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Meals, moms and chutzpah at auditions for Jewish Book Council tours

Pitching to the Jewish Book Council. (Jewish Book Council)
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NEW YORK — A kosher chef brings his guitar to the podium and strums it as he belts out a two-minute pitch for his new cookbook.

The author of a memoir called “The Mental Yentl” tells rapid-fire jokes about her “medicated matriarchy and their wackadoodle DNA.”

David Gregory, the former moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” zips through the backstory of his spiritual autobiography “How’s Your Faith?,” telling us his Jewish beliefs helped him survive his 2014 firing.

I’ll soon be part of this quirky variety show, taking my turn at the podium to race the stopwatch in a two-minute pitch about my book, “The Art of Grace.” (A book in which, incidentally, I advocate slowing down.) This recent Meet the Author event of the Jewish Book Council Network is one of the highest-stakes twists of my book-writing journey.

Here in the sanctuary of Hebrew Union College, programmers from more than 100 Jewish community centers, synagogues, museums and libraries across the country have come to hear 300 authors try to win a spot in the upcoming season of book events.

It’s a marathon of matchmaking, a quickie audition for what could be a rare chance for authors to actually sell the thing they’ve spent years writing. As publishers have cut back on book tours, the JBC offers an alternative, arranging appearances and picking up the travel costs.

Put more sizzle in your seder! More chutzpah in your cooking!

After three days of these Meet the Author presentations, the programmers start choosing their favorites. In July, we’re told, e-mail invitations should arrive, booking us for talks throughout the year. Nothing is guaranteed: A few “outlier” authors could get none, says JBC Executive Director Naomi Firestone-Teeter. One or two may get as many as 30. The average is half a dozen.

You don’t have to be Jewish to try out. Heidi Neumark, a Lutheran minister wearing her clerical collar, talks about “Hidden Inheritance,” on her recent discovery that she had a Jewish grandfather who was murdered in Nazi Germany.

I’ll be speaking in an afternoon session, and before it starts, there’s much fretting about propriety. No one wants to look disrespectful. I bought a slip on my way here, and murmurs of “My skirt isn’t too short, is it?” flutter through the ladies’ room.

The anxiety rises as we take our seats in the sanctuary. “I feel like it’s my bat mitzvah and I’m about to get up and chant the Haftarah,” mutters one woman. But the organizers soothe us with a motherly air.

“My kvelling muscles are in overdrive,” says Joyce Lit, who has coached most of us in our pitches with a half-hour phone call. “I’m so happy to see you all face to face.”

 “We don’t want anyone to fumble through this,” Andrea Miller, the emcee, assures us after she cautions us to obey her 10-seconds-left and time’s-up signs. “We just want to be outta here by 7.”

It turns out to be terrific entertainment. Steven Gimbel hooks us instantly with his account of Albert Einstein, one of the world’s most famous Jews, as religiously indifferent until later in life. Why? It’s a fascinating story, he vows, but gee, no time to tell it. (Brilliant!)

Roberta Kaplan, the lawyer who argued before the Supreme Court to defeat the Defense of Marriage Act, is commanding, full of fire. Describing her landmark legal strategy, she stares down the green “time’s up” sign and charges on through her closing statement. The applause is thunderous.

Dani Klein Modisett, a comedian, looks so relaxed and poised and has such funny things to say (her book is on marriage) that she could be an example of grace in my book. “That was the most stressful thing I have ever done in my life,” she gasps as she returns to her seat.

Curiously, I feel pretty good. I’ve written my pitch to be calming and a little uplifting (I hope), and it seems just right for this setting. My book, which comes out in November, is a celebration of the most shining human qualities, an exploration of graceful movement and graceful behavior, and an argument for bringing grace back at a time when it’s in short supply.

“What’s the Jewish component of that?” one of the authors asked me earlier, as we waited in the lobby before the session. (She was British. The conference draws overseas attendees, too.)

I could have told her about graceful Jews such as Lauren Bacall, who taught the world about aging gracefully, and Sandy Koufax, the classy Dodgers pitcher of the 1960s, who propelled himself through space like an arcing fishing line, with devastating efficiency and lightness. They are among many examples I draw on, from all walks of life.

But there’s a deeper answer. Grace is a human quality, one that prompts us to show compassion, and everyone is capable of it. That view comes from my upbringing. One of the things I savor most about my Jewish heritage is the emphasis on being a good and caring person by making things easier for folks, here, in this life, today. Being nurturing, supportive and tolerant, looking out for others, easing their burdens, and doing it with joy: These are all facets of grace.

As a rabbi put it when I interviewed him for my book, grace allows us to act like mensches without too much trouble.

I touch on these ideas in my pitch, and it goes well. I barely looked at my notes, I didn’t garble anything and I finished my final point–that grace allows us to care for our soul’s home, and for those around us, too–just as Miller flashed her “time’s up” card. 

Afterward, there’s wine and schmoozing. I talk to some of the programmers, who are delightful. There is relief and a touch of fatigue in the air. But there’s also excitement about books.

“At the end of the day we all come back to the written word,” says Firestone-Teeter. “The written word is what connects all of us.”

Still, I’m thinking of what I could have done better.

Note to self, for next time:

Stick in some jokes!

And end on a cliffhanger!

Like this: “The Art of Grace” contains a list of 10 Tips for Moving Well Through Life that will blow your mind. I’d love to tell you what they are … but I’ve run out of time.