys we sent out, I feel like the impact was huge,” she said. “We were just testing the waters — and I think it’s clear that this is the right program, at the right time, in the right place.” n
Check out the One Bay, One Book learning resources at www.jewishlearningworks.org/for-adult-learners/one-bay-one-book/resources.