Interview

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Interview

Austin Ratner

Barbara Krasner is a member of AJL's Sydney Taylor Book Award committee, and blogs at The Whole Megillah. She conducted this interview with author Austin Ratner about his new book, In the Land of the Living, the story of a Jewish family, "fathers, sons, and brothers - bound by love, divided by history."

Barbara Krasner (BK): On behalf of the Association of Jewish Libraries, hello and welcome, Austin. Thanks for joining me in this cyber discussion about your second novel, In the Land of the Living.

Austin Ratner (AR): I appreciate the opportunity for an interview and for your thoughtful questions. 

BK: What inspired the idea for this book?

AR: When I was in college, I consulted my creative writing teacher about a problem I imagined was unique to me: I had lost my father when I was so young I could not remember him, yet I had a recurring urge to write about him, his death, and how he lingered in my thoughts and feelings. I asked my teacher if he had any advice and I was surprised by his response. He told me that he too had lost his father in his earliest years and that everything he wrote related in some way to this loss, but he cautioned me against trying to write about it directly. As I get older and more experienced with the difficulties of writing and selling fiction, his advice seems only more sensible. Nonetheless, I could never quite exorcise the urge to write directly on this topic. That is what In the Land of the Living is about: a traumatic loss in early childhood and how it can dominate the thoughts of a person for the rest of his life.

BK: In what ways was writing In the Land of the Living different from writing The Jump Artist?

AR: While The Jump Artist also dealt with the lingering effects of emotional injury, it was in many ways a more straightforward story. It was about one discrete period of an adult man’s life. The premise of In the Land of the Living meant linking together two lives—a father and a son—that only intersected on earth for a few years. That posed technical challenges to me as a novelist.

BK: What was the greatest challenge? The greatest satisfaction?

AR: For all the lip-service paid to the importance of child development in our society, I do not find most people to be particularly psychologically literate about it or particularly interested in thinking about it. I view it as a personal victory that I was able to write directly and truthfully about the underserved theme of childhood loss and its residua, and to get it into print with a major publisher in both the U.S. and France. It’s the most civilized response I think I could mount against this particularly helpless experience. Several years ago, when I wrote about the theme more autobiographically in The New York Times Magazine, I heard from all kinds of people who felt as I did. I hope I speak for them as well as to them.

BK: What thought process did you use to set up Isidore as a knight (and the chapter headings)?

AR: Picaresque medieval romances like Le Morte D’Arthur use grandiose chapter titles that confer legendary significance upon everything the knights do. I used such titles in Part I of my novel in the same spirit that Cervantes uses them in Don Quixote: to satirize quixotic, heroic, romantic ideals—or at least to draw a contrast between them and the more sordid and brutal reality. Whereas Don Quixote often undermines the heroic ideal by comic failures, the brutal reality of what happens to Isidore undermines the heroic ideal in a particularly tragic way.

BK: The relationship between Leo and Mack fascinates me—how one event can shift the foundation of a relationship. How did this come about? Was it difficult or easy to write? What led to the choice of Leo as your protagonist?

AR: The relationship between the brothers I think is really important to help aerate the protagonist Leo’s internal warfare with his own past. With Mack in it, the narrative is not only about Leo and his past but about another person too, and Leo’s interactions with his brother are a narrative strategy for telling the story of Leo’s relation to his own past in a dynamic, living, present-tense sort of way. Brothers share a certain history, and so a brother can be a living representative of one’s own past, and a way of interacting with one’s own past in an external way. 

BK: One of the characteristics I’ve noticed about your writing is your specificity, for example, the scene in the New Haven Public Library: “But this library couldn’t save him, with its shabby little collections, its early closing time, its oblivious teenage librarian doing her homework, making fat redundant loops of blue ballpoint ink on some wide-ruled notebook paper.” Does this come naturally to you or do you insert these details strategically?

AR: We recently started reading Charlotte’s Web to my younger son. Its details create a persuasive fictional dream in a way that many other children’s stories don’t. Charlotte’s Web is of course by E.B. White, the master himself, co-author of Elements of Style. That classic writing primer says: “The greatest writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.”

In the Land of the Living

BK: What do you want readers to take away from In the Land of the Living?

AR: If I’ve emulated E.B. White’s use of detail, I couldn’t aspire to the beautiful simplicity of his story structure—and the reason perhaps goes back to the decision not to back away from a direct, realistic treatment of childhood loss despite this subject’s enormous psychological complexity. Literature has perhaps moved on from the deep introspection of modernism, but the emotional terrain of childhood loss requires such deep modernist introspection, wherein a persuasive fictional dream of inner life occupies the foreground and a diverting story the background. I hope readers enjoy the story and the humor in In the Land of the Living, but the more important thing to me is whether readers experience a persuasive fictional dream and feel they’ve encountered another real consciousness in the book. A persuasive fictional dream is always more diverting to me than a conventional story anyway.

BK: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you go from med school to the Iowa Workshop?

AR: This question always makes me think of Gonzo in The Muppet Movie. He tells Kermit and Fozzie he’s going to Bombay, India to become a movie star. They tell him: you don’t go to Bombay, India to become a movie star, you go to Hollywood, where we’re going. Gonzo says, sure, if you want to do it the easy way. I always wanted to be a writer, but I did not take a direct path. There are worse paths, though, than the one that leads through a medical career. Somerset Maugham said that medical school was the ideal preparation for any fiction writer.

