Posted by: jbwuk | January 6, 2011

Long Live Limmud, The Falafel King is Dead

Limmud 2010 was….many things. The conference doesn’t quite exist in the singular. For the uninitiated amongst you, Limmud is a week-long ENORMOUS event which encompasses most aspects of Jewish cultural and intellectual life, from across the globe. I’m not in any position to talk about most of the fantastic things that went on there (from the klezmer ceilidh a Strictly Come Dancing competition for Israeli folk dancers and in-depth lectures from pre-eminent Jewish professors) because I didn’t really have a chance to go to any sessions which I wasn’t either presenting or co-presenting.

Actually, I did go to one, the fabulous Maureen Kendlar spoke about the history of the Jewish Cookbook. It was totally fascinating and a great precursor to the session coming up at JBW, Eat, Write, Love, where we’ll have, American novelist Allegra Goodman, author of the The Cookbook Collector in conversation with Yotam Ottolenghi.

The Jewish Book Week sessions were with writer Sara Shilo. I met all kinds of interesting people there but meeting Sara was by far the highlight. Her first novel, The Falafel King Is Dead, has just been published by Portobello Books. She was inspired to begin writing when, after reading David Grossman’s Be My Knife, she wrote the author a short letter telling him how much the book had moved her. He responded by telling her that she had a fresh voice that had to be heard and suggested that she write a book herself. And so she did. She began writing in the middle of a katyusha raid, leaving her husband and five children in the bomb shelter while she went upstairs to begin creating the story of the Dadon family living in Ma’alot, a predominantly Moroccan development town on the Lebanese border. The book was an immediate success, selling out within weeks and garnering a slew of literary prizes, even the coveted Sapir Prize.

I read it in English first, and then I tentatively read the Hebrew. Tentative because I read Hebrew so slowly, and also because I had read that the book was written in a distinctive dialect. In our event at Limmud where we discussed Sara’s book, she and I read sections from the novel and when I heard her reading the original Hebrew I realised that the reason the language hadn’t jarred or confounded me was that it was written in the way that my grandma had spoken. That was the first Hebrew I had ever heard and those expressions and that very particular way she had with grammar was the way the whole town had spoken. There is something wonderful about seeing a part of the Israeli population represented; a section of society who I know well in life, but not in literature.

I could write extensively about the book and how much it moved me, because of strong voices, and the way it draws the reader right into the heart of a huge family (such a rare thing in fiction) but instead I urge you to read it for yourselves. And check out The Times on Saturday where you’ll find an interview with Sara.

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