Festival of Jewish Literature launches for third year

Holly Firfer speaks with Joan Lunden on Zoom
CNN’s Holly Firfer speaks with Joan Lunden about her book, “Why Did I Come Into This Room?” (Screenshot by Selah Maya Zighelboim)

This year, like so much else, the third Annual Baltimore Festival of Jewish Literature is being held online.

Community organizations, with the JCC of Greater Baltimore serving as the main organizer, are putting on seven events on a wide variety of genres and topics from Nov. 8-22. Like many Jewish book festivals across the country, this festival takes place in November, which is Jewish Book Month.

Some of the events that have already taken place include a talk with human rights activist Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy on their book, “Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People,” as well as a conversation with journalist Joan Lunden on her comedic book, “Why Did I Come Into This Room?” Upcoming events include a panel on heresy in Jewish history, thought and literature on Nov. 16 at 4 p.m., and a poetry reading with Baltimore poet Michael Salcman on Nov. 22 at 11 a.m.

“The festival is really about highlighting the value of literature in the Jewish community, and the range and breadth of Jewish literature,” said Sara Shalva, chief arts officer at the JCC. “There are a lot of expressions of Jewish identity, and informal conversations around arts and culture exist in our society, but not always on a high level. … We have a lot to learn about how to celebrate our authors in a way that gives them an opportunity to be reflective about how their work is Jewish.”

The festival being online this year is just one of the ways that it’s different from past years’ festivals.

In the past, the festival has been spearheaded by volunteer leadership, Myrna Cardin and Ed Berlin, the latter of whom is the former owner of the Ivy Bookshop. In contrast, this year, the JCC of Greater Baltimore serves as a central platform. While the partner organizations host their own events on their own pages, the JCC has a page on its site that lists out each event and links to it on the partner organization’s site.

The partner organizations with events in the festival are Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation, The Soul Center, Baltimore Hebrew Institute, the Myerberg Center, Beth Am Synagogue, the Macks Center for Jewish Education and PJ Library. Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Jewish Museum of Maryland and Chizuk Amuno Congregation will have events in the spring. The Ivy Bookshop and JMore are sponsors of the festival.

The partner organizations chose the book events they hosted.

“The breadth of programming from the organizations we brought together, from the Myerberg to CJE to some of the synagogues, the way that we’re all unique communities and yet we’re part of the Greater Baltimore community, is really a beautiful way to bring everyone in Baltimore together, the way that books and literature do,” said Melissa Seltzer, senior director of community arts, who served as an organizer.

Both Seltzer and Shalva highlighted the Macks Center and PJ Library event as one they are particularly looking forward to. The event is an interactive food experience, based around “Harvest Blessings,” an illustrated PJ Library book by Amy Meltzer. The first 15 families to sign up will receive a goody bag filled with supplies and a copy of the book. This event, Seltzer said, is a good example of how organizations can work together.

“Right now, people are looking for escape and finding escape in words and in books, not just on the screen,” Shalva said.

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