BK: What’s your typical writing schedule? In other words, how do you write?

AR: When I am not crippled by self-doubt, I write automatically, like I eat and breathe and sleep. The trick for me is to combat the doubt. Then the words come and work gets done and something gets created.

BK: Thanks, Austin, for a great interview. I can’t wait to read your next work.

Posted in: Authors, Interview

Read an interview with Ann Redisch Stampler, author of The Wooden Sword (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category) at Shelf-Employed! A highlight: "as I researched the Afghani story, learning more about the culture of the Jews who lived with their Muslim neighbors in Afghanistan for a thousand years, I loved it. It was hilarious, but at the same time, its message was profound."

 

Read an interview with Carol Liddiment, illustrator of The Wooden Sword (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category) at Ann Koffsky's Blog!  A highlight: "This is a warm story about the Shah’s desire to understand the poor man’s faith. It is a story about tolerance and understanding… I hope that message can be embraced by all."

 

Read an interview with Doreen Rappaport, author of Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust (Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Teen Readers Category) at Bildungsroman! A highlight: "I feel I was privileged to learn about so many Jewish children, men and women, who exhibited extraordinary courage and foresight during the nightmare of the Holocaust.  I had the privilege of speaking directly with three survivors and forging a friendship with one of them.  My research led me into a world I knew nothing about and filled me with enormous pride about these courageous Jews."

 

 

Katie Davis, host of the award-winning children's literature podcast, Brain Burps About Books, has created a special episode focused exclusively on the Sydney Taylor Book Award. Davis is a long-time fan of author Sydney Taylor and of the award named in her memory. The special episode features interviews with each of this year's gold medalists and can be found at http://katiedavis.com/sydney-taylor-award-winners/.

Michael J. Rosen and Robert Sabuda, author and artist of Chanukah Lights, Susan Goldman Rubin, author of Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein, and Robert Sharenow, author of The Berlin Boxing Club,are the 2012 winners of the prestigious Sydney Taylor Book Award. All four winners appear in lively interview segments on Brain Burps About Books.

The Sydney Taylor Book Award honors new books for children and teens that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience. The award memorializes Sydney Taylor, author of the classic All-of-a-Kind Family series. The winners will receive their awards at the Association of Jewish Libraries convention in Pasadena, California this June.

Brain Burps About Books


Children's author/illustrator Katie Davis has published nine books and appears monthly on the ABC affiliate show, Good Morning Connecticut, recommending great books for kids. She produces Brain Burps About Books, a podcast about kidlit, a blog and monthly newsletter. You can find her podcast at http://katiedavis.com/category/podcast/.
Today I have an interview with Avner Mandelman, author of the Giller Prize-nominated novel The Debba. You can see a trailer for the book here.

1. The story you tell in THE DEBBA mixes politics, romance, myth and even magic. There are issues around Jewish identity and assimilation as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict and it all comes together at the end with the revelation of shocking secrets and betrayals. What inspired you to write this story?

The story’s beginning came to me on the third day of the Yom Kippur War (I was then living in Vancouver, Canada), as I saw  on TV Israeli jet planes exploding and Israeli tanks bursting into flames, with my friends in them. I escaped to a nearby park in great distress, and the opening pages of the book then came to me -- I still have no idea from where -- and I wrote them down in a white heat. Then the flow stopped, and over the next eighteen years, as I got married, had children, got an MBA degree, and worked in the market, I kept trying to dig out the story, but it was clear to me I did not know how to write fiction. So finally in 1991 I closed my house in Toronto, took my then-wife and two toddlers and decamped to California to the Bay Area, to learn how to write fiction. It took a while. I got an MA in CW, finished the book, got an agent, published some story collections, and returned to Canada. After many rejections, last year, thirty six years after the first words were written, the book was finally accepted by a publisher. And yes, the ending shocked me too when I wrote it…

2. The main character, David, a burnt-out Israeli military assassin, has to return to Israel from Canada after the death of his father, who asks him posthumously to stage a play called THE DEBBA. It seems like a very unusual request and puts David in the role of a creator. Why does his father make this request? What impact does it have on David?

David’s father asks him to perform the play as an oblique way of telling David his destiny, and what he must do. The story is structured as a monomyth, the classical “hero’s return,” as identified by Joseph Campbell. It usually involves a hero of mysterious origins who had left his people and who suddenly receives a message from his ancestor (or his God or gods) to perform a task. This task goes against his grain and so he at first refuses, but after a while he does it; and as he performs it, he gets deeper and deeper into trouble, passes through a vale of shadows where he must perform ever harder tasks, until at the end he must perform the one task that changes him and renders him whole, and reveals to him his destiny, thereby helping his people. This in essence is the structure of all the enduring myths— Moses, Jason, Jesus, or modern ones like Hamlet, Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker, etc. So David must stage the play and go through the investigation in order to find out what his father really wanted.

3. In an interview you did for Other Press you talk about the violent reactions people have to the play in the book, that "normal people kill and are killed for fictions." Do you think that art can still have that power even in a cynical age like ours?

