A major Jewish literary award established in CT marks a milestone
By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – It was a small West Hartford book club, started in the late ‘50s by Fran Waltman, that launched one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious literary prizes for fiction considered to have significance for the American Jew. This year, the Edward Lewis Wallant Award celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Waltman had started the book club to read works important to American Jews, compiling a reading list from sources like New York Times book reviews. In 1960, they read their first Wallant novel, The Human Season, and after that, The Pawnbroker. On Dec. 5, 1962, Wallant died of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm at age 36. His last two books, The Tenants of Moonbloom and The Children at the Gate, were published after his death.
Born in New Haven, Wallant served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and later studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York. At the time of his death, he was art director of the McCann-Erickson advertising agency in New York and a resident of Norwalk. Wallant was survived by his widow, Joyce Franklin Wallant; his mother, Anna Mendel Wallant of New Haven, and three children, Scott, Leslie, and Kim. A member of the New York Writers Guild, he had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship the year he died.
“Our book group was deeply touched by these books, and when I read of Wallant’s untimely death at the age of 36, I felt impelled to do something to memorialize this writer,” Fran Waltman recalled in an interview 10 years ago. “My husband [Dr. Irving “Chick” Waltman], who had also admired WaIlant, said he would help me to make this possible.”
Waltman placed an ad in the Jan. 17, 1963 newsletter of The Emanuel Synagogue, where she and her family were members. “Many of us read with disbelief of the tragic passing of Edward Lewis Wallant of Norwalk,” it read. “Those of us who admired this gifted young author, only 36 years of age, would like to perpetuate his memory by establishing a living memorial in our Emanuel Library. It is hoped we may have a shelf bearing his name and that each year on his yahrzeit we will purchase a singular book of fiction — a book worthy of being placed on this particular shelf.”
The first judges were Rabbi Samuel Dresner of Congregation Beth El in Springfield, Mass., Chana Rosen, a teacher and book reviewer, and Dr. Lothar Kahn, professor of modern languages at Central Connecticut State College (now University) in New Britain.
The award was set up to recognize young authors. For a book to be chosen, two out of the three judges must agree on the choice, with the third accepting the selection. Some years, no book is honored. The first award was presented on Mar. 22, 1964 to Norman Fruchter for his novel, Coat Upon a Stick, at the Greater Hartford Jewish Community Center (now the Mandell Jewish Community Center). When the University of Hartford established the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies in 1986, the Waltmans moved administration of the award to the school.
The award is now coordinated by Dr. Avinoam Patt, the Philip D. Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History at the Greenberg Center.
The roster of Wallant Award winners is a prestigious one that includes Cynthia Ozick, Curt Leviant, Chaim Potok, Myla Goldberg, Dara Horn, Nicole Krauss, and Julie Orringer, among others.
The 2012 Wallant Award will be presented to Joshua Henkin for his novel, The World Without You, on Wednesday, April 17. The ceremony will also celebrate the 50-year landmark with the publication of The New Diaspora: The Changing Face of American Jewish Fiction, an anthology of all Wallant Award winners and finalists edited by Victoria Aarons (Trinity University), Mark Shechner (University at Buffalo) and Avinoam Patt (University of Hartford).
Each year’s ceremony strikes a different tone, Patt says, depending on what the winner chooses to talk about. At the 2007 event, award recipient Ehud Havatzelet discussed the plot of his novel, Bearing the Body, involving an explosive relationship between a father and two sons and the chasm that results. “It is clearly autobiographical,” Patt says. “The author’s father was in the audience and in the middle of the ceremony, he stood up and said, ‘I have something to say,’ and it was amazing: he talked about how he and the author had cut ties, how his son had left the Jewish fold. So you never know what will happen at the ceremony.”
The 2012 Wallant Award will be presented by the Waltmans on Wednesday, Apr. 17 at 7 p.m. at the University of Hartford Wilde Auditorium. The event is open to the community. For more information: (860) 768-4964 / firstname.lastname@example.org.
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