A discussion with the award-winners of the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards

Derek Sayer presented by David Koffman (left), Doris Bergen (right); photos courtesy of Gary Beechy

The Canadian Jewish Literary Awards announced the 2023 recipients at an award ceremony held on Oct. 15. Held on campus in the Tribute Communities Recital Hall, this celebration hosted authors hailing from across Canada and internationally, all writing in fiction, biography/memoir, poetry, history, Jewish Thought and Culture, Yiddish, scholarship, Holocaust, and books for children and youth categories. Excalibur recently caught up with some of the award-winners to discuss their work.

David Koffman, a professor of history and the author of The Jews’ Indian: Colonialism, Pluralism, and Belonging in America, served on the jury. He shares that all jury members, a collection of knowledgeable and impressive readers and writers, read all the books that were submitted and meet regularly to discuss which ones stood out most to them. 

“Almost all of our award winners are chosen unanimously, though occasionally, a winner is chosen among two by vote. The adjudication process is rigorous, fun, and at times difficult, since there are so many amazing book submissions,” says Koffman.

“In historically Muslim lands, Jews and Christians were considered ‘dhimmi’ — tolerated religious minorities — and were sometimes called ‘People of the Book,’ because Islam recognizes both the Torah and the Gospels as moments of Revelation. Jews have proudly re-appropriated this idea of themselves as ‘People of the Book’ because of our long, deep, and wide engagement with literary productivity,” Koffman adds.

Doris Bergen, a professor of history with a focus on the Holocaust and World War II at the University of Toronto, is the winner of the first Irving Abella Award in History for her book Between the God and Hitler: Military Chaplains in Nazi Germany.

“I think of myself first as a historian rather than an author, because it’s really the research I do that inspires what I write. Of course I get to decide what topics to research and how to analyze my findings, and for these parts of my work I have many sources of inspiration,” says Bergen.

“When I was a first-year student at the University of Saskatchewan, our English professor T.J. Matheson came into class one day and said, ‘You probably think I’m so brilliant because I have a PhD. Well, I have news for you. An intelligent ape could get a PhD. In fact, many have. And you can, too, if you want.’ That really stuck with me. I have no idea why he decided to say that but I still appreciate it,” adds Bergen, expressing words of encouragement for readers and aspiring writers. 

Derek Sayer, a professor emeritus from the sociology department at the University of Alberta, has won the Award for Scholarship for Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History. 

“I was especially gratified (and pleasantly surprised) to receive this particular award because I am not Jewish and my book is not a work of Jewish history as such — though many Jewish cultural and political figures are in its pages. It means a lot to me that the jury felt I nonetheless did justice to their stories,” says Sayer.

Although he holds a PhD in sociology from Durham University, Sayer defines himself as a cross-disciplinary scholar with a deep interest in history. In his writing, he focuses on writing for a wider public, rather than just for fellow academics, as he shares that intellectuals have a responsibility to make their knowledge accessible.

To learn more about the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards and other award-winners, click here.

About the Author

By Sydney Ewert

Arts Editor


Sydney is in her third year at York University studying Dance. She loves to travel and explore new places. When Sydney is not editing, working, or studying for her classes, she is likely going for walks or learning new recipes.


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