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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Adam D. Mendelsohn

Friday, April 08, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Adam D. Mendelsohn and his book, The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire, a vivid picture of how “rag picking” in nineteenth-century England and the United States served as the springboard for Jews to enter the middle and upper classes.

A warm congratulations to Adam and the other four finalists: Yehudah Mirsky, Aviya Kushner, Dan Ephron, and Lisa Moses Leff. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

What are some of the most challenging things about writing nonfiction?

Two things. Firstly, deciding on the right moment to switch my energies from research to writing. The temptation is so strong to keep on digging, to follow one more lead, to ferret out additional detail (pick your preferred metaphor!). I find that much of the excitement of any research project comes from this initial exploratory phase: the thrill of the chase. But at some point the hunt has to take second place to the business of writing. And secondly, I am unsettled by an awareness that any historical project is so much the product of happenstance—the survival of particular archival collections; an accumulation of authorial decisions, some made knowingly, others unwitting; the necessity of selection; the whims and interests of the writer.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

Many inspirations, but one is the sheer pleasure I get from reading books that teach me new things and force me to think in new ways. If I am able to produce work that gives similar pleasure to others, I’d be delighted. Mission accomplished.

Who is your intended audience?

This book was written with an academic audience in mind, but with the aim of making it accessible to as wide a readership as possible. I like to believe that the question I grapple with at the heart of my book—why have Jews prospered so dramatically in America— is one that Jews and others should be thinking about. If Jewish success is not solely the product of the particular cultural baggage carried by Jews to these shores, then the experience of Jews has enormous potential relevance to more recent immigrant groups.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Many projects large and small. I’m overseeing a study—the first of its kind—attempting to track the attitudes of black South Africans toward Jews. I’m annotating the candid travel diaries of a nineteenth-century Jamaican Jew. And I’m in the early stages of a project about a curious episode that took place in Ethiopia in 1868.

What are you reading now?

My reading is schizophrenic. If I’m lucky I get to read something more serious in-between recitations of Winnie the Witch and The Gruffalo to my kids. I have a guilt-inducing stack of New Yorkers sitting on my bedside table. I am a voracious reader of novels (most recently Julian Barne’s The Sense of an Ending and David Benioff’s City of Thieves). And I am busy with a brilliant new book about the concentration camp system called KL.

If you had to list your top five favorite books…

Here are some that have influenced me:

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Replenishing the Earth by James Belich
Culture of the Jews by David Biale (and others)
The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I’ve always enjoyed words—as a teenager I’d peruse the dictionary for pleasure. But I only truly discovered the thrill of writing nonfiction as a university student. For me the pleasure comes both from the research and the puzzle-game of getting a sentence right.

What is the mountaintop for you—how do you define success?

Finding a fresh idea or novel perspective, and presenting it clearly and persuasively. Occasionally I’ll chance across something that is startlingly original, but is so obvious (in a good way) once it has been fleshed out.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

Pajamas help. But otherwise all I need is a problem to solve, typically a sentence that needs puzzling over. Once I get stuck in, the text takes over.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I do not for one moment imagine that I’ve written the definitive book about the economic success of Jews in America. Instead I hope to trouble the waters a little, persuading readers to think again about what role culture has played in this process, and perhaps to reassess the conventional wisdom.

Adam Mendelsohn is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, the only such center in Africa.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Yehudah Mirsky

Tuesday, April 05, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Yehudah Mirsky and his book Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, a biography of the first chief rabbi of Jewish Palestine and founding theologian of religious Zionism that delves into the struggle of one of the most influential—and controversial—rabbis of the twentieth century to understand and shape his revolutionary times.

A warm congratulations to Yehudah and the other four finalists: Aviya Kushner, Dan Ephron, Lisa Moses Leff, and Adam D. Mendelsohn. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

What are some of the most challenging things about writing nonfiction?

I think that form and genre are deeply related to the substance of what we have to say. Some things are best said in a book-length essay, like this book I’ve written. Others are best said in fiction, or plays, or poems, or avowedly devotional texts, or, what can you do, in academic monographs with platoons of footnotes.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

Too many to name—but above all my father, Rabbi Professor David Mirsky, who passed away in 1982, when I was 21 years old, and still teaches me, every blessed day.

Who is your intended audience?

