The ProsenPeople

Interview: Jay Neugeboren

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

I recently had an opportunity to speak with veteran author Jay Neugeboren by phone for Jewish Book Council. This was appropriate because the ability “to conjure up the seen from the unseen” is the premise of his newest book, The American Sun and Wind Moving Picture Company, about a family making motion pictures in the years from 1915 to 1930; a proffered Skype interview wouldn’t have worked as well for a discussion of the work of this author who was a child and teen radio actor at the New York Board of Education’s radio station, WNYE-FM, in the Brooklyn of his youth. As in this newest novel, Neugeboren’s twentieth book, the author’s voice and storytelling ability carried our conversation. This is an abridged account of our discussion.

Beth Kissileff: Where do your stories come from?

Jay Neugeboren: The answer is—who knows? No particular source. That’s a question I am always asking. The stories always seem to be there waiting for me, though sometimes shrouded in mist and fog.

I grew up in Brooklyn during and after World War II, so some things are set in that milieu, and sometimes things that have actually happened in my life become transformed into fiction. But beyond that, I have no answer. Just as Irving Berlin made up new songs, and always seemed to have a new melody waiting, so with ideas and notions that are there for me, and eventually they become stories. They are not full-blown at first, but I know enough to begin, and find out the rest while I write. For me, part of the process lies in solving mysteries—in unlayering what is at first unknown to me.

In order to know about the lives of my characters and their ancestors, I had to create them.

In the early days of film—what we call silent films—they worked without scripts. There is a wonderful childlike wonder to that for me—a sense of 'let’s pretend.' As in 'I’m a mother, you’re a father, I have a dog—or a barn—so let’s make a movie.'

BK: How much research did you do for this book? There is such a wealth of detail in the novel about so many aspects of the early movie making process and I wonder how much of it is based in fact.

JN: I did not know a lot about the silent film era, and UMass-Amherst [where Neugeboren taught for many years] has an extensive library on film. I spent six to eight months watching movies and reading, lots. I read Anita Loos, biographies of D.W. Griffith and Buster Keaton, the 1001 Nights, Kevin Brownell (a film critic). I did my homework. I was fascinated by the technical aspects [of how films were made], and in the novel, for example, I make use of the fact that they edited films in the camera, cranking backwards and filming a scene again.

Like the proverbial hem of the skirt, I hope all my research doesn’t show. I try to let the research—the detail—serve the story.

BK: Since you are so fascinated by the movie-making process why did you write this as a novel, not a screenplay, since you have written screenplays too?

JN: The novel is my first love. I’ve written screenplays on occasion, mainly to get my kids through college, but things come to me in their particular forms or genres. This story said: “I am a novel.”

A novel, for me, relies on my imagination to inspire your (the reader’s) imagination. It is not all there for you. My novels or my stories come to me visually. I use words—what else?—to translate the novel I see inside my head into words that I hope will create a movie inside your head. A movie can evoke feelings, thoughts, it is all there and happening, there is no control over the images when you are watching a movie. You are transported for three hours to a world where you see real people. In a novel it is private—there’s only you, and words on pages. The landscape is in your mind and in your feelings. I hope this novel does for others what stories and novels did for me when I was a boy—I hope, that is, it will allow you to become lost in a world totally unlike the actual world we live in.

I work hard to make the words evoke particular images, thoughts, feelings, the mystery of relationships.

The American & Wind Moving Picture Company is made up of six sections—six separate films, six woodcuts—and I tried to pare everything down to essentials, to carve a book with words, and then to compress, compress, compress—so that the effect is stark, and the scenes are as vivid as dreams.

BK: What would you do if you weren’t a writer?

JN: I grew up at Shaare Torah synagogue in Brooklyn and I would run the Saturday morning services when I was in college. One day the rabbi, Joseph Miller, called me in. He asked me to consider the rabbinate, and said that he would see that I would be supported financially. I thought about it, but I wanted to be a writer. Being a pulpit rabbi and a writer is rough, though it can be done. My rabbi from Northampton [Massachusetts, where Neugeboren is a past president of Congregation B’nai Israel], Phil Graubart, is a marvelous writer.

I didn’t feel a calling for it—it should be a calling, really—the way writing is for me. The rabbinate should be a calling, and not simply a way to earn a living.

BK: What helped you write this book?

