Cel­e­brate Jew­ish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invit­ed an author to share thoughts on #Jew­Lit for each day of Jew­ish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and dis­cov­er! 

Today, Rab­bi David Jaffe, the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award-win­ning author of Chang­ing the World from the Inside Out: A Jew­ish Approach to Per­son­al and Social Change, on learn­ing to write and say­ing thank you. 

Towards the end of a meet­ing dis­cussing the man­u­script for my first book, Chang­ing the World from the Inside Out, my edi­tor raised her eyes from the bun­dle of pages and said casu­al­ly, You are a good writer” and then returned her gaze to con­tin­ue read­ing. I’m not sure how she intend­ed it, but this short par­en­thet­i­cal com­ment land­ed for me in the way I imag­ine a gym­nast might feel bow­ing her head to receive an Olympic medal. It sig­ni­fied achievement.

My first instinct was to thank Mr. Mal­oney. Neil Mal­oney was my eleventh grade Eng­lish teacher. By the time I had him he was a vet­er­an of over two decades of teach­ing and react­ed to our teen angst with an amused car­ing that made us feel safe and com­fort­able talk­ing with him about things far afield from Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture. He also taught me how to write.

I wasn’t a bad writer com­ing into his class, but I had a long way to go. In my mind writ­ing was a for­mu­la­ic exer­cise not so dif­fer­ent from alge­bra­ic equa­tions with five para­graph essays, top­ic sen­tences, evi­dence and con­clu­sions. Mr. Mal­oney taught me that I could say some­thing of con­se­quence with my writ­ing and I could say it well. He also taught me that great lit­er­a­ture could enter my soul and change me. That year I fell in love with Shake­speare, par­tic­u­lar­ly Oth­el­lo. I was so fas­ci­nat­ed with the evil Iago that his words become my senior year­book quote:

Tis in our­selves that we are thus or thus; Our bod­ies are our gar­dens, to the which our wills are gardeners.-Othello Act I, Scene III

I shook with awe upon read­ing Shake­speare, Stein­beck and Faulkner’s beau­ti­ful­ly con­struct­ed sen­tences, and was hooked. I want­ed to know how to write like that. I learned from Mr. Mal­oney that there were no short­cuts. I rewrote a paper about Tom Joad and Chris­to­log­i­cal imagery in The Grapes of Wrath at least four times. The sil­ver lin­ing of all these rewrites were the hours spent in Mr. Maloney’s small office talk­ing writ­ing, lit­er­a­ture and teen life. I even began to cher­ish the artistry that came with rewrit­ing a sen­tence for the fourth or fifth time. Craft­ing a great sen­tence echoed Michaelangelo’s descrip­tion of sculp­ture: Just as the sculp­tor reveals a form that exists with­in the stone, so the writer reveals an idea or emo­tion by choos­ing, cut­ting and com­bin­ing words. It is in the cut­ting and rewrit­ing that the mag­ic happens.

This train­ing served me well once I got to col­lege. I quick­ly real­ized that most of my friends didn’t have a Mr. Mal­oney in their high school Eng­lish depart­ments and they suf­fered for it fresh­man year. After col­lege I briefly exper­i­ment­ed with a life of writ­ing, with short lived ven­tures into film and jour­nal­ism. I turned my atten­tion else­where for many years before get­ting this book con­tract and reen­gag­ing with this old love.

I was so excit­ed to tell Mr. Mal­oney about my suc­cess and express deep grat­i­tude for his major con­tri­bu­tion to my life and hap­pi­ness. It only took one inquiry on Face­book until I found out I was too late. Mr. Mal­oney had passed away a decade ago so I nev­er got to thank him. This piece is a ges­ture of grat­i­tude to this won­der­ful, clever, patient, rig­or­ous and lov­ing man. Who taught you how to write or to love great lit­er­a­ture? Don’t wait – track them down today and tell them, Thank you.”

Rab­bi David Jaffe is the author of Chang­ing the World from the Inside Out, win­ner of the 2016 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Life. In addi­tion to being a rab­bi and a writer, he is also a social work­er. He’s orga­nized home­less men in San Fran­cis­co, built refugee camps in East­ern Con­go and recon­nect­ed Boston’s sub­ur­ban Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty to its urban roots through social jus­tice part­ner­ships. He is a nation­al­ly rec­og­nized prac­ti­tion­er and teacher of Mus­sar — the school of applied Jew­ish spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and ethics.He blogs at rab​bi​david​jaffe​.com.