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Interview: Gena Feith

Thursday, November 05, 2015 | Permalink

by Becca Kantor

Jewish Book Council sat down with artist Gena Feith to talk about the inspi­ration behind her Jewish Book Month poster, the connection between writing and art, and illustrating her best friend’s challah recipe.

Becca Kantor: Tell me about your inspiration for the Jewish Book Month poster. What drew you to this project?

Gena Feith: Books and writing and painting are my passions, so this project combined a lot of the things in my wheelhouse. It seemed like a great fit. When I talked to Naomi [the Executive Director of Jewish Book Council] about what the vision was, I understood the essence of what they were trying to communicate—that what the Jewish Book Council has done for ninety years is not just the promotion of Jewish books, but it’s also fostering community and connection through books. The idea was to depict community through reading. I pitched them a bunch of different ideas, and it’s funny, this is the one I threw on at the end. It was actually a photograph of three blind children reading. That’s why the books are so big. But I kept the books really big because I liked that their presence is sort of like another character in the painting.

BTK: What does the composition of the painting symbolize to you?

GF: Sometimes you don’t even know what you’re painting until you’re painting it, and then you find meaning in it. I like the fact that the children are all involved in their own books, and the girl in the center is daydreaming. Even when I’m very absorbed in a book I have the tendency to drift off and think about how it relates to my life, or life in general. I like how the painting ended up evoking the dreamy quality of entering into these other worlds, and the work you can get done while dreaming.

Reading is such an intimate thing—it’s just you and this book—but some of my greatest friendships have been forged through reading together. Life doesn’t always allow for solitary, uninterrupted quiet time, especially when you have kids, when you have work, when you have this and that. But it can be such an important getaway into another reality.

BTK: In addition to being an accomplished artist, you also earned an MFA in creative writing and worked as speechwriter for several years. How does your background in writing influence your visual art?

GF: I got my MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia. When I was getting my MFA I had a tendency to write with a painterly quality. I collected words sort of like they were dabs of paint on my palette. I do appreciate a good story, but what was tricky was that I would get so consumed by the wordy painting of these worlds that it was like: what really hap­pened in the story? I’m not really sure!

When my daughter was born, I started painting again because it was sort of a way of writing; it was a way of making stuff and telling stories. I found a lot of joy in it. And it made sense—I used to write how I painted, a little bit, and I hope that I paint a little bit like how I write. Just the digressions, and the things that catch my eye, and the things I think are beautiful.

BTK: You’ve also combined writing and art in previous projects, like your graphic novel The Illustrated Eulogy of Herman Katz: Spaniel, Lover, Snackohol­ic. Do you feel that illustrations or art can be an integral part of books? Were you influenced by illustrations when you read as a child?

GF: Totally, completely. And I do miss that in books. The illustrations in Alice in Wonderland are like nothing else. I wish that there were more of that. Even now with my daughter we read the same books over and over and over again. That gets a little tedious, but I enjoy going back to these books so much. I’ve always loved writing and painting, but some of my favorite painters and writ­ers, even my favorite adult painters and writers, are sort of like visual storytellers.

BTK: Is Judaism important themati­cally in your art?

GF: Probably the most resonate ways that my Jewish identity comes through in my work is through my focus on family and memory. I work mostly from photographs and I paint a lot of paintings of old pictures of my family and new pic­tures of friends and mementos and keepsakes. I did a whole series of pillowcases that my mother needle­pointed in the 1970s while waiting in cars for my father (who is notori­ously unpunctual). And they’re such treasures to me—to me they tell such a story. It’s funny how these things that you paint can become a little bit of the person but they also become a little bit of you.

Right now I’m illustrating my best friend’s challah recipe. She taught me how to make challah maybe six months ago, and it’s become a mindfulness practice for me. I’d love to tell you that I’m the most mindful person, but actually I’m somewhat frenetic and I don’t really think in a very linear way at all. But making challah every Friday helps me remember the rest of my week, because otherwise it’s a blur. And the ritual of it—I love it. It just makes my soul feel good. I can’t explain it. It’s sort of magical.

BTK: What are you looking forward to reading during Jewish Book Month?

GF: I just read After Birth by Elisa Albert. It was unputdownable. It was compelling to hear a lot of my incoherent gripes so lucidly and beautifully distilled. I started rereading The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who is the coolest guy in the world. He was totally a ladies’ man. He looked like a little troll, but he used to walk around the Upper West Side and just pick women up, apparently. That’s one of the tidbits I learned in my MFA. And The Collected Short Stories of Deborah Eisenberg. All of her short stories are like little paintings in themselves. They’re weird and funny and deep.

Becca Kantor received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and her MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She is the Managing Editor of Jewish Book World.

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Hello My Long Lost Friend

Tuesday, November 30, 2010 | Permalink

NETWORK author Angella Nazarian shares a touching anecdote from her Jewish Book Month tour with the Jewish Book Council.

