By Cindy Mindell
GREENWICH – It was a simple idea concocted by a group friends, a monthly night out for women – a little nosh seasoned with a lot of conversation about books with themes relevant to Jewish women of all ages.
The group approached Jewish Family Services of Greenwich executive director Lisa-Loraine Smith, and “JFS Book Beat: A Woman’s Night Out” was launched in September 2006.
Since its founding, the monthly meetings have been led by several facilitators including Eleanor Ehrenkranz, lecturer on Jewish literature and editor of the recently-published anthology, Explaining Life: The Wisdom of Modern Jewish Poetry, 1960-2010; Esther Bushell, featured in a 2007 New York Times article on publishers and book groups; and Rabbi Richard Chapin, an expert in Yiddish and American-Jewish literature.
Current facilitator Judi Margolin took the helm four years ago. A professional librarian and published author, the Old Greenwich resident is a consultant and workshop leader on foundations and grants, as well as an avid reader.
“I absolutely love to read and to recommend books I enjoy to other people,” she says, “so when the opportunity to lead Book Beat came up, I jumped at it as something fun and not too time-consuming. Little did I know!”
Books are chosen democratically, based on agreed-upon criteria: titles, fiction or nonfiction, must be relevant to Jewish women today and contain at least one significant Jewish character or plotline. All members suggest books for the reading list, while Margolin trolls reviews throughout the year for recommendations. The resulting list is discussed at the June meeting and then winnowed down to five books by Margolin and Smith, with a sixth “wild card” space reserved for a particularly compelling work published after the list is finalized. Group members try to select well-received and/or award-winning books, Margolin says, including at least one “hot” bestseller each year.
“In addition to the time I spend agonizing over which books to select from those that are recommended, and of course the time I spend reading and selecting favorite passages, I probably spend another dozen hours or so just preparing the questions I’d like to lead our group through as discussion points,” she says. “We have a relatively small but highly proactive and vocal group of readers who come to discuss each book. And everyone’s opinion matters. We don’t always agree on the value of a book, by any means.”
Group members represent a wide age spectrum, from new mothers to Florida snow birds, and from seven to 30 attendees. Most are Greenwich residents, with a few from Stamford and drop-ins from Westchester and New Jersey.
There’s no guarantee that every member will enjoy every book, Margolin says. In fact, the lowest point during her Book Beat moderating career was when the group read The Finkler Question, the 2010 Man Booker Prize winner by Jewish-English author Howard Jacobson. “We had one of our biggest turnouts for that particular title, standing-room only, but sadly for me, I just hated the book!” she recalls. “I couldn’t relate to the characters at all, and honestly, they annoyed me. While I’m the kind of person who wears her heart on her sleeve, I think I did a pretty good job of hiding my true feelings about the book – until the very end, when I confessed to the group.”
But of course, there are perks to the job as well. “The greatest benefit for me as moderator is getting to read all these fabulous books, many of which I might not necessarily select otherwise,” Margolin says. “Beyond that, a recent highlight was reading The Bookseller’s Sonnets and hosting author Andi Rosenthal, who led a Q and A session at the meeting. Fortunately, we all loved the book, and several of our members had read it more than once and had the rare opportunity to ask the author questions about the characters and decisions she made regarding the plot.”
Jewish Family Services of Greenwich Book Beat: A Woman’s Night Out will resume in September. New members are welcome. For information contact Tatiana Nichiforova at TNichiforova@jfsgreenwich.org or (203) 622-1881.
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