That’s an excellent question. The “fictions” in the book for which “normal people kill and are killed” are not Art, but scriptures, religions, ideologies, and other books of “holy” fictions. All around him David sees otherwise sane people who casually accept “holy fictional fables” as perfectly good reasons to kill strangers who believe in other fictional stories, or as good reasons to be killed themselves. It is the casual acceptance of “holy fictions” as a valid reason for killing that horrifies him. As for whether art can still have this power even in a cynical age like ours, the answer is, of course, yes. Every day people still kill or are killed for the sake of “holy” poetic fictions such as the Old and New Testaments or the Koran, and for the sake of their fictive protagonists. Clearly, then, skillfully composed fictions can raise intense emotions which even in this modern age have the power to unleash death and destruction. Now, any good novel makes the readers enter into a trance that temporarily makes them forget their everyday reality. But exceptionally well-structured language in “holy” art can hypnotize many into life-long trances. They then come to believe that what the stories tell them about— 72 Virgins in paradise, or the Messiah and Resurrection, or Hell and Damnation, or Pearly Gates— is more real than what their senses tell them, and, what’s worse, are perfectly good reasons to kill and be killed. In my novel, I hope that, for a brief time, Good Art can be seen to counteract the perniciousness of “holy” Art (a.k.a. in the novel as “God’s Mein Kampf”).

4. One reviewer compared THE DEBBA to an "M.C. Escher-like structure...doubling back on [itself]." To me it was like a layer cake of secrets, symbols and hidden agendas. How do you see the book?

Another very good question. Yes, there are some symbols in the book, but it’s up to the reader to find them... As for hidden agendas, there aren’t any. I’m merely trying to tell a good story. As far as the reviewer’s reference to structure, the Western monomyth is only half of it. The other half is the Moslem End of Days myth, so that the book in essence has two overlapping myths. The father’s request (from beyond the grave) both starts the Western-type hero on his journey-of-return, and launches the Eastern-type hero on his journey to the End-of-Days. In addition, there are three time periods: The past, the present, and the play, in each of which the same characters re-appear. These three parallel stories, and the repetition of actions in different forms, are meant to give the novel reverberations beyond the straight story. 5. The Booklist review says the book "reveal[s] the paradoxes of Israeli life." What were you trying to show about Israel through the way you portray the country in THE DEBBA? I tried to convey Israel’s smells, sights, tastes, and feeling of tightly-confined communal living, in a place where everyone knows everyone else, and where soldier / citizens must take hard actions during their army service to keep life going. Indeed, if there’s any theme in the book, it is that of necessary evil. As I’ve said elsewhere, most of us conveniently prefer to forget that necessary evil is often the price of civilized life. If we want to eat cow’s meat, someone must be the butcher. But what if we see cow-killing as evil? We still want our steak. What then is to be done with the butcher? This can provide a rich vein for a novelist: how much necessary evil can be allowed by a civilized society, and what is to be done with those who perform the tasks we cannot admit are necessary? Or, worse, who defines what’s necessary for whom, and why? All these are hard questions without straight answers, just the kind novelists find useful to make a book unputdownable and unforgettable. If, that is, they can resist the twin temptations of providing answers or engaging in polemics…

Mr. Mandelman, thank you so much taking the time to answer my questions. I hope lots of people decide to read your fantastic book.

Posted by Marie.
Posted in: Authors, Interview
Today I have for you an interview with Avi Steinberg, former prison librarian and author of the great new memoir Running the Books.

The book details his time working at Boston's Suffolk County House of Corrections, as well as his life and experiences as an Orthodox Jew as they relate to his time in the big house.

In the interview, Steinberg discusses what lead him to become a prison librarian, some of the challenges he faced, and how his yeshiva upbringing informed the approach he took in this very different library setting.

You can listen to our conversation here:

Avi Steinberg Interview Part 1 of 3

Avi Steinberg Interview Part 2 of 3

Avi Steinberg Interview Part 3 of 3

The interview run-time is about 30 minutes. Thanks to Steinberg and Random House for making this interview possible.

Posted by Marie.


Today I have for you an interview with graphic novel artist and writer Barry Deutsch, whose book Hereville, a graphic novel about a troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox girl launches today from Amulet Books. Barry is an accomplished artist and you can visit his website, Amptoons, to learn more.



1. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background as an artist?

I was born in New York City, and raised in New York and Connecticut. I've loved comics for as long as I remember. My parents have an original "Pogo" Sunday page -- Pogo, for your readers too young to know, was one of the all-time great newspaper comic strips, the Calvin and Hobbes of its day – and I would kneel on the back of the sofa and read that page over and over again.


[caption id="attachment_577" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Barry Deutsch"][/caption]

I remember drawing comics in junior high and in high school. I was an okay student -- sliding by on book smarts rather than hard work, a sure recipe for mediocrity -- but I took drawing classes very seriously. After attending and dropping out of Oberlin College (my poor parents!), I attended School of Visual Arts in New York City for a year, where I took Will Eisner's cartooning class. Then I moved to Massachusetts, where I wasn't a student at UMASS, but nonetheless did a daily strip in their student newspaper, which was an amazing learning experience. Next came Oregon, and finally Portland State University, the first college I actually graduated from. While there I did political cartoons in the student paper, for which I won the national Charles Schulz Award for outstanding college cartoonist. Along the way I began and abandoned any number of larger comic book projects.

