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Local Publication Society Comes Up a Big Winner at Awards Time

February 1, 2007 By:
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The Jewish Publication Society is tiny in comparison to publishing powerhouses like Random House and Yale University Press.

Indeed, it released just eight new titles last year.

That makes the fact that JPS beat out nearly every other publisher in the 2006 National Jewish Book Awards all the more remarkable.

The honors, which were doled out earlier this month, named Folktales of the Jews: Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion a winner in the Sephardic culture category, as well as a finalist in scholarship.

Lilith's Ark: Teenage Tales of Biblical Women won the Jewish family literature category, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons was dubbed a finalist in the contemporary Jewish life and practice slot.

JPS CEO and editor-in-chief Ellen Frankel attributed the publishing house's success to its emphasis on quality.

"Often, we will publish a book that no one else will -- not because it's not publishable, but because it requires such an investment of money, time and effort," she said.

Hard Work Pays Off

Take Folktales of the Jews: Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion, for example.

A 13-year project, the volume required digging through an archive of some 20,000 folktales at the University of Haifa in Israel.

Though the school had been recording and translating stories from Jewish immigrants since 1948, Frankel said that its collection remained unknown to all but a few scholars.

For this volume, editors Dov Noy, a professor of literature at Hebrew University, and Dan Ben-Amos, a University of Pennsylvania folklorist, selected 71 tales from Sephardic Jews, and went to work translating them from Hebrew into English. Then, the scholars wrote a commentary for each story, helping to provide a Jewish, historical and narrative context.

And that's just volume one.

The book is actually the first of five anthologies -- and 355 stories -- that the team is compiling.

The others will string together Jewish yarns from Germany, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Afghanistan, India, Ethiopia and elsewhere. Frankel also said that JPS intends to release a smaller paperback collection of folklore for the general public.

In a thick Israeli accent, Ben-Amos explained that the series presents a unique lens through which to view Jewish history.

"Folklore provides an aspect of Jewish society that all the rabbis and all the great scholars don't attend to," said Ben-Amos, who described the medium as something of a bottom-up approach.

He said that in addition to providing entertainment, stories can illuminate the values of a society.

Frankel agreed: "They're not just about heroes and giants and contests between people and supernatural creatures. Sometimes, they actually have morals that might come out of Jewish law or Jewish customs. They're actually wonderful teaching tools."

Lilith's Ark: Teenage Tales of Biblical Women offers similar educational applications.

The book, a collection of midrashim about women in the Bible, paints portraits of ancient Hebrews that teens today can relate to. Author Deborah Bodin Cohen -- a rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J. -- crafts a story of Rachel and Leah, for example, showing the sisters grappling with jealously, body images and, yes, even boys.

"I wanted to emphasize the aspects of women's lives that would have meaning for a teenager and their experiences," explained Bodin Cohen.

The volume doesn't shy away from thornier issues either. In one chapter, the author shows the rape of Dinah; in another, she presents Tamar's seduction of Judah.

The rabbi said she incorporated these stories to disseminate important concepts to young people, like how most instances of rape occur between men and women -- like Dinah and Shechem -- who already know each other.

The final JPS honoree -- The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons -- offers messages of another kind. The book, written by rabbi and social psychologist Jill Hammer, delves into issues of Jewish spirituality as they relate to the seasonal calendar.


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