Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

Over the next sev­er­al weeks, we’re giv­ing you the oppor­tu­ni­ty to get to know this year’s Sami Rohr Prize final­ists and hope­ful­ly, in the process, add a few books to your read­ing list. Last week, Sarah Bunin Benor, author of Becom­ing Frum: How New­com­ers Learn the Lan­guage and Cul­ture of Ortho­dox Judaism, wrote about study­ing in her col­lege library and how it changed the course of her career

Today we hear from Mat­ti Fried­man, author of The Alep­po Codex: A True Sto­ry of Obses­sion, Faith, and the Pur­suit of an Ancient Bible (Algo­nquin Books). Last year, Mat­ti guest blogged for our Vis­it­ing Scribe series and, among oth­er things, dis­cussed the codex ver­sus the Kin­dle.

Before we begin, a descrip­tion of the Alep­po Codex in Matti’s own words (from our Twit­ter Book Club in 2012):

@MattiFriedman: The Crown is in the gallery under­neath the scrolls, which are like the Lady Gaga of ancient Hebrew man­u­scripts #JLit

@MattiFriedman: In that anal­o­gy, the Crown is like an awe­some indie band that only cool peo­ple know about #JLit

Below, Mat­ti shares the book that helped inspire him to write non-fic­tion, offers an anno­tat­ed list of book rec­om­men­da­tions, and imag­ines his future granddaughter:

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

The hard­est part of writ­ing a good piece of nar­ra­tive non-fic­tion – and also the most grat­i­fy­ing part, when it works – is cre­at­ing a sto­ry with the pow­er to draw read­ers in and drag them along to the very end, but at the same time remain­ing faith­ful to a lev­el of jour­nal­ism that would stand up to rig­or­ous fact-check­ing. You’re try­ing to achieve some­thing like the effect of a nov­el with­out the novelist’s tools of imag­ined scenes, char­ac­ters and dialogue.

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

Twelve years ago or so I picked up a book from one of my par­ents’ book­shelves, and it was Riv­er Town, an account by Peter Hessler of a Peace Corps tour in a city on the Yangtze. It helped me under­stand that if you were good enough, you might be able to have adven­tures and explore the world and then spin those expe­ri­ences into sto­ries that would be valu­able to oth­er peo­ple. I was report­ing before that, but Hessler’s book made a big impres­sion.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

Smart peo­ple.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

I’m work­ing on a new non-fic­tion project about which I’m still being cagey, beyond say­ing that it’s about Israel but not about the Six-Day War, set­tlers, or Mossad agents. 

What are you read­ing now?

Promise and Ful­fill­ment, Arthur Koestler’s book from 1949 about the birth of Israel. It’s amaz­ing to see how things looked so ear­ly on with­out the ben­e­fit of hind­sight or per­spec­tive. When he looks ahead from that moment in time, the things he gets wrong are at least as inter­est­ing as the many things he gets right.

Five books you love to recommend

This week it would be, in no par­tic­u­lar order:

  • The Great War and Mod­ern Mem­o­ry, Paul Fussel’s book about the writ­ing of World War I and how four hor­rif­ic years rewired our col­lec­tive brain in real­ly inter­est­ing ways.
  • O Jerusalem, by Lar­ry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. A bit dat­ed, but still a grip­ping work of jour­nal­ism about my city. 
  • Tin­ker Tai­lor Sol­dier Spy. John le Carré’s mas­ter­piece. Enough to make you miss the Cold War.
  • The Brief, Won­drous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. That is a guy with jet fuel in his pen.
  • Gen­e­sis. For ideas, plot, char­ac­ter, and sheer pow­er and econ­o­my of lan­guage, still pret­ty much unmatch­able. There are pub­lic read­ings of it every week for the next few months at your local syn­a­gogue. Check it out.


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

    I don’t remem­ber. But in my 8th-grade year­book from Dublin Heights Mid­dle School in Toron­to, under­neath a very nerdy pic­ture of me, it says, What I want to be when I grow up.” Next to that it says, Jour­nal­ist.”

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

    I don’t think I’ve ever con­sid­ered that ques­tion. Like a lot of peo­ple who write, I most­ly just want to be able to keep writ­ing. Maybe the moun­tain­top would be my grand­daugh­ter look­ing up from a book in 45 years or so with a sur­prised expres­sion and say­ing – Saba, this isn’t bad.

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

    I’ve been report­ing on and off since I was 19, and I have filed sto­ries while crouched by sock­ets in dark hall­ways and rid­ing on crowd­ed bus­es with elbows in my ribs. I once scrib­bled a sto­ry on the back of a mil­i­tary rifle tar­get sit­ting on the ground, then shout­ed it to an edi­tor over a bad cell con­nec­tion. A few years of that kind of thing beats the need for tal­is­mans out of you. Give me a qui­et room and a door my kids can’t open, and I’m set.

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

    I want them to say: I didn’t know that, and I can’t put this down.

    Mat­ti Fried­man has been a cor­re­spon­dent for the Asso­ci­at­ed Press, where he spe­cial­ized in reli­gion and archae­ol­o­gy in Israel and the Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ries, as well as for the Jerusalem Report and the Times of Israel. The Alep­po Codex, his first book, was pub­lished in May 2012 by Algo­nquin Books of Chapel Hill. It was select­ed as one of Booklist’s top ten reli­gion books of the year, was award­ed the Amer­i­can Library Association’s 2013 Sophie Brody Medal and the 2013 Cana­di­an Jew­ish Book Award for his­to­ry, and won sec­ond place in the Reli­gion Newswrit­ers Association’s award for best reli­gion book of 2013. He grew up in Toron­to and lives in Jerusalem.

    Orig­i­nal­ly from Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia, Nao­mi is the exec­u­tive direc­tor 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.