Every fall, in the month leading up to Hanukkah, approximately 1,000 Jewish book fairs take place around the country, often creating a surge in sales of new and backlist books. This year, to mark the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews in New Amsterdam (now New York), the fairs will celebrate Jews in America.
While Brandeis professor Jonathan D. Sarna's study American Judaism: A History (Yale, Feb.) will anchor the lineup at 32 fairs so far, two other authors are also "unstoppable," according to Carolyn S. Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council. Ambassador Dennis Ross, U.S. Middle East peace envoy under Presidents George H. Bush and Bill Clinton, will attend 23 fairs, as will National Yiddish Book Center founder Aaron Lansky. "If there were more days in the week, they would go more places," said Hessel, who hypothesizes that the dominance of both nonfiction and male authors is related to the upcoming elections.
Yet election-themed books are notably absent from most festivals. The only author scheduled to address presidential politics is nationally syndicated columnist Bob Greene, whose Fraternity: A Journey in Search of Presidents (Crown, Sept.) is based on interviews with former Presidents Nixon, Carter, Bush Sr. and Ford. Also missing are appearances by major Jewish authors who aren't touring, most strikingly Philip Roth, whose The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin, Oct.) reimagines WWII America with Lindbergh as a president who sympathizes with Hitler.
Though Marilynn Hassid, director of arts and culture for the Jewish Community Center of Houston, concurs with Hessel that "this is a nonfiction year," fiction will also be in evidence at the fairs. Authors range from the venerable Herman Wouk (A Hole in Texas, Little, Brown, Apr.), who will appear in San Diego, Calif., to debut novelist Joshua Braff (The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, Algonquin, Oct.), whose brother, Zach, wrote, directed and starred in the recent film Garden State.
Most fairs aim for a well-rounded lineup. For example, Houston's JCC (which grossed $115,000 in sales of books and music in 2003) will feature children's writer Gayle Carson Levine, winner of a Newbery Honor for Ella Enchanted (HarperCollins; audio from Listening Library). Larger book fairs, like the month-long festival at the Dave and Mary Alper JCC in Miami, Fla., which starts October 15, often include at least one big women's fiction event. This year, Marcy Levitt, director of literary and performing arts, said she's expecting 500 women to attend a luncheon with bestselling author Susan Isaacs (Any Place I Hang My Hat, Scribner, Oct; audio from S&S Audio), more than double the typical audience for other events at the fair. The Washington festival, which sold 10,000 books last year, has scheduled two chick lit events: an intergenerational lunch with Jennifer Weiner (Little Earthquakes, Atria, Sept.; audio from S&S Audio) and a "botox brunch" and fashion show with Janice Kaplan and Lynn Schnurnberger, authors of The Botox Diaries (Ballantine, June; audio from Random House Audio).
In St. Louis, Mo., the key to drawing big audiences is scheduling celebrities, even if they don't have a book. Last year, the fair drew more than 20,000 visitors, making it the most heavily attended book fair. This year, Tony Award—winning actress Lily Tomlin will give the keynote presentation on November 6.