The program honoring books and authors at the Bender Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Rockville is both old and new. What was known until recently as the Book Festival is now in its 48th year — but with a new name and structure. It is now called the Lessans Family Literary Series, in honor of the financial and other support Drs. Stuart and Ellen Lessans have given the JCC.
“We’ve chosen a new name that reflects our evolution as we explore storytelling in new ways, while also honoring the annual book festival our community has loved for decades,” said Jennifer Smith, the JCC’s senior director of arts, culture and community engagement.
While in the past, the festival was intense — offering simultaneous events over several days — the new series’ duration is a single long weekend. The one-event-at-a-time format allows visitors to catch everything they want to attend. On the other hand, the Literary Series will launch monthly book-related events as well.
The festival used to include a large bookstore, but, said Smith, “for the past four years, I’ve looked at trends in the community. With e-readers and Amazon, an old-fashioned bookstore didn’t make sense.”
Instead, the focus is on selling the books by the authors who will appear in the Literary Series – both the featured books as well as others by the same authors.
The opening night of the 2017-18 series will feature “Off Limits: An Adventurous Evening with Jennifer Weiner” – including “drinks, laughter, and a little debauchery,” as described in the JCC literature. It begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2; tickets are $75, which includes two of Weiner’s books and a dessert reception. “Weiner will discuss writing fiction, writing for kids and publishing her memoir,” said Lisa Del Sesto, cultural arts program coordinator.
The day of ladies’ luncheons has passed, said Smith. This year, instead, a Book Club Brunch “will welcome everyone. Some people come just to attend the brunch.” Georgia Hunter will speak about “We Were the Lucky Ones,” her novel inspired by the true story of a Jewish family separated at the beginning of World War II. The event starts at 10:30 a.m. Friday, Nov.3. ($25, $46 with book)
Still active is the Book Selection Committee, a group of volunteers who read 150 to 200 books, from March through August, to consider for inclusion in the Literary Series. “They’re an invaluable resource,” Smith said. This year, for the first time, the JCC will publish a booklet containing the reviews committee members have written. “We will also provide AmazonSmile (donates .5 percent of the price of eligible purchases to the charitable organizations selected by customer) information, so if people purchase books, some of the proceeds go back to the JCC.”
For the Lessans, the appeal of the Literary Series isn’t just their devotion to supporting the JCC. “This is a program we love, our baby, close to our hearts,” said Ellen Lessans, a self-described “big reader” who serves on the Book Selection Committee, that meets bimonthly to give input on the books the Jewish Book Council (JBC) suggests to Smith and Del Sesto.
Most of the books the JBC recommends are written by Jewish authors, although some have “no real, heavy-duty connection” to Judaism, said Lessans. They may be of a general nature with Jewish themes, or, occasionally, written by non-Jews about a Jewish subject.
In their quest for books, Del Sesto said, she and Smith undergo a kind of “speed dating” with authors. When the committee members read the books and there are those nobody prefers, “we weed them out,” Lessans said. “But if someone reads a book and it knocks her socks off, two other people will take it on as well.”
Committee member Francine Simons has “lost track” of how many years she has been volunteering. “Reading is my favorite leisure-time activity,” she said, noting she was recruited for the committee in the JCC’s locker room, when a committee member overheard her discussing a book.
“We aim for a consensus,” Simons said of the selection process. “Another factor might be if an author’s publicist indicates that the author might be available to appear.” Either way, she said, “it is a fun job in which the committee members bond.”
The balance of this year’s Literary Series events include: Pulitzer Prize finalist and bestselling author Nathan Englander appears at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, to discuss “Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” a political thriller set in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exploring the complex relationship between a secret prisoner and his guard. ($36; $57 with book)
“An Evening with Story District” will bring a lighter touch with stories told by a group of storytellers from the community about the times they broke the rules and lived to tell the tale. The program, “Not Kosher: True Stories of Breaking Rules and Wildly Inappropriate Behavior,” will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4. ($36, includes light reception) Visit www.benderjccgw.org for a sneak peek at the cast list.
The Sunday Fiction Luncheon, at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5, will feature award-winning novelist Sana Krasikov. Her epic multigenerational novel, “The Patriots,” is about the struggle to maintain idealism in the face of betrayal, fear and family secrets within the context of the United States and Russia. Luncheon is included. ($20; $34 with book)
Abigail Pogrebin, daughter of feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin and an author in her own right, will present “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew,” in conversation with CNN’s David Gregory. Her book shares stories of wisdom collected throughout her yearlong examination of all 18 Jewish holidays. The event will start at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5. ($36; $54 with book, includes hors d’oeuvres and dessert)
Emphasizing that the literary arts are intertwined with others is a papercutting workshop, “Storytelling through Art,” led by Adi Shani on Sunday, Nov. 5, 10 a.m. to noon. The $10 fee includes all materials. The local artist will showcase the method behind her paper art on display in the Goldman Art Gallery of the JCC. “Participants will learn about Shani’s creative process and materials and be inspired to begin work on their own masterpieces,” said Del Sesto.
The Lessans Family Literary Festival will take place from Nov. 2 through Nov. 5 at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Road, Rockville. Call 301-881-0100 or visit www.benderjccgw.org. View this festival on CultureSpotMC here.