Every other year, I serve on the judging panel for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, which comes with $100,000 to support the work of an emerging writer. This year’s prize went to Michael David Lukas for The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, which tells the story of Joseph al-Raqb, an American grad student raised by his Jewish mother who travels to Cairo after his Muslim father’s death to learn the story of their family’s thousand years of service as the watchmen of the Ibn Ezra synagogue, home of the famous Cairo geniza, a storeroom filled with hundreds of years’ worth of old documents from Cairo’s once-vibrant Jewish community.
Two years ago, I wrote about how writers are expanding the definition of Jewish literature after Idra Novey won the prize for Ways to Disappear, a novel set in Brazil in which all the characters (except the loan shark) are Jewish, according to the author, even though it’s never mentioned. Lukas has expanded Jewish literature further, setting his absorbing novel in an Arab country.As our reviewer writes, “In his exploration of some 10 centuries of Cairo’s history, including times when the city’s Jews and Muslims lived side by side in relative harmony, Lukas at least hints that another era of peaceful coexistence is not beyond imagining.”
The other finalists are Dalia Rosenfeld for her short story collection, The Worlds We Think We Know, which our review calls “funny, touching, awkward, and wry”; Rachel Kadish for The Weight of Ink, which weaves past and present together in a fascinating exploration of Jewish life in 17th-century Amsterdam and London; Mark Sarvas for Memento Park, about an American actor who discovers that a valuable painting may have been looted from his family by the Nazis; and Margot Singer for Underground Fugue, the story of a London woman coming to terms with a variety of losses around the time of the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings. Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.