In this book I tried to cast a wide net, to write something of interest to interested readers—Jewish or not—and to committed Jews of all persuasions, to rabbis and educators, to scholars in fields ranging from history to theology to politics. That I could even think of trying that was because I was writing about an extraordinary figure who himself—in his life story and breadth and depth of his thought—speaks to that entire spectrum, and more.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, several things. I’m currently completing a scholarly volume (platoons of footnotes and all) on Rav Kook’s intellectual biography before his moving to the Land of Israel at age 38, in 1904. For all the vast scholarship on him (mainly in Hebrew), there’s still not much in the way of intellectual biography, especially not on this crucial, formative period of his life. I’m also translating volumes of Midrashim written and published in Hebrew by learned contemporary Israeli women, edited by my wife, Tamar Biala. These are very powerful texts that will be great to bring to English readers.

I’ve also begun some other projects. In recent years I’ve written a number of essays on the shape of modern Jewish history, in particular on the many answers given to what the great essayist Ahad Ha’Am characterized as “the problem of the Jews and the problem of Judaism,”—answers like ultra-Orthodoxy, Zionism, Jewish Socialism, Nationalism, Liberalism—and how those answers have regularly mixed, matched and pulled against each other. These stories both reflect and have played a role in larger dramas in world history, like the rise of the nation-state, and I’m hoping to pull those together. Another project I’m working on is rethinking the idea of human rights in order to save it. The colossal moral struggles of the twentieth century yielded, at least for a while, a unprecedented consensus among many—though of course not all—people that there are some things that states are simply not allowed to do to people. That is a precious commitment, won at terrible cost, and we need to find ways to reground it for the twenty-first century and beyond. I really want to write about that. And now and then I scratch at some more purely literary projects too.

What are you reading now?

Yeshayahu Halevi Horowitz, Sefer Shnei Luchot Ha-Berit
Yehoshua Fischel Schneerson, Chaim Gravitzer: Sippuro shel Nofel
Robert D. Kaplan, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey through Romania and Beyond
Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Modern Age

If you had to list your five favorite books…

That’s impossible to answer, like asking who’s your favorite child? I can mention a few of the books that have moved me deeply and in some ways changed or saved my life, though there are many more.

Chaim Grade, The Yeshiva
Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine
Czeslaw Milosz, Bells in Winter
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man
Shakespeare, As You Like It
Zelda, Kol Ha-Shirim

When did you decide to become a writer? Where were you?

I’ve loved words and the magic they bring for as long as I can remember. My father, of blessed memory, was a professor of literature, and came from a family of gentle storytellers. There was no point of decision to become a writer—but many points of mustering the self-confidence that I had something worth saying and knew how to say it. That’s a decision I need to make—as honestly as I can—every time I sit down to try and write.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props, do you use to assist you?

I wish I knew, and I might be a bit more disciplined if I did. I read a lot, talk a lot, and I drink a lot of coffee. I try to write longhand when I can, for the sheer feel of moving pen along paper. I love working in cafés and libraries—though much of this book was written at our dining/living room table and in the basement clinic of an art therapist who let me use her workspace during off-hours. I almost always listen to music when I write. It’s like oxygen.

What do you want readers to get out of your writing?

I’d like them to come away with a little more historical knowledge about how and why our world today has taken shape, and with some hopefully helpful perspectives on how to look at things. It’s my hope that the fusion of words and ideas that I offer them will open spaces in their own minds for further thinking and exploration on their own terms. And didactic as it sounds, I do hope that the things we read and write will help make us want to be kinder to one another in our own lives.

Yehudah Mirsky is an American-Israeli Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva College and received rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. He graduated from Yale Law School, where he was an editor of the law review, and completed his Ph.D. in Religion at Harvard. Yehudah served in the United States State Department's human rights bureau in the Clinton Administration, and was a Red Cross chaplain following the events of 9/11. He tweets @YehudahMirsky

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Aviya Kushner

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Aviya Kushner and her book The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, a memoir of rediscovering in translation the Bible she knew by heart in Hebrew.

A warm congratulations to Aviya and the other four finalists: Dan Ephron, Lisa Moses Leff, Adam D. Mendelsohn, and Yehudah Mirsky. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

What are some of the most challenging things about writing nonfiction?

Nonfiction demands an engagement with facts, and the challenge is to make information interesting. Sometimes the writer has to make the case that the seemingly arcane and nitty-gritty matters help us understand our world. The best nonfiction writing reframes reality and by providing essential context, makes the reader see the world we live in anew.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

I became interested in the possibilities of nonfiction while working as a journalist in Jerusalem. I interviewed the 14-year-old brother of two sisters who were killed in the Dolphinarium bombing, and I could not stop thinking about him—and how his life was forever changed. Most journalists quickly moved on to the next bombing, because the news cycle focuses on event, but I felt that what happened to the brother after this tragedy was an important subject, and that how people live after terror was something worth exploring too. I realized that the essay was a place to explore aftermath, to look at the deep roots of events and to consider their longstanding effects.

