To mark 41 years since the formation of the Jewish Book Council, we take a look at the sources we hold relating to the organisation in MS385.Similar to The National Book Council in promoting the cause of books, the Jewish Book Council was formed with the intention to “encourage the reading, help the readers, and to promote the cause, of Jewish books.” The organisation wished to act as the common connection for all Jewish education, voluntary workers for Israel and Jewries of Europe, and Jewish youth clubs and societies.
The Council started in 1947 as a small group of people led by Dr George Webber, who was a Hebraist and lifelong book fanatic. At the time, there were few Jewish educational activities, and so Webber had the idea of forming an annual festival of lectures accompanied by a book display, which would be called Jewish Book Week. From its beginnings, Jewish Book Week was a community event, and held annually at Woburn House in central London. Various organisations were associated with it, such as the B’nai B’rith and the World Jewish Congress, which also arranged evening lectures as part of the event.
As a public event Jewish Book Week attracts members from across the whole Jewish community.
Aiming to “help and advise the Jewish reader”, the activities of the Council in its early days included composing lists of books (mainly by Anglo-Jewish authors), which they believed should be available for reference or loan in every synagogue, Jewish Society or Club. Other activities of the Council included publishing supplementary lists, helping to arrange exhibitions of Jewish books, and discussing with Public Libraries extension of their collection of Jewish books.The main activity of the Jewish Book Council is organising Jewish Book Week, now an annual event in the Anglo-Jewish calendar. During the early years of the Council, this event involved a short series of evening talks on literary topics, and small amounts of books displayed and sold. Over time, Jewish Book Week has advanced and expanded, with more emphasis placed on the exhibition and sale of books, resulting in lectures and books having equal value in the annual event. A myriad of literary works are now displayed each year, with books from as far as America and Israel, as well as the United Kingdom. The lectures held as part of the Jewish Book Week have expanded over the years, with programmes arranged for the morning and afternoon, and for target audiences, such as children, women, senior citizens, and Ecumenists. Some of the outstanding lectures conducted at Book Week have included Professor Jonathan Frankel of the Hebrew University speaking about the Jews of Russia in 1981, and an event marking fifty years after the Anschluss in 1988, which included a performance of a string quartet by Joseph Horowitz, specially composed to mark the event, and talks by George Clare and Richard Grunberger.
The exhibitions at Jewish Book Week have also developed over time with a trade day provided for publishers, booksellers, and librarians. Jewish Book Week has become such a big event in the Jewish community, that Jewish publishers time the release of books of Jewish interest to fall on the dates of the event.Over the years, the Jewish Book Council has built up its activities to cater for children, forming a school programme. Every Jewish primary school in the London areas has been invited to send its top class to Jewish Book Week. In doing this the Council have recognised the long-term need of helping schools arranged their own book events so that all children can participate. To encourage further involvement, the Council also organise a nationwide poetry competition, under the patronage of the Chief Rabbi. The Jewish Book Council used to receive most of its funding and all of its administrative assistance from the Jewish Memorial Council (JMC). Other organisations that provided small contributions included the Association of Jewish Refugees, Federation of Women Zionists, and the World Jewish Congress.
In 1979, the Council experienced financial difficulties and was almost forced to close down. Determined to keep the Council going, chairman of the Council at the time, Joe Lehter, helped make the executive decision for the organisation to operate on a voluntary and independent basis. Following this change, many people have served on the executive committee and have worked tirelessly to keep the event going and make it prosper. In recent years the Council has come to a sponsorship arrangement with the Jewish Chronicle.Jewish Book Week has expanded over the years outside its traditional venue in central London – many small communities in London have been encouraged to run their own book fairs based on the Jewish Book Week format and there have been events in Cambridge, Manchester, and Glasgow. Today Jewish Book Week takes place at the Royal National Hotel in Bedford Way, a much larger venue than their previous venue Woburn House. The event is the second oldest literary festival in the UK, and administers the Risa Domb-Porjes Prize for Hebrew-English translation.
The Jewish Book Council collection that we hold mainly contains material relating to Jewish Book week, 1952-2004, together with papers relating to the formation of the trust and charitable status, council minutes, 1974-87, correspondence, reports and accounts.
Here is a quote from a letter written from Motzoei Shabbat Vayikra to Dr Geo J. Webber, founder of the Jewish Book Council, 15 March 1975 [MS 385 A4040 2/1] :
“A magnificent book week. Lectures good, attendances excellent and to me, more important than all else sales of £1, 220 worth of books which means that more people will have more books to take home and who knows – read. In addition I have been invited to set up book-selling units in the J.F.S. and at Carmel College. Also perhaps bookstalls at Jewish Youth Clubs… In all events at no time between 9.50 am and 10.30pm was there less than six or seven people looking at the books… Some people returned three and four times.”
You can find out more about how Jewish Book Week takes place today at the following webpages: