For the first time, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature was given to the author of a book in Hebrew and its translator, in a sign of the award organization’s desire to expand the prize to non-English language works.
“Jerusalem Beach,” a book of short stories that draws on Israeli author Iddo Gefen’s background as a neurocognitive researcher, won the prize, which alternates between honoring fiction and non-fiction works each year. The book’s translator, Daniella Zamir, was also honored as the first translation winner in the prize’s 17-year history and will receive 25% of the $100,000 prize money.
“The awarding of and honoring works in translation, not just Hebrew — because one of our finalists is also the author of a book that is translated into from Polish to English — that is a new dimension of the prize,” said Debra Goldberg, director of the prize organization, on Tuesday.
The prize, previously award in association with the Jewish Book Council based in New York, is now administered by the National Library of Israel. But Goldberg emphasized that the choice of a work of Hebrew “is not connected necessarily with our association with the library, it was something that we decided independently.”
“It was important to expand the reach of the prize, and concomitantly and consequentially the reach of these books,” she said.
She added that the prize will not consider books that have not been translated into English.
Gefen, born in 1992, is a Ph.D. student in cognitive psychology at Columbia University. At its Zuckerman Institute for Neuroscience, he researches how storytelling can improve understanding of the human mind. A reviewer wrote that the 13 stories in his collection cover “virtual realities, the Middle East, and the furthest reaches of the solar system.” A description from its publisher called the book a group of “snapshots of contemporary life in Israel” for fans of Etgar Keret.
Gefen was previously a fellow in the National Library of Israel’s Pardes: Literary Incubator program. Goldberg said that fact “truly has nothing to do with the fact that he won the prize and we’re associated with the library.”
The prize was established in 2006 by the family of Jewish philanthropist Sami Rohr and first bestowed an award in 2007. Past winners have ranged from Gal Beckerman’s “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry” to Francesca Segal’s novel “The Innocents.”
This year’s finalists include “The Lost Shtetl” by New Yorker Max Gross, “I’d Like to Say Sorry, But There’s No One to Say Sorry To” by the Polish-Jewish writer Mikołaj Grynberg and “The Book of V.” by Anna Solomon, who lives in Brooklyn. The authors and translators will be honored at a ceremony on Aug. 9 at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.