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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Paul Goldberg

Wednesday, May 03, 2017 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging fiction authors named as finalists for the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Paul Goldberg and his book, The Yid, a novel about the hijinks of a troupe of Russian Jews plotting to assassinate Stalin in February, 1953.

A warm congratulations to Paul and the other four finalists: Idra Novey, Adam Ehrlich Sachs, Rebecca Schiff, and Daniel Torday. Join Jewish Book Council on May 3, 2017 at The Jewish Museum for a discussion with the authors and announcement of the recipient of the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature! Register for free tickets here »

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

I have a full-time job- as a reporter. It's heavy-duty investigative reporting. Plus, I run and write for The Cancer. The most challenging aspect for writing fiction is clearing the brain space to sit down and do it. Please don't mistake this for whining: having to fight to find the time and space to write, generates a sense of urgency. You can't fake that—it has to be real.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I learned as a kid in Moscow in the 1960s that books have power, and writers who are willing to tell the truth run the risk of getting arrested. I remember Moscow being abuzz about publication of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, the arrests and trial of Daniel' and Sinyavski, the trial of Iosif Brodski, and, of course, Solzhenitsyn's battles with the authorities. Fiction allows you to tell the truth—and that's the ultimate privilege.

Who is your intended audience?

I try not to think about that. My job is to tell the story.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I have just turned in my next novel, The Chateau. It's scheduled for publication in February 2018. The Chateau is set in South Florida. It's about a building full of Trump-supporting former Soviet Jews. Would anyone be surprised to learn that the Board of Directors of the Chateau is full of crooks?

What are you reading now?

Everything Brecht. I am going through every play. This is a great time for Brecht.

Top 5 favorite books

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgokov

Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Evgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

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

I was a child in Moscow. My father is a journalist and a poet, so since the day I was born I knew that it's possible to write and knew many people who did. Journalism is great—my job is a privilege—but a novelist can drill deeper into the truth and its inverse.

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

I am happy where I am.

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

I love running away to Vermont for a month in the summer and a month in the winter. I end up telecommuting, so I am working full time in my day job. I am much more productive in Vermont. In the summer, it has something to do with picking mushrooms—a great Russian pastime. And I am a fiend on my bicycles. In the winter, it's about cross-country skiing, being alone in the woods, or watching my dogs run ahead. It's a happy place, like Russia with mountains and without kleptocracy. I finished three of my most recent books in Vermont.

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

As a novelist, I write about the intelligentsia and fascism, and how the two clash. I treat fascism as a polarity rather than an isolated historical event. It's been with us for centuries, and it has not gone away. The other part of it is my obsession with people who have the nobility of the spirit to stand up for the truth. This is my material.

Paul Goldberg first heard a Moscow version of the myth about Jews using blood for religious rituals when he was ten, in 1969. By the time he emigrated to the US in 1973, he had collected the Moscow stories that underpin The Yid. As a reporter, Goldberg has written two books about the Soviet human rights movement, and has co-authored (with Otis Brawley) the book How We Do Harm, an expose of the U.S. healthcare system. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. He lives in Washington, D.C.


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Meet Sami Rohr Finalist Adam Ehrlich Sachs

Tuesday, May 02, 2017 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging fiction authors named as finalists for the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Adam Ehrlich Sachs and his book, Inherited Disorders, a hunded and seventeen vignettes addressing the complex relationship between fathers and sons.

A warm congratulations to Adam and the other four finalists: Paul Goldberg, Idra Novey, Rebecca Schiff, and Daniel Torday. Join Jewish Book Council on May 3, 2017 at The Jewish Museum for a discussion with the authors and announcement of the recipient of the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature! Register for free tickets here »

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

Finding ways to ignore the fact that I’m making people up, dressing them up, and parading them about, like a crazy person or a young child; summoning every morning the necessary state of lucid self-delusion.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

A small handful of historical neurotics, predominantly German or German-Jewish, who contrived their own private techniques for transforming their neuroses into comedy or philosophy.

Who is your intended audience?

Contemporary neurotics and the neurotics of the future. Nervous Jewish Bach enthusiasts. Obsessive-compulsive insomniac optometrists. Teenagers old enough to look a person in the eye when they shake his or her hand yet still for whatever reason incapable of doing so.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, a novel.

What are you reading now?

Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason. From one perspective, it’s an inquiry into the deepest problems of existence; from another, it’s the diary of a fretful bourgeois without a productive outlet for his energy. That combination, for me, is the sweet spot.