Who is your intended audience?

I think the Bible should interest everyone—religious and secular—because it has shaped Western culture and has had a major influence on law, literature, politics, and finance. The Bible matters whether you are Jewish or Christian or Muslim or neither, in part because it has meant something so different to each of these groups. So my intended audience is intelligent readers who want to understand how different readings of the Bible have made our world.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m deep in a new book that takes place in the twelfth century. It was also a time of religious violence, and I am interested in one particular thinker who crossed boundaries of faith and thought.

What are you reading now?

Right now I’m reading many books of contemporary global nonfiction, for a graduate course I am teaching. I recommend The Fault Line by Paolo Rumiz, which I recently taught for that class. I also loved a recent novel titled The Big Green Tent by Ludmilla Ulitskaya, as well as the masterful novel The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin.

Top five favorite books?

It’s hard to choose, but here are some books I love:

The Collected Poems by W. H. Auden
The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg
Open Closed Open by Yehuda Amichai
And of course, the Tanach, especially the Book of Isaiah.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

We were reading a Faulkner story titled “Dry September”; I was eighteen and a college sophomore. I remember that every time I read that story I thought something else happened, and in class, there were several different readings presented. I remember thinking “I want to learn to do that” and “I will give it the best shot I have,” and I have never looked back. I loved the idea that a writer could make the reader question everything she believed, and that one story could be read in such wildly different ways. Faulkner made me see the power of rumor and accusation, and he made me ask myself what I really thought. I wanted to be able to do that.

What is the mountaintop for you? How do you define success?

All I ever wanted was to continue writing. Doing that is the only definition I have of success. Being able to write the books I want to write is the mountaintop; I want to work hard and to write something that will last. I love how James Baldwin phrased it: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” That’s all there is, to tell the truth and write well.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props, do you use to assist you?

I often write my first and second drafts, by hand, in coffee shops.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I want readers to think about the Hebrew of the Hebrew Bible, and to consider what happened as the Bible became both the best-selling and most translated book in human history. I hope readers will be inspired to read translations from different faiths and centuries, and to think about how language shapes how we read and what we believe.

Aviya Kushner teaches in the nonfiction writing program at Columbia College Chicago. She is also a contributing editor at A Public Space and a mentor for the National Yiddish Book Center.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Dan Ephron

Thursday, March 24, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Dan Ephron and his book, Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, an account tracing the parallel stories of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his assassin, Yigal Amir, for the two years leading up to the brutal murder in 1995.

A warm congratulations to Dan and the other four finalists: Lisa Moses Leff, Aviya Kushner, Adam D. Mendelsohn, and Yehudah Mirsky. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

What are some of the most challenging things about writing nonfiction?

The “non” part of nonfiction, mainly: laying out the facts accurately and fairly without disrupting the narrative flow. It's tricky.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

I was reading Erik Larson’s excellent In the Garden of Beasts while writing Killing a King. He’s great at not calling attention to his own writing. It allowed me to lose myself in the story.

Who is your intended audience?

My father-in-law was one of the readers I had mind. He reads a lot, mostly not about the Middle East. I wanted Killing a King to engage people who didn’t necessarily share my obsession with the region. But I also wanted readers familiar with the details of the Rabin assassination to be drawn in and understand something new.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m hunting for a new book idea. If you have one, please meet me at the bar in 10 minutes.

What are you reading now?

Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace, about the Algerian battle for independence. The author toggles back and forth between narrative detail and historical sweep. It’s very effective.

If you had to list your top five favorite books…

I wouldn’t swear they’re my all-time favorites. But here are five good books I’ve read lately:
A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre
Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ghettoside by Jill Leovy
Manson by Jeff Guinn

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I decided in college to be a journalist. The writerly ambitions came later.

What is the mountaintop for you—how do you define success?

I think of success as the privilege to write about things that interest me while not having to resort to living in my parents’ basement.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I have no routines or rituals, though I did have a daily word count I kept to while writing the book. Deadlines motivate me. Also, fear of failure.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

The feeling that it ended too quickly.

Dan Ephron has served as the Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He now lives in New York City.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Lisa Moses Leff

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Lisa Moses Leff and her book, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust, about a historian who wrote under the name of Zosa Szajkowski as the author of a prodigious number of articles and books on the history of French Jewry while systematically pillaging the very archives where he did his research and profiteering off his plunder.

A warm congratulations to Lisa and the other four finalists: Dan Ephron, Aviya Kushner, Adam D. Mendelsohn, and Yehudah Mirsky. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

What are some of the most challenging things about writing nonfiction?

