Jewish Book Week History

By Marilyn Lehrer

2012 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the first Jewish Book Week (JBW) in London. It was first organised by the Jewish Book Council in November 1952 under the chairmanship of Dr George Webber. Remarkably it has taken place every year since. It began as a fairly modest four-day event, with a series of lectures by distinguished speakers and a display of books available for sale. The fact that it became so successful is a mark of Dr Webber’s prescience in discerning the Jewish public’s appetite for such a festival. He was originally from Manchester and came down to London to study law, practising as a barrister before becoming Reader in English Law at UCL. But alongside his love of law he was a Hebraist and a great booklover, and this was what gave him his overriding enthusiasm for Jewish Book Week.

JBW 1952 was not the first Jewish Book Week in the UK, however, because before the war there had been two extremely successful Book Weeks. Both were organised by B’nai B’rith Women’s Lodges, the first in Glasgow in 1937, chaired by Mrs Maude Joseph, and the second held the following year in Manchester, under the chairmanship of Mrs Collette Hassan (pictured). But the war intervened and they were not repeated. Then, in 1949, another Book Week took place, this time in London, organised by the Central Jewish Lecture Committee of the Board of Deputies, but it was also a one-off event. Dr Webber would certainly have been familiar with all of these, as he was actively involved in B’nai B’rith as well as being a delegate to the Board of Deputies.

So when in 1947 he and a group of like-minded people founded the Jewish Book Council, they probably had in mind the idea of eventually organising a Jewish Book Week, inspired by the success of the pre-war events in Glasgow and Manchester. However, during the first few years they concentrated on promoting local Jewish Book Circles, which arranged lectures and book launches. During this period they were building close links with a network of different communal organisations, in particular the Jewish Memorial Council (JMC), which handled the administration of the Jewish Book Council, and the JMC Bookshop, which was in charge of all book sales.

What distinguished the 1952 Jewish Book Week from its predecessors was that, right from the start, the intention was to make it an annual event on a national scale, as Dr Webber wrote in a letter to The Jewish Chronicle two weeks later.  He went on to quote from the Chief Rabbi’s letter which enthusiastically endorsed the event on the Friday before Book Week opened. The Chief Rabbi designated the following day as ‘Jewish Book Week Sabbath’, when ministers were asked to devote their sermons to the importance of reading; headmasters, too, were encouraged to alert their senior pupils to favoured books in Sunday’s Hebrew Classes. Lectures were given that week by Cecil Roth (pictured), Louis Golding and S. J. Goldsmith, among others, and there was a comprehensive and wide-ranging exhibition of books available for sale through the participation of many publishers and booksellers. Book events also took place that week in Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Dublin and Cardiff.

The week preceding JBW 1952, The Jewish Chronicle had published a Book Week Supplement, and, in addition, the leader writer had referred to the importance of the Jewish Book Council’s declared aim ‘to stimulate and encourage the reading of books on every aspect of Jewish thought, life, history and literature’, emphasising that ‘no generation in Jewry which neglects the basic importance of the book can hope to survive. The book retains a unique significance as an everlasting emblem of the Jewish way of life.’

In the early days, Jewish Book Week may have been short, but it obviously fulfilled a need in those austere post-war years when there was very little cultural activity; the contrast with what is available today is astounding. The particular strength of Book Week that enabled it to grow and flourish lay in the strong roots it established within the community. Because different organisations sponsored the lectures, many of their members became actively involved and in this way Book Week inspired the loyalty – one might even say the affection – of its public and was an event eagerly anticipated every year. It took place in the Adolph Tuck Hall in Woburn House (apart from a short period when it was held in Hillel House), where there was a very special atmosphere during the lectures. Publishers took individual stands and the audience sat in the hall surrounded by books. It should be emphasized that the book fair was of paramount importance, as these were very different times, with only a few specialist bookshops stocking books of Jewish interest and, of course, no Amazon.

There was a Hebrew Evening, arranged through the Zionist Federation, with writers from Israel invited specially to speak; a small but dedicated group of Hebrew speakers always came, conversing in a very literary modern Hebrew (this was in the 1950s, by the way, when few people had actually been to Israel). From the early 1980s this was arranged through the cultural attaché at the Israeli Embassy and it was the time when distinguished writers, such as A. B. Yehoshua, Moshe Shamir (pictured), Yehuda Amichai and David Grossman, first spoke in this country.

A very important part of Book Week was the schools’ programme. Most of the Jewish primary schools in London set aside half a day to bring their senior pupils for a special programme that ranged from a demonstration by a scribe, to films, mask-making, storytelling and music, and the children had the opportunity to buy books from the wide array on display. As a spin-off from the main event, a number of  schools began to organise their own book days; the Book Council brought along a good selection of books and every class participated. In addition, for many years there has been a Poetry Competition which has proved extremely popular, with a tea followed by the presentation of prizes at the Chief Rabbi’s home.

A unique aspect of Book Week which cannot be overemphasised is the fact that from the beginning it was completely ecumenical within the Jewish world. Organisations of all shades of religious opinion right across the spectrum took part – from the most orthodox to the progressive movement – and all their books were on display. If Book Week were to be established nowadays, such easy flexibility just could not happen but, because it began in this way, everyone was very happy to participate.

From the outset, Book Week has always been able to attract a very distinguished roster of speakers, such as Lord Denning, Abba Eban, Adin Steinsaltz (pictured), George Steiner, Lord Weidenfeld and George Clare. There were some unforgettable anniversary evenings, as when Jonathan Frankel spoke on the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. On March 10th 1988, the fiftieth anniversary of the Anschluss, there was a hugely impressive event, when Peter Pulzer and Richard Grunberger spoke and the Delme Quartet played a String Quartet by Joseph Horovitz. Another memorable evening was in 1991, during the first Iraq war, when Amos Oz, who was due to launch a new book on the opening evening, cancelled his trip two days before.  With all the seats in the Logan Hall at the Institute of Education already booked, Martin Gilbert saved the day at the last minute and gave a specially prepared lecture about Churchill and the Jews.

In the 1980s there was an important development in Book Week, when associated events were held in several locations simultaneously, not only in Woburn House, but also in Stanmore, Edgware, Brighton, Manchester and Glasgow, as well as in Oxford and Cambridge, where traditionally the visiting Israeli writer would go to speak. Book Week at last became truly national in scope in the way that Dr Webber had hoped it would; it was now publicised in the national press as well as in the Jewish press, with special features in the Times Literary Supplement. In addition, bookshops like Waterstone’s began to hold their own book events during the week.

In the early 1990s a major change took place. It had become very clear that Book Week would have to move, because Woburn House was too small to hold the numbers of people who wanted to come; in fact, for several years the opening lecture had taken place in the Logan Hall. So in 1994 Book Week moved to the Royal National Hotel, which had infinitely more space for the main lectures and rooms for other events, as well as a very spacious area for the wide-ranging book display. But with the advantages of greatly increased space came the greater costs of hiring the premises, as the United Synagogue, which owned Woburn House, had always requested only a peppercorn rent. It now became essential to start charging entry to individual events, although some remained free. But the main task was to seek more funding. JBW had gained charitable status and was fortunate enough to receive some much appreciated donations, as well as sponsorship from The Jewish Chronicle, which continued its support up to 2011. JBW now began to expand, and soon was able to run over two weekends, becoming a nine-day event.

Some years later another great change took place. In the early days, as has been said, the administration of Jewish Book Week had been carried out by the Jewish Memorial Council, but from the 1980s onwards it was run by a group of dedicated volunteers under successive Chairmen – Joseph Lehrer, Marilyn Lehrer, Marion Cohen, Anne Webber – who worked tirelessly to put on the event every year with a limited amount of professional help. Under the chairmanship of Anne Webber, plans were made both to transform JBW's profile and to turn it into a professionally-run festival with a full-time staff. Fundraising was stepped up and major sponsorship obtained, individual events were put on in association with a new range of organisations, and writers and speakers of world-wide renown were invited from abroad - from Europe, America, South Africa and Israel. In 2005, the first Director, Geraldine D'Amico, assisted by Mekella Broomberg, was appointed, and an office was acquired. The professional team, together with first Co-Chairs Gail Sandler and Andrew Renton and currently Gail Sandler and Lucy Silver, successfully raised the profile of Jewish Book Week to a new and exciting level. In 2012 Hester Abrams was appointed as the new Director with Mekella Broomberg as Curator, and this year's festival promises to maintain its extremely high standard. It is now a major international literary event, attracting capacity audiences to its stimulating and varied programme. 


Anne Webber’s research into the pre-war and post-war Jewish Book Weeks has been invaluable, and the Jewish Book Council is also very grateful to her for bringing Dr Webber’s 1952 letter to The Jewish Chronicle to its attention.


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