2. Why did you decide to write about rebellious Mirka? What interested you about her and her family? What audience did you write the book for?

One of my abandoned ideas was a comic about a Jewish woman, in the middle ages, wanting to fight a dragon St George style, but facing (among other barriers) that Jews couldn't legally carry weapons at that time. I had also read Liz Harris' book Holy Days, which has many great stories of Hasidic family life, about a decade earlier. I think those things were percolating in my mind, because when my friend Jennifer Lee (the awesome cartoonist behind Dicebox.net) told me Girlamatic.com, a website for girl-friendly comics, was looking for submissions, the idea of an Orthodox 11 year old girl's quest for a sword popped to mind pretty easily.

Beyond that, I had no idea what I was doing. Girlamatic said "yes," so I was making up the pages as I drew them, and in my spare time I started doing more serious research. And the more I learned, the more interested I became in Mirka's family and home life. In particular, Stephanie Levine's book Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers was very inspirational to me – in particular, how girl-centered life is for girls in that culture before they reach a marriageable age, and how incredibly spirited and strong Levine found the girls she met to be.

The main audience I write for is myself. I wanted to create a comic that I'd want to read. So it has a lot of elements I love to see in comics -- lots of humor and adventure, but also a lot of cultural information, and (I hope) interesting storytelling and layouts.

3. At the end of the day, the fanciful fable you tell about a brave girl who battles a troll turns out to have a very domesticated moral. What do you hope your readers take away from the book?


I don't think of my work as having a message. If readers come away feeling attached to the characters and saying "that was a really great story," then I'm satisfied. If some readers see some deeper things then that -- if they see it as a story about ambition, and about mourning a dead parent – then I'm delighted, but it's not necessary.

I am concerned with identity politics -- I'd like to see more girl-centered pop fiction, and I'd like to see more Jewish characters in popular fictions. And if other readers, especially female readers and Jewish readers, have been feeling that same hunger and so get a bit of extra pleasure out of reading Hereville, then that's great.

4. How did you develop your visual style? Do you think the comics medium is valuable for telling Jewish stories? Why or why not?


Some of my visual style comes from consciously imitating other cartoonists -- I spend a lot of time trying (and failing) to get my figures to flow as smoothly as Will Eisner's did, for example. But some of it didn't seem to
come from anywhere. It's just there, and the more I draw the more apparent it becomes. Why the big muppet-like mouths, for instance? I don't know why.

I think the comics medium is valuable for telling any sort of story, Jewish stories included. There is no limit, either to what stories comics can tell, or to the number of Jewish stories to be told.

5. What other Jewish comics artists do you admire?

I've already mentioned Will Eisner, but I'll mention him again, because he was such a spectacularly great cartoonist. His drawing was dazzling, his layouts were innovative, and on top of all that he was the first great cartoonist to make Jewish characters the text (instead of a hidden subtext) in his work.

There are so many great Jewish cartoonists! But some whose work I like are Jules Fieffer (who began his career working for Eisner), Will Elder, Al Hirschfeld (another cartoonist my parents had on their walls), Harvey Kurtzman, and more recently Art Spiegelman, Ariel Schrag, Rutu Modan, and Daniel Clowes. Oh, and just last week I picked up one of Sarah Glidden'scomics about Israel, and it was really good -- I can't wait to read her whole book.

6. What are you working on now and when can we see you in print again?

I'm working on the second Hereville book! Abrams hasn't yet announced the publication date, though.
Barry, thank you so much for participating and telling us about your book! Best of luck and keep in touch with what you're working on next!

Posted by Marie.
Naomi Steinberger is Director of Library Services at Jewish Theological Seminary. This interview was conducted by Bob Schrier. Bob Schrier holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Earlham College and spent the last 8 years working as a teacher, manager, and high school librarian. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Syracuse University with a focus in Jewish and digital librarianship.

This is part two of a two-part interview. See Part One here.

Q: How have you helped the library to cope with changes in technology over the years?

“Today it’s very different than when I started. When I came to this library there was one computer in the library. It was 22 years ago; it was a different time. We had a card catalog in those days. But times have changed and that was evolutionary. People still wanted the cards even though we had the online system but slowly people began to believe that the online system would work.

Skip forward to 2010 and were talking about ebooks. I can tell you that over the last four or five years we’ve talked about electronic periodicals. And four or five years ago we said ‘Alright, fine, we’ll get a hard copy and electronic format.’ Slowly, as people got used to using electronic journals, this year we decided to buy only electronic copies and we get hard copies only if an electronic copy is not available. So it’s an evolution of the world and the library.

There’s such major changes in the library today. To keep up we have meetings, talk to people, and we also have to stay in touch with our users. Our undergraduates, for example, are coming from a whole different world than most of our veteran librarians. By the time they were born and could read, the internet already existed.

