09-02-2008 02:31 PM - edited 09-03-2008 09:49 AM
First of all, let me, on behalf of all our readers, welcome you to the Jewish Encounters book club. We are thrilled to have the chance to chat with you about the Jewish Encounters series as well as your own books.
I thought I'd start things off with a question about the series. How did the idea for the Jewish Encounters series develop?
I -- and our readers -- are eager to hear more!
09-03-2008 10:23 AM
Thanks for your welcome, it's a pleasure to be doing this.
It's interesting for me to think about the origins of the book series. Initially, we thought about publishing classic Jewish texts in a format sort of like the Harvard Library of Classics -- everything from Maimonides' "Guide for the Perplexed" to Theodor Herzl's "Altneuland." But the funny thing about Jewish "writing" is that until you get to the very modern period, with fiction writers like Sholom Aleichem or an assimilated journalist like Herzl, you realize how different and how difficult these texts can be. They live inside languages many of our prospective readers wouldn't know, and though of course they'd be in translation, they live inside a cultural context of study and commentary that constitutes its own language. We wanted our readers to encounter these things but came to feel that rather than providing classic texts with introductions, we'd let the introductions themselves become the texts. But not straight introductions by scholars, rather, encounters with classic texts or the authors of those texts. We chose writers whose journey towards the subject would itself be part of the "plot" of the book. Once we lost the idea of "the Classics" things took off and the books became more idiosyncratic.
09-05-2008 04:06 PM - edited 09-05-2008 07:24 PM
Reading your reply about how the series got started, it strikes me that you took a little risk-- and, it turns out, very successful one -- by going with more idiosyncratic pairings of author and topic rather than scholars (particularly on some of the more "classical" subjects, like King David and Maimonides).
Can you tell us about how some of the author-subject pairings came to be? What is your process of finding author and subject? Especially regarding some of the more offbeat topics -- like the forthcoming books on The Dairy Restaurant and The American Songbook.
09-07-2008 11:17 AM
Everything that has to do with books is a risk. Are you authoritative but dull? Popular but without substance? Will anyone care whichever route you go, given the popularity of blogs and television and movies and a million other diversions? The test I think is all in the balance -- and in building into the series the understanding that these are not works of scholarship, and yet they honor their topics.
In many cases I simply approached writers I admire. Ben Katchor is someone whose work I've long been a fan of -- back when I was culture editor at the Forward, many years ago, I got Ben to produce an original comic strip called "The Jew of New York," a fanciful biography of an actual 19th century figure, Mordechai Noah, who had wacky dreams of founding a Jewish State in North America. When I told Ben about the series, he talked about his life-long obsession with "the dairy restaurant," not merely as a literal place but as a concept. And it thus immediately had the appeal of combining elements, which is one of the things the series seeks to do. It would be an actual account of these remarkable restaurants that every major city with a Jewish population had at the turn of the century, especially New York, where socialists and actors and writers and intellectuals and working immigrants all congregated. But it would let him ask other questions too -- like when exactly did the blintz become Jewish food? And since Ben is beginning his book in the Garden of Eden -- in his mind the first "dairy restaurant" -- he is able to give the work a mythic quality, trace that yearning for paradise that lives in culinary longings, a desire for a taste of paradise even in the midst of a tough city.
The American Songbook, about all those Jewish writers of popular American music -- Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, the list is endless -- was David Lehman's idea. It immediately made sense to me as a sort of "How the Jews Invented American Music."
With other books, I just found myself thinking, wouldn't it be wonderful to get a poet like Robert Pinsky to write about Judaism's poet-king, David? And in many cases, the writers have been waiting without knowing it for just such a project, or maybe for permission to write the sort of book that they'd feel unqualified to tackle without the series providing encouragement.
09-10-2008 11:20 AM
Thanks so much for your answer. I do think that much of what is special about the series is these unusual pairings -- people are coming to their topics from unexpected angles, and revealing new stories within the familiar, or taking on subjects that have been underexplored in the past. It's shocking that there wasn't a proper biography of Emma Lazarus until Esther Shor's, and in some ways that groundbreaking work is as unexpected as something like Ben Katchor's fascination with the dairy restaurant (a fascination I share -- my favorite is B&H Dairy in Manhattan's East Village -- a tiny lunch counter on 2nd Avenue between 7th Street and St. Marks. Wonderful food -- blintzes, perogies, split pea and mushroom barley soups, and the best grilled cheese ever. I hope I can find something half as good in Baltimore).
But I digress. As an editor myself, I'm curious about how your experience as editor of the series while also writing your own work -- both Joy Comes in the Morning and The Life of the Skies were written since you've been editing the series. How does your experience as a writer color your work as an editor, and vice-versa?
09-14-2008 04:30 PM
Forgive the slow pace of my replies. Especially since thequestion of the relationship between the books I edit and the books I write issuch an interesting one for me.
I think the book that holds a sort of key for me is one Iwrote before the books you ask about – “The Talmud and the Internet.” Thesubtitle of that book, “A Journey Between Worlds” sort of sums up the motto bywhich I work as an editor. I’m trying to get the authors to make their ownjourney between worlds – between the past and the present, between the world ofscholarship and the world of popular writing, between their own work as writersand the subject they’re encountering. My book on birdwatching, “The Life of theSkies,” is all about living between worlds, too, I suppose – birdwatchingmediates between the earth and the sky, between what is wild and what is tame,between science and art, between our urge to conserve and identify and our urgeto kill. I guess I’m just really interested in mediating activities. I’d say asmuch about “Joy Comes in the Morning,” my novel about a woman rabbi. She livesa modern life and is something new just by being a woman rabbi, and yet shedrawn to and bound to an ancient religious world.
I certainly don’t want to suggest I try to get the writersto become me. But I know that there’s an element of persuasion involved inallowing the writers to feel they have the authority to write about Jewishsubjects when they are not necessarily scholars. To write about historicaltopics even when they are not historians, and philosophical subjects even ifthey are not philosophers. To feel that the world of Jewish culture and historybelongs to them as fully as it does to anyone else and is theirs to writeabout.