What you see on the page is such a small part of the work that’s behind it. I’ve had friends express total shock when they hear that it takes academic historians like me a decade to write a book. There’s so much research that goes into this that never sees the page, so much thinking that was necessary before you even put the story together, and then even after that there are false starts, discarded drafts, so much left out.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

I love books that make you think and feel at the same time. I love books that are able to invoke big philosophical ideas and then make you really understand on a gut level what those ideas mean by connecting them to a story or an image. Some of my favorite history books do that—for example, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost. I recently reread Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, which isn’t a history book at all, it’s a theory of photography, but it works in a similar way.

Who is your intended audience?

I write different things for different audiences, but with The Archive Thief, I’ve been so happy that the book is reaching people who knew nothing about the topic before, as well as academic experts. That’s what I was hoping for. When I’m writing, I always imagine my students, many of whom come to my classes knowing nothing at all about the topic or even the method of studying history. But I find that if I explain it right, they’ll see what’s interesting and be able to engage, often to the point that they’re able to offer useful criticism or take the ideas to a new level. This is how I imagine my readers, too.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, I’m writing a history of the Panama Affair, which was a financial and political scandal involving corruption in the French company that started to build Panama Canal. The scandal broke in France in 1892 right before the Dreyfus Affair and really catalyzed the anti-Semitic movement we associate with that period. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, anti-Semites explained the Panama Canal Company’s corruption—which in reality grew out of the structural weaknesses of the banking system and the newly established democracy—as a Jewish conspiracy, claiming that Jews controlled the banks and had democratically elected politicians and the free press in their pocket.

What are you reading now?

I’m reading Tara Zahra’s new book, The Great Departure, a history of emigration from Eastern Europe. It’s beautifully written and puts Jews and non-Jews together in the same story, which is so rare and so enlightening.

If you had to list your top five favorite books…

The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln
A History of the Grandparents I Never Had by Ivan Jablonka
A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

In third grade, I had a wonderful teacher who had us write stories in a notebook. I still have that notebook and love looking at it. I remember thinking that I had endless ideas for stories but always got frustrated with how they turned out. I felt like I could never get my stories to come alive. Writing nonfiction, especially in an academic setting, is a little different, but even there you want your prose to be clear enough so that people can understand things in a new way, so I often still grapple with that same frustration: how do you make your ideas really sing?

What is the mountaintop for you—how do you define success?

I think there’s a certain trap in measuring success by external markers, though of course it’s wonderful to get a prestigious job or win a fellowship or a prize. But aiming to get those things can sometimes distract you from what’s really worthwhile and what makes for a meaningful life. I think real success is in finding a way—materially, practically, intellectually, emotionally—to keep working over the very long haul, to try new things even when they involve risk, to hear people when they tell you something valuable. Putting it in terms of the question, I’d say that rather than looking to reach a “mountaintop,” I’m more focused on staying on the journey.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

Writing can be slow so patience is really important! When I was writing my dissertation I said to myself that if I could write a page a day, I’d be done in a year. I know writing doesn’t ever really work like that: sometimes it takes a week to write a page, and some days I’m on a roll and can’t stop writing. But when I really can’t stand it, sometimes I still say to myself, “A page a day means I’m done in a year,” because even now it puts things in perspective and gives me the patience I need to just sit and try again.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

A lot of things! But I’d really love it if readers were really able to understand the ambiguity at the heart of the story. This is a story of someone who did something that was deeply shameful and wrong, something criminal. At the same time, he was heroic and brave, and in the long run, what he did was as valuable as it was destructive. I think especially in Jewish nonfiction, we’ve got a lot of stories about heroes, maybe too many. I think we’re sometimes too afraid to tell stories that challenge Jewish respectability. But stories like Szajkowski’s are just as important to tell and to think about, because they’re in many cases closer to real life and very much part of Jewish history.


Lisa Leff is a historian of Europe since 1789, whose research focuses on Jews in France. She is an associate professor of History at American University in Washington, DC. She received her BA from Oberlin College and her PhD from the University of Chicago.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Molly Antopol

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Today we hear from one final 2015 Sami Rohr Prize finalist: Molly Antopol. Molly's debut collection of stories, The UnAmericans, received praise from around literary (and Jewish) universe, and even made it to the longlist for a 2014 National Book Award, so we were thrilled to welcome her to the Sami Rohr literary community. We have lots about Molly in JBCland, including her Visiting Scribe posts and her video chat for JBC Book Clubs (I even wrote about Molly for another site, recommending a wine for book clubs to enjoy while reading the book!), but we couldn't resist the opportunity to share a little more about this highly talented author below. 

