In the three years since it was founded, the Sami Rohr Prize — the winner of which will be announced this week — has become one of the most prestigious awards for Jewish writing. Given out, in alternating years, for works of fiction and non-fiction, the Prize is also the most lucrative of its genre — with the Jewish Book Council handing out a top prize of $100,000 along with two smaller “Choice” prizes.
Last year, it went to Wall Street Journal reporter (and Forward alumna) Lucette Lagnado for her non-fiction book “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World” (Ecco, 2007). This year, it will go to an emerging fiction author. The 2009 finalists are all women, ensuring that the 100% record of female winners will be maintained. Read on for more about the finalists and summaries of their most recent work.
Fresh from a Fulbright year in Moscow, the Ukrainian-born Krasikov packs her debut collection of eight short stories with the emotional turbulence that accompanies life for an immigrant from the collapsed Soviet Union.
Krasikov’s characters are larger than the 20-odd pages each gets to occupy, and their conversations and straights are painfully felt.
In “One More Year” (Spiegel & Grau, 2008) Maia doesn’t recognize the son who she left in Tbilisi; Grisha, “the cream of eastern brainpower” deserts wife and Wall Street for fortune-seeking in Russia.
Growing up on of the only Jews at an Afrikaans school in Worcester, a small South African town, Landsman admits that her imagination escaped to America years before she followed aged 21.
Her writing strives for lyricism in the vein of James Joyce, but gentler; she thoroughly mines her experiences of the outsider for the sake of developing her characters.
Set in Landsman’s native South Africa, “The Rowing Lesson” (Soho Press, 2007) is a second person meditation on life, race and family relationships. Narrated by pregnant Betsy Klein as her father, “Doktor God,” lies in a coma, “The Rowing Lesson” is the recreated story of a dated life now on the brink of death.
Like Krasikov (and a slew of recent Jewish writers) part of the Russian Jewish diaspora, Ulinich was selected as of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” writers to watch. Ulinich, like her protagonist, was 17 years old when she emigrated (from Moscow, not the gloomy Siberian town of “Asbestos 2”) to America.
Her characters can seem exaggerated at times, but the impact is effective, and the heroine’s struggle for a place and a family to belong with is no less touching for being compared by Gary Shteyngart to “Borat, but with a big heart.”
From klutzy outsider, to pregnant teen, to mail order bride, to “pet Soviet Jew” of a wealthy Chicago family, the heroine of “Petropolis” (Penguin Books, 2007) Sasha Goldberg, launches a coming of age journey that is a consciously unconventional but passionate one.
Born in Tehran, Sofer was raised in a Jewish family during revolutionary Iran, which she left for New York aged 10. Her first novel, “The Septembers of Shiraz” (Ecco, 2007), is loosely based on her family’s experiences — when Sofer was eight her father was arrested and secretly held for a month, for being a Zionist spy.
Honing her writing at the Sarah Lawrence MFA program, Sofer’s novel is deliberately crafted and realistic in its research, but the characters, and their predicaments, are drawn with great sympathy.
Set in Tehran on the heels of the Iranian Revolution, “The Septembers of Shiraz” Sofer’s debut novel, tells the story of Isaac Amin — a rare-gem dealer, determined to remain in Iran, even after the Islamists take over the government. But his comfortable life begins to unravel, after Isaac is arrested by the Revolutionary Guards and wrongly charged with espionage.
Raised in a self-described “infuriating Jewish community,” the work of New York-based writer Albert is influenced by, and also strives to reclaim her religion. Her debut short story collection was appropriately titled, “How This Night Is Different” (Free Press, 2006).
Her writing lures the reader with dark humor, and adeptly builds to tragedy without letting go, or flinching.
At 29, Dahlia — the clever and creative, but “perennially unemployed,” heroine of “The Book of Dahlia” (Free Press, 2008) — is fighting an uphill battle with depression. And that’s before she receives a devastating diagnosis. The book follows Dahlia as she faces down a malignant, inoperable brain tumor all the while leaning on a wacky self-help book.