Free Festival of Books primed to grow, Jewish founder says
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Free Festival of Books primed to grow, Jewish founder says

East Liberty-based festival welcomes Joseph Sassoon, Emily Tamkin, Jeannette Walls and 50 other talented writers for May 13 extravaganza

Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books founder and chairman Marshall Cohen. Photo courtesy of  Miranda Brazinski
Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books founder and chairman Marshall Cohen. Photo courtesy of Miranda Brazinski

A free local literary event is being promoted by a person of the book.

Shadyside resident and Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books founder and Chairman Marshall Cohen hopes to welcome more than 2,000 readers to the May 13 event.

The festival is a one-day chance to hear from nearly 50 local and national authors and poets.

“The point that is important to me,” Cohen said, “is that it’s all free.”

Registration is encouraged but not necessary, he added.

As opposed to last year’s introductory event, which occurred at multiple sites throughout East Liberty and attracted 2,000 registrants, the festival's second go-round is housed completely within the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Given its proximity to bus lines and ample nearby parking, the location is ideal, Cohen said: “We’re bringing it to the community.”

Photo by mendhak via Flickr at

Cohen wants to see as many attendees as possible but knows the Saturday scheduling is problematic for some community members, particularly those who are Sabbath-observant.

“It is something long term that we need to figure out and address,” Cohen said.

Given the festival’s relative infancy, Cohen believes the Shabbat situation is resolvable.

“What you see with some book festivals is that they start small and they grow,” he said.

Cohen pointed to the Boston Book Festival.

“It started out one day in Copley Square in Boston and now runs almost a week,” he said. “They do some things during the week. They do some things during the year. So there's all kinds of possibilities like that.”

Cohen believes the festival is headed toward growth and credited support from local libraries, organizations and independently-owned bookstores, as well as a talented cadre of writers appearing this year.

Of particular note, he said, are Emily Tamkin and Joseph Sassoon.

The latter is the author of “The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire,” a 2022 book about a Jewish Baghdadi family. Published by Penguin Random House, the book was described as “engaging … compelling … well-paced and supremely satisfying” by The New York Times.

Tamkin, a Washington D.C.-based journalist who served as a foreign affairs staff writer at Foreign Policy and BuzzFeed News, is the author of “Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities.”

“Heartfelt, nuanced, and empathetic, this revelatory ethnography is a must-read,” according to Publisher’s Weekly. “Journalist Tamkin illuminates in this vibrant study the multifaceted nature of the Jewish experience in America.”

Cohen is particularly excited for Pittsburghers to hear from Tamkin, he said, adding that he identifies with much of what she described in her “fascinating story.”

‘Bad Jews’ is a very timely book, in my own view of things that are going on in this country,” he said.

“One of the fun — and honestly quite moving — things about publishing this particular book has been seeing the different ways it’s resonated with or spoken to different people in different parts of the country,” Tamkin told the Chronicle. “I am both excited and humbled to get the chance to speak with Pittsburgh readers.”

Cohen said he’s delighted the community can hear from Tamkin and a slew of other talents, including New York Times bestselling authors Jeannette Walls (“The Glass Castle”), Rinker Buck (“The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey”) and W. Bruce Cameron (“A Dog’s Purpose”).

“For those who can, we hope they take a look at the program, the website ( and hopefully come, participate and be part of it,” Cohen said.

Whether it’s listening to talented writers and performers, picking up new books, getting copies signed or volunteering and helping the festival operate smoothly, there are numerous ways to be a part of this, Cohen said. “I’m just blown away by what’s coming together here — the people, the communities, it’s been wonderful — it’s going to be great.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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