You have to go with the trends and the way the world is changing. I think that librarians by and large are fine with moving in that direction. I feel like there’s much less resistance to change today than there was 15 years ago because of the way the world is changing so rapidly.

Q: Do you ever encounter resistance to change?

With regard to people who are resistant: sometimes we do focus groups, sometimes we do brainstorming sessions. We discuss how we’re going to make changes, exactly what we’re going to do, how it will impact other things we’re doing, how our users will see the changes.

I think there was more discussion about it 10 years ago than there is now because change is so rapid all the time. I don’t think we ever held brainstorming sessions about shifting to ejournals but 10 years ago we talked a lot about what our website would look like. Today we’re not talking as much about it. There are smaller groups dealing with it; it’s sort of just understood.

With regard to other kinds of change: we’ve unfortunately had a lot of cuts in staff and that’s been very difficult on a personal level because we had to lay people off and also because we had to take on more responsibility. People have been extremely cooperative in those areas and also understand that there are things that can’t be done that we would like to do. Sometimes we get someone who ambitiously comes and says ‘I really wanted to do x-y-z and plus-plus-plus,’ and we have to reign them in a little. We refocus and try to put the idea in a positive light so that we work on how we actually can do it. You don’t have to tell them they can’t do it. You have to say ‘ let’s work on how-to’ rather than telling them why we can’t do something.

We have a wonderful staff who are open and are always looking for new challenges. I know a lot of larger institutions and larger academic institutions have problems with a lot of resistance. Some of their staff is unionized, they have strong unions and won’t do things a certain way because their contract says that they shouldn’t. We don’t have those problems here. We really have a group of amenable and cooperative people.

But there are always challenges because there are always changes.”

Q: What do you like best about your job?

Every day I come in and there’s something new, it’s never boring. There are interesting people to talk to and interact with. And there’s always something that you can do to make a difference, both in the library and hopefully for the community of people who use our collections, onsite and electronically. Another really exciting part for me is dreaming up new projects and seeing them come to fruition.

Q: What are your thoughts on the role of digital librarianship in libraries today?

Digital librarianship. That’s a large field. Are we talking about the actual people doing the digitization, making choices about the digitization; are we talking about the people who create metadata, how is metadata different for electronic objects different than traditional cataloging; are we talking about the web, the presence on the web; are we talking about images, are you talking about text; how are you going to present the text, different formats, the pros and cons of different kinds of formats; also the back office programming, systems work vis-à-vis presentation of the digital object. It’s a very big field to go into because clearly that’s the future.

Q: Specifically, is there a need for digital librarians in the area of Jewish librarianship and at JTS?

“I think there’s a lot of material in Jewish studies out there on the web now and nobody has pulled it all together. We did a rare book digitization project last fall and the first thing that we did was to make sure that no one else already digitized the items. There’s no union list of digital items in Jewish studies. There’s a pressing need for that so that we don’t duplicate each other’s work.”

Q: Is pulling all that material together part of JTS’s mission?

“We’re talking to other organizations to work collaboratively on it. I’m not sure it’s our job to take it on. I see it as a job for the National Library in Israel to take on. But I think that an area that’s important in Jewish studies, it’s important to bring it all together.”

Q: What you look for in the people you hire?

Aside from competency, you have to be able to interact with people. Different types of people are good for different kinds of jobs. In the public area you want people who are easy to interact with, people who want to deal with the public, who don’t want to sit buried at their desks. In other areas, you need specific skills. In cataloging you need specific skills, you need language skills. It really depends on the type of job. There also has to be good chemistry between the supervisor and the potential employee. It’s really a combination of skills and excitement about what they’re doing.

Also you have to have a feel for whether or not someone is going to stay the course. We have someone who’s completing a project for us. It was an 8-month project and we’re in the sixth or seventh month and even she found another job, she said ‘I’m not leaving now. I have to finish this job.’ So a lot of commitment also.

I can tell you that I’ve gotten better at it. Earlier on there were people that I made mistakes with but you make fewer mistakes as you get more experience. Sounding people out is essential in the interviewing process. It also helps if you bring other people into the process. While you might get very excited about someone, another person may see it differently and give good insight. That helps a lot for a better evaluation.”

Posted by Marie.
Naomi Steinberger is Director of Library Services at Jewish Theological Seminary. This interview was conducted by Bob Schrier. Bob Schrier holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Earlham College and spent the last 8 years working as a teacher, manager, and high school librarian. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Syracuse University with a focus in Jewish and digital librarianship.

This is part one of a two-part interview. Come back next Wednesday, October 27, for the conclusion.

In broad strokes, Ms. Naomi Steinberger paints a picture of her personal career path as well as her outlook on JTS and the state of libraries in general, past, present and future.

Q: What led you to the library profession and how did you make your way into your position at JTS?

“ While I was living in Israel, I first earned a degree in musicology and then got a library job. While working there, I realized that I really enjoyed working in the library. So after that, I did a masters in musicology and a master’s in library services.

I’ve been at JTS for a long time, for more than 20 years. Before that, I worked as a music librarian in various capacities: in music libraries, as a music archivist, and in a music indexing and abstract journal/database.

I’ve worked in public services, as a head of systems, and have been doing this job more or less for the past 10 years or so, maybe a little longer.

