Jewish Book Festival – A conversation space for multiculturalism, art and AI

The 39th annual Cherie Smith Jewish Book Festival at the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) of Greater Vancouver runs from Jan. 28 to Feb. 25. It includes events such as author talks and book launches from authors around the world, and seeks to foster unity, resilience and community by sharing conversations around books and ideas.

Among the featured writers sharing their works are Amy Kurzweil, author of Artificial: A Love Story (Feb. 12), and Richard Ho, author of Two New Years (Feb. 14). They hope to inspire budding artists to pursue their creative aspirations and connect with audiences to share conversations around books and ideas.

Art and artificial intelligence

Amy Kurzweil. | Photo courtesy of Amy Kurzweil.

Kurzweil, an American cartoonist and author, began writing stories to understand how the past affects the present. From the beginning, the concept of family memoir appealed to her so she might understand how her family’s stories affect her current life.

“I felt I was living in the shadow of dramatic and tragic Holocaust stories lived through my ancestors,” she says.

Her first book, Flying Couch, tells the stories of three women – her own coming-of-age as a Jewish artist, her psychologist mother and her grandmother, a World War II survivor who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto by disguising herself as a gentile.

Finishing Flying Couch, led her to think of other family stories she could tell, resulting in Artificial: A Love Story. It is the tale of three generations in the Kurzweil family, each navigating their life and preserving intergenerational memory in their own unique way.

“My father was working on a project to collect my grandfather’s works to build an AI chatbot that would write in my grandfather’s voice. I was intrigued by his idea as it employed a different way of preservation – technology and AI,” says Kurzweil. ““My grandfather was a Viennese Jew and had a story of escaping the Holocaust. I spent much of my time with [his] artifacts, looking at his journals, notes and documents from Vienna. I worked on the images, did the sketches and that’s how the book came to being.”

Kurzweil’s grandfather escaped Vienna by seeking help from an American woman impressed by his art. She sees this central story of escaping by the skin of his teeth as a family inheritance of life and death relationship to art and success.

| Photo courtesy of Amy Kurzweil.

“In my family, Jewishness is more of a historical legacy connected to the Holocaust. It is connected to loss, constant wandering, not having a safe homeland and identifying with that kind of diasporic experience,” says Kurzweil.

Kurzweil hopes the book can contribute to a broadening sense of Jewish culture, identity and possibilities of AI in serving human creative and artistic needs.

“Through this book, I hope my readers slow down and think about their own lives, who they can spend time with and how they can deepen their relationships,” she adds.

Multiculturalism matters

Richard Ho. | Photo by Wing Ho.

Richard Ho, whose background was in journalism, published his first book, Red Rover: Curiosity on Mars, in 2019. He converted to Judaism in his twenties and cherishes the exciting intersection of the Jewish and Chinese cultures in his family.

“I grew up as a Chinese American without inclination towards any religion. In college, I developed an interest in religion and spirituality and quickly discovered Judaism was my calling,” he says. “I resonated with Judaism as it focuses on rules, laws and rational derivation of things…I try to see the meaning and purpose of life from the Jewish perspective, from seemingly mundane things to rational decisions in life.”

Ho believes writing what you know is the best advice an aspiring author could get from anyone. He draws story ideas from his background and experiences to connect with readers.

| Photo courtesy of Richard Ho.

Ho is a practicing orthodox Jew. Seeing his kids growing up in a multicultural environment, celebrating different holidays and drawing common themes was the beginning of the idea for him to write Two New Years, an intersection of Chinese and Jewish cultures.

“I think multicultural books are essential as more kids are growing up in families who follow three or even more cultures depending on their backgrounds,” Ho says. “Most of all, representation matters. It is important for kids and families who look like them to see them as it validates their feelings and experiences.”

For more information about the festival, please visit: www.jccgv.com/jewish-book-festival

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