When she wasn’t giggling, she talked in a rapid-fire, sing-song register. And her voice….her voice carried a slight raspy edge. We constantly whispered in each other’s ears and wrote notes to each other in the middle of class.

Although the courtyard in front of the strict and fear-inspiring English headmistress of our school was not the most popular place, we were there often challenging each other to a game of ping pong. And more often than not, we dared the other girls to squeeze through the metal railings of the fence that separated the courtyard from the playground. This led to many instances of classmates getting their heads stuck in the gaps of the railing. They blushed with anger and frustration but were too scared to yell out and call the attention of the headmistress.

That is what I remember of my times with my dear friend, Nagmeh, back in elementary school in Iran. Hers was the last party I attended in Iran, before we all fled and dispersed to different parts of the world. I have vivid memories of Nagmeh’s 11th birthday party. All the girls had gathered in her living room, huddled in a circle. We were thinking of a game to play and Nagmeh’s cousin suggested a dance competition– I guess you could call it a Persian version of a dance-off! The hot song straight out of the States was Boney M’s Ma Baker and we all sashayed to the middle of the living room floor. It was apparent even back then that I liked to strut my stuff on the dance floor, and I went home as one of winners.

Three months later I remember listening to Bee Gees’s Staying Alive in the States and wondering if I would ever see my friends again. We had left Iran in a hurry and thought we would return once things calmed down. But it never did. Iran was in the midst of a revolution, and I lost touch with all my childhood friends.

Imagine that just a few months ago I got a facebook message from my long-lost, childhood friend, Nagmeh. It didn’t take long for us to reminisce about our school, our friends, and her last party. We caught up on each other’s lives. I found out that she was married with two kids and living in San Diego–just a three-hour drive from me.

She knew that I was coming out to San Diego for a book event, but alas I would only be there for a couple of hours. The Jewish Book Council had booked me for another speaking engagement in New Orleans the next day, and I had to fly out of San Diego that afternoon. So Nagmeh and I made plans to see each other at another time, when we could actually sit and talk.

Then came her call the very day I was going to San Diego. “You know it’s crazy that you will be here in San Diego and we won’t meet up,” she said. The rhythm of her talk was still the same even though now, after thirty-two years, we were speaking in another language (English). I could even sense that she was smiling through the phone and the thought that she was on the other end made me smile. It was true. It was a shame that we wouldn’t get a chance to see each other, but other road blocks had presented themselves for the day. Nagmeh had taken off work because her son was sick with strep throat and she had no sitter. So, as disappointed as I was, I didn’t want to make things harder for her.

I got to the book fair in time and took a seat with some of the organizers before I was called up to speak. Five minutes before taking the stage, I got a text from her: I am sitting here in the audience! I stood up and looked around, but realized that I wasn’t even sure what she looked like as an adult. To tell you the truth, I still imagined her as a feisty eleven-year-old with short hair and round, brown eyes. She had sent a picture of her adult self to my blackberry that morning–only because I kept insisting that I needed to see who she had grown to become.

I searched around the room for Nagmeh, but she was lost in the sea of faces. I texted her: where are you? It didn’t help that the lights were particularly bright by the stage and they were hitting me straight in the eyes. I walked a little to the right. And moments later I saw a person in a red jacket stand up and wave at me. There she was, seated at a table on the left side of the room.

The program was starting shortly but I couldn’t wait. I made a bee-line toward her and we held each other tightly. Honestly neither of us would have recognized each other had we walked side-by-side in the street somewhere. Thirty-two years is a long time not to see a friend.

We still held on to each other’s arms while we looked intently at each other’s face. We were two grown women now. I guess I was searching to find my childhood friend in the now adult features. And without me taking notice, I found myself smiling in recognition and saying, “Nagmeh, its those eyes. You have the same eyes that I remember looking into when I was a child.” She smiled and looked back. She still held me tight and said, “And your smile. You have the same smile, Angella.”

2010 Jewish Book Month Brochures

Friday, October 15, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Thanks to Lisa Silverman, Jewish Book World‘s Children’s editor, for passing along the these great brochures for Jewish Book Month:

The Association of Jewish Libraries of Southern California has come out with their Jewish Book Month brochures—one is for adults and one is for children. They are professional bibliographies of the best books of 2010. (There are a few 2009 books on them) They are a great resource and they are easily downloaded and printed out. Feel free to give them away to anyone who wants one, or use them as lists for your book fair stores.



AJLSC Jewish Book Month Bibliographies

Tuesday, November 17, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Association of Jewish Libraries of Southern California has created two wonderful 2009 Jewish Book Month annotated bibliography brochures. Thank you to Lisa Silverman, children’s book editor of Jewish Book World, for passing them along to us! The bibliography brochures were compiled by Blumenthal Library Staff, Sinai Temple, and Ellen G. Cole, Levine Library, Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles:

A Selected List of Recent Books and DVDs For Adults

A Selected List of Recent Books and DVDs For Children and Teens