Image cred­it: Bran­deis University

In advance of the 68th Annu­al Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards cer­e­mo­ny on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tick­ets for here), Jew­ish Book Coun­cil is shar­ing short inter­views with the win­ners in each category.

Jonathan Decter’s Domin­ion Built of Praise is the win­ner of the 2018 Mimi S. Frank Award for Sephardic Cul­ture in Mem­o­ry of Becky Levy. In his book, Decter ana­lyzes pan­e­gyric writ­ing — ded­i­ca­tions to poets, patrons, mer­chants, com­mu­nal lead­ers, and schol­ars — writ­ten in Hebrew and Judeo-Ara­bic, among oth­er lan­guages, from the tenth through thir­teenth cen­turies in the Islam­ic Mediter­ranean world. Judges on the Sephardic Cul­ture pan­el write, Ele­gant­ly writ­ten and prodi­gious­ly researched, Domin­ion Built of Praise opens a win­dow on the cul­tur­al norms and polit­i­cal ambi­tions of the medieval Mediter­ranean, and the place of Jews and Mus­lims — and poet­ry — in this vibrant and cul­tur­al­ly rich context.”

Which three Jew­ish writ­ers, dead or alive, would you most like to have din­ner with?

Judah Hale­vi (for the most beau­ti­ful words), Han­nah Arendt (for fierce inde­pen­dence of thought), and Saul Bel­low (because I’m enter­ing mid­dle age).

What’s your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

Risalat al-ghufran (The Epis­tle of For­give­ness) by Abu Alaa al-Maari, an Ara­bic work that fea­tures a tour of heav­en and hell, antic­i­pat­ing Dante. He was high­ly irreverent.

Which Jew­ish writ­ers work­ing today do you admire most?

I live in the Mid­dle Ages.

What are you read­ing right now?

Be-haz­arah me-Emek Refa’im (Return­ing from the Val­ley of Shades) by Haim Be’er. It’s about a revered author from Jerusalem, renowned for his knowl­edge of the city, who had become a Christian.

What are your great­est cre­ative influ­ences (oth­er than books)?

Islam­ic geo­met­ric designs and hikes in forests and mountains.

What do you hope read­ers will take away from your book?

A sense that Jew­ish cul­ture in the Medieval Mediter­ranean worked accord­ing to its own par­tic­u­lar social log­ic and aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty, and that this world was very dif­fer­ent from our own.