Conversations: Where Readers and Authors Share the Discussion

A selection of HBI Conversations books

A selection of HBI Conversations books

By Amy Sessler Powell
HBI Communications Director


Davina Fisher remembers her first book in HBI Conversations, a unique group run by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, where the readers and authors meet together to share discussion.  

She joined HBI Conversations when she found herself unemployed from the economic downturn and she turned to her bucket list rather than seek a new job. The first book was “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” by Lucette Lagnado. It was in February of 2009 and the group met at the Brandeis Club in Manhattan.

“I sat around the table and there she was, Lucette Lagnado! She was an incredible presenter and I thought, ‘look what I lucked into.’ I walked out on a high that I had read this book, discussed it with the author and she had signed my book,” said Fisher, now coordinator for the New York group.

Fisher’s experience is repeated in multiple cities across the U.S. and Canada as the HBI Conversations , spreads. Started by the HBI in Palm Beach over ten years ago, each group chooses the books that they feel best honor HBI’s mission of “fresh thinking about Jews and gender worldwide.”  Today, there are 10 locations serving approximately 640 women.  Those involved describe the sessions as a wonderful experience for reader and author. The discussion groups are kept to around 30 people.

Beth Tishler, coordinator of the Boston HBI Conversations group said, “One of the things that make it special is the chance to truly have a conversation with an author. The author loves it because everyone who comes has read the book.”

Other settings, such as book signings or author talks, do not lend themselves to in-depth discussion.  They tend to attract book buyers versus those who have read the book and the structure does not promote the sort of rapport experienced with HBI Conversations.

Alyson Richman, author of “The Lost Wife,” said, “An author dreams about a rapt audience where everyone is curious about the book, your process and your journey of how you came to write the book. It’s really wonderful experience.”

Jessica Grosman, coordinator of the Baltimore group, joined HBI Conversations shortly after having her first child. She found herself too often in settings where talk leaned toward preschool and she yearned for something completely different.

“I needed to stretch my mind and be around other women with similar interests. I wasn’t working and had intellectual capacity,” she said.  

Richman, who has spoken to eight different Conversations groups, sees it as a “wonderful way to have a lens into a group of women still trying to have an educated life, keep their minds aflame and nurture their curiosity and intellect.”

Her book tells the story of Josef and Lenka torn apart by the Holocaust and reunited after a chance meeting at a wedding in New York. She recalls a question from her first book discussion with women from the Boston group which meets at HBI.

“We were talking about the process of how I came to write ‘The Lost Wife,’ and someone asked me how the Holocaust was taught to me as a child. I felt my voice tremble. It was not taught to me in an appropriate way and it was such an intelligent question that brought me back to my own childhood,” Richman said.

Grosman noted that the women in the group come from diverse backgrounds and often lend a perspective through the lens of their life experiences that enriches the discussion.

“We have women who are children of survivors or who were close to events during the Civil Rights Movement or different war periods in Israel. It makes the conversation so much richer,” Grosman said.

There are times when members reread the books after the discussion because they feel enlightened by what they learn of the author’s process.

Tishler said, “Sometimes the author will disclose something of a personal nature. People love to find out the story behind the story and to understand why certain characters are there. That’s what makes this group unique.”

For more information on HBI Conversations, contact Melissa Grossman, gmelissa@brandeis.edu or visit http://brandeis.edu/hbi/conversations/index.html.