Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

Ear­li­er this week, we asked Sami Rohr Prize Final­ists Abi­gail Green and Jonathan B. Kras­ner a few ques­tions about their inspi­ra­tion, audi­ence, and process. Today, we hear from James Loef­fler, whose first book The Most Musi­cal Nation: Jews and Cul­ture in the Late Russ­ian Empire was pub­lished by Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press. The Rohr Judges agreed that James’s book con­tained “[a] trea­sure trove of music, music his­to­ry and gen­er­al cul­tur­al mate­ri­als that will help us under­stand what would have oth­er­wise been only more buried evi­dence of the rich Jew­ish past in the age of the killers and tyrants.” Below, James dis­cuss­es the inter­na­tion­al human rights move­ment, Miles Davis, and elec­tron­ic dance with the ProsenPeople.

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

For every indi­vid­ual sto­ry that makes it into a book of his­to­ry, there are a hun­dred oth­er fas­ci­nat­ing lives that don’t. That’s a hard choice to make. And it’s made even hard­er by the knowl­edge that each person’s life is unique. Leav­ing some­one out of the nar­ra­tive doesn’t just deprive them of a spot in his­to­ry, it also poten­tial­ly alters the sto­ry­line itself.

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

This may sound cheeky, but I find the most inspi­ra­tion for non-fic­tion in works of fic­tion. Of course it’s true that the rules of writ­ing fic­tion are com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. But fic­tion authors are, by def­i­n­i­tion, mas­ter sto­ry­tellers. The puri­ty of plot reminds me how a good nar­ra­tive can tru­ly take the read­er inside a dif­fer­ent world — like the dis­tant past.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

I wrote this book for any­one who’s ever fall­en in love with a piece of clas­si­cal music; any­one who’s ever suf­fered through a piano or vio­lin les­son; and any­one who’s ever picked up a paper and found them­selves count­ing the Jew­ish names involved in a story.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

I am writ­ing a book now about anoth­er are­na in which Jews have played a dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly large role in mod­ern times: the inter­na­tion­al human rights move­ment. From Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al and Richard Gold­stone to Natan Sha­ran­sky and UN Watch, Jews have become ide­al­is­tic icons and pas­sion­ate crit­ics, tire­less pro­po­nents and vocal skep­tics about the inter­na­tion­al human rights com­mu­ni­ty. My book seeks to go back to the ear­ly decades of the human rights move­ment after World War II, to retrace the for­got­ten sto­ry of Jew­ish par­tic­i­pa­tion in the birth of human rights at the Unit­ed Nations. My aim is to shed new light on just where human rights come from in mod­ern times and to punc­ture some pious, per­sis­tent myths of both the Left and the Right, about the rela­tion­ship between Jews, Zion­ism, and human rights.

What are you read­ing now?

I’ve just been read­ing a col­lec­tion of Chopin’s let­ters, where along­side a bunch of anti-Semit­ic rants I was amused to find his descrip­tion of his adven­tures play­ing klezmer music with Jew­ish folk musi­cians in a Pol­ish shtetl.

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

In high school I was a deep devo­tee of the music of jazz trum­peter Miles Davis. And I was a semi-pro­fes­sion­al jazz musi­cian. Yet when he died ear­ly in my senior year, my first reac­tion wasn’t to put on one of his records. Instead I felt the urge to grab a pen and note­book. I began writ­ing what would become my first pub­lished essay — a lit­er­ary trib­ute to him. It was then that I knew I want­ed to be a writer. As much as music stirred my soul, the way I sought to com­mu­ni­cate my thoughts and pas­sions in life was through words on the print­ed page.

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

Suc­cess is about the art of clar­i­ty. When the words on the page dis­till the essence of an idea or a ques­tion and I’ve cap­tured real­i­ty, then I feel like I’ve reached a peak.

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

My deep, dark secret is that even though I often write about clas­si­cal music, I pre­fer to have puls­ing elec­tron­ic dance music play­ing in the back­ground. The loud­er and nois­i­er, the bet­ter. Some­how the beat and sound screens out oth­er dis­tract­ing thoughts and frees up my mind to con­cen­trate bet­ter on writing.

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

If they lis­ten to one of the com­posers men­tioned in the book, dayenu—that’s enough. But more broad­ly I want read­ers to con­sid­er delv­ing more deeply into the remote cor­ners of the Jew­ish cul­tur­al past. His­to­ry is not just about rein­forc­ing our sense of who we are today and how we got here. His­to­ry is about recov­er­ing the roads not tak­en, and explor­ing where they might yet still lead us.

James Loef­fler, an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia, is nom­i­nat­ed for his first book, The Most Musi­cal Nation: Jews and Cul­ture in the Late Russ­ian Empire. He works broad­ly on the inter­sec­tion of Jew­ish cul­ture, pol­i­tics, and iden­ti­ty in mod­ern East­ern Europe, Israel, and the Unit­ed States. He has pub­lished exten­sive­ly in the field of Jew­ish musi­cal stud­ies, with a spe­cial­iza­tion in the his­to­ry of Jew­ish folk and clas­si­cal music tra­di­tions in East­ern Europe. He lives in Char­lottesville, Virginia. 

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.