The Milton and Betty Katz JCC of Cherry Hill is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its annual Festival of Arts, Books and Culture.
This year’s lineup is especially star-studded, featuring headliners like former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and iconic fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, both of whom will be discussing newly penned memoirs.
If you’re surprised that such big names are appearing at a JCC in Cherry Hill, perhaps you shouldn’t be — the festival’s attracted big names in arts, entertainment, sports and politics for years. Madeline Albright, Alan Alda and, just last week, former Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig — who appeared to unofficially kick off this year’s speaker series — are just a few who have appeared there.
Still, festival director Sabrina Spector, who’s been putting the lineups together for the past dozen years, is always just a little surprised when such big names agree to come.
“We’ve had some huge names, and sometimes I still wonder why they are so interested in doing the JCC circuit,” said Spector. Her best guess? Coming to the JCC and performing in front of a Jewish audience feels like a homecoming.
“It’s not unheard of,” she said, “for our authors to look around and look at their audience and say, ‘I’m with my people.’”
Nikki Haley, of course, isn’t Jewish — just influential and fascinating. But Isaac Mizrahi is, and he’ll talk about coming to terms with being a gay man from a strictly observant family of Syrian Jews. Other guests include Jewish comedian Orny Adams, the brutally honest comic whose latest special is airing now on Showtime, and Steve Israel, the former U.S. congressman from New York, who’s written a new satirical take on our political system and the firearms industry.
Which should dovetail nicely with an appearance by two young women out to reframe the way we talk about gun control.
Sari Kaufman and Julia Cordover were both students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, when a gunman stalked the halls in February, 2018, killing 17 people — Cordover was senior class president at the time. They’ll talk about the harrowing ordeal of surviving Parkland, as well as their much-publicized gun control activism.
“There is hope,” said Spector, “and these young ladies give us a picture of a very bright future.”
They’ll be joined by Taylor Lustig, a former staffer in the Obama White House who’s co-authored a book titled “Yes She Can: 10 Stories of Hope & Change from Young Female Staffers of the Obama White House.”
While the big names usually deliver the goods, it’s been the lesser-known names who’ve often stolen the show in festivals past. So who should we keep an eye on this year?
One of Spector’s not-so-dark horses this year is the matchmaking tandem of Rori Sassoon and Dr. Errol Gluck, who are known for their appearances on “The Real Housewives of New York” and who’ve recently teamed up to co-author a new “how-to” book for modern dating titled “The Art of the Date.”
Spector assures that Sassoon and Gluck have practical advice not just for those seeking love but also for those who care about those navigating the oft-confusing realm of singledom.
“It’s not just for singles,” she said. “It’s for parents of singles trying to understand this new world we live in, where dating happens through a social media app and not by going out and meeting somebody.”
Speaking of events that will speak to multiple generations at once, Suzi Weiss-Fischman, known affectionately as “The First Lady of Nails,” will speak of her humble beginnings and her beauty brand’s unlikely origins, all while participating in an interactive component, which should, Spector said, “be a fantastic intergenerational program, bringing mothers and daughters and granddaughters to bond over something simple,” namely nail polish.
But who are the under-the-radar potential showstoppers? Spector said to keep eyes and ears out for a pair of authors, Melanie Benjamin and Marra Gad. Benjamin has written “Mistress at the Ritz,” a novel based on the true exploits of an American woman who worked at the Legendary Ritz Hotel in Paris during the Nazis’ occupation, all the while secretly working for the French Resistance. Those in the know are calling it “the hottest book-club book of the season.”
Meanwhile, Gad’s memoir “The Color of Love” has generated a huge amount of buzz and is particularly timely given evolving conversations around race, ethnicity, religion and identity. Gad is a mixed-race woman who was adopted and raised by white Jewish parents. In trying to navigate where she fit in, she had to confront racism within her own extended family.
Gad spoke recently at the Jewish Book Council. Spector was there and said, “She had the entire room speechless. After it was done, there was room full of Jewish mothers lined up to give her hugs.”
The 30th Annual JCC Festival of Arts, Books and Culture runs from Nov. 10 to Nov. 17. For more information, visit katzjcc.org/abcfest.
Nikki Haley, someday, might become our U.S. Vice President or even President, because of her very refreshing nature style of strength and honesty. More politicians of all parties should take a page from her!