My background in Jewish studies is more informal. I acquired a lot of knowledge here but before that, I had Jewish education through high school and lived in Israel for many years. I also did some Jewish studies courses in college in Israel but music was my subject specialty area. So I was able to draw on that plus the music when I came to JTS, which has large music collection.”

Q: What exactly do you do at JTS?

“I administer all activity here in the library. We’re comprised of three departments: technical services, public services, and special collections. In terms of the day to day, I supervise the department heads and the different departments. I also work on special projects as well as initiating grants and administering them. Overall, I manage the professional aspects of the library as opposed to the more academic aspects.”

Q: How does that supervising process take shape?

“Each department has a rhythm of its own and has tasks that it has to take care of in order to meet the user’s needs.

My role comes in more with charting out a course, setting strategic plans, and setting up goals and objectives. There is a formal review process. I meet with each department head once a week. I summarize generally what’s going in the library but we also plan what we would like to do, what we are going to do, how we’re going to change, and the direction we’re going. In other words, we focus on strategic planning. We look at the department strategically and see how we’re going to accomplish certain types of things that we’d like to do.”

Q: Do the strategic goals have to do with whoever’s funding the department or is it more internal in terms of the goals that are set by JTS itself?

“The library has a mission: to collect and preserve and make available the literary cultural heritage of the Jewish people. So we’re actually doing that in each department. I’d say that now it’s slightly different because of changes in funding but sometimes it’s funder directed and sometimes it’s our choice based on what we feel is important at a particular time.

The funded ones are pretty straight forward. You get funding to do a certain project and you have a certain timeline deadline; you have to make sure the work gets done.

In terms of JTS directed programs on the other hand, we’re upgrading our library catalog system, for example. That’s cyclical and it happens every two to three years. So the quantity of testing and customization is our prerogative.

We have three phases of the test for the system. The first phase is: did our data transfer properly? And that’s imperative to accept the system. Then it’s more about the functionality: is the functionality working the way we’d like it to work? What changes do we need to make and what changes would we like to make? The final step is making the system-function move forward from its current level to a level that will work better for what we need. That’s where more of the planning and prioritizing comes in. Ultimately then, we ask ourselves at what stage are we going to do these improvements? That whole process has nothing to do with our funding. It has to do with regular project work in the library.

We have a grant now from the Metropolitan New York Library Council to put up an archival collection in our digital library. There, we must finish the project by November first present them with a completed report. For that, you have to make sure that each of the pieces are in their place as we’re working.

So there are different ways of supervising and managing different kinds of projects.

Also it has a lot to do with people; getting the right people to do the right kind of work and making the right kind of matches for people.”

Q: So your position must require you to be extremely knowledgeable about your staff.

“Well first of all, we’re not such a large staff. Unfortunately we’re smaller than we were, somewhere between twenty-five and thirty now. We’ve been up to thirty-five or forty but we’ve had some cutbacks. If I don’t personally know what would be a good match, the supervisors can make that determination.”

Q: So it sounds like one of the keys to your success is a well-trusted staff of supervisors who help you get things done.

“Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely!”

Come back next Wednesday, October 27, for part two of this great interview. Please email me at mcloutier at jewishlibraries.org if you would like to be interviewed or know of someone who'd make a great subject.

Posted by Marie.


[caption id="attachment_488" align="alignright" width="284" caption="Mitchell James Kaplan. Photo by Renee Rosensteel courtesy of Other Press."][/caption]

Recently I had the opportunity to interview author Mitchell James Kaplan, whose new book BY FIRE, BY WATER has recently been published by Other Press. The book is an intriguing and engrossing novel set during the time of the Spanish Inquisition and Colombus's voyage to the Americas and focuses on a diverse community of Spanish Jews.
You can find reviews of BY FIRE, BY WATER in  Ha'aretz (http://bit.ly/9D2LHs), the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (http://bit.ly/aW7dO9), and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle (http://bit.ly/amh7Ky).

1. What was it that drew your attention to the topic of converso Jews and the Inquisition?


I did not set out to write a book about converso Jews or the Spanish Inquisition. I set out to write a novel exploring the background of Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage of discovery. It became clear that Columbus's voyage was as much the symptom of a world in profound disarray as it was a harbinger of change. As I explored that disarray, the Spanish inquisition and the condition of conversos came into focus as important elements in my story.


2. Why do you think this subject is important for today's readers?


Most of us are conversos today, in the sense that we must navigate between different identities and ghettos. Few of us in the western world any longer have the privilege of remaining confined within one narrow belief system or ethnicity, to the exclusion of all others. Like it or not, we are exposed to competing world-views and absorb elements from them. The conversos of fifteenth century Spain were precursors of modern man.

3. Why did you choose Luis de Santangel as the central figure of your book? How is the real life Santangel different from your fictional creation?

Santangel stood at the center of all four events that changed the world at the end of the fifteenth century: the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the “reconquest” of Granada, and the discovery of the New World. Despite his importance in history, most Americans had never heard of him. The fact that his personal life was so complex, and in some ways tragic, made him all the more compelling as a character.

