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A day of books and schmoozing

  • JewishLitFestival5
The second Jewish Literary Festival in Cape Town was a bustling marketplace of ideas, insights, laughter, and learnings. And to make things even better, at the end of the day, it rained!
by GUS SILBER | Jun 21, 2018

The sky above Cape Town was heavy with the promise of rain, the clouds wrapped around the heavens like a gift waiting to be opened.

Beneath the marquee in the courtyard of the Jewish Community Centre, site of the first shul in South Africa, volunteers hefted triangular heaters into place to help ward off the cold.

On a table covered with a wine-red tablecloth, a sign read: “Soup & Rolls. Complimentary.” The soup was barley, thick and hot, served from silver jugs. The line was long.

As I stood there, noshing my soup-dipped sesame-seed roll, my worry was that I would miss the first session because I couldn’t make up my mind which session to attend.

The one about jazz, astrophysics, and the quantum mechanics of storytelling? The one about The Tattooist of Auschwitz, and the legacy of Jewish identity? The one with the panel discussion on poetry as a distiller of emotion?

There were four others to choose from, and I hovered for a while before sneaking in to see Steven Boykey Sidley, who was peering professorially over the top of his glasses as he spoke about the link between the cosmic riffings of Miles Davis, the saxophone-shaped mouth of the Big Bang, and the hidden hand of Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Marić, in defining the theory of relativity. The link lay in an ancient human impulse that had drawn us in droves to this venue today. The impulse to tell and listen to stories.

“My world has been entirely shaped, coloured, and saved by stories,” said Sidley, and it struck me that reading is not just a pathway to knowledge and enlightenment; it is a portal that sets us free from the weight of the world.

Later in the day, I watched Arthur Goldstuck talking about the famous moment in the early Middle Ages when Saint Augustine chanced upon Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, engaged in a solitary act that was shocking in its novelty. He was reading, in silence, to himself. Now, in our age of mobile technologies and universal networks, we find ourselves returning to reading as a shared social activity that connects us across the ether.

This is, after all, why we gather at literary festivals, and this is why the Jewish Literary Festival is such a model of its kind. It is not just about the books, not just about the literature, it is about the gathering.

This year’s festival was kindled by a warmth, from the soup and the heaters, yes, but also from the glow of a communal experience, and from the light of curiosity and engagement that shone through every session I attended.

My only regret, as I pondered the programme – more than 100 authors taking part in more than 45 events – was that even Albert Einstein was never able to figure out a way for a mere human being to be physically present in more than one place at a time.

Mandy Wiener talking to Anton Harber about Ministry of Crime? Kate Sidley talking to Nechama Brodie about Knucklebone? Howard Feldman talking about the fear of saying the wrong thing in a “post-humour society”? Jennifer Friedman talking about growing up Jewish in a small Free State town? Marlene Wasserman, known as Dr Eve, talking about how to thrive in a modern-day marriage? How do you choose?

But just as important as the choosing, was the schmoozing. Helen Moffett, who I chose to watch chairing and sharing a conversation about researching fiction, with Rahla Xenopoulos and Rachel Zadok, summed it up best in a tweet about an audience member who said to her afterwards: “There should have been cake, because it was like having coffee with friends.”

It is often said that books themselves are friends, and friends who read, write and talk about books are the best kind of friends anyone could wish to spend a day with. There were little moments, in-between the rushing from session to session, when I bumped into people I knew and didn’t know, from Jo’burg and Cape Town, and it felt from the buzz and the energy in the air like we were jostling in a crowded marketplace, where the goods on offer were more precious than gold. Ideas, insights, learnings, laughter.

Just after 6pm, at the end of a long and richly rewarding day, the sky darkened, and without a hint of thunder, the heavens opened. What a gift, in the falling of the rain, and the uplift of the festival.

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