Top 5 favorite books

At the moment:

The Castle by Franz Kafka

Walking by Thomas Bernhard

Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Molloy by Samuel Beckett

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

College, the end of senior year, in my dorm room, tearing out my hair over a thesis on hurricane dynamics, while my friends who had decided to give Hollywood a shot next year were getting outrageously drunk. I thought: I want to be that drunk.

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

Unfortunately I more or less subscribe to the Schopenhauerian view that our desires are endless, each success only creates new wants, et cetera. I think the most we can hope for is that at our death we have been more successful than our friends, in terms of books sold and awards won.

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

I drink two cups of coffee, move my cat from my desk chair (her favorite) to the bed, frantically flip through my favorite books looking for 8-10 good sentences to remind myself of the task, which somehow I’ve forgotten overnight, and then get started.

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

I would like for them to feel that something simple has been made needlessly complex, and to find this, for some reason, amusing.

Adam Ehrlich Sachs studied atmospheric science at Harvard, where he wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, n+1, and McSweeney's, among other places. He lives with his wife in Pittsburgh.


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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Rebecca Schiff

Tuesday, May 02, 2017 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging fiction authors named as finalists for the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Rebecca Schiff and her book, The Bed Moved, a collection of twenty-three short stories about the experiences of women.

A warm congratulations to Rebecca and the other four finalists: Paul Goldberg, Idra Novey, Adam Ehrlich Sachs, and Daniel Torday. Join Jewish Book Council on May 3, 2017 at The Jewish Museum for a discussion with the authors and announcement of the recipient of the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature! Register for free tickets here »

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

The most challenging thing about writing fiction is facing the fact that sometimes--often--you're going to write badly. The challenge is to trust that the good stuff is going to come.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Most of my inspiration for writing fiction has been the work of authors I admire, authors who take risks, who are hilarious and strange. Their books make me want to write fiction.

Who is your intended audience?

A teacher I had told us to "Write for the smart people." I take that to mean you should trust your audience to get what you're doing. But the intended audience is a projection, a fantasy. Any person can pick up your book. Some of them are going to hate its guts.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I'm working on new stories.

What are you reading now?

I'm reading 10:04 by Ben Lerner (a previous Sami Rohr finalist) and Assisted Living by Gary Lutz.

Top 5 favorite books

Oy, I feel bad about everything I'm leaving out, but here goes:

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

I Would Have Saved Them If I Could by Leonard Michaels

Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

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

I was in third grade when I first decided to be a writer. Our teacher had us hand in a new short story every two weeks. Deadlines are always helpful. I also remember revising one of my stories after school in my parents' bedroom. It was the first time I noticed that I cared about sentences.

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

I first thought this was a question about my favorite mountaintop. There are so many great ones! But writing-wise, if I get to keep publishing the books I write, that is success.

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

I know people have hats and wristbands and coffee and routines. I don't really have any of that. I like to write when I first wake up or right before I fall asleep.

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

I want them to feel. And laugh.

Rebecca Schiff is the author of the story collection The Bed Moved, a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize's Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Her fiction has appeared in n+1, Electric Literature, The American Reader, Fence, Guernica, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, and Lenny Letter, and will be anthologized in The Best Small Fictions 2017. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.


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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Daniel Torday

Monday, May 01, 2017 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging fiction authors named as finalists for the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Daniel Torday and his book, The Last Flight of Poxl West, a novel about a teenager and his relationship with his uncle, a World War II hero of the Royal Air Force.

A warm congratulations to Daniel and the other four finalists: Paul Goldberg, Idra Novey, Adam Ehrlich Sachs, and Rebecca Schiff. Join Jewish Book Council on May 3, 2017 at The Jewish Museum for a discussion with the authors and announcement of the recipient of the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature! Register for free tickets here »

What're some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

All of it! The more time you spend writing, the more you understand all the things that somehow won’t work in a novel. Flannery O’Connor said it best: “You can get away with anything you can get away with as a writer, but nobody’s ever gotten away with much.”

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Harold Brodkey. Joan Didion. The Wire. Art Spiegelman. Marilynne Robinson, the paintings of Egon Schiele. Annie Dillard. Albert Goldbarth. Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan.

Who is your intended audience?

I’d like to think I write for the reader who loves to read as much as I do! I’m as happy re-reading Saul Bellow’s short stories, or some big thousand-page biography by Robert Caro, as I am watching a baseball game.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m trying to put the finishing touches on a new novel. It’s tentatively called BOOMER1. Though yesterday it was tentatively called something else so who knows. It’s about a guy in his early thirties who quits New York, moves into his parents’ basement in suburban Baltimore and tries to foment a revolution, sparking millennials to force baby boomers to quit their jobs.

What are you reading now?

Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles. Vivian Gornick’s little book on Emma Goldman, Revolution as a Way of Life. Gershom Scholem’s Sabbatai Sevi biography. Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life.

Top 5 favorite books

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

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

Oh, I always wanted to be a writer. At my bar mitzvah, a succession of cousins and uncles suggested I would make a great lawyer. Each, a lawyer himself. I spent every September in my twenties buying LSAT prep books on Amazon, and every October not reading them. Luckily this writing/teaching thing seems to be working out, but there’s always the Fall 2017 LSAT….

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

I was so excited when I found out Michiko Kakutani was reviewing The Last Flight of Poxl West in the Times. I (embarrassingly) wrote everyone I knew to tell them. My old college friend, John Green, who has sold literally tens of millions of copies of his books, wrote back to say something like, “That’s cool, but you know what the best is? Just one person, somewhere, truly engaged with your work.” So, that.

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

I forget who but someone smarter than me said something along the lines of “the art of writing is the meeting of the seat of the pants with the seat of the chair.” So I try to be disciplined: sitting front of the computer for three hours a day, all week long, when I’m at work. A whole lot of it’s going to get thrown out, anyway.

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

I think the dream is for a reader who feels they see the world a little more clearly, in a little more detail, and a little more generously, after closing every novel they read. So if they read me, I’m just happy to know that’s what they’re doing when they do it.

Daniel Torday is the Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College. An author and former editor at Esquire magazine, Torday currently serves as an editor at The Kenyon Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train, Harper Perennial's Fifty-Two Stories, Harvard Review, The New York Times, and The Kenyon Review. Torday's novella The Sensualist won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction; The Last Flight of Poxl West received the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Idra Novey

Monday, May 01, 2017 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging fiction authors named as finalists for the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Idra Novey and her book, Ways to Disappear, a novel about a Brazilian novelist who goes missing and her daughter, son, and translator's hunt to find her.

A warm congratulations to Idra and the other four finalists: Paul Goldberg, Adam Ehrlich Sachs, Rebecca Schiff, and Daniel Torday. Join Jewish Book Council on May 3, 2017 at The Jewish Museum for a discussion with the authors and announcement of the recipient of the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature! Register for free tickets here »

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

Like children, works of fiction are constantly evolving. What a draft urgently needs in the morning is likely not what it will urgently need in the afternoon and the challenge it presents the following week will be something else entirely. I find once I address an aspect of a draft that feels challenging, another challenge immediately presents itself that feels even more insurmountable, but that is also the allure of writing fiction, the continual surprises each story presents.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I came to fiction from translation and the writers I've translated have been my teachers. It was while translating the mesmerizing sentences of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector that I began to draft the first sentences of a novel of my own.

Who is your intended audience?

Readers who are open to surprise, who enjoy the adventure of starting a novel for one reason and then, ultimately, loving the book for another reason entirely.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, I'm at work on a second novel.

What are you reading now?

Charlotte, by David Foenkinos, about the young artist Charlotte Salamon who was killed in Auschwitz at the age of 26. The novel was an international bestseller but hasn't had a robust reception in the United States, as so often happens with fiction in translation here. But it's extraordinary novel. I already want to read it again.

Top 5 favorite books

I find it hard to rank books like race horses. The best books I read this week are:

Charlotte, mentioned above, by David Foenkinos

Francine Prose's masterful and mischievous Mister Monkey

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

I grew up in a backward, dying Rust Belt town where most people were as wary of Jews and other outsiders as they were of art and literature.

In high school, I wrote the first—and I think only—student-written play ever performed at my football-obsessed public school. No one but the other theater club kids in the play and their families attended, but the intimacy of the event felt subversive. There is a freeing joy in proceeding with a work of art regardless of the size of one’s audience.

It was in that empty theater in rural Pennsylvania, at 16, that I first had a strong sense that this is what I wanted to do with my life, that I would go on finding joy in writing and sharing that writing regardless of how many people living around me cared about literature or not.

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

I try, every day, to stay with the definition of success I felt at the school auditorium described above: to continue being capable of sitting down and taking new risks as a writer, and enjoying it.

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

A good cup of tea is essential. And a window.

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

Something they didn't expect to get out of a novel about a missing woman's adult children and her translator disagreeing about who exactly it is they are looking for. And something I didn't expect them to get out of such a novel either.

Idra Novey is the author of the novel Ways to Disappear and Exit, Civilian, selected for the 2011 National Poetry Series. Born in western Pennsylvania, she has since lived in Chile, Brazil and New York. Her fiction and poetry have been translated into seven languages and featured on NPR's All Things Considered and in Slate, The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, and Guernica. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.


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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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