And, of course, a hearty congratulations again to our other four finalists, who have been profiled over the past several weeks: Ayelet Tsabari, Kenneth Bonert, Yelena Akhtiorskaya, and Boris Fishman. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home $100,000.

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

Honestly? Everything! I’ve heard some writers talk about stories arriving fully formed in their minds, and all they have to do is transcribe. That’s never happened for me. But I’m grateful for it—all of the stories in my book took at least a year, sometimes two, to write. Every one of them changed drastically draft by draft, and I often don’t discover what a story is truly about until the tenth or twelfth or fifteenth version.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Many of my relatives are incredible storytellers and I started thinking about how best to tell a story when I was a kid. When it was my turn to talk at the dinner table, I knew I’d better have something interesting to say. A lot of my family’s stories revolved around their involvement in the communist party. I heard so many tales of tapped lines and dinnertime visits from the FBI, and many of the stories in my book grew out of my desire to understand what it might have been like for my mother and her siblings to have grown up under such intense surveillance, knowing that their most intimate moments were being recorded and catalogued.

Who is your intended audience?

I like to picture a better version of myself reading whatever I write—a version that can’t be dismissive or judgmental, a version that understands that in order to write the kind of fiction I strive to write, it’s necessary to feel empathy for even the least “likeable” or sympathetic people.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m at work on a novel, called The After Party. It’s set in Israel and the U.S.—but I’m too superstitious to say anything else!

What are you reading now?

Louise Gluck’s gorgeous new poetry collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night, and a collection of linked stories, Uncle Peretz Takes Off, by another of my favorite writers, Ya’akov Shabtai.

Top 5 favorite books

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

It wasn’t a conscious decision, exactly. I’ve always read a lot. As a kid, I had all sorts of imaginary friends and my mom says I used to spend full days writing myself into whatever book I was reading. But writing as a career? It felt to me like a pie-in-the-sky profession, like being an astronaut or a magician. I figured I’d sneak in time to write when I wasn’t working—when I was a kid I wanted to be a marine biologist or a zoologist.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

Seeing someone on the subway reading my book!

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I don’t have a special writing hat or a lucky bathrobe or anything like that. If I can sit down and get something done, it doesn’t matter if I’m dressed or still in my pajamas, or at my desk or on the couch. My only rule is to get started in the morning. I like to roll out of bed and just get to work, before my day gets too cluttered and the emails begin to pile up. I treat writing like a job, putting in full days on the days I don’t teach and half days on the days that I do. I shut the phone off, and lately I’ve been using a program that prevents me from accessing the Internet. I’m horribly addicted and researching one small (yet essential!) detail for a story can often lead to a three-hour black hole from which I only emerge once I’ve learned everything I can about something wholly unrelated to my book and have won a bidding war on eBay over a vintage lamp I never wanted in the first place.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I hope readers get swept up in the stories the way I’ve gotten swept up in so many books. I’ve missed my bus stop any number of times because I was so wrapped up in what I was reading, and felt disoriented when I had to put the book away and was no longer in the world of my characters.

Molly Antopol's debut story collection, The UnAmericans, was published here by W.W. Norton in 2014, and in six other countries. She teaches creative writing at Stanford University, where she was a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow. A recipient of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 award and longlisted for the National Book Award, she holds an MFA from Columbia University and lives in San Francisco.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Boris Fishman

Monday, February 16, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

If you're a loyal follower of the Jewish Book Council (and you obviously are), then you're definitely already aware of Boris Fishman, one of our 2015 Sami Rohr Prize finalists. The author of the debut novel A Replacement Life, Boris wrote about family history and victimhood for JBC's Visiting Scribe series, and the paperback edition of his book was featured as a "Book Cover of the Week" in January. He also wrote an article for the JBC to commemorate what would have been Bernard Malamud's 100th birthday last year: Bernard Malamud at 100: The Wrong Writer for Our Age. And to top it off, Boris was a finalist for a 2014 National Jewish Book Award in fiction and will also appear at the final program in JBC's literary series Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation. Suffice it to say, we're fans of both Boris and his work! But in case you're not familiar with him, we have a short Q&A below to help you get to know one of our five finalists a little better. 

If you're just tuning in, be sure to visit our profiles of Ayelet Tsabari, Kenneth Bonert, and Yelena Akhtiorskaya as well, and check back later in the week to learn more about our fifth, and final, 2015 SRP finalist, Molly Antopol.

