The 2013-14 Contra Costa Jewish Book & Arts Festival has titled itself "Under One Tent" and the expansive programming for the six-month season will surely require a veritable big top.
Having started Oct. 6 and going through Dec. 15, 20 events delve into subjects as diverse as mindfulness, growing up under a tree stump, what it means to be "Jewnese" (a Jewish-Chinese mashup), Wyatt Earp's common-law wife and the life of a local East Bay boy who wound up in the Israel Defense Forces. The new year holds promise too, with a puppet show for families, book talks and an Afro-Semitic concert and discussion finale.
It's not too late to dive in now, and many of the programs are free. Admission, when it applies, is often under $10.
Festival director Riva Gambert said the closing of the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center, one of the main sponsors of the previous book festivals, caused a paradigm shift. This year, participating organizations and congregations present their own programs in a collaborative, community-driven approach. "As a consequence," Gambert said, "the energy has multiplied."
The Jewish community in the county is "dynamic," Gambert claims, and when the book festival ends next March, the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival will pick up the festival baton and run. But for now, it's mostly book-centric, with a few films and family events sprinkled throughout the eclectic program.
Writer Joshua Safran, who is deputy port attorney for the City of Oakland, had a Nov. 3 reading of his new memoir, "Free Spirit" as part of the Jewish festival. He may be known to some as one of the "stars" of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival selection documentary "Crime After Crime." He was one of two lawyers who worked for seven years to free Deborah Peagler, a domestic abuse victim incarcerated for the murder of her husband; he also spoke at STAND! For Families Free of Violence's annual "Rebuilding Lives" luncheon in Oakland.
But before he became an attorney and a domestic abuse prevention advocate, Safran was a boy "growing up on the road and off the grid" (the book's subtitle).
Spinning within the psychedelic swirl of his freethinking mother's love, battered by his biological father's disinterest and bruised in both body and spirit by his alcoholic, counterfeit Salvadorian-guerilla-fighter stepfather, Safran's memoir is a search for stability.
Ironically, he finds it in impermanent places: an omnipotent being he names "Edward" and a goat named "Nancy;" a surrogate seat belt he knots out of a buckleless belt; an in-and-out family friend, Tony; the migrant Sanchez family and others. Eventually, miraculously, he claims stability through the very things his counterculture upbringing denied: organized education (college and law school), religion (Judaism) and lifestyle (steady job, Oakland home, wife Leah, three daughters).
In an interview, Safran says he's "still in the therapy phase" of his life. The regrets of his 12-year-old self -- from when he watched his mother being beaten and was too paralyzed to act on her behalf -- continue to haunt him. "I feel the need to stand up against the bully. I feel the need to make up for the powerlessness I felt," he says.
Connecting with Judaism -- or the "two Judaisms" he identifies as "belonging, being part of the tribe" and "authentic, not made up as we went along, like my mother's spirituality" -- has rooted him in real history.
"But I don't resonate with Woody Allen and his contemporary profile of a Jewish man as a weak, neurotic fool living in New York," he insists.
"Free Spirit" was written over 18 months of Sundays, he says. After wandering around and composing his thoughts, Safran could write a chapter in one day.
"But when I sent it to my editor and Leah read it, they told me I was avoiding the hardest part. They were right. I went back and wrote the entire second half."
Book & Arts Festival
A few upcoming festival events are:
For a complete list of events and directions to venues, go to http://www.jfed.org/underonetent/