Jew­ish Book Coun­cil is proud to intro­duce read­ers to the five emerg­ing non­fic­tion authors named as final­ists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture. Today, we invite you to learn more about Yehu­dah Mirsky and his book Rav Kook: Mys­tic in a Time of Rev­o­lu­tion, a biog­ra­phy of the first chief rab­bi of Jew­ish Pales­tine and found­ing the­olo­gian of reli­gious Zion­ism that delves into the strug­gle of one of the most influ­en­tial — and con­tro­ver­sial — rab­bis of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry to under­stand and shape his rev­o­lu­tion­ary times.

A warm con­grat­u­la­tions to Yehu­dah and the oth­er four final­ists: Aviya Kush­n­er, Dan Ephron, Lisa Moses Leff, and Adam D. Mendel­sohn. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be tak­ing home the $100,000 prize!

What are some of the most chal­leng­ing things about writ­ing nonfiction?

I think that form and genre are deeply relat­ed to the sub­stance of what we have to say. Some things are best said in a book-length essay, like this book I’ve writ­ten. Oth­ers are best said in fic­tion, or plays, or poems, or avowed­ly devo­tion­al texts, or, what can you do, in aca­d­e­m­ic mono­graphs with pla­toons of footnotes. 

What or who has been your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing nonfiction?

Too many to name — but above all my father, Rab­bi Pro­fes­sor David Mirsky, who passed away in 1982, when I was 21 years old, and still teach­es me, every blessed day.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

In this book I tried to cast a wide net, to write some­thing of inter­est to inter­est­ed read­ers — Jew­ish or not — and to com­mit­ted Jews of all per­sua­sions, to rab­bis and edu­ca­tors, to schol­ars in fields rang­ing from his­to­ry to the­ol­o­gy to pol­i­tics. That I could even think of try­ing that was because I was writ­ing about an extra­or­di­nary fig­ure who him­self — in his life sto­ry and breadth and depth of his thought — speaks to that entire spec­trum, and more.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

Yes, sev­er­al things. I’m cur­rent­ly com­plet­ing a schol­ar­ly vol­ume (pla­toons of foot­notes and all) on Rav Kook’s intel­lec­tu­al biog­ra­phy before his mov­ing to the Land of Israel at age 38, in 1904. For all the vast schol­ar­ship on him (main­ly in Hebrew), there’s still not much in the way of intel­lec­tu­al biog­ra­phy, espe­cial­ly not on this cru­cial, for­ma­tive peri­od of his life. I’m also trans­lat­ing vol­umes of Midrashim writ­ten and pub­lished in Hebrew by learned con­tem­po­rary Israeli women, edit­ed by my wife, Tamar Biala. These are very pow­er­ful texts that will be great to bring to Eng­lish readers.

I’ve also begun some oth­er projects. In recent years I’ve writ­ten a num­ber of essays on the shape of mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, in par­tic­u­lar on the many answers giv­en to what the great essay­ist Ahad Ha’Am char­ac­ter­ized as the prob­lem of the Jews and the prob­lem of Judaism,” — answers like ultra-Ortho­doxy, Zion­ism, Jew­ish Social­ism, Nation­al­ism, Lib­er­al­ism — and how those answers have reg­u­lar­ly mixed, matched and pulled against each oth­er. These sto­ries both reflect and have played a role in larg­er dra­mas in world his­to­ry, like the rise of the nation-state, and I’m hop­ing to pull those togeth­er. Anoth­er project I’m work­ing on is rethink­ing the idea of human rights in order to save it. The colos­sal moral strug­gles of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry yield­ed, at least for a while, a unprece­dent­ed con­sen­sus among many — though of course not all — peo­ple that there are some things that states are sim­ply not allowed to do to peo­ple. That is a pre­cious com­mit­ment, won at ter­ri­ble cost, and we need to find ways to reground it for the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry and beyond. I real­ly want to write about that. And now and then I scratch at some more pure­ly lit­er­ary projects too.

What are you read­ing now?

Yeshayahu Hale­vi Horowitz, Sefer Shnei Luchot Ha-Berit
Yehoshua Fis­chel Schneer­son, Chaim Grav­itzer: Sip­puro shel Nofel
Robert D. Kaplan, In Europe’s Shad­ow: Two Cold Wars and a Thir­ty-Year Jour­ney through Roma­nia and Beyond
Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scan­dalous Trea­tise and the Birth of the Mod­ern Age

If you had to list your five favorite books…

That’s impos­si­ble to answer, like ask­ing who’s your favorite child? I can men­tion a few of the books that have moved me deeply and in some ways changed or saved my life, though there are many more.

Chaim Grade, The Yeshi­va
Saul Lieber­man, Hel­lenism in Jew­ish Pales­tine
Czes­law Milosz, Bells in Win­ter
Rein­hold Niebuhr, The Nature and Des­tiny of Man
Shake­speare, As You Like It
Zel­da, Kol Ha-Shir­im

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

I’ve loved words and the mag­ic they bring for as long as I can remem­ber. My father, of blessed mem­o­ry, was a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture, and came from a fam­i­ly of gen­tle sto­ry­tellers. There was no point of deci­sion to become a writer — but many points of mus­ter­ing the self-con­fi­dence that I had some­thing worth say­ing and knew how to say it. That’s a deci­sion I need to make — as hon­est­ly as I can — every time I sit down to try and write.

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

I wish I knew, and I might be a bit more dis­ci­plined if I did. I read a lot, talk a lot, and I drink a lot of cof­fee. I try to write long­hand when I can, for the sheer feel of mov­ing pen along paper. I love work­ing in cafés and libraries — though much of this book was writ­ten at our dining/​living room table and in the base­ment clin­ic of an art ther­a­pist who let me use her work­space dur­ing off-hours. I almost always lis­ten to music when I write. It’s like oxygen.

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

I’d like them to come away with a lit­tle more his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge about how and why our world today has tak­en shape, and with some hope­ful­ly help­ful per­spec­tives on how to look at things. It’s my hope that the fusion of words and ideas that I offer them will open spaces in their own minds for fur­ther think­ing and explo­ration on their own terms. And didac­tic as it sounds, I do hope that the things we read and write will help make us want to be kinder to one anoth­er in our own lives. 

Yehu­dah Mirsky is an Amer­i­can-Israeli Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Near East­ern and Juda­ic Stud­ies at Bran­deis. He stud­ied at Yeshi­v­at Har Etzion and Yeshi­va Col­lege and received rab­binic ordi­na­tion in Jerusalem. He grad­u­at­ed from Yale Law School, where he was an edi­tor of the law review, and com­plet­ed his Ph.D. in Reli­gion at Har­vard. Yehu­dah served in the Unit­ed States State Depart­men­t’s human rights bureau in the Clin­ton Admin­is­tra­tion, and was a Red Cross chap­lain fol­low­ing the events of 9/11. He tweets @YehudahMirsky

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