Ribalow Prize Presented to Author Michael David Lukas
At a lively afternoon reception held on December 12, Hadassah Magazine presented writer Michael David Lukas with the 2019 Harold U. Ribalow Prize for his enchanting novel, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo. Lukas, who teaches writing at San Francisco State University, also won a National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Award for this novel, his second after 2011’s The Oracle of Stamboul.
The award ceremony, at Hadassah’s Lower Manhattan offices, featured a slate of speakers who provided a rich backdrop both to Lukas’s work—a richly evocative tapestry set largely in Egypt that spans 1,000 years in three interconnected narratives—and to the larger history of the Jewish community in Cairo.
After welcome greetings delivered by Janice Weinman, executive director/CEO of Hadassah; Marlene Post, past national president and current chair of Hadassah Magazine; and Lisa Hostein, executive editor of Hadassah Magazine, the audience was treated to the reminiscences of Egyptian-born Jewish writer and literary agent Jean Naggar.
Naggar, the author of Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt and a new novel, Footprints on the Heart, captivated the crowd with vivid descriptions of her happy, almost magical childhood in Alexandria and Cairo in the 1940s and early 1950s, in the years leading up to the Egyptian Jewish community’s demise after the Suez crisis in 1956. At that time, the Jewish community was so diverse and populous—close to 80,000 people—that its members traveled in what she called “concentric circles,” both in Cairo and Alexandria. In recounting the polyglot reality of growing up in a cosmopolitan setting, where school friends identified as Italian, French, Egyptian, Jewish or some other heritage and spoke multiple languages in the schoolyard, the home and the synagogue, Naggar painted an atmospheric landscape on which readers could embrace the setting of Lukas’s book.
In The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, Lukas explores the themes of stewardship, forbidden love and the relationship between Cairo’s Jews and Muslims. His central character, the son of a Jewish mother and Muslim father, explores the mysteries and history of the generations of his family that watched over the Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. In his address at the ceremony, after the official award presentation by Shira Nadich Levin, a representative of the Ribalow family, Lukas linked many of these themes to the purpose of literature today as a bulwark against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white nationalism.