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

A paradox: To write a good, true story, you have to fall deeper and deeper into it, into the characters, the setting, the storyline. But to write a good, true story, you also have to remain outside of it, to see its dramatic requirements with clarity and detachment, even coldness and impersonality. You have to connect, but not enmesh. It’s like love.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Some people change spouses. I change literary idols. In my teens, it was Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the patron saint of the lovelorn and literary. My debut novel A Replacement Life came into life under the spiritual mentorship of Bernard Malamud. I am on to Graham Greene now. This makes sense to me — much as every generation needs a new translation of foreign classics, different stations in a writing career would seem to call for different guides.

Who is your intended audience?

Everyone. Is there an author who would answer differently?

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’ve just finished revising my second novel Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, which HarperCollins will publish in early 2016. It’s about an immigrant couple in New Jersey that adopts a boy from Montana who turns out to be feral.

What are you reading now?

I had a lull between hardcover and paperback publicity in January, and finally made up for lost reading time. I tore through about six books by Graham Greene; are there finer novels than The Heart of the Matter and The Comedians? Now, I am reading Alexandra Styron’s memoir of the great William Styron, who was a lot less great as a father than he was as a writer; James Agee’s A Death in the Family; several books about the Tohono O’odham Indians (I am teaching a workshop at their tribal college outside of Tucson in April); and Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession.

Top 5 favorite books

  • The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
  • Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
  • Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
  • The Heart of the Matter and The Comedians by Graham Greene
  • Patrimony by Philip Roth

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I was running to catch the crosstown one day… I’m kidding. It’s not very possible to answer this question concisely. It decided me. I had tried my best to avoid it.

What is the mountaintop for you? How do you define success?

To make a living from writing fiction and creative nonfiction, and related endeavors (teaching, speaking, etc.). To combine it robustly with family life. Most importantly, to encounter novelty, challenge, and surprise with regularity in my work and personal life. To always have things to learn — even as it’s often so painful to go through the learning.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

There should be more. Because you are doing a highly unsocialized and also highly unpredictable thing. While the rest of the world goes off to work, you sit down in a chair wearing God knows what and start trying to make it rain. This would seem to call for superstition as urgently as a living room full of Soviet Jews. But I don’t really have any. (Superstitions, that is. I got plenty of Soviet Jews.) I wake up, make coffee, and sit down to read for two hours — to get hopped up on what words can do via what someone else has done with them. Ideally, I’m throwing down the book before having reached my daily quota because I am too impatient to work my own hand at the same. I write for 3-4 hours, longer if I am revising. All this has to happen before anything else, with minimal interruption. Everything the day brings afterward is easy.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

That Russian Jews are much more than merely funny. That Jews aren’t saints, and this hardly makes them less admirable — only more human. That good, page-turning stories can (I hope) co-exist with big ideas and high artistry. That labored-over writing is better and more important than writing that isn’t. That books say something no other medium can.

Boris Fishman immigrated from the USSR at age nine. He studied Russian literature at Princeton, was on staff at The New Yorker, co-wrote the US Senate’s Hurricane Katrina report, and has received a Fulbright to Turkey. He’s written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Tablet, The Forward, The Jerusalem Report, and many others. A Replacement Life (Harper) is his debut novel. He lives in New York.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Yelena Akhtiorskaya

Thursday, February 12, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Yesterday we spent a little time getting to know Sami Rohr Prize finalist Kenneth Bonert, author of The Lion Seeker. Today we hear from Yelena Akhtiorskaya, whose debut novel Panic in a Suitcase was published this past summer by Penguin. Below, Yelena reveals her true feelings about books and numbers, the dark moment in her life when she decided to become a writer, and her penchant for great book covers and great book titles. If you're in the New York-area and would like to see Yelena live, check out JBC's May 19th Unpacking the Book event, "Soviet Roots, American Branches."

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

Making it consequential. The job is to find the weight, make it true. Basically, the hardest part about fiction is making it not. Aside from that, grammar. It can be, tricky.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Inspiration is a very positive word, too positive for me. Certain things are inspiring, sure, like Amelia Earhart, but inspiration feels like a dead end street. I’m much more motivated by the horrors.

Who is your intended audience?

Every human being on planet earth, with the exception of my loved ones. Of course the reality is pretty much exactly the inverse.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m working on a novel, which, if I ever finish, I’m going to put out under a pseudonym.

What are you reading now?

Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things and Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. When I don’t choose a book based on its cover, it’s the title.