JN: Joey’s voice. Once I found that, I was home free.

BK: What do you take pride in as a writer?

JN: As a writer I am proud that if you took my last four books, and they didn’t have my name on them, I don’t think readers would know they were by the same author. The same with this novel. I think what I am making is an object that has a life and identity of its own, apart from me.

There is nothing wrong with a writer who has a distinct style in book after book, but I am not interested in repeating myself.

BK: Why do you write?

JN: I remain curious about all the lives I can’t have—and about the lives of others, real and imagined, past and present, and how people came to be who they are . . . and who they might yet be. I am enchanted by the landscape of possibility.

Read more about Jay Neugeboren here. 

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2013) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under consideration for publication and she is working on a second novel and volume of short stories.

Interview: Marc Tracy

Monday, June 17, 2013 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, which won a 2012 National Jewish Book Award, is a collection of essays compiled by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy of The New Republic. It’s a portrait of fifty Jews in sports—athletes, executives, and coaches—from different areas of the world and the roles they played in sports. I had the privilege of interviewing Marc Tracy for Jewish Book Council.

Elise Cooper: Why did you decide to put this book together?

Marc Tracy: Franklin Foer and I are big sports fans who identify with our Jewishness, and we’re also fans of good writing. We realized that this book could be a way to gather great writers, most of whom were Jewish. These are not professional sports writers; yet, they love sports. I am talking about big names such as David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker; Simon Schama, a superstar English historian who wrote about the boxer Daniel Mendoza; Mark Leibovich of The New York Times, and Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury Secretary, who wrote about Harold Solomon, the tennis player.

EC: How were the athletes chosen?

MT: There were different ways the writers and the subjects were chosen. For example, you cannot write about Jewish jocks without including Sandy Koufax. We asked the great sportswriter Jane Leavy, who wrote a fabulous biography of Koufax, to write an essay of new material on Koufax. She told the story of how Koufax came to her daughter’s bat mitzvah. Then there was Mark Oppenheimer, who wanted to write about Joel Silver. I said ‘Well, he is not really a Jewish jock but a Hollywood producer.’ He responded that the same Joel Silver who produced the Batman movies and “The Matrix” also invented Ultimate Frisbee.

EC: Why did you include Bobby Fischer and Corey Pavin and not include Moe Berg?

MT: For the fifty chosen there were fifty more whom we could have included, like Moe Berg, the Jewish major league catcher who was a spy in World War II. We also decided that any book about Jewish athletes had to include the good and the bad. The point of Wertheim’s essay about Pavin is that he was born and raised Jewish, yet converted to Christianity. Bobby Fischer was also born and raised Jewish and at the end of his life became a major anti-Semite. Ron Rosenbaum wrote a compelling essay on the gambler Arnold Rothstein. I enjoyed how he started it off by talking about the fictional character, Meyer Wolfsheim, in The Great Gatsby, whose life was based on Rothstein. Here is one of the most famous American novels ever written that has an anti-Semitic caricature based on a real life sports person who was also an unsavory gambler.

EC: Do you consider the essay about the 1972 Munich Olympics one of the most powerful?

MT: I do. We asked Deborah Lipstadt, a foremost historian, to write about this horrific incident. I think there were seven or eight other essays that mentioned this event. Lipstadt pointed out how these athletes came to Germany to compete in peace and instead were murdered. The Munich massacre illustrated what we point out in our introduction, how Jewish athleticism originally comes out of the instinct for self-defense, and how Zionism sprung from the violence against Jews. This is also emphasized in the essay by Shalom Auslander, who wrote about an older Jewish man confronted by two black kids on a New York subway: “And he turned around and pushed them back—hard—and they fell back down in the seat…And he said, 'We’re Jews, we won this war, we beat our enemies, we don’t take this stuff anymore.'”

EC: What was one of the most interesting facts in the book?

MT: Rich Cohen’s essay on Sid Luckman that included Benny Friedman, who was an All American quarterback at the University of Michigan, and who pioneered the passing game when he played for the New York Giants. Friedman, along with Luckman, who played for the Chicago Bears, invented the quarterback position as we know it today. They revolutionized football with the forward pass, and having the quarterback as the superstar. As Cohen writes, “It was the birth of the quarterback as we know him: the general who calmly leads his team down the field.”

EC: What do you want the readers to take out of the book?

MT: How the story of the Jews in sports is a microcosm for the story of sports in America. The story of Jews in sports is the story of sports. From Al Davis, who was a path breaker by integrating the NFL for head coaches, to Hank Greenberg who, as the general manager of the Indians, mistreated one of his players, Al Rosen, solely because he did not want to be seen as playing favorites to one of his own, another Jewish slugger.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

Related: Marc Tracy's blog posts for the Visiting Scribe

Nice Jewish Girls Finish Whole

Monday, June 17, 2013 | Permalink
Kathy Ebel, a first-generation American, was born in Manhattan. Her blog, Fatherland: There’s No Place Like Home, or How and Why a Nice Jewish Girl Asked Germany to Take Her Back, chronicles her quest to have her German citizenship restored. Kathy considers Brooklyn her hometown and currently lives with her family in Los Angeles. Claudia Silver to the Rescue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is her first novel. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I think of Claudia Silver, the eponymous heroine of my debut novel, Claudia Silver to the Rescue, as one in an anxious, spirited line of Nice Jewish Girl protagonists from New York City. This lineage starts with Lily Bart, Edith Wharton’s A-list flibbertigibbet in The House of Mirth, then moves on to Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar (who put up with that scoundrel Noel Airman’s hijinks for about 100 riveting pages too long), Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine (if only 30 had been the new 20 in 1972), Erica Jong’s Isadora Wing, and Melissa Bank’s Jane Rosenal. Yes, I know that Lily Bart wasn’t Jewish. But if only she’d married Simon Rosedale! (Sob! Gnashing of teeth! She could’ve given him a make-under!)

Claudia Silver possesses some key traits that connect her to her literary sisters. She’s got a loud speaking voice and wobbly self-worth, she finds comfort in self-destructive habits and relationships, and she’s paralyzed by her own ambivalence. She’s helpful and selfish, fierce and vulnerable. She’s got a keen sense of class and caste, ranking herself ruthlessly in any given social situation. She knows how to dance, and how to accessorize. But unlike Lily and Marjorie, whom I adore, but let’s face it, whether it’s in the back of a hat shop or lower Westchester, they both die from denial, Claudia wakes up. And she does so along a particularly Jewish continuum.

It’s when Claudia hears her ill-fated soon-to-be-paramour, Paul Tate, recite the shehecheyanu prayer as grace over an assimilated Christmas dinner, that her interest in him shifts, fatefully. Once Claudia’s actions cause a multi-family train-wreck, she becomes aware that she has one chance to make it right – and that’s to undertake “teshuvah” – the humble pursuit of repentance. Now, I don’t know how the Rambam or Rav Kook or even my own Los Angeles rabbi, Sharon Brous, would define teshuvah. (Personally, I plucked my definition from the low hanging branch on the tree of knowledge known as Wikipedia.) But Claudia acknowledges her profound misdeed with humility, fesses up, will remember this one for the rest of her life, and even though there’s no sequel in the works, I promise you, dear reader, that she will refrain from committing this one in the future. In fact, once Claudia Silver accounts for her actions, she’s propelled forward to growth and emotional maturity. She marches straight into a possibly dangerous social event and yanks her younger sister free of it, apologizes sincerely to the Nice Jewish Boy Who Was There All Along and gets her love life on track, and even reunites with mother despite a dug-in estrangement. And none of this could have happened if Claudia hadn’t made the worst mistake of her life.

It’s my firm belief and my personal experience that patterns run through families faster than we can usually stop them, which is why we need both spiritual practice and literature – so that a wisdom greater than our own can escort us, lovingly, to awareness and eventually, to change. And it’s my opinion that Lily and Marjorie made huge freakin’ mistakes. Do I need to tell you that if Marjorie Morningstar had understood what Wally Wronken truly had to offer, she might’ve been at the TONY Awards last week in Calvin Klein? Possibly with Calvin Klein? Given her lineage, Claudia was powerfully teed up to repeat history. But having read her Wharton and her Wouk, she, through me, made a different choice. And as a result, the biggest mistake Claudia Silver ever made is the best thing that ever happened to her.

Find out more about Kathy Ebel and Claudia Silver to the Rescue here.

New Jewish Children's Book Reviews

Friday, June 14, 2013 | Permalink
Find the full list of the latest children's book reviews here.


