Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

It’s been a good year so far for Jonathan Kras­ner. First, he won the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in Amer­i­can Jew­ish Stud­ies, and then he was named a final­ist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture. His fet­ed title, The Ben­der­ly Boys and Amer­i­can Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion, was hailed by the Rohr judges as “[t]he best book on the his­to­ry of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States to have appeared in sev­er­al decades.” Clear­ly, this is one not to be missed. Like yes­ter­day, we asked Jonathan a few ques­tions about his process, his audi­ence, and the cur­rent books on his night­stand. His answers fol­low below:

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

I’m con­stant­ly aim­ing to bal­ance my desire to tell a com­pelling sto­ry with my com­mit­ment to schol­ar­ship. I reject the notion that seri­ous his­to­ry writ­ing needs to be dry as dust.”

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

When I was edi­tor of my high school and col­lege news­pa­pers, I had a bit of the muck­rak­ing spir­it in me and felt it was impor­tant for the fourth estate to keep the pow­ers that be” hon­est. I drew ear­ly inspi­ra­tion from long form essay writ­ers in mag­a­zines like the New York­er and the New Repub­lic. In col­lege, Pro­fes­sors Stephen Whit­field, Joyce Antler, and Jacob Cohen intro­duced me to great polit­i­cal essay writ­ers like H. L. Menck­en, Mary McCarthy, and E.B. White as well as prac­ti­tion­ers of the New Jour­nal­ism,” like Hunter S. Thomp­son and Tom Wolfe. Although my inter­ests even­tu­al­ly turned from jour­nal­ism to his­to­ry, it was the expo­sure to these jour­nal­ists and essay­ists that most influ­enced my writing.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

In The Ben­der­ly Boys my audi­ence is any­one who has ever suf­fered through Hebrew school, fall­en in love with Jew­ish sum­mer camp, or won­ders about the ori­gins of the song I Had a Lit­tle Drey­dl.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

I am cur­rent­ly work­ing on a few projects on top­ics rang­ing from black-Jew­ish rela­tions at Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty in the late-1960s; to the evo­lu­tion of the term Tikkun Olam since World War II; and to the main­stream­ing of gays and les­bians in the Jew­ish community. 

What are you read­ing now?

Erik Lar­son­’s riv­et­ing and dis­turb­ing book In the Gar­den of Beasts.

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

I can’t pin­point an exact date or place, but what­ev­er incli­na­tion I had was def­i­nite­ly rein­forced when the high school fac­ul­ty advi­sor to the stu­dent news­pa­per start­ed refer­ring to my col­lab­o­ra­tor friend Jeff and I as Wood­ward and Bernstein.” 

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

How about being a Sami Rohr Prize final­ist? .… Seri­ous­ly, I am thrilled when I suc­ceed at mak­ing his­to­ry come alive while answer­ing the ques­tion: Why does this matter?” 

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

Ide­al­ly, I like to lock myself in a room for a cou­ple of weeks at a time, prefer­ably with breaks for long walks around a lake or along a beach. 

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

I hope they gain some appre­ci­a­tion for the almost fanat­i­cal ded­i­ca­tion of the Jew­ish edu­ca­tors of the past. Today, the motif of Hebrew school as tor­ture, recent­ly par­o­died to great effect in the Coen broth­ers’ film A Seri­ous Man, is almost a cliché. But the pio­neers of the mod­ern Jew­ish sup­ple­men­tary school were actu­al­ly steeped in pro­gres­sive edu­ca­tion­al phi­los­o­phy and ded­i­cat­ed to the revival of Hebrew and the cre­ation of a vibrant Amer­i­can Jew­ish cul­ture. Maybe the sto­ry just mag­ni­fies the dilem­ma of sup­ple­men­tary Jew­ish edu­ca­tion in Amer­i­ca. Or, rather, it under­scores how Jew­ish edu­ca­tors today are strug­gling with many of the same issues that ani­mat­ed Sam­son Ben­der­ly and his dis­ci­ples a cen­tu­ry ago. 

Jonathan B. Kras­ner is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Expe­ri­ence at Hebrew Union Col­lege — Jew­ish Insti­tute of Reli­gion in New York. He is nom­i­nat­ed for his book The Ben­der­ly Boys and Amer­i­can Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion, which just won the 2011 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in the cat­e­go­ry of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Stud­ies. His work has appeared in many aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals and antholo­gies. He lives with his fam­i­ly in Andover, Massachusetts. 

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.