A storied history: The Jewish Book Festival reaches out

Photo of Ellen Schwartz by William Schwartz, photo of Anne Dublin by Errol Young

The Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver highlights the importance of reading and understanding history, as well as the power of storytelling in their 34th annual Jewish Book Festival. The festival is held from Feb. 9–14 and comprised of events such as author talks, book launches, and youth outreach, isn’t shy of tackling difficult ideas, says Dana Camil Hewitt.

Now in her fourth year as the Festival’s director, Hewitt says that deciding on which authors to invite and include presents one of the most consistently challenging aspects of organizing the festival, even with the aid of a selection committee.

“We do a lot of reading between all of us, and [the committee] comes with recommendations and we discuss them,” explains Hewitt. “We come up with a long list from which we reach out we invite authors it becomes the short list.”

For Dana, It’s a process that takes time and is guided by experience and community knowledge, as the team’s curatorial approach involves showcasing a diversity of topics and approaches.

“We know more or less what this community tends to appreciate,” says Hewitt. “Very open-minded things, controversial subjects sometimes. Definitely there’s a lot of demand for historical fiction, non-fiction, or fiction that has to do with Israel that raises questions. It’s an acquired knowledge over time.”

One of the festival’s mandates is its school and youth literature outreach events. For Hewitt, the importance of history and storytelling is especially pertinent for the youth of the Jewish community.

“With the [history] of the Jewish people, it’s such a turbulent history full of upheaval that you have to constantly keep in front of [you] to not forget and to learn,” says Hewitt. “One of the [ways] that we tell these stories is by going to the schools and telling the kids small stories. Because they learn in school, perhaps, the big stories, the arches of history, but perhaps there’s a million small stories that need to be told.”

Giving voice to untold stories

Anne Dublin is one such author concerned with “small stories.” Whether they’re told through the means of historical fiction or nonfiction, the author and educator often gravitates towards narratives that aren’t as present in the public consciousness. For example, her latest novel, A Cage Without Bars, tackles the late 15th-century expulsion and enslavement of Jews through the story of a young, perseverant Joseph.

“A number of years ago, I read about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the subsequent kidnapping of many of the Jewish children in Portugal in 1493, Why hadn’t anyone told this story before? Why didn’t people know about it? And, most importantly to me, could I do justice to the historical event?”

For Dublin, this story of Jews in Spain is just as important and worthy of being told as any other. While Dublin herself was born to parents who survived the Holocaust, she has made a conscious effort to focus on topics outside of the genocide, citing a “treasure trove” of untold stories she’s looking to give a voice to.

And while Dublin insists on letting the reader come to their own conclusions about her stories, rather than “preaching a moral”, the themes of perseverance, growth, and learning from history are both present and intentional.

“In Judaism, we have the idea of “tikkun olam;” that the world is broken and we need to repair it. In all my books, I try to show that people can overcome challenges and make the world a better place,” says Dublin.

Culture and comparison

Ellen Schwartz, an author with a background in teaching, is conscious of the value and potential of storytelling, especially for younger audiences.

“I think that children can find themselves in books. They can identify with characters and experience the problems and triumphs along with the characters,” she says. “That’s why it’s important for stories for children to be as “true” as possible, even if they are fiction.”

Schwartz’s most recent collaboration with illustrator Mariko Ando, The Princess Dolls, deals with a period of escalated anti-Semitism and anti-Japanese sentiment. Set in Canada during World War II, it’s a story of both persecution and friendship as seen through the eyes of a child.

Unlike most of Schwartz’s works, it was a conscious decision to include Jewish themes explicitly in The Princess Dolls, a decision which serves to elucidate different cultural experiences through comparison.

“In The Princess Dolls, I thought it would be interesting to have two characters, best friends, who are both from persecuted groups: one Jewish and the other Japanese Canadian. This gave me a chance to explore both what was going on in Europe in the early 1940s and what was going on here in Canada, from a child’s point of view,” says Schwartz.

Like Dublin, Schwartz says that her works are meant to speak for themselves. For her, in order to both engage and challenge younger readers, the best approach is to simply take chances and tell the story as well as possible.

“I don’t believe that stories for children should set out to teach a lesson. All stories invisibly and subtly teach a lesson, but if you keep that uppermost as you write, the story will become didactic and boring,” says Schwartz. “I just want to tell the best story I can, to do the characters justice, and let the theme or moral take care of itself.”

For more information, please visit www.jccgv.com.