New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, June 14, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

Writing Contest Winners: The Catskills and the Holocaust

Thursday, June 13, 2013 | Permalink

The Catskills Institute and the Jewish Studies Program at Loyola Marymount University are delighted to announce the winners of the fiction and non-fiction writing contests: “The Catskills and the Holocaust.”

Bonnie Shusterman Eizikovitz is co-winner of the fiction contest for “Catskills Dreams and Pumpernickel,” a short story about a girl nicknamed Pumpernickel by a woman bungalow colony resident, a Holocaust survivor who is a parent figure for the youngster. The woman and her husband, despite his mechanical assistance to whomever asks a favor, are still outsiders because of their unique experience, while young Pumpernickel berates her own parents for their derision of these “greeners.” Memories of the smuggled shofar in the concentration camp mingle with the current holiday in America.

Rita Calderon is the other fiction co-winner for “Waiting for Dovid,” a short story centered in 1938 on a girl and the family’s effort to bring her father’s brother to the Catskills hotels where her mother is the chef. Uncle Dovid arrives, but alone, since visas were denied to the rest of his family. Memories of other brothers punctuate the conversations, and we see the juxtaposition of Catskills’ pleasures with Europe’s horrors. Through these lenses, family secrets are revealed, while Dovid returns to France to try to get his family out.

Michael Kirschenbaum won the non-fiction contest for “Forgiving God in the Catskills,” a chapter from his forthcoming memoir tentatively titled: A Jewish Chicken Farmer’s Son. “Forgiving God in the Catskills” focuses on a visit to Kutsher’s Country Club in the Catskills to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, with a Holocaust survivor and his sons. Memories of the Holocaust punctuate the holiday services, as the Catskills are themselves memorialized as the places where “The greeneh were happy to mingle with the others who still embraced and a Jewish culture with European roots.”

All three winners have written beautiful stories, each of which opens up the world of the Holocaust experience of people in the Catskills. We hope a wide audience will read these stories in order to expand the overall awareness of this critical place and time. You can read them on the website of the Catskills Institute ( or the Jewish Studies Program at Loyola Marymount University(

The contest is sponsored by the Catskills Institute, the Jewish Studies Program at Loyola Marymount University, Jewish Book Council, the “1939” Club, the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University, Brown University Judaic Studies Program, the Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Symposium,, and the Four Seasons Lodge film group.

The contests originated as part of a book project, Summer Haven: The Catskills, the Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, edited by Dr. Holli Levitsky, Professor of English and Director of Jewish Studies at Loyola Marymount University, and Dr. Phil Brown, President of the Catskills Institute and Professor of Sociology and Health Sciences at Northeastern University. The book project provides a locus for original research and literature exploring the experience of the Holocaust in the Catskills. To expand knowledge of this subject, Levitsky and Brown welcome any data from readers about the experience in the Catskills of the Holocaust and its immediate aftermath.

The contests were judged by two panels of eminent writers in the field of Jewish literature and scholarship. Non-fiction judges were Hasia R. Diner, Deborah Dash Moore, and Jonathan Sarna. Fiction judges were Eileen Pollack, Thane Rosenbaum, and Yale Strom.

Each contest winner receives $500 (for the fiction contest, that was split between the two fiction winners). Pending a book contract and the publisher’s agreement on the anthology’s contents, the winning entries will be published in the Levitsky and Brown book and may present their work in a public forum associated with its publication.

Crossing Delancey: Royal Young on Lee Brozgold

Thursday, June 13, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Royal Young discussed his decision to change his nameinterviewed his grandparents, and wrote about his parents' reaction to his debut memoir Fame Shark. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My father's artwork was always how I made sense of the world around me. The sometimes scary, ghetto Lower East Side I grew up in was beautiful, interesting and safe when shaded by his paints. His devotion to his artwork, but also creative, compassionate parenting inspired me early on to pursue my own artistic passions. I would sit in Dad's sun drenched studio dictating stories about suicidal whales before I could write.

Dad encouraged my taste for tragedy and drama by reading me bedtime stories beyond my years. With me in the cozy crook of his flannel arm, under soft yellow lamps he turned the pages and read ten year-old me Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham, Dickens’s Great Expectations and Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain. These guilty, lonely, decadent, sexual stories were a dazzling escape from the Lower East Side of the early ‘90s. They infuse my writing to this day.

