The ProsenPeople

30 Days, 30 Authors: Gal Beckerman

Friday, November 13, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Gal Beckerman is a journalist and author. He was the opinion editor at The Forward and a longtime editor and staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review and has also been a contributor to the New York Times, Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He was a Fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Berlin and the recipient of a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. His first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September 2010. It was named was one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker and the Washington Post, and received both the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

The Galosphere

Thursday, February 16, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In honor of Gal Beckerman (When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry) winning the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, we've compiled a few links about Gal and Soviet Jewry:

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Gal Beckerman

Friday, February 10, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

I'm sure it comes as no surprise that Gal Beckerman, winner of the 2010 Jewish Book of the Year Award, is a finalist for this year's Sami Rohr Prize for his book When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. Gal is no stranger to the Jewish Book Council: he's blogged for us, toured on our Network, and won a National Jewish Book Award. The Rohr Judges were also impressed with his work, siting it as "[a] comprehensive, balanced and enthralling book on the history of the Soviet Jewry movement." In our final installment of "Meet Sami Rohr Finalist...", Gal shares his guilty reading pleasure and some of his inspirations:

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

I’d have to say it’s the challenge of “casting” the book correctly. So much of turning history into narrative has to do with finding the right people through whom you can tell the story. This is not always straightforward, especially when you are trying to present an engaging version of a history that is otherwise rambling, takes place over decades with different periods of boom and bust, and involves hundreds of central players — as was the case with the Soviet Jewry movement. Unless you want the book to turn into a jumble of facts, you need to find individuals to act as needles that will help the reader thread their way through.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

There are a few writers who have worked on large canvases but never lost sight of telling a human story. I’m thinking of authors like Taylor Branch in his Parting the Waters trilogy about the civil rights movement; Adam Hochschild’s books on social movements and anything by David Halberstam; or Tom Segev’s excellent histories of Israel.

Who is your intended audience?

Everyone, or anyone who is interested in the past and can be drawn in to a good story.

Are you working on anything new right now?

There are a few ideas jostling around in my head, competing to become the object of my obsession. Generally speaking, I’m interested in continuing to explore those places where the Jewish story intersects or affects the American story. And, as always, something that has a strong narrative.

What are you reading now?

Just finished Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern and indulging in one of my guilty pleasures, noirs, reading Martin Smith Cruz’s Arkady Renko series.

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

Probably the womb. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. The question has been what kind of writer, and that has been settled only more recently over the past ten years when I discovered what a good fit long form narrative, and history in particular, was for me.

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

For me, it’s simply being able to keep writing for a living — and to continue producing books. Given the economic insecurity that comes along with doing anything creative, that would feel like success.

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

I don’t have any special rituals, though I do need quiet and time.

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

A more complete sense of the Soviet Jewry movement and the role it played in history. And ideally, pleasure.

Gal Beckerman is nominated for his first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, which was awarded the 2010 National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Book of the Year. He is an opinion editor at The Forward and has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He was recently a Fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Berlin and lives in Brooklyn.

Book Cover of the Week: When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone

Friday, September 09, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The paperback edition of Gal Beckerman‘s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry will be available on September 13th. When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone was awarded the Everett Family Foundation Book of Year Award for the 2010 National Jewish Book Awards.

My Other Baby

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 | Permalink

On Monday, Gal Beckerman wrote about barbecuing with hijackers. His first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, is now available. Gal, a staff writer at the Forward, will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Visiting Scribe all week.

I’ve repeated it so many times these past few months that I don’t even think about it anymore. “I had two babies this year,” I’ll say, smiling widely. Or sometimes I’ll hold up the book and say, “Here’s my other baby.” I try to avoid the line if my wife is anywhere nearby.

It’s both a cliché and a kind of reflex at this point – both reasons to drop the whole baby thing altogether. It also feels like something a woman who’s gone through labor might not utter so glibly. And yet, I can’t give it up. It’s hard to untangle my feelings about how the book and my baby started life – my editor actually called me while I was at the hospital because I was late to deliver (!) the manuscript. It’s always felt more than just a thoughtless metaphor for me.

But now that my daughter is almost turning one and my book has made its way onto the shelves of bookstores, maybe it’s time to test if the comparison actually stands up.

Gestation period: Hands down, the book wins if we’re talking about time. I started working on it over five years ago, before I even met the mother of my little girl. It involved hours upon hours of research in archives and oral interviews. And beyond the work, there was the anxiety. There was plenty of that to go around while my wife’s belly grew, but it was concentrated in a distinct – and relatively short – period of time. Anxiety for the book took different forms at different times over the years, and it was always waiting for me around the corner, even at my most confident moments.

Seeing her/it for the first time: Since I had no idea what she would look like and had not slept all night and my wife had gone through an intense labor that involved her yelling at me about getting rid of various things in the room whose smells she couldn’t stand, I would say that the first sight of the book was a more controlled and predictable thing. My editor and I had been discussing the cover for months, then I saw the galley, and by the time the actual book came in the mail, it was thrilling (of course), but not the earth shattering event I had always fantasized about. It was already familiar to me. And as time passes it becomes even more familiar as an object, while my daughter’s face becomes more a thing of crazy wonder to me every day (it’s a little like this writer’s response to the book vs. baby question).

