Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

So far, we’ve heard our Sami Rohr Prize final­ists dis­cuss high school, future grand­chil­dren, writ­ing thank you notes, and archival research. Today we hear from Nina S. Spiegel, whose first book, Embody­ing Hebrew Cul­ture: Aes­thet­ics, Ath­let­ics, and Dance in the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty of Man­date Pales­tine, was pub­lished in June by Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty Press. 

Embody­ing Hebrew Cul­ture has been hailed by Yaron Peleg as a clear, con­cise and com­pre­hen­sive guide” to the major cul­tur­al inno­va­tions of ear­ly Zion­ism. Among the top­ics cov­ered, the book explores the beau­ty com­pe­ti­tions for Queen Esther and the first Mac­cabi­ah Games.

Below, Nina S. Spiegel dis­cuss­es her back­ground in dance, her inter­est in place and mem­o­ry, and the impor­tance of light to her writing:

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

One of the great­est chal­lenges is find­ing the archival mate­r­i­al. I was deter­mined to uncov­er and por­tray a sense of the streets, stages, and sta­di­ums in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Man­date Pales­tine in the 1920s through 1940s. This quest took me to a num­ber of archives around Israel, from small local archives such as at Kib­butz Dalia, to large nation­al col­lec­tions such as the Jew­ish Nation­al and Uni­ver­si­ty Library, to a vari­ety in between, such as the Steven Spiel­berg Jew­ish Film Archive and the Dance Library of Israel. Many of these archives held only snip­pets of the sto­ry and I was often con­cerned I wouldn’t find enough mate­ri­als to paint a detailed pic­ture. In the end, search­ing for and piec­ing togeth­er dif­fer­ent strands of the sto­ry is one of my favorite parts of the process. The moment when, after sift­ing through unre­lat­ed items, you find an unex­pect­ed doc­u­ment, poster, pho­to, or film that holds a key to the nar­ra­tive makes the long hunt worthwhile! 

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

I was inspired by the many cre­ative dancers, ath­letes, and cul­tur­al pro­duc­ers who took it upon them­selves to estab­lish a new soci­ety. This was a very cre­ative era. They viewed the city, the street, and the field as open stu­dios in which to devel­op. And it has been such a priv­i­lege to give a voice to their pre­vi­ous­ly untold sto­ries. For exam­ple, I spent many hours with Yarde­na Cohen, the first prize win­ner of the Nation­al Dance Com­pe­ti­tion in Tel Aviv in 1937. At near­ly 100 years old, she was still teach­ing dance and inspir­ing younger gen­er­a­tions! Cohen died in 2012 and I will always cher­ish this time with her and the incred­i­ble insights she shared.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

My goal is for the book to be acces­si­ble to a broad audi­ence, for indi­vid­u­als with and with­out a back­ground in Jew­ish or Israeli his­to­ry. Because my work is inter­dis­ci­pli­nary, my aim is for it to appeal to read­ers with var­ied interests. 

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

I’m inves­ti­gat­ing the impact of place and mem­o­ry on the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence, espe­cial­ly fol­low­ing the large migra­tions of Jews from East­ern Europe in the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies to places such as the Unit­ed States, Pales­tine, and Argenti­na. One ques­tion, in par­tic­u­lar, has long intrigued me: giv­en that these Jews shared a com­mon cul­tur­al base, how did they come to devel­op such dis­tinct cul­tures and such dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ships to the East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish past? There are clues to be found by look­ing anew at a diver­si­ty of expe­ri­ences such as the Yid­dish tan­gos in Buenos Aires, the delis on New York’s Low­er East Side, and the Israeli hora. 

What are you read­ing now?

I’m revis­it­ing The Plough Woman: Records of the Pio­neer Women of Pales­tine. I’m also read­ing Twyla Tharp’s, The Cre­ative Habit.

Five books you love to recommend

It’s a tough call! Here are a few:

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

My writ­ing emerged in dia­logue with a vari­ety of expe­ri­ences includ­ing teach­ing, danc­ing, and curat­ing. I grew up danc­ing — dur­ing my under­grad­u­ate years I chore­o­graphed and per­formed in a stu­dent-run dance com­pa­ny. Before becom­ing a pro­fes­sor, I was a muse­um cura­tor. For me, these expe­ri­ences all com­ple­ment each oth­er and have moved me to think about dif­fer­ent audi­ences and dif­fer­ent approach­es to fram­ing and pre­sent­ing a story.

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

I am so hon­ored to be select­ed as a Sami Rohr Prize final­ist and moved that the inspir­ing sto­ries of the many cre­ative dancers, ath­letes, and cul­tur­al pro­duc­ers are being rec­og­nized in this way. When I first began this book, there was very lit­tle work being done on Israeli cul­ture and I was con­tin­u­ous­ly told along the way that these top­ics were irrel­e­vant. The acknowl­edge­ment of dance and pub­lic cul­ture as valu­able and as impor­tant avenues of under­stand­ing Jew­ish and Israeli soci­ety is immense­ly rewarding.

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

The most impor­tant thing for me is my sur­round­ings: a qui­et space with lots of light. I had just moved to Port­land when I was com­plet­ing some of the final stages of the book and sat perched on the floor with mov­ing box­es serv­ing as a desk (not some­thing I rec­om­mend long term!). But as long as I was near win­dows with good light, all was well.

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

My goal is for read­ers to walk away with a deep­er under­stand­ing of Israeli cul­ture and soci­ety and an appre­ci­a­tion for the cre­ativ­i­ty and com­plex­i­ty of its for­ma­tion. I also hope read­ers will enjoy hear­ing new voic­es and will gain an appre­ci­a­tion for the val­ue of exam­in­ing the phys­i­cal and per­form­ing arts arenas. 

Nina S. Spiegel is the Rab­bi Joshua Stampfer Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Israel Stud­ies at Port­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. She holds a BA from Brown Uni­ver­si­ty and a PhD in his­to­ry from Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. Her first book, Embody­ing Hebrew Cul­ture: Aes­thet­ics, Ath­let­ics, and Dance in the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty of Man­date Pales­tine, was pub­lished by Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty Press in June 2013. Her arti­cles have appeared in pub­li­ca­tions such as Jew­ish Cul­tur­al Stud­ies, Jew­ish Folk­lore and Eth­nol­o­gy Review, and Rethink­ing His­to­ry: The Jour­nal of The­o­ry and Prac­tice. Spiegel has con­duct­ed cura­to­r­i­al work at the Nation­al Muse­um of Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry in Philadel­phia, the Skir­ball Cul­tur­al Cen­ter in Los Ange­les, and the Israel Muse­um in Jerusalem. She has also served on the Board of Direc­tors of the Con­gress on Research in Dance.

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.