Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

Ear­li­er this month, we heard from Marni Davis, Mat­ti Fried­man, and Sarah Bunin Benor. Today we meet Eliyahu Stern, whose first book, The Genius: Eli­jah of Vil­na and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Judaism, was pub­lished ear­li­er this year by Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Called impor­tant and ambi­tious” by Tablet, The Genius presents a new mod­el for under­stand­ing mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry,” through the sto­ry of the Vil­na Gaon.” On top of being named a 2013 Sami Rohr Prize final­ist, the title won the 2012 Samuel and Ron­nie Hey­man Prize for Out­stand­ing Schol­ar­ly Publication.

Below, Eliyahu Stern dis­cuss­es his newest projects, writ­ing thank you notes, and the impor­tance of cof­fee in the morn­ing and wine in the evening to his writing:

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

Try­ing to explain why some­one who lived hun­dreds of years ago, bare­ly inter­act­ed with any­one, and wrote in the most severe­ly cryp­tic man­ner is actu­al­ly a hid­den key to under­stand­ing cur­rent trends in Amer­i­can Jewry. 

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

I remain awed by Harold Bloom’s strong and ele­gant prose and Charles Taylor’s abil­i­ty to use his pen to engrave ideas in peo­ples’ minds.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

I write for any­one inter­est­ed in the core ideas and insti­tu­tions that under­gird present-day Jew­ish life.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

I am work­ing on two projects. The first is an intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry of Jew­ish nation­al­ism in Rus­sia. The sec­ond is a larg­er project on the dif­fi­cult choice of decid­ing on a new Home­land. Fol­low­ing the dead­ly anti-Semit­ic attacks of 1881, Russ­ian Jews stood at a fork in the road, weigh­ing whether to emi­grate to Amer­i­ca or Pales­tine. Both lands rep­re­sent­ed some­thing larg­er than one’s own life, and both promised Jews some­thing they had nev­er expe­ri­enced, the end of anti-Semi­tism and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic free­dom. What went through peo­ples’ minds as they con­sid­ered their options? How did their choic­es rede­fine the course of Jew­ish his­to­ry and indeed world history?

What are you read­ing now?

I’ve been read­ing Zikhronot Bat Ami, the col­or­ful mem­oir of the first great Amer­i­can Jew­ish bib­lio­phile Ephraim Deinard. His mon­u­men­tal two-vol­ume, Kohelet Ameri­ka (1926) doc­u­ment­ed the library of Amer­i­can Hebrew lit­er­a­ture pub­lished between 1735 – 1926. Deinard grew up in Lithua­nia in a tra­di­tion­al home and even­tu­al­ly made his way to the Unit­ed States, where he played a crit­i­cal role in estab­lish­ing the major Amer­i­can Jew­ish libraries and pub­lish­ing hous­es in cities rang­ing from Newark to New Orleans. 

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

After my bar mitz­vah my par­ents told me that I was going to write thank you notes. I asked them why? They said because that’s what you are sup­posed to do when you receive a gift. I nev­er choose to write; I pick up my pen when there is some­thing that needs to be expressed. 

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

Suc­cess is when peo­ple tell me some­thing I say or write allows them to bet­ter under­stand their lives and the world they inhabit.

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

Cof­fee in the morn­ing. Wine in the evening. Music that gives my prose rhythm. Phone con­ver­sa­tions with friends and col­leagues that call my ideas into ques­tion, push­ing me beyond what I put on paper that day.

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

Instead of think­ing about Judaism in terms of degrees of accul­tur­a­tion and assim­i­la­tion, I would like them to rec­og­nize the agency, genius, and cre­ativ­i­ty of the mod­ern Jew­ish experience. 

Eliyahu Stern is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Reli­gious Stud­ies at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty. Pre­vi­ous­ly, he was Junior William Gold­ing Fel­low in the Human­i­ties at Brasenose Col­lege and the Ori­en­tal Insti­tute, Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford. His first book, The Genius: Eli­jah of Vil­na and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Judaism, was pub­lished by Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press in 2013 and was the recip­i­ent of The Samuel and Ron­nie Hey­man Prize for Out­stand­ing Schol­ar­ly Pub­li­ca­tion. He is a Fel­low of the Shalom Hart­man Insti­tute and has served as a term mem­ber on the Coun­cil on For­eign Rela­tions, and as a con­sul­tant to the Muse­um of the His­to­ry of Pol­ish Jews in War­saw, Poland.

Orig­i­nal­ly from Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia, Nao­mi is the CEO of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from Emory Uni­ver­si­ty with degrees in Eng­lish and Art His­to­ry and, in addi­tion, stud­ied at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. Pri­or to her role as exec­u­tive direc­tor, Nao­mi served as the found­ing edi­tor of the JBC web­site and blog and man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World. In addi­tion, she has over­seen JBC’s dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives, and also devel­oped the JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series and Unpack­ing the Book: Jew­ish Writ­ers in Conversation.