By Eileen Drennen

Actor Gene Wilder signs a book for Atlanta film critic Eleanor Ringel Cater during the 2009 festival. Wilder is returning this year.

Actor Gene Wilder signs a book for Atlanta film critic Eleanor Ringel Cater during the 2009 festival. Wilder is returning this year.

Dave Cohen, the voice of Georgia State University sports for 28 years, can tell you a million details about Panther baseball, basketball and now football. What he couldn’t tell you, before researching his new book, “Matzoh Balls & Baseballs,” was who came after Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg in the litany of Jewish baseball players.

Consider their rarity: Of the thousands of men who played pro baseball from its earliest days, fewer than 200 were Jewish.

“I just wanted to know about this very small group,” Cohen said, who got the idea for his own book after running into former Houston (now the Astros; then the Colt .45s) pitcher Larry Yellen of Duluth, at a book-signing for another baseball book. “I just wanted to hear their stories.”

Even if all 17 of the former players Cohen talked to – including Al Rosen, Mike Epstein, Ron Blomberg and Steve Stone – didn’t smash the record books themselves, many came up with guys who did, like Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio and Ty Cobb, and had tales to tell. Not just about baseball, but about balancing the dictates of their faith with the rules of the game.

Cohen is just one of 40-plus authors featured in the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s book festival opening Nov. 6.

Whether you want literature, history, culture – or just to get lost between the pages of a good book – the 19th annual edition of the popular Dunwoody event has you covered.

Over the course of two weeks, the festival hosts a broad range of readings, conversations, and family events from well-known names (Pat Conroy, Nicole Krauss, Yann Martel and Sara Gruen) to precocious first-timers like Morasha Winokur, 12, and Haley Metzger, 7. Seasoned reporters like Martin Fletcher (“Walking Israel”) and pop music legend Neil Sedaka (“Waking Up Is Hard to Do”) share the lineup with family-focused authors like Jessica Seinfeld (“Double Delicious”) and Rita Cosby (“Quiet Hero: Secrets From My Father’s Past”).

“We have a really good mix of history, pol tics, fiction,” co-chair Julie Kleinman said.

Since it’s a community event, she said, nearly half of the presentations are free: “We don’t want it to be inaccessible to anyone.”

19th Annual Book Festival of the MJCCA
Get details about which events require tickets and find out about package deals at www.atlantajcc.org.
When: Nov. 6- 21
Where: Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody.
Information: 678-812-4005.

So expect all sorts of interesting juxtapositions in the 15-day event, which kicks off with TV glitz on Saturday night – Food Network star Adam Richman (“Man v. Food”) has a new book called “America the Edible: My Hungry History, From Sea to Dining Sea” – but gets scholarly the next day with “The Global Day of Jewish Learning.”

Designed to coincide with an international move to “get every Jewish person in the world to engage in study on that day,” Kleinman said, the day of speakers ends with video from Jerusalem of noted Talmud scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. A ceremony will honor his epic 45-year initiative to translate and explain the full sacred Hebrew text.

Local authors include Laurel Snyder (“The Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher”), Marice Katz (“Little Slices of My Life”), Jeffrey Stepakoff (“Fireworks Over Toccoa”), and Cohen, who appears Nov. 14 with Justin Spizman (“Don’t Give up… Don’t Ever Give Up”) in a program titled “Good Sports.”

Cohen’s subjects – inlcuding two late-life converts to Judaism – conveyed a range of religious experiences. Some were more observant than others. Some sat out games on high holy days, for instance, and some didn’t.

What Cohen wanted to capture was the range of voices. Especially considering how difficult it was for classic era athletes to persuade their families – who valued education and traditional careers over all – that they could make a living playing ball.

Hall-of-Famer Hank Greenberg’s son Steve wrote the foreward to “Matzoh Balls & Baseballs.” In it, he talks about what it was like for his dad.

“The first line in his autobiography is: ‘People in my neighborhood used to say, “Mrs. Greenberg has such nice kids. It’s too bad one of them had to grow up and become a bum.” I was that bum.’ ”

Times may have changed, Cohen said. But what’s important for any community is “having that sense of pride in your community and how they contributed.”

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