David Knepler, a voracious reader and co-founder of Gan HaLev, the Jewish Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley, already considered his Jewish American Fiction Book Club a success. Founded in July 2011, the club consistently drew 15 to 20 people to each meeting, and their conversations were deeply engaging.
Then, just before the club’s meeting in May to discuss Chandler Burr’s 2010 novel “You or Someone Like You,” something unexpected happened: Chandler Burr asked if he could join in.
Responding to a listing about the book club meeting in the Marin Independent-Journal, the East Coast–based author emailed Knepler and asked if he could participate by Skype.
“I was flabbergasted,” says Knepler, who co-leads the club’s bimonthly meetings at the Fairfax Library with library staff member Shereen Ash. “We were thrilled with the idea … and I think especially since that book has a somewhat controversial message, it led to a really stimulating discussion.”
What began as a fluke email from an author has grown into a regular feature of meetings; author Irina Reyn will join the group via Skype on Sept. 11 to discuss her novel “What Happened to Anna K.,” a reimagining of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” On Nov. 13, Tova Mirvis will participate in the discussion about “The Ladies Auxiliary,” her book about a close-knit Orthodox community in Memphis, Tenn.
Knepler says it’s been interesting to consider the “codependent” relationship between writers and readers as a result. “I think for every J.D. Salinger who wants to stick his head in the sand and be aloof from his readers, there’s a three-dimensional writer who thrives on that relationship with readers, who’s really enthusiastic about discussing their work.”
Knepler, who also belongs to two other book clubs, got the idea for a group focused on Jewish fiction after he noticed that novels with Jewish themes — such as Dara Horn’s “The World to Come” or works by Philip Roth — were sometimes difficult to dissect thoroughly in a larger group, where he might be the only Jewish member.
Sometimes other members would ask, “What do you think of this, as a Jewish American male?” says Knepler. “And I would say, you know, hold on. My experience isn’t necessarily the Jewish American male experience. I don’t speak for everyone.”
Further inspired by a list of “great Jewish books of the 20th century” that the San Rafael Public Library published for Jewish Heritage Month, Knepler founded the club to “delve into the philosophic, the emotional, the humorous, the heartbreaking and even the bawdy side of being Jewish in America.” Co-sponsors include Gan HaLev, the Fairfax Library and the Center for Jewish Peoplehood at the Marin JCC, with books often provided for free by Jewish LearningWorks.
“Part of what’s been interesting is really exploring the diversity of Jewish American experience,” says Knepler. “I grew up on the East Coast in the ’60s, as a second-generation American Jew. My perspective is so vastly different from some of the third- and fourth-generation San Francisco Bay Area Jews, and that comes out in these conversations.”
When the group read “The Frozen Rabbi,” Steve Stern’s satirical adventure novel also set in Memphis, a member who hails from that city brought in menus from his grandmother’s restaurant, and the conversation turned to the Jewish American culture of the South.
The club votes on six books at the beginning of the year, selecting three by men and three by women. Incidentally, the club seems to be about half men and half women, says Knepler, unlike other book clubs he’s been a part of where women far outnumber men.
Suzanne Sadowsky, another co-founder of Gan HaLev, was among the first members to sign up. She says it’s been interesting to see the different turnout at club meetings compared with those who participate in the congregation.
“I’ve been meeting people who have a very strong sense of Jewish identity, but it’s maybe not a religious identity, or the kind they grew up with … and this is another opportunity for people to be connected to Jewish life and Judaism without making the leap of joining a congregation,” says Sadowsky. She adds that the age differences in the group became particularly interesting when the club discussed Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which sparked a major controversy over its sexual content when it was published in 1969.
“What I hear in our conversations is that people are trying to figure out what it is to be Jewish in today’s world,” she said. “I’m 78 and I’m still exploring that. We all are.”
The Jewish American Fiction Book Club is free and open to the public. It meets the second Wednesday of every other month at the Fairfax Library. Email David Knepler at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://tinyurl.com/jafbc.