My initial question, with regard to Santangel, was: What could possibly motivate such an astute and well-grounded courtier to take the risks associated with supporting Columbus's voyage, even when the preponderance of scholarly opinion found no merit in Columbus's ideas? After researching Santangel's life, I came to feel that Columbus's dream must have represented a prayer of hope for Santangel, uttered from the murky depths of a world whirling into chaos.

The Luis de Santangel of my story, like most of my characters, is closely based on the historical individual. He really did have a cousin who was murdered by the Spanish Inquisition. His son did have to pay penance in much the way I described. Santangel was accused of murdering the first Chief Inquisitor of Aragon. King Ferdinand did intervene to save him from the consequences of that accusation. Columbus really did write first to Santangel, following his 1492 voyage.

Santangel's love interest, Judith Migdal, I invented to show the condition of the Jews in Granada leading up to the expulsion. But her nephew, Levi Migdal (later baptized as Luis de Torres) was Columbus's interpreter on the Santa Maria. As Columbus describes him in his diaries, he was a Jew who spoke Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew, as well as Spanish, so it is likely he grew up in the Islamic emirate of Granada.


4. You clearly did a lot of research into the period. Did you learn anything that surprised you? Was there something particularly interesting or unusual that you learned, that didn't make its way into your book?


I learned so many surprising things, among them the aforementioned fact that the Spanish Inquisition was unique in its focus on the “judaizing” heresy among conversos. It was interesting to me to learn that the pope did not initially authorize the Spanish inquisition, and indeed continued to express qualms about it even after it was established. As I researched Queen Isabella, I came to the conclusion that she was a usurper, although most history books gloss over that fact. It would take me much more than another whole book to describe everything I had to leave out.


5. What do you want your readers to take away in terms of an understanding about converso Jews and Jewish culture of the period? What lessons can be drawn from the book?


Regarding the conversos: I like Santangel's question, "what is the advantage of knowing, with absolute certainty, what one believes? There's much to be said for doubt." This intrusion of doubt into the medieval world – a world of certainties, at least with regard to faith – marked the beginning of the process that would lead to the Enlightenment, the Existential age, and our current age which, in my view, is evolving toward mutual respect between the faiths. Karen Armstrong credits conversos with the invention of atheism.

Regarding “lessons:” What I want most of all is not to preach but for my readers to feel that their sojourn in the world of my novel has been a valuable and enriching experience.

A good novel, in my view, is an experience of language, of characters, of complexity and nuance. The best novels evoke an entire world. Like real life, a good novel teems with ambiguity, connotation, and subtlety.

For this reason, I was thrilled to discover that many of my Christian readers identified Luis de Santangel as a Christian facing a crisis of faith, while many of my Jewish readers felt he was a Jew. Similarly, some of my readers asked why I made Torquemada so “human,” as if I were trying to vindicate him, while others saw him as a psychopathic villain. When I receive a wide range of responses like that, I feel I have succeeded in at least one of my aims: to faithfully hold a mirror to a complex world.

Within that complex world, there is room for a Torquemada (whom I see as sincere and intelligent but misguided) as well as a Caceres (whose understanding of Christ's message of love and forgiveness seems to be more aligned with our own) and a Talavera (a man of contradictions, moderate and analytical). The Islamic rulers of Granada can be seen as protective (from Judith's point of view) or ruthless (from the point of view of Sarah's mother). The Jewish scribe Serero is sincere, but causes great damage to those who trust him.
Posted in: Authors, Interview


Several weeks ago I had the privilege to interview Alix Strauss, author of Based upon Availability, published this past summer by HarperCollins.

Alix and I talked about the book, her own story and her history with libraries and Judaism.

The interview is about 18 minutes long in two parts:

Alix Strauss Part 1

Alix Strauss Part 2

We are hosting a giveaway of a finished, signed copy of Based Upon Availability in conjunction with this interview. To enter, simply  leave a comment on this post with your email address. I will pick a winner using random-number generator random.org on October 7 and notify the winner on October 11. The winner will have until Friday, October 15 to reply. The contest is open to United States addresses only.

Don't forget to comment with your email address for a chance to win a paperback of the book!

Posted by Marie.
Today I have the privilege of sharing an interview I recently conducted with author Carla Jablonski, who's written many books for teens and young adults. You can visit her website and find out more about her and her books at carlajablonski.com. Her first graphic novel, Resistance: Book 1, has recently been published by First Second. What follows is a conversation we had about this book, which focuses on the French resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II and in particular about the efforts of a French family to save French Jews.

  1. The narrative, while fictional, is based in historical fact and makes reference to several historical events and circumstances. The Velodrome d'Hiver roundup, the use the Paris sewers as hiding places and the significant presence of French Jews in the Resistance are all alluded to, and although it's not named explicitly, Paul and Marie's efforts to help Henri recall the activities of the Oeuvre de secours aux enfants (Children's Relief Efforts or OSE). When you were researching all this for the book, did you learn anything that surprised you about the Resistance or about France during the war, or anything else?


So much! As an American, what I learned in school was primarily about the American entrance into the war, or very specifically about the Jewish experience. I really didn’t know all that much about what it must have been like for ordinary French people during the war, their daily life, their struggles, and -- especially -- the ways life, although altered, still went on.

