The Jewish Community Center hosts the 68th annual Detroit Jewish Book Fair from November 2-10.
Featured photo courtesy of Detroit JCC
Multimedia presentations — including the actual taping of a podcast episode, a Broadway-style concert featuring a Tony Award nominee and a slideshow of places associated with a murder — enhance this year’s Detroit Jewish Book Fair filled with a variety of notable authors.
The 68th annual event, scheduled Nov. 2-10 at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, features some 50 presenters who will introduce new books and/or add to those introductions.
Three presenters — Mark Oppenheimer, Josh Young and Margalit Fox —previewed their participation in this year’s programming.
The live taping of the podcast, “Unorthodox,” launches the fair Saturday evening, Nov. 2, with Tablet magazine podcaster Mark Oppenheimer joined by production partners Stephanie Butnick and Liel Leibovitz, who recently released their reference book The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between.
“Unorthodox” started four years ago, when podcasts in general were growing in popularity.
“I had this idea that one of the missing podcasts was a good one about Jewish life and culture,” explains Oppenheimer, a part-time Tablet editor working on the magazine with his two collaborators.
“If we could take the fun, wit and humor of our editorial meetings and put all that into a podcast with great candor about Jewish life and culture, we were confident we could get an audience.”
The three, wanting Jewish and gentile guests to keep conversations open, taped a few sample episodes, got a distributor and debuted in July 2015. The book was the idea of Stephanie’s husband, Ben Cohen, a writer for the Wall Street Journal.
“Our listeners always have questions,” says Oppenheimer, who can recall a range of guests including actress Kathryn Hahn, culinary historian Michael Twitty and former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman.
“We have religious listeners who don’t know a lot about secular Jewish culture and we have secular listeners who don’t know a lot about Jewish prayer or scripture, so we thought it would be fun to do a book with a little of everything,” he said. “The three of us, with some guest contributors, wrote the book.”
Among some 1,000 entries, Michigan is represented by the founding of Humanistic Judaism as worked on by the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine and, in contrast, the popularity of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor.
The three came up with topics asking the help of Tablet co-workers, divided the subjects three ways and wrote entries. After finishing individual assignments, they read and edited what was done by the others.
“There were a lot of late-night conference calls,” Oppenheimer says. “It was very collaborative because we want the encyclopedia to be readable in 10 or 20 years. I love the juxtaposition of different entries; one that’s very religious can be next to one that’s very secular.”
Oppenheimer can point out entries he finds especially interesting — from “tikkun olam” because the actual expression does not mean what people think it means to Alan Alda because he’s not Jewish although people think he is.
Oppenheimer and his two co-writers have another Book Fair appearance at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3, when they discuss “Storytelling Across Platforms” with Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief of Tablet and author of The 100 Most Jewish Foods.
In a different location, the Detroit Writing Room in Downtown Detroit, they will share views about writing for different platforms and audiences while expressing an individual voice.
“We were very excited when the Detroit Jewish Book Fair reached out to the Detroit Writing Room to host its first event in Downtown Detroit,” said Stephanie Steinberg, venue owner with her husband, Jake Serwer. “Historically, the book fair has always held events at the JCC in West Bloomfield. This year, organizers decided to branch out and offer a program for Jews living Downtown or suburbanites who enjoy attending events in the city.
“Jake and I are honored to be the venue for their first event Downtown. As an author, I spoke at a JCC book fair event in 2015, so it’s nice to come full circle and now offer a welcoming space for fellow Jewish authors to share their stories Downtown.”
A concert, on Saturday evening, Nov. 9, features tenor Josh Young and goes along with a presentation by James Kaplan, who discusses Irving Berlin: New York Genius, a biography of the iconic songwriter.
“I’ve never performed at a book fair, and I don’t think I’ve ever been to a book fair, so I’m very much looking forward to singing some Berlin songs and meeting the author,” says Young, whose featured role in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar brought the nomination.
“The concert is going to be mostly the songs of the composer we’re celebrating but also other Jewish composers who have influenced him. I’m performing with Alta Boover (a mezzo soprano who also has appeared around the world), and it’s great that the author is going to be part of the program.”
Young, who has toured to Michigan with a production of Les Miserables and was featured in productions of Evita and Kiss Me Kate at the Stratford Festival in Canada, recently joined Oakland University as an assistant professor of musical theater, where Boover is an assistant professor of music and teaches applied voice.
“We have a lot of crossover between students,” says Young, who also has appeared in plays about the Holocaust; he remembers hearing about the firsthand experiences of his grandmother. “Alta and I are familiar with each other’s work, and she asked if I would do the concert with her.”
Young and wife, actress Emily Padgett, wanted a more settled life and are glad to be based in Michigan to raise their 8-month-old daughter.
“Oakland is a research university, and my research includes performing so I have the best of both worlds,” says Young, who has taught master classes at various universities and now focuses on instructing students about acting out a song and performing in cabarets. “I love getting to teach, and I have some really great students with a lot of potential.”
A slideshow will be presented Sunday afternoon, Nov. 10, by Margalit Fox, author of Conan Doyle for the Defense, a true tale of how the creator of Sherlock Holmes novels helped free an innocent Jewish man from jail.
Fox was starting her career in the 1980s as a copy editor for a small New York publisher when she read a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle and learned he was a crusader for social justice.
Fox was impressed that Doyle, who grew up very poor in a fatherless family, never forgot his beginnings and agitated for all kinds of causes — exposing Belgian atrocities in the Congo, liberalizing divorce laws for women who were in abusive marriages and investigating wrongful convictions, including the one imposed on Oscar Slater in Scotland.
Although Fox read about Doyle and Slater in other books, the mentions were very limited, and after many years as a newspaper reporter and book writer, Fox decided that the Slater story, spanning almost 20 years, merited a book of its own.
Doyle tells about the murder of a woman in 1908 Glasgow and how the conviction was contrived because Slater was a Jewish immigrant belonging to a marginal social class.
“I started work on the book in 2013, and it came out in 2018,” says Fox, who studied at the Columbia School of Journalism and had a long career with the New York Times, where she has handled obituary assignments including one of an actual murderer, Charles Manson.
“The book is a daily newspaper story gritted up about 100 times. It reveals how Doyle re-investigates the case using the rational methods of his most famous literary creation.
“Little did I suspect that this story of race hatred, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and intense public efforts to curb immigration would become so dark and painful in our own time. I’m proud, in a sad way, to have brought this story, seemingly from the past, to show how, regrettably, some things never change.”
Fox, who has spoken in Ann Arbor and has cousins in East Lansing, describes her upcoming presentation as an illustrated lecture.
“I have a PowerPoint presentation with Edwardian images that are in the book, including photos from the actual 1908 crime scene,” says Fox, married to George Robinson, film critic for the Jewish Week and author of Essential Judaism and Essential Torah.
“It’s a talk that ranges over the story and recommends at the end that the audience go visit the prison, which has been a museum since 2013. Ironically, it’s in some of the most beautiful country in the British Isles.”
Look next week for a story about MSU Jewish Studies Professor Kirstin Fermaglich’s book, Rosenberg by Any Other Name. She speaks at 5 p.m. Nov. 3.
For specific information on the Detroit Jewish Book Fair and scheduled events, go to bookfair.jccdet.org. New this year, download the Whova event app and use the invitation code: bookfair.