Yesterday, I drove to NYC for the dinner and
awards ceremony of the National Jewish Book Awards. It was an early-bird
special (these are, after all, Jewish book awards) at 5:30 PM, at the 92nd
Street Y. During the cocktail hour, I had the pleasure of meeting Marcia
Posner, one of the patrons of the event, who had clutched under her arm
the manuscript of her children's book, "Oy, Kreplach!" hoping that, like
Susan Lucci, her year had finally come. Alas, it was not to be.
The dinner was surprisingly wonderful: sushi, rare herb-crusted salmon, wild rice with cranberries, grilled vegetables. Nice fruit and pastries for dessert. A good Israeli Cabernet and a frightening Israeli White Zinfandel. We sat with Steve Brown, Carol's publisher, colleague, and friend at Melton. Also at our table were Herman Wouk and his wife. He was to receive a lifetime achievement award. He had a quiet self-confidence. Since I didn't feel like buying a copy of Marjorie Morningstar, I asked him to sign a book by Ben Katchor that I picked up from the table. After dinner, I stood next to him at the urinal. It was one of the highlights of my life.
The ceremony was actually interesting and fun.
There were winners in many categories, quite varied, from a Sephardic Cooking
Rhode Island Winners
to an anthology of photographs of "Poyln." There were elderly Isaac Bashevis Singer types from the days of the Forvertz, and young emerging novelists, one of whom, Steve Stern, who won for "The Court Jester," brought down the house in his acceptance remarks. Awkward, thin, with a Jewish afro and glasses, he looked down as he began, "I never thought I'd make it past the swimsuit competition." He spoke of being from Memphis, where his Temple was so Reform that they closed for the Jewish Holidays. He was funny and also moving, as he told of how he was afraid he'd be a novice and out-of-place, but how pleased and proud he is to have made the Jewish literary tradition his own. For him, I paid money, bought his book, and asked him to sign it.
Carol, Emily Bilski, Herman Wouk, Steve Stern Carol, Emily Bilski, Steve Stern, Herman Wouk, Steve Brown
What was also moving was how the writers all got along with each other, with a warmth and pride of belonging to the same club of the Intelligentsia. When Carol's name was called, we (Gilda and Sam, Nancy and Joel, Marjorie and Jonathan, and Adam) refrained from chanting, "Ca...rol! Ca...rol! Oooh! Oooh!" as we had promised.
Adam, Sami, Joel, Nancy, Gilda, Jonathan, Marjorie
Carol's remarks were brief, as instructed (53 seconds, as timed by Jonathan), warm, genuine, moving. We all beamed. Herman Wouk was also entertaining. But when he spoke modestly of "my limited equipment," I recalled standing next to him an hour before, and had to restrain myself from jumping to my feet and shouting, "You said it, Herman!" He told stories. He spoke of being on the Queen Mary and seeing an elegant older man with a shock of white hair. It was Sholem Asch, the great popular Yiddish Writer. He introduced himself.
"Mr. Asch, I'm Herman Wouk. I wrote "The Caine Mutiny."
"You? You? You wrote "The Caine Mutiny." I didn't know you were Jewish. I thought you were a big blond goy."
Wouk and his wife invited Asch to join them
for dinner. Wouk wears a kippah and keeps kosher. They sat at the Kosher
table, the food still exquisite, but Kosher, the menu marked discretely
with a Jewish Star. Asch couldn't get over it:
"I can't believe it. Herman Wouk, the author of "The Caine Mutiny," keeps kosher, and Sholem Asch eats traif."
Well, it was a big night for shepping naches. Not bad for a poor girl from Dorchester.