I admit I was shocked by the wide-spread and deep strain of anti-Semitism in France, resulting in an overwhelming amount of denunciations. I was also surprised by -- and then used as part of the story -- all of the conflicts within the Resistance itself.

The role of luck and coincidence in many of the successful -- or tragic -- events of the Resistance also was quite startling.

And of course, all the research got me asking the question: “What would I do if my country were occupied?”

  1. What was it about the Resistance that intrigued you? Why is it an important subject to learn about in the context of Holocaust studies for children?


The passion and commitment of people who became part of the Resistance was very compelling to me. How people made choices, what they were willing to risk, and conversely, what lines they weren’t willing to cross were all elements I wanted to explore. Also, the struggle for victory against enormous odds while suffering terrible difficulties is both dramatic and inspiring. I also find the idea of secrets a very appealing subject for fiction-- keeping them, having them, and the danger of them -- particularly as an element in a book for early teens.

For all those same reasons that I was drawn to the Resistance is why I think it’s an important subject for children to learn about. Children often feel helpless in the face of conflicts created by adults. These people took action -- in spite of so much being against them and the dire consequences of failure. Doing the right thing, even if that makes you the minority, is also an important lesson. Discovering that people can all want to do the right thing, yet not agree on how to go about it is also an important topic that can be discussed via the Resistance.

  1. One thing I enjoyed about the book from a reader's perspective was the way you built the suspense slowly and tell the story unflinchingly, sparing neither the horror nor trauma of war. Was it challenging to present these things in a way that's appropriate for children? What audience did you envision as you were writing?


I’ve written a lot for kids and teens, so I actually didn’t find that difficult. I guess I’ve somehow internalized those limits and so the story unfolds in an age-appropriate way without my consciously having to police it!

I think the ideal reader for this is probably about thirteen, though I hope it will appeal to those older (like Sylvie and Jacques) and to those who are younger, like Marie.

  1. What themes or ideas were you trying to illustrate with the choices you made about how to tell the story?


I purposely chose to have three children at different ages so that I could explore the impact of the war at different levels of maturity. Because it’s a graphic novel, I decided to make Paul an artist to really exploit the visual medium. I came up with ideas for his drawings in his sketchbook to reveal what he’s feeling but wouldn’t feel comfortable expressing another way -- while also providing a believable skill that would make him valuable to the Resistance. It was also really important to me to not just be historically accurate (while also being entertaining) but to allow the kids to really be kids -- not little superheroes or overly noble. I worked hard on the dialogue so that it would have the feel of real conversation.

  1. This book is titled Resistance Book 1, suggesting that there may be a Book 2 in the works. Is there? What's it going to be about?


Actually there are two more! It’s a trilogy, following Marie, Paul, and Sylvie through to the liberation of Paris. Each book is set one year apart, and as the kids get older and more deeply involved, the conflicts get more intense and the stakes get higher. Their roles in the Resistance change, they uncover more secrets about people they know, and their relationships change -- with friends, with other Resistance members, with Germans, and even with each other -- sometimes quite dramatically!

Carla, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to AJL and best of luck with the trilogy!

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Booker-Prize winning author Yann Martel, author of the new novel Beatrice and Virgil. Beatrice and Virgil is a fascinating novel that takes an unconventional approach to one of the most challenging subjects available to literature- the Holocaust.


[caption id="attachment_225" align="alignleft" width="140" caption="Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel"][/caption]


I had the privilege of speaking to Mr. Martel during the second leg of his American tour to promote the book, which has been widely, and variously, reviewed.


Text Publishing offers a roundup of some of the reviews that have come in, and an analysis of the controversy surrounding this most unusual book.


Martel won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 for Life of Pi. He is also the author of several other books as well as the blog What is Stephen Harper Reading, a document of his ongoing project to share his passion for literature with the Prime Minister of Canada.


The interview is approximately 30 minutes in length and is presented here in four parts.


Yann Martel Interview Part 1 of 4


Yann Martel Interview Part 2 of 4


Yann Martel Interview Part 3 of 4


Yann Martel Interview Part 4 of 4



MENTION CONVENTION


Enter the Mention Convention weekly drawing for a $10 Amazon gift card by linking back to this interview on your blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter (hashtag #AJL10) — just email pr@jewishlibraries.org to show us what you did!






[caption id="attachment_217" align="alignleft" width="220" caption="Maxim D. Shrayer"][/caption]

Maxim D. Shrayer (www.shrayer.com) is professor of Russian, English, and Jewish studies at Boston College. Among his books are Russian Poet/Soviet Jew and the literary memoir Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration. In 2007 Shrayer won the National Jewish Book Award for An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature.



Author's photo by Aaron Washington.






Maxim D. Shrayer in conversation with Marie Cloutier about his new book, the collection of stories YOM KIPPUR IN AMSTERDAM.



7 May 2010



1. “Yom Kippur in Amsterdam” is a collection of eight short stories

[caption id="attachment_216" align="alignright" width="140" caption="Yom Kippur in Amsterdam: Stories by Maxim D. Shrayer"][/caption]

about a diverse group of characters, people at different points in their lives and different settings, many of them on the verge of one transition or another. Can you elaborate some of the themes the stories share? How do these eight stories form a whole?



MