The Dave & Mary Alper Jewish Community Center is focused on community — and with the 35th Annual Berrin Family Jewish Book Festival, it’s continuing to build that community one book at a time.
The festival, which starts Thursday and runs through March, aims to bring people together by sharing ideas, history and literature.
“I think we’ve got a strong reputation in the community, and we get wonderful support,” says Marcy Levitt, director of Literary and Performing Arts at the JCC. “Some people tell me they don’t even go away this time of year because they’re looking forward to it.”
Levitt has worked with the festival for 25 years — she started as an eager volunteer — and has seen it grow from a modest event to a powerhouse that draws impressive names despite kicking off just before the mighty Miami Book Fair International. This year’s lineup includes former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren; Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks; former Meet the Press moderator David Gregory, and popular author Kristin Hannah, whose novel The Nightingale has been on the bestseller list for months.
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Past participants include Neil Sedaka, Jerry Herman, Nathan Englander, Gail Sheehy, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jennifer Weiner, Alan Dershowitz, Delia Ephron, Michael Feinstein, Nicole Krauss and Jodi Picoult.
Levitt says her goal is to stimulate interesting conversations — or at least some curious Googling.
“Sometimes I like to bring in someone controversial to get people talking and thinking,” she says, citing Oren as an example. “Not everyone will agree with him. But it’s important to expose people to things they might disagree with. You might be exposed to something you didn’t know. Books are a great way to learn about different ideas.”
Sometimes, Levitt says, authors call after a date with the JCC and offer to participate a second time. Naomi Regan wanted to come back this year to talk about her novel The Devil in Jerusalem, and so she’ll appear Nov. 4. Alice Hoffman (The Dovekeepers) will return Oct. 15 to the Women’s Day Luncheon to discuss her latest novel, The Marriage of Opposites. The luncheon, at the Coral Gables Country Club, routinely draws more than 400 people (women, a few men, more and more daughters).
“We’ve had to have waiting lists,” says Cheryl Rosen, who has organized the luncheon for the past 15 years. “It’s a good problem to have.”
Hannah, in addition to her appearance Oct. 29 at the JCC, will speak at the annual teachers’ Holocaust workshop. Her novel, about two sisters struggling to survive in war-torn France, highlights female heroes in World War II. That dovetails nicely with the JCC’s new art exhibit by Linda Stein, Holocaust Heroes: Fierce Females, which opens Friday and runs through Nov. 29.
That’s just the sort of synchronicity that makes Jewish book fairs vital, says Hoffman.
“The idea of us as ‘People of the Book’ is major, and how important books are culturally and not just academically is major,” she says. “For me, with my last three books, I’ve been writing about my Jewish history and Jewish history in general, about women who haven’t been able to tell their own stories. For me that’s important.”
As for the festival’s success, Rosen has a theory.
“When I go to an event, I like to get something out of it. I think that with what we offer, people walk away with something, whether it’s being introduced to a new author or learning something, even if it’s a little something about the book. Or they reconnect with people they haven’t seen in years. They feel a sense of community. ... When you share an experience with other people, it becomes more special.”
If you go
What: 35th Annual Berrin Family Jewish Book Festival
When and where: Opening night event 7:30 p.m. Thursday with Ambassador Michael Oren at the Alper JCC, 11155 SW 112th Ave., Miami; $10. Other events spread throughout Miami-Dade County through March 8.
Other authors: Geraldine Brooks, Alice Hoffman, Arlene Alda, Kristin Hannah, Naomi Regan, Michael Bar-Zohar, Jennifer Teege, David Gregory, Nicole Dweck, Nomi Eve and B.A. Shapiro.
Information and tickets: www.alperjcc.org