Dani Shapiro at the 72nd Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards Celebration

Pho­to­graph by Leor Michan

On March 1, 2023, we had the hon­or of cel­e­brat­ing the 72nd Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award win­ners at Bohemi­an Nation­al Hall. Over the next few weeks, we will be pub­lish­ing the remarks of the win­ners who spoke at this cel­e­bra­to­ry din­ner. Dani Shapiro is the win­ner of the JJ Green­berg Memo­r­i­al Award for Fic­tion for her nov­el Sig­nal Fires.


What makes a nov­el a Jew­ish nov­el? Does it need to be writ­ten by a Jew? Or have a rab­bi as its pro­tag­o­nist, or a can­tor, or maybe a psy­cho­an­a­lyst? Does it need to be set in Israel, or wartime France – or Scarsdale?

The late great David Fos­ter Wal­lace once shared this para­ble: two young fish are swim­ming along when they cross paths with an old­er fish. The old­er fish calls out: Hey guys! How’s the water?” and then swims on. A few moments lat­er, one of the young fish turns to the oth­er and asks: What’s water?”

To me, as a human being and as a nov­el­ist, Jew­ish­ness is the water I swim in. It is as insep­a­ra­ble from me as the oth­er deep­est aspects of my iden­ti­ty: wife, moth­er, daugh­ter, friend, writer. And a Jew­ish nov­el is one that is suf­fused with Jew­ish­ness to its core, which can mean many things. When Sig­nal Fires first came out, I received an annoyed note from a read­er, who asked why I was rep­re­sent­ing Jew­ish fam­i­lies who ate non-kosher food, or drove on Shabbos.

I thought about this ques­tion a lot. Was I mis­rep­re­sent­ing my Jew­ish char­ac­ters – or was I rep­re­sent­ing, in Sig­nal Firesa slice of Jew­ish life in Amer­i­ca – an Amer­i­ca in which Jews have been able to ask: what is water?

We’re liv­ing now in a time when we can­not afford not to know the water we’re swim­ming in, or to ignore the real­i­ties and exi­gen­cies of being Jews today – and I want­ed to write a nov­el in which my char­ac­ters are indeli­bly Jew­ish, in their ges­tures, their dia­logue, their mem­o­ries, their choic­es, to the point where it is sim­ply unspo­ken fact. Sarah has a mem­o­ry of Noah Kantrowitz throw­ing up in the neighbor’s aza­lea bush after his bar mitz­vah. Peter refers to a trip to Trad­er Joe’s in Los Ange­les on New Year’s Eve of 1999 as Erev Armaged­don.” And of course, there’s the guilt, the wor­ry, the parental love, the grief, the shame these fam­i­lies face as they live their lives, Jew­ish to their core, per­haps for this rea­son most of all: they nev­er stop ask­ing ques­tions. They’re liv­ing their lives, yes, their mod­ern, assim­i­lat­ed lives, but if asked, they know exact­ly what water is. Like me, it would be the first thing they’d say when asked to define themselves.

In clos­ing, I’m deeply hon­ored to be receiv­ing the JJ Green­berg Memo­r­i­al Award in Fic­tion, and very grate­ful to the JBC. If it’s true, what the char­ac­ter Wal­do says in my nov­el, that noth­ing ever real­ly tru­ly van­ish­es, then per­haps my dad is here at this moment, and if he is, I know he is kvelling.

Dani Shapiro is a best-sell­ing nov­el­ist and mem­oirist and host of the pod­cast Fam­i­ly Secrets (now in its sev­enth sea­son). Her work has been fea­tured in The New York Times, The New York­er, Vogue, and Time. She has taught at Colum­bia and New York Uni­ver­si­ty and is the co-founder of the Siren­land Writ­ers Con­fer­ence. She lives in Litch­field Coun­ty, Connecticut.