“Students should never be given an assignment asking them to pretend they’re Nazis and to advocate for the Holocaust. Reenactments or debates like this open up the possibility that these reprehensible beliefs are acceptable. That crosses a moral line and does not belong in our schools.” Author Liza Wiemer

From a futuristic St. Louis where technology clashes with Jewish tradition to a story inspired by real high school students who stood up against an assignment asking them to defend the Holocaust, the forty-third annual St. Louis Jewish Book Festival brings together a variety of authors and stories.

The festival, which started on November 7 and runs through the 18th, celebrates Jewish authors and books featuring Jewish characters or the Jewish community.

Hilary Gan, book festival organizer and director of literary arts for the Jewish Community Center of St. Louis, says the festival, overall, has a more lighthearted tone this year.

“We wanted to really keep the focus on good stories and on meaningful positive topics this year after two very hard years,” Hilary says, referring to the pandemic.

This year’s schedule highlights a variety of genres, including more fiction and romance and graphic novels. While the festival’s overall tone is more lighthearted, it doesn’t shy away from more difficult topics. The festival includes a day of remembrance for ​​Kristallnacht, a violent attack against Jewish people that occurred in 1938.

Helen Turner, director of education and interpretation at St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum, says the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival helps commemorate this violence by talking about it and giving space to the survivors and victims of the attack. Additionally, the festival goes into defiance of the Kristallnacht’s attempt to eliminate aspects of Jewish community by providing a space for the Jewish community to come together, she says.

WEB EXTRA – Connect with oral histories via the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum

Due to the pandemic, the book festival is hybrid this year, with some in-person and some virtual options available. The event is one of the largest of its kind in the country—drawing in more than ten thousand audience members each year. The festival is an opportunity for authors to share their thoughts and engage with people from all backgrounds.

During the festival’s first week, author Liza Wiemer spoke about her novel, The Assignment, which is based on a real assignment in a New York State high school. Students were tasked with placing themselves in the shoes of people in Nazi Germany arguing in favor of the Nazi plan that led to the genocide of Jewish people.

Students in the New York State high school pushed back against the assignment. Liza happened to be in the same New York State town for a book event and spoke with one of the students. She was inspired by their courage and wanted to share their story. Her novel tells the story of high school students taking a stand against a similar assignment.

“What makes The Assignment unique is that it connects the history of World War II and the Holocaust to what’s going on in society today. That link is so important,” Liza says. “There should not be a disconnect between history and what’s going on in society today. It’s important for students to understand that link.”

To write The Assignment, Liza did extensive research, interviewing experts, watching documentaries, and reading about other similar assignments. She was surprised to learn that the assignment given to the New York State high school students was not unique. Assignments like that one are given across the country. Liza hopes her novel will empower students to take a stand against assignments like this one.

In addition to author talks like Liza’s, this year’s festival includes a four-part series of authors focused on topics affecting Israel and America’s Jewish community.

“They aren’t necessarily about Israel or the conflict,” Hilary says, “ just themes that connect the Jewish people across cultures and country boundaries.”

The series, Zionism 3.0 or the Z3 Project, is an annual conference the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California. The conference’s goal is to encourage stronger relationships between all Jewish people globally. St. Louis was going to be the first additional city to host the conference in 2020, but plans changed when the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down. This year’s festival incorporates that conference into its schedule to make up for it.

Homegrown Missouri authors.
On Monday afternoon, the book festival features local authors at a session titled Missouri’s Own: Homegrown Talent. The list of authors includes young adult novelist Jamie Krakover and self-help author Jan Sokoloff Harness.

Jamie Krakover, aerospace engineer by day and a YA sci-fi novelist by night, is part of the panel. While she grew up Jewish and the main character of her book is Jewish, Jamie struggled at first with how to incorporate the character’s faith into the story.

Jamie started her novel, Tracker 220, in 2012. She asked herself, “What if you never got lost again?” That led her to consider a world where it was possible to never get lost. The resulting story takes place in a futuristic St. Louis where everyone has smartphone technology embedded in their brain.

“So anything you can do on a cell phone can be done in the blink of an eye and because of that everything in the world is monitored and tracked. The authorities know everywhere you go,” Jamie explains.

The story also explores how Judaism sometimes conflicts with technology. In this reality, tech is a constant part of everyone’s life. For the Jewish main character, that presents a challenge. For instance, it makes it difficult to avoid technology when observing the Shabbat.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Jewish communities to lean into tech to help facilitate services safely on a virtual platform. For that reason, Jamie is excited to talk about how the pandemic has influenced how others might think about her story during Monday’s panel. The session starts with a panel discussion, during which the authors will share more about their craft. After that, each author will break out into a tabling session where attendees can meet them and purchase their books.

Anti-Semitism today.
Helen, who is new to St. Louis, describes the Jewish community as strong, vibrant, and welcoming. Even with strong Jewish communities across the country, anti-Semitism is on the rise today.

With swastikas being painted on buildings and other actions of anti-Semitism today, Liza says, embracing diversity is crucial. These signs of hatred, she explains, are for no other reason than that someone is viewed as different.

“In order for us to respect diversity, we need to embrace our common humanity,” she adds.

Learning about the roots of anti-Semitism is crucial to understanding it and being able to speak up against it, Helen says. “I think it’s important to understand the deep history of anti-Semitism and that it does tie in to Jewish life today. It’s important to take the lesson from that history and understand the gravity of anti-Semitism and know how to stand up against it.”

Anti-Semitism, Helen says, shows up in the usual, ancient tropes such as linking Jewish people with money or gold. While a meme stereotyping Jews may seem like just a meme on the surface, she says, these tropes lead to physical violent acts. “We see words of hate transforming into acts of hate with many groups, not just the Jewish community.”

Anti-Semitism is just one form of hatred against a specific group of human beings. For Liza, educating someone to stand up against one form of hatred teaches them to advocate against all forms of hatred.

“With the rise in anti-Semitism, racism, anti-Asian hate, and anti-LGBTIQA+ hate—students must learn from the past, the impact of hatred, and apply those lessons to what’s going on in society today,” Liza says. “It’s critical to empower them to be allies and upstanders against all forms of hate.”

Helen echoed that sentiment. For her, Holocaust education is curcial because it serves as a critical historical case study.

“It is such an important moment in history for us to understand,” Helen says. “It shows when we let things like anti-Semitism and hatred go unchecked, what can happen in society.”

For Liza, what is most shocking about the Holocaust is that so many people were bystanders, and millions of people bought into the propaganda of the time. She says people must have the courage to speak up when something is not right.

To stand up against this hatred is the first step to call things what they are, Helen says. She acknowledges that it takes time and practice to consistently achieve this. “Our job is to call it out, name it what it is, call out these tropes and of course stand up against it. There’s no place for hate in our communities, our societies, and our world.”

Book Festival educates and celebrates.
For Jamie, the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival is an important opportunity to celebrate Jewish authors and Jewish literature.

“In general, for Jews it’s important to see Jewish people in literacy,” she says. “In certain areas of literature, particularly young adult, we’re starting to see more Jewish characters. It’s important for people to see characters like them in the books that they read.”

Liza appreciates the book festival’s opportunity for authors to connect with each other and with readers. She sees her writing and speaking opportunities as opportunities to advocate against assignments like the one in her book.

“Students should never be given an assignment asking them to pretend they’re Nazis and to advocate for the Holocaust. Reenactments or debates like this open up the possibility that these reprehensible beliefs are acceptable. That crosses a moral line and does not belong in our schools,” Liza says.

The book festival continues through November 18.