Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

I’m sure it comes as no sur­prise that Gal Beck­er­man, win­ner of the 2010 Jew­ish Book of the Year Award, is a final­ist for this year’s Sami Rohr Prize for his book When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Strug­gle to Save Sovi­et Jew­ry. Gal is no stranger to the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil: he’s blogged for us, toured on our Net­work, and won a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. The Rohr Judges were also impressed with his work, sit­ing it as “[a] com­pre­hen­sive, bal­anced and enthralling book on the his­to­ry of the Sovi­et Jew­ry move­ment.” In our final install­ment of Meet Sami Rohr Final­ist…”, Gal shares his guilty read­ing plea­sure and some of his inspirations:

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

I’d have to say it’s the chal­lenge of cast­ing” the book cor­rect­ly. So much of turn­ing his­to­ry into nar­ra­tive has to do with find­ing the right peo­ple through whom you can tell the sto­ry. This is not always straight­for­ward, espe­cial­ly when you are try­ing to present an engag­ing ver­sion of a his­to­ry that is oth­er­wise ram­bling, takes place over decades with dif­fer­ent peri­ods of boom and bust, and involves hun­dreds of cen­tral play­ers — as was the case with the Sovi­et Jew­ry move­ment. Unless you want the book to turn into a jum­ble of facts, you need to find indi­vid­u­als to act as nee­dles that will help the read­er thread their way through.

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

There are a few writ­ers who have worked on large can­vas­es but nev­er lost sight of telling a human sto­ry. I’m think­ing of authors like Tay­lor Branch in his Part­ing the Waters tril­o­gy about the civ­il rights move­ment; Adam Hochschild’s books on social move­ments and any­thing by David Hal­ber­stam; or Tom Segev’s excel­lent his­to­ries of Israel.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

Every­one, or any­one who is inter­est­ed in the past and can be drawn in to a good sto­ry.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

There are a few ideas jostling around in my head, com­pet­ing to become the object of my obses­sion. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, I’m inter­est­ed in con­tin­u­ing to explore those places where the Jew­ish sto­ry inter­sects or affects the Amer­i­can sto­ry. And, as always, some­thing that has a strong nar­ra­tive.

What are you read­ing now?

Just fin­ished Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Mod­ern and indulging in one of my guilty plea­sures, noirs, read­ing Mar­tin Smith Cruz’s Arkady Renko series.

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

Prob­a­bly the womb. I’ve want­ed to be a writer for as long as I can remem­ber. The ques­tion has been what kind of writer, and that has been set­tled only more recent­ly over the past ten years when I dis­cov­ered what a good fit long form nar­ra­tive, and his­to­ry in par­tic­u­lar, was for me.

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

For me, it’s sim­ply being able to keep writ­ing for a liv­ing — and to con­tin­ue pro­duc­ing books. Giv­en the eco­nom­ic inse­cu­ri­ty that comes along with doing any­thing cre­ative, that would feel like success.

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

I don’t have any spe­cial rit­u­als, though I do need qui­et and time.

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

A more com­plete sense of the Sovi­et Jew­ry move­ment and the role it played in his­to­ry. And ide­al­ly, pleasure. 

Gal Beck­er­man is nom­i­nat­ed for his first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Strug­gle to Save Sovi­et Jew­ry, which was award­ed the 2010 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Jew­ish Book of the Year. He is an opin­ion edi­tor at The For­ward and has writ­ten for The New York Times, Wash­ing­ton Post, and Wall Street Jour­nal, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He was recent­ly a Fel­low at the Alexan­der von Hum­boldt Foun­da­tion in Berlin and lives in Brook­lyn.

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.