Earlier this week, Richard Michelson wrote about following his own advice for aspiring authors in penning Fascinating, a children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy—which comes out this week! Richard is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
When I was deciding whether to accept the “job offer” to write the children’s book A is for Abraham in a series of cultural and state alphabet books by Sleeping Bear Press, I ran through the pros and cons with my friend and mentor, Leonard Nimoy.
The cons seemed obvious. I had never attended a Jewish Day School, I knew no Hebrew, I knew no Yiddish, I never had a Bar Mitzvah, I couldn’t recite any prayers, I never followed the traditions, and I even “cheated” on Yom Kippur, noshing when I should be fasting.
The pros? I couldn’t think of any offhand. And it was a daunting task. Boil down all of Jewish knowledge and history into the most important 26 categories. Write two- or four-line poems for young children to read and a sidebar explaining the subject in depth for older children.
Leonard thought it over and decided I was the “logical” choice.
Because I didn’t know anything, every part of Judaism interested me. And I saw it from the outside, like a child might. I had so many questions! It is often difficult to learn from a person who is too much the expert, he counseled. The fish cannot explain water. You need to be standing on dry land.
And his most important artistic advice: Do what scares you!
Leonard had insatiable curiosity and he lived by the mantra: Go, Do, Explore. He was an actor, director, photographer, singer, poet, pilot, and playwright. When he was offered the part of Spock he hesitated. At that time, he already had a successful thirteen-year career, having starred in two movies and numerous television shows, including the highest rated series of the day. He’d started his own studio to help teach younger performers.
Now he was being asked to wear pointed ears and a silly haircut. He was afraid he would lose all credibility. But then he remembered how his Zayde, who had come to the United States with a sense of adventure to find a better life, had always encouraged him to take chances.
Leonard’s parents, on the other hand, arrived much later. They were fearful people, as befits immigrants from Zaslav, Ukraine who escaped Russian pogroms. His mother was smuggled out of the city in a hay wagon, and his father was sneaked across the border. Their papers, upon entering the United States, had been stamped “Alien.” They were always telling young Lenny to stay home, fit in, and play it safe.
If he was yelled at for staying out too late, Leonard’s Bubbe used to console him by singing her favorite Yiddish poem: Itzik Manger’s There Is a Tree That Stands, which is about a boy who wants to turn into a bird and fly away. In the song, it’s cold out and his mother makes him put on a coat, then galoshes, then a hat and gloves, until he is so encumbered that
I try to fly, but I can’t move…
Too many, many things
My mother’s piled on her weak bird
And loaded down my wings.
I look into my mother’s eyes
And, sadly, then I see
The love that won’t let me become
The bird I want to be.
In his honor I decided my “V” would stand for Vulcan, and my side bar would incorporate the long history of Jews in the arts. So I penned two lines:
V is for Vulcan. Star-Trekkers, I’m guessing,
know Spock’s greetings’ based on a Kohanim blessing.
They were, perhaps rightfully, rejected by my editor, and a different “V” verse was substituted in their place. But I am pleased for the opportunity to share the couplet for the first time with Jewish Book Council’s readers—and I’ll talk more about that blessing of theh Kohanim, which became the starting point of my book Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy, in my next blog post!
Richard Michelson is the author of many acclaimed books for adults and children. His work has earned a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal and National Jewish Book Award recognition. Richard lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries.
- Marina Blitshteyn: The Poetry Writing Process
- Joshua Lambert: Sholem Aleichem’s Motl on a Kindle as Yiddish Classics Go Digital
- Howard Schwartz: Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets