Ear­li­er this week, Richard Michel­son wrote about fol­low­ing his own advice for aspir­ing authors in pen­ning Fas­ci­nat­ing, a children’s biog­ra­phy of Leonard Nimoy — which comes out this week! Richard is guest blog­ging for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

When I was decid­ing whether to accept the job offer” to write the children’s book A is for Abra­ham in a series of cul­tur­al and state alpha­bet books by Sleep­ing Bear Press, I ran through the pros and cons with my friend and men­tor, Leonard Nimoy. 

The cons seemed obvi­ous. I had nev­er attend­ed a Jew­ish Day School, I knew no Hebrew, I knew no Yid­dish, I nev­er had a Bar Mitz­vah, I couldn’t recite any prayers, I nev­er fol­lowed the tra­di­tions, and I even cheat­ed” on Yom Kip­pur, nosh­ing when I should be fasting. 

The pros? I couldn’t think of any off­hand. And it was a daunt­ing task. Boil down all of Jew­ish knowl­edge and his­to­ry into the most impor­tant 26 cat­e­gories. Write two- or four-line poems for young chil­dren to read and a side­bar explain­ing the sub­ject in depth for old­er children. 

Leonard thought it over and decid­ed I was the log­i­cal” choice. 

Because I didn’t know any­thing, every part of Judaism inter­est­ed me. And I saw it from the out­side, like a child might. I had so many ques­tions! It is often dif­fi­cult to learn from a per­son who is too much the expert, he coun­seled. The fish can­not explain water. You need to be stand­ing on dry land. 

And his most impor­tant artis­tic advice: Do what scares you! 

Leonard had insa­tiable curios­i­ty and he lived by the mantra: Go, Do, Explore. He was an actor, direc­tor, pho­tog­ra­ph­er, singer, poet, pilot, and play­wright. When he was offered the part of Spock he hes­i­tat­ed. At that time, he already had a suc­cess­ful thir­teen-year career, hav­ing starred in two movies and numer­ous tele­vi­sion shows, includ­ing the high­est rat­ed series of the day. He’d start­ed his own stu­dio to help teach younger performers. 

Now he was being asked to wear point­ed ears and a sil­ly hair­cut. He was afraid he would lose all cred­i­bil­i­ty. But then he remem­bered how his Zayde, who had come to the Unit­ed States with a sense of adven­ture to find a bet­ter life, had always encour­aged him to take chances.

Leonard’s par­ents, on the oth­er hand, arrived much lat­er. They were fear­ful peo­ple, as befits immi­grants from Zaslav, Ukraine who escaped Russ­ian pogroms. His moth­er was smug­gled out of the city in a hay wag­on, and his father was sneaked across the bor­der. Their papers, upon enter­ing the Unit­ed States, had been stamped Alien.” They were always telling young Lenny to stay home, fit in, and play it safe.

If he was yelled at for stay­ing out too late, Leonard’s Bubbe used to con­sole him by singing her favorite Yid­dish poem: Itzik Manger’s There Is a Tree That Stands, which is about a boy who wants to turn into a bird and fly away. In the song, it’s cold out and his moth­er makes him put on a coat, then galosh­es, then a hat and gloves, until he is so encum­bered that 

I try to fly, but I can’t move…
Too many, many things
My mother’s piled on her weak bird
And loaded down my wings.

I look into my mother’s eyes
And, sad­ly, then I see
The love that won’t let me become
The bird I want to be.

So Leonard decid­ed it was time for him to take a chance, close the cir­cle and become an alien.
Go. Do. Explore. 

In his hon­or I decid­ed my V” would stand for Vul­can, and my side bar would incor­po­rate the long his­to­ry of Jews in the arts. So I penned two lines:

V is for Vul­can. Star-Trekkers, I’m guess­ing,
know Spock’s greet­ings’ based on a Kohan­im blessing.

They were, per­haps right­ful­ly, reject­ed by my edi­tor, and a dif­fer­ent V” verse was sub­sti­tut­ed in their place. But I am pleased for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to share the cou­plet for the first time with Jew­ish Book Council’s read­ers — and I’ll talk more about that bless­ing of theh Kohan­im, which became the start­ing point of my book Fas­ci­nat­ing: The Life of Leonard Nimoy, in my next blog post!

Richard Michel­son is the author of many acclaimed books for adults and chil­dren. His work has earned a Syd­ney Tay­lor Gold Medal and Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award recog­ni­tion. Richard lives with his wife in Amherst, Mass­a­chu­setts, and is the pro­pri­etor of R. Michel­son Galleries.

Relat­ed Content:

Richard Michelson’s many books for chil­dren and adults have received many awards and acco­lades, includ­ing a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award and the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award. Michel­son hosts Northamp­ton Poet­ry Radio and served as Poet Lau­re­ate of Northamp­ton, MA. In addi­tion to being an author Michel­son is a speak­er and rep­re­sent­ed the US at the Bratisla­va Bien­ni­al in Slovakia.