Nextbook's first event in Seattle, late in the fall of 2003, was a hard-to-describe lecture by the novelist Michael Chabon about an encounter he'd had with a golem—according to Jewish folklore, a creature created out of mud or clay with supernatural dimensions. Chabon gave the talk in the secondary lecture room at Benaroya Hall, and afterward in The Stranger I wrote: "The particular golem Chabon came across as a kid was clumpy and coffee-colored and had a 'squarish' head, and though Chabon is certain he encountered this golem and claims to have seen others, too... he was happy to concede that most people had no cause to believe him. Such was not the only virtue of his many-virtued lecture: He didn't insist on his own credibility."
Watching the lecture—which also touched on family history, the Golem of Prague, a faked Holocaust memoir, Judy Blume, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the "infinitely malleable clay of language"—one got the sense one was being let in on a side of Chabon's work/life/art that only the context of a Jewish audience, and the financial support of a Jewish institution, could have coaxed out of him. Not that the audience that night at Benaroya Hall was necessarily Jewish. Nextbook's goal to promote Jewish literature was built around books, not beliefs; never had an exclusionary vibe to it; and was always marketed to the mainstream. In contrast to small bookstore readings or Seattle Arts & Lectures' giant hall, Nextbook's readings and onstage interviews (more than a dozen a year) often happened in bars—the Rendezvous, Tractor Tavern, places like that. Other writers Nextbook has brought to Seattle include Tony Kushner, Amos Oz, Jonathan Ames, Nicole Krauss, Gary Shteyngart, and a raft of lesser-known writers and scholars that audiences weren't likely already familiar with.
Which is why the New York–based national nonprofit Nextbook's decision, announced two weeks ago, to pull the plug on programming in Seattle diminishes the literary/cultural life of the city. What does it leave? "A big hole," Michele Yanow, Nextbook's local program fellow for the last five years, said last week on the phone while cleaning out her files. "Plenty of Jewish authors come through Seattle—Seattle Arts & Lectures brought in Art Spiegelman and Cynthia Ozick—but they're certainly not promoting that aspect of those writers and trying to connect them to that culture."
A year ago, Nextbook decided to shift its focus from local programming (producing events in Seattle, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.) to national projects (publishing a web magazine at www.nextbook.org, publishing books, producing online literary festivals with authors and scholars, and the like). "We started these programs [in Seattle, Chicago, and D.C.] as a pilot, to see if we could build a national network of Jewish literary arts programs, and the truth is we never could figure out how to expand it beyond the three cities," said Matthew Brogan, who left his post as executive director of Seattle Arts & Lectures in 2003 to move to New York to become Nextbook's program director, and is now a consultant for the organization. "It became pretty clear that it wasn't feasible that we were going to have year-round Nextbook programs in 10 cities, for lots of reasons."
After a while, having year-round programming in only three cities began to seem "random and strategically out of place," Brogan said. "At the same time, we liked what we were doing and people seemed to like it, so we came to the conclusion that if we were going to continue in the three cities, we needed local partners to run them."
In Chicago, Nextbook found a local partner in the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies; in Washington, D.C., Nextbook partnered with the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center; but in Seattle, Nextbook couldn't find an organization to partner with. Seattle's Jewish community—which Yanow estimates at about 40,000 people—is a tenth the size of the Jewish communities in Chicago and D.C. Nextbook approached the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, the Jewish Community Center, the University of Washington chapter of Hillel, and the Jewish Studies Program at the UW's Jackson School, but none of them were in a position to be able to take on a big new project like Nextbook, even with significant financial support from Nextbook's New York office.
According to Tana Senn, the marketing and communications director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, "We weren't in a position to make the multiyear funding commitment. I think it pained everyone not to be able to do that." Senn pointed out that for the last year Yanow's office has been housed at the Jewish Federation, "so it's obviously something we love."