Fourth trimester: This is long over for my daughter, but I’m at the tail end of it with the book. It’s the three-month period after a baby is born when they are more blob than human. It’s before you really know what her personality will be, before she can interact in any way besides screaming uncontrollably. It made me a bit impatient. The analogous time for the book is once everything is done and before it is actually published, reviewed, received by the world. You are waiting and hoping and worried that your book might be ignored, that it will fall in the vast cultural forest without making a sound. All I can hope for now is that the end of that period for the book is as rewarding as it was when my daughter’s personality began to manifest itself.

These days she’s a mischief- maker and a collector of every speck of dust and stray Cheerio hidden in the corners of our small one-bedroom apartment, exclaiming “wow!” with gusto whenever she discovers something. If only reading my reviews fills me with as much joy as hearing those “wows”!

When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone is now available.

Barbecuing with the Hijackers

Monday, September 13, 2010 | Permalink

Gal Beckerman‘s first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, is now available. Gal, a staff writer at the Forward, will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

Writing history that is recently past always carries with it certain challenges. Most obviously, the competing versions of what happened or who did what aren’t fought out through yellowed letters in an archive but are argued by living, breathing, often highly invested people. In the five years I spent working on my book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, I can’t count anymore the number of late night phone calls I got or angry emailed screeds claiming that I was clearly not going to give enough credit to so-and-so or put enough emphasis on what some long forgotten activist who was really, truly, the sole person responsible for saving Soviet Jewry had done. For those who had been the protagonists of this story, this was their first – and for some, last – chance to make sure they were remembered the way they wanted to be, or at all.

At first this proved a real challenge to me as a historian – could it be that the Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry was really single-handedly responsible for ending the Cold War? But as I gained confidence that I knew the story I was telling, I was also able to better balance these competing narratives and tease out something close to what I thought to be the truth.

But in spite of what was difficult – or even annoying – about this reality, I never once regretted that I was writing about a period with living witnesses. Without them, I would have lost the rich detail you could never get from a document – the color of the Moscow sky above a protest, what it really felt like to fear that any day a conscription notice from the Red Army would come for your son, or how exactly a phone call was made from Cleveland to Leningrad in the 1960′s. Lost would be also the countless hours spent sitting in living rooms in Israel, drinking tea, and watching the “characters” in my book recount their own lives, with both the emotion and subtlety that can only come from oral history.

And then there was my barbecue with the hijackers.

The hijackers were a group of Jews from Riga and Leningrad who after my early research had come to seem superhumanly brave and almost mythic in their unwillingness to accept an unjust status quo. In the summer of 1970, they decided to steal a plane and fly it out of the Soviet Union after being denied exit visas. I wrote about them recently in The New York Times on the 40th anniversary of their attempt, which ultimately ended in failure. They were arrested on the tarmac, put on trial, and sentenced to years of imprisonment – though they managed to turn enormous world attention to their cause.

In 2005, when I met them, they were in their fifties and sixties. Some had remained closer to each other than others, but they made a point of reconnecting every June 15, the day of the hijacking. The gathering they invited me to would mark the 35th anniversary – someone had baked a cake on which the number was written out with grapes. They had brought hamburgers and hot dogs to grill at the home of Boris Penson, one of the hijackers who is a painter and lives in a farming community just south of Haifa.

The first shock was just seeing them in person, come to life before me in their older, very human forms. There was Sylva Zalmanson, the only woman among the main organizers. She had bravely stood in court and recited Psalm 137 (“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…”) before being dragged away to serve a few years in a prison camp. I described her in the book as “girlish,” petite, curly-haired, and easy to giggle. Now she was older, bespectacled, heavyset, but still just as gregarious. Then I saw Mark Dymshits, the pilot – the lynchpin of the plot – now a taciturn man in his early seventies who wore enormous tinted glasses and couldn’t hear very well.

I sat squeezed between the two of them in the backseat of a car on our way to the barbecue, with Sylva talking up the virtues of her twenty-something daughter, Anat (whose father was Eduard Kuznetsov, the former dissident maybe most responsible for the hijacking) in an obvious attempt to set us up. It only became more surreal from there. I stood around the grill with the hijackers flipping burgers under the sun. The banality and utter normalcy of it all was difficult to absorb at first.

Only as the day continued – and the vodka was poured – did I relax and accept that it was even more interesting to consider that these people I had thought of as giants were actually just ordinary people who had done something extraordinary. Meri Knokh, another of the women plotters, who had been pregnant at the time of the hijacking, pulled out a guitar and started playing Russian folk songs from the 1960′s – Vysotsky and Okudzhava. I stopped gawking and – in truth – stopped understanding much of what they’d been saying. They had switched entirely to Russian, spoken boisterously between cigarette hits and gravelly laughter.

Seeing them as just a group of friends like any other group of friends, with their own dynamic, sense of humor, and loud characters, put their reckless act in a whole new context. If I was going to tell their story, I wanted to capture this as well. Not just the heroism of people stepping boldly into the stream of history, but all that was prosaic about them and their interactions, the human quality that no amount of written record could ever have communicated as well as just watching them together on a drunken, summer afternoon.

When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone is now available.