Top 5 favorite books

I have to gripe here. I’m sorry. It’s not just a problem with lists, but more general—any interaction between books and numbers upsets me.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I was in drama class in junior high school, which I don’t think is a coincidence, since that was when life was the darkest and there wasn’t a glimmer of hope.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

The mountaintop is a mountaintop. Seriously. I’ve been at sea level too long. The most banal version of success I can muster is being in a position to quit my obligations and go live on a mountain, or, okay, in a hotel on a mountain in Switzerland à la Nabokov. I’d just write and take walks. There are people who think I’d tire of this pretty quickly but I would be very determined to prove them wrong. I guess this just reflects financial success, but I think the notion of success should stay in the financial realm.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

At first it’s pen and paper. Everything goes to shit when the computer gets involved. The computer is connected in a not very convenient way to my psyche. Everywhere outside of my open Word doc, the id runs amok. Inside my Word doc, the superego reigns supreme. If I wrote only on the computer, I’d go into word debt. I’d probably have to start deleting other people’s masterpieces.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

A new perspective on absolutely anything.

Yelena Akhtiorskaya was born in Odessa in 1985 and raised in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. She is the recipient of a Posen Fellowship in Fiction, and her writing has appeared in n+1, The New Republic, Triple Canopy, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Kenneth Bonert

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

With the recent announcement of the 2015 Sami Rohr Prize finalists, we thought you might want to learn a little more about the five outstanding writers who made the list. Last week we introduced you to Ayelet Tsabari, who wrote a collection of short stories called the The Best Place on Earth. Today we turn our attention to Kenneth Bonert, whose novel, The Lion Seeker, won a 2013 National Jewish Book Award. Set in South Africa, Bonert's novel stretches across the 1930s and 1940s, following a Jewish family as they seek to find their place in a new culture, having escaped their war-torn homeland. 

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

I think writing well depends on being able to concentrate for long periods of time. You need to have patience, you need to make a sustained effort, to stick with it when it doesn't seem to be working. If your mind wanders, you need to train it to come back to the task at hand. I suppose it's like a kind of meditation. Eventually you come out the other side and find those moments of soaring excitement and clarity that carry you along. That rush of creative expression––it’s what I live for.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Life and books. I mean that the inspiration for me often comes from a combination of two things: having the spark of a good idea, and then finding the right language to transform it into a story. The ideas usually come from life, from situations. It could be something that disturbs me, like a reaction to an argument, or gnawing on a difficult problem, or else having an insight into how someone's personality works . . . or it could be a flash of memory, like the smell of rain in the woods, or a face passing on a city street . . . some flicker of feeling that I want to try to capture with words and make permanent, a moment that sets the machinery of the imagination humming into action.

But then the inspiration for the language and the structure of the story, I almost always find in books. By reading carefully, I see what other writers have done and the possibilities are opened up to me, different avenues I might try, experiments that will in turn generate their own inspirations until I've found what I'm looking for.

Who is your intended audience?

I don't have an audience in mind when I write, at least at the beginning stages. I believe that would be a mistake. You need to write for yourself and not try to please others. You need to write the kind of book that you would honestly love to read. Of course you hope that others will enjoy the book also, that it will find a large audience, but I think it is folly to chase after that. You would only be trying to guess the tastes of complete strangers, and that is surely a mug’s game.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, I'm close to finishing a novel which is a kind of sequel to The Lion Seeker, although it’s a very different sort of novel, one that draws more on my own direct experiences of growing up in South Africa, which I left at the end of high school.

What are you reading now?

In fiction, it's a long novel called An Act of Terror, by Andre Brink, a South African writer of Afrikaner background. I'm finding this to be an absolutely brilliant novel. It’s the story of a bomb plot in apartheid South Africa in the late 1980s and it is both riveting and profound. Unfairly perhaps for the book, it was overtaken by history since just as it was published the apartheid state came crashing down, and the story was no longer as relevant to the reading public, which is a great shame because it really is masterful. I'm full of admiration for Mr. Brink at the moment.

In non-fiction, I'm reading The State vs. Nelson Mandela, by Joel Joffe. This is an interesting and well-written account of the famous 1963 treason trial, by the man who was one of the defence attorneys. I became especially interested in the trial when I learned just how many of the principals involved were Jewish. Not only among Mandela’s co-defendants but also, on the opposite side, the rather unsavoury prosecutor trying to convict him.

Top 5 favorite books

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • The Wall by John Hersey
  • Operation Shylock by Philip Roth

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I can't think of a specific moment. It's something I've always wanted to do.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

Success for a novel is measured four ways, I think. Critical success, commercial success, longevity, and influence.

For me, the top of the mountain would be to write a novel that attains all four.