I also got my fascination for celebrity from my artist father. He was intrigued by what fame stood for; the levels of luxury, artistic recognition and happiness Americans believed it could get you. Yet, his was an outsider’s stance. He felt more comfortable around the edges. The works which gained him newspaper write-ups and radio interviews were skull shaped masks of American conservatives, people he felt propagated the unfair conservation of money and power. These death heads, wildly colorful in papier-mâché ranged from Nancy Reagan and George Bush Senior to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Andy Warhol.

And though, as a wild teenager I would throw myself right into this celebrity world my father so mistrusted, it was the loving foundation he had laid for me that ultimately saved me. There is always a dance between an artist’s ego as projected into their work and their own personal feelings of self-worth. Dad taught me that family was the most important grounding influence and throughout my young career as a writer it has been family that has constantly inspired me and brought me back down to earth when old streaks of megalomaniacal mad artistry threatened to take over my true sense of self.

Though, it hadn’t helped to often be my father’s model as a child. Seeing myself front and center both in the work of the Dad I loved but also hanging on gallery walls and public murals all over New York City was a heady experience; a seductive taste of celebrity that would later completely consume me.

Here, my mother, younger brother and I walk across Delancey Street: 

My father took the photograph and had a monument modeled after the Eifel Tower superimposed in the background. This was part of a proposal by community artists to create ambitious pieces for the Lower East Side. My father’s idea was for a massive memorial dedicated to the lives of Jewish immigrant women lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. These were more innocent days, pre-gentrification when the whole world didn’t dream of adulation.

Royal Young's debut memoir Fame Shark will be released June 2013 from Heliotrope Books. Young contributes to Interview Magazine, New York Post, BOMB Magazine and The Lo Down.

Interview: Lesley Simpson

Thursday, June 13, 2013 | Permalink

Lesley Simpson is the author of A Song for My Sister (Random House), a lovely picture book about simchat bat, the Jewish baby naming ritual. Lesley takes young readers on a humor filled journey as older sister Mira adapts to her new, very noisy baby sister! The charming illustrations by Tatjana Mai-Wyss are a perfect pairing for the lively story. I'm so excited to share this special book and welcome Lesley.

Barbara Bietz: What was the inspiration for Song for My Sister?

Lesley Simpson: The true story about this book is that I wrote a book called A Name for My Brother. It was full of toilet humour, bubbling with explosive burps and stinky farts. One publisher liked the concept but not the toilet humour and asked if I would consider a rewrite. I did a rewrite but out emerged a completely different book! That is one of the best things about writing-the surprise or what I call the loot bag factor. You do not always know what will emerge. I had read about a simchat bat ceremony for a girl that sounded meaningful. The ceremony featured showing light, for example, so the girl would create light in the world and each blessing contained a concrete example of its essence. I thought it was lovely way to welcome a new life into the world. For the record, I still have the stinky burpy book in my drawer if any publishers are curious.

BB: The Simchat Bat celebration may not be familiar to many read­ers. Why did you feel this was an important celebration to share with young readers?

LS: I love the notion of celebrating a new life of a girl with the wishes and blessings for what her life can be. I found out after I had submitted the book that it is the only English language picture book celebrating the naming of a girl in the Jewish world. I was flabbergasted but happy to begin filling the void.

BB: What were your thoughts when you saw the illustrations by Tat­jana Mai-Wyss?

LS: I am a writer. And I say this as a writer of picture books. If the art does not 'sing' the book is dead. In my own imagination I wanted some­thing that radiated warmth, whimsy with a sense of humour. These illustrations exceeded my expectations. I am honoured to have Tatjana's Mai-Wyss' work illuminate the story. The art is the lens through which the reader experiences the book. It is primary to the experience.

BB: Mira is a very relatable older sister as she struggles with the loud crying of her little sister. Is Mira's character based on someone you know?

LS: Mira exists in my imagination. She is plucky, honest, and good at cartwheels. (I am terrible at gymnastics for the record and somersaults used to make me feel carsick.)

BB: What is your favorite children's book?

LS: OK, it's impossible to pick one book. But I can tell you right now I do love Sweet Pea by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, about a little pea who cannot eat his veggies until he gobbles up all of his sweets. I love Rosenthal's spirit of creativity, pluck and warmth.

BB: Thanks, Lesley!

To learn more about Lesley, please visit her website at

Barbara Bietz is a freelance writer and children’s book reviewer. She is currently a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. Barbarais the author of the middle grade book, Like a Maccabee. She has a blog dedicated to Jewish books for children at

From Shtetl to Star: A Jewish Tradition of Changing Names

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Royal Young interviewed his grandparents and wrote about his parents' reaction to his debut memoir Fame Shark. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I changed my name from Hazak Brozgold to Royal Young when I was 20 years old. I was a drunk college drop-out who had moved back into my parent's Lower East Side apartment with big, unrealistic dreams and a drinking habit too large for my childhood bedroom. Getting rid of my hard to pronounce Hebrew name felt like a step toward escaping my youth and my disapproving Jewish parents. My moniker had set me apart in classrooms and the ghetto downtown streets I'd grown up in. The Lower East Side of my youth was broken glass on uneven sidewalks, fast domino games, sneakers hanging from streetlights, Hip Hop blasting bass heavy from car windows. My grandparent's days, when the neighborhood was an Eastern European shtetl transplant, were long gone. My parents had literally missed the boat.

They named me Hazak Brozgold to make up for it. Hazak means "strong" in Hebrew. But I always felt weak. A shy, quiet bookworm I shrank from the rough streets around me, finding escape in making my neuropsychologist mom administer me Rorsach tests instead of going on play dates, or painting crude canvasses with my artist/social worker father in his cluttered studio.

Perhaps I escaped too much into my parents. By 20, I wanted to run away from them and hide behind dive bars where they couldn't reach me or speak the slurred language.

Yet, what started out as a pompous challenge—changing my name to Royal Young (my younger brother changed his name to Fury Young in a show of stubborn solidarity)—strangely allowed me to become closer to my parents and my Hebrew heritage. I took to Royal naturally. I was used to sticking out. I cut down on drinking and started getting published under my new byline. Small articles that didn’t pay my rent but made me feel, for the first time in my life, able to provide for myself. I was more comfortable with a name that people pinned to a profession rather than a religion.

There are legions of Jews who have changed their names to take on larger than life careers in writing, acting, as artists. Taking on an identity that encouraged success seemed like a rite of passage to join this group of my fellow tribesmen and women. I began to wonder if picking your own persona had less to do with disguising your heritage and more to do with finding a shield to deal with the more unpleasant aspects of making your work public. Countless rejection, hate mail, harsh editing, scrutiny when my pieces were published, Royal took them all in stride. I’m not sure if Hazak would have been able to.

I also relished having a part of me that was private. My parents would never stop calling me Hazak. The way it tripped off my grandparents tongues was with the “Ch” Hebrew pronunciation at the beginning. I loved being able to catch up with my parents over weekly dinners and be reminded, simply by the name they had so lovingly given me, that I had a healthy, whole, strong family to support me when work became overwhelming.

It’s been eight years since I started calling myself Royal. Only this year, with the publication of Fame Shark, did I change my passport. The change is about coming into my own, accepting the past, but pushing forward. It’s not about shame, or leaving my roots behind. It’s a decision Hazak made. One he is finally ready to fully be proud of.

Royal Young's debut memoir Fame Shark will be released June 2013 from Heliotrope Books. Young contributes to Interview Magazine, New York Post, BOMB Magazine and The Lo Down.

Famous Roots: An Interview With My Babbi and Zayde

Tuesday, June 11, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Royal Young wrote about his parents' reaction to his debut memoir Fame Shark. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My maternal grandmother fought to escape her Lower East Side. My Babbi was born in 1932 and raised on Pitt Street and Houston, a few blocks from where I would grow up years later. She was the daughter of Orthodox Austrian immigrants who came through Ellis Island in 1919 with thousands of other displaced Jews, gazing in awe at the Statue of Liberty from the steerage deck of a third-class freighter.

The Lower East Side of the ’30s was an Eastern European shtetl transplant, an unruly Jewish village struggling through the end of the Depression. Its tenements teemed with immigrants who practiced wild customs—matchmaking, interpreting prophesies from dreams— that they’d imported with silver menorahs hidden under rags during the ocean passage.

My handsome grandfather had a bachelor pad on Henry Street before he was a Zayde. They met when he taught my Babbi art and their hearts filled over many hours developing photographs in dim darkrooms. Images of her from that time are coy and striking, he bold and laughing. Their eyes gleam for adventure, conquest, love, glory, knowledge.

To this day my grandparents teach me about loving fully, they have always fully believed in my writing, encouraged me to pursue it no matter what the odds. In a career filled with rejection, this fighting spirit buoyed me. Their beautiful old home in Long Island with a swimming pool and lush garden is my refreshing escape from the downtown New York hustle I still live in. Their wisdom, tenacity and verve inspire me every day and so I decided to sit down with them before the publication of my memoir Fame Shark and talk about their first meeting, performance as love, competition, what art means to them, and the perils and pleasures of celebrity.

Royal: What was your sense of yourselves in the city when you were growing up?

Babbi: I was a very happy child because my family was a happy family. Every Shabbos we would go to shul together, everyone. Then out to a beer garden and we would have drinks and chickpeas. The children used to play with each other and laugh and we were all dressed up as beautiful dolls.

Royal: Yet, your family also had idiosyncrasies. Your mother would feed drunks on the Bowery.

Babbi: That’s right. My mom was very interesting from the point of view of her humanity. If my mother saw anyone who even looked hungry she would immediately give them food or make me go down to give them bread. Crazy people used to come to our apartment and knock on the door.

Royal: Did you feel stuck in the Lower East Side?

Babbi: No, I was always an adventurer.

Zayde: When I was sent off from home in Philadelphia to go to yeshiva in New York, I was expected to manage my own affairs at the age of 15. In my tenement I had a room with a window but it didn’t look outside. It looked into another room. I didn’t last there very long. But we survived.

Royal: You both always had a huge interest in arts. Do you think that helped you see that there was a larger world out there?

Zayde: Oh, yeah! Unbelievably.

Babbi: Oh yes and my mother was a dressmaker, she made clothing.

Zayde: You would call her a stylist these days [laughs].

Babbi: Okay, well she also helped heavyset women to fit into their clothing. We would sneak away to go to the museums or look at art in the windows of Cooper Union.

Zayde: My father lured me to leave for New York by taking me to the Educational Alliance art school.

Babbi: And then he ended up being a teacher there and I convinced my mother to sign me up for classes. She would say it was the best fifteen cents she ever spent.

Royal: How do you feel about the changes in the Lower East Side?

Zayde: Inevitable. In many ways regrettable.

Royal: What does performance mean to you in your life?

Babbi: I was certainly a performer as a professor. I enjoyed that aspect of it.

Zayde: My father was a cantor, I used to spend my hours listening to him rehearse for his performances in the synagogue. He sang his heart out. In addition to studying art and art history for many years, I also had a career as a rabbi and you have to realize you are a performer when you lead a congregation.

Babbi: For me I also think it was about competition. I had so many other children to compete with like my twin sisters, that I felt I had to act things out to gain attention.

Zayde: I translated my father’s memoirs from Yiddish and I would read them aloud. This too was a kind of acting performance. I put my soul into trying to recreate what my father had lived through.

Royal: Interesting that performance is equated to emotional connection. You want love, attention or understanding and in order to get those things you have to act out.

Babbi: Yes, of course you do. I could perform in front of my relatives all the time and I got presents for it, good food, nice cookies [laughs].

Royal: [laughs] So you had to sing for your supper!

Babbi: Yes.

Zayde: It’s not a compulsion, but it’s very satisfying.

Royal: But for you performance is not equated with fame. I think for the modern mentality it is.

Babbi: For me, performance is equated with love.

Royal: How do you feel about fame?

Zayde: Fame can be a terrible burden. It could hang around your neck. Be careful what you wish for when you wish for fame. The striving for fame can overwhelm you.

Royal: Now everyone knows about celebrity.

Zayde: [laughs] Yes, ever since Andy Warhol saying everyone was entitled to fifteen minutes of fame. I don’t agree with fame for its own sake. If you are talented and work and receive recognition for your art, fine. That’s about as far as I go. I like to feel people can appreciate what I offer, but it’s the offering of it that is more important than receiving accolades.

Babbi: Not celebrity, but the important level is that people recognize you do good work. If you know who you are and can project that, it’s so much better for you. People will listen to you if you know who you are.

Royal Young's debut memoir Fame Shark will be released later this month from Heliotrope Books.