National Jewish Book Award winners share their personal stories

Click photo to download. Caption: The cover of “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” by Yossi Klein Halevi. Credit: David Rubinger.

By Fern Sidman/JNS.org

It is once again awards season, and as such, Americans find themselves glued to their televisions and computers—imbibing a plethora of star-studded tributes, a maelstrom of images, and the perfunctory salacious gossip that accompanies it. Be it the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Golden Globes, the Grammys, and the upcoming March 2 Academy Awards, there are always a host of films, recordings, and personalities to cheer on. 

But recognizing outstanding achievement in the world of the arts is not limited to trendy musicians and heroes of the silver screen. Since time immemorial, Judaism has placed a high value on literacy, education, and enlightenment. As the perennial “light unto the nations,” Jews have sought to impart their diverse ideas and philosophies to humanity in the form of books. Thus, history has been immeasurably impacted by Jewish scholarship.

For the last 64 years, the Jewish Book Council has undertaken the task spotlighting the best of Jewish books and their authors through its presentation of the annual National Jewish Book Award. On March 5, the winners in nearly 20 categories of Jewish books will assemble at the Center for Jewish History in New York City for a celebratory gathering.

“I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude,” Yossi Klein Halevi—veteran journalist and author of “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” which received the Jewish Book of the Year Award from the council—tells JNS.org. “After 12 years of research and writing, I now have some closure.”

“Like Dreamers” provides a palpable portrayal of the lives of seven Israeli paratroopers, some from the political right and others from the left, and the nexus of the 1967 Six-Day War that both simultaneously galvanized them and tore them asunder in so many respects.

Click photo to download. Caption: Yossi Klein Halevi. Credit: Frederic Brenner.

“I feel like I’ve been writing this book since I was 17,” says Halevi, who was born in 1953.

“I wanted to give American Jews a deeper connection to this story of our nation; I wanted to present the real story to them. And who is my ideal audience? Someone like myself. If I hadn’t made aliyah, I would still be as passionate about Israel as I was as a youth growing up in Brooklyn,” he says, with fervor reverberating in his voice.

Spending his formative years in Brooklyn in the shadow of the Holocaust and at a time when Zionist youth movements were shaping the lives of future generations of Jews, Halevi vividly recounts his activist days in the Jewish Defense League in the 1960s and 1970s in his first book, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” written in 1995.

His second book, “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land,” from 2001, details his spiritual journey as a religious Jew into the worlds of Christianity and Islam in Israel.

“Like Dreamers” has caught the attention of book critics around the world, and garnered several impressive reviews in major publications.

“Halevi expertly employs a traditional journalistic form: he isolates seven paratroopers from that ‘mythic moment’ and reconstructs their lives, before and since, to render a complicated history intimate, human, relatable,” Jodi Rudoren wrote regarding “Like Dreamers” for the New York Times in October 2013. “His meticulous, sensitive, detailed reporting—the book is the work of more than a decade—is incredibly effective at making the small big.”

From Boro Park to Afghanistan

Click photo to download. Caption: Phyllis Chesler and her ex-husband from Afghanistan, Abdul-Kareem. Credit: Courtesy Phyllis Chesler.

Dr. Phyllis Chesler—a second-wave feminist icon turned redoubtable voice for Israel’s survival, and a fiery advocate for women-only prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall—is another Brooklyn native who was recognized with National Jewish Book Award. Chesler’s “An American Bride in Kabul”—a searing and powerful memoir of her youthful romance with a Westernized Muslim man from Afghanistan who she met while attending college in New York, and her subsequent captivity in his native Kabul—won in the “Biography, Autobiography, Memoir” category.

Raised as an Orthodox Jew in the highly religious Boro Park section of Brooklyn, Chesler rebelled at a young age. Her 15th book chronicles her harrowing experience of being held against her will by her husband and his devoutly Muslim family more than 50 years ago. Beyond the compelling narrative, however, reviewers have described the book as a “geo-political time bomb,” as it also explores and grapples with the shocking history of the Jews of Afghanistan, the genesis of contemporary terrorism, and the hitherto unknown mysteries shrouding Islamic fundamentalism.

Asked why she decided to share her story so many decades later, Chesler intimates that this chapter in her life had served to forge her eventual dedication to feminism that defined her life’s work.

Click photo to download. Caption: The cover of “An American Bride in Kabul,” by Phyllis Chesler. Credit: Palgrave Macmillan.

“Afghanistan and its people seem to have followed me into the future and right into the West,” she tells JNS.org. “Islamic hijab (headscarves), and niqab (face masks), and burqas (enveloping out garment) are here in America, on the streets and in the headlines.” Chesler says she does not oppose the hijab, but does oppose burqas.

The author noted the “eerie coincidence” that Afghanistan “is the country where I was once held hostage; it is the country which sheltered [Osama] Bin Laden after he was exiled from Saudi Arabia and Sudan; he hatched his 9/11 plot in an Afghan cave,” while now “the entire civilian world is being held hostage by Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda-like jihadists.”

“Israel and the Western democracies are all up against tribal cultures whose values are very different from our own,” Chesler says. “It is crucial for us to understand what those differences are.”

Chesler is no stranger to taking on controversial subjects in her writing. Her first book, “Women and Madness,” was published in 1972 to critical acclaim and sold close to three million copies. Her other books include bestsellers such as “Women’s Inhumanity to Women” (2002), “The New Anti-Semitism” (2003), “The Death of Feminism” (2005), and “Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody” (2011).

Sharing her initial feelings on learning that “An American Bride in Kabul” had been honored by the denizens of the Jewish literary world, Chesler says, “I was pleased, proud, satisfied, and very surprised. Then, I felt as if I truly belonged to the ages, not just to this age. But me? The rebel girl from Boro Park had a place there too? Now that I’ve received the 2013 National Jewish Book Award, together with so many other truly distinguished authors, I feel daunted, sober. I feel the weight of responsibility even more.”

“And so, my people have claimed me as one of their own,” she says. “When I speak, I represent us—all of us, those with whom I agree, those with whom I wrestle. I hope to speak softly, modestly, respectfully, clearly, and with strength.”

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Posted on February 23, 2014 and filed under Arts, Books, Features, U.S..