However, the “top of a mountain” also implies that there is some end point to a long journey. This is not the way I look at what writing is. Rather, it’s a joyful art that I would never want to stop practicing. I can’t imagine ever not writing novels. Writing is a way of life, and to live this way is success for me.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I write in a room with few distractions, just a desk and a computer that is not connected to the internet. Nothing on the walls. The desk is an old one, a gift from my father. I also like to wear the same set of clothes, my work clothes. When I put them on I feel myself getting into the right frame of mind for work.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I would hope that they would experience what I have experienced when I come across a book I really love: a story that sweeps you along, characters that come alive. A deep book that you can’t put down, and afterward you don’t look at the world quite the same way anymore. You want to re-read it again, in order to savour favourite parts.

Kenneth Bonert’s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Grain, and The Fiddlehead, and his journalism has appeared in the Globe and Mail and other publications. Born in South Africa, Bonert is the grandson of Lithuanian immigrants. He now lives in Toronto.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Winner Ayelet Tsabari

Wednesday, February 04, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The announcement of the year's Sami Rohr Prize finalists is always one of the absolute highlights of my year. Each year, the books reflect a wide-range of voices exploring themes of significance to Jewish life—past and present. The prize highlights some of the key authors to keep an eye on and offers a platform for them to further contribute to both the literary community, generally, and the Jewish community, specifically. 

The importance of naming five finalists, rather than just one winner, each year is in its ability to reflect a spectrum of ideas: each voice is important on its own, but taken as a whole, it's the range of voices that provoke some of the most enriching conversations: conversations that are both thoughtful and nuanced and take into consideration Jewish perspectives that stretch across time, place, and circumstance. 

And, as we've done in years past, in the weeks leading up to the announcement of the winning author, we highlight here on the JBC blog each of the five finalists. Today we hear from Ayelet Tsabari, whose collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth, made this year's list.

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

I find all writing challenging. Being a new(ish) mom, my biggest challenge is finding the time to do it.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Reading, traveling, and my father, a closet poet who inspired my love of books and motivated me to write as a child.

Who is your intended audience?

I try not to think about audience when I write. I worry it will ruin the magic. But if I had to choose, I’d say people who love books as much as I do.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m finishing up a memoir in essays about growing up Mizrahi in Israel, and about leaving, traveling, and returning. I’m also starting a novel about the Yemeni Jewish community set during Israel’s early days.

What are you reading now?

Like most writers I know, I’m reading several books at once. I’m finishing up Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer, and starting All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Towes, Between by Angie Abdou, and The Best American Short Stories 2014. I’ve also been reading a lot of Dr. Seuss for my daughter, which I wasn’t familiar with from my own childhood. It’s pretty great.

Top 5 favorite books

I’m going to answer quickly so I don’t have a chance to rethink it. You would likely get an entirely different answer tomorrow.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  • The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  • The Kites, Romain Gary
  • La Storia, Elsa Morante
  • The Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I didn’t. I like to say that it came built in. I started telling stories to neighbors and cousins as early as four, moved on to comic strips at five, and once I learned the alphabet I started writing poems and stories and sent them out to Israeli children’s magazines, like Haaretz Shelanu. I published my first poem at nine.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

Having readers emotionally connect, engage and respond to my work. When I was growing up and dreamt of becoming an author, that’s what I wished for: I wanted to move and touch people, to give readers that magical feeling books instilled in me. On a practical note, being able to afford writing full time, and finding a way to balance it with the demands of motherhood would be a triumph. Oh, and I’d love to have a beautiful writing shed in my backyard I will call Tel Aviv (after George Bernard Shaw’s London).

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I can write anywhere. I’ve written on my phone while pushing a stroller, scribbled scenes on coffee shop napkins, and I once wrote an entire story in the bath on a tiny notepad. But I write best at home, in my office, and I love having my stuff around. A good chair and an alternative standing option. A cork board with hippie inspirational quotes and pictures of loved ones. Comfortable writing pants (which some foolish people may refer to as yoga pants.) A large wall mirror I can use to play out my characters’ physical gestures to ensure they’re realistic. And a window. I know writers who prefer to stare a blank wall to minimize distractions. That’s not me. I love catching glimpses of life outside my little room. It inspires me.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

To be moved. To feel deeply. To get to know a side of Israel they don’t see in the news, and a facet of Jewish experience they may not have read much about.

Ayelet Tsabari is an Israeli of Yemeni descent; she grew up in Israel, served in the army and moved to Canada in 1998. She is a two-time winner of the EVENT Creative Non-Fiction Contest and has been published in literary magazines such as PRISM, Grain and Room. Her unpublished non-fiction manuscript was shortlisted for the First Book Competition sponsored by Anvil Press and SFU’s Writer’s Studio. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at the University of Guelph and lives in Toronto, where she is at work on a novel. Learn more at www.ayelettsabari.com or follow her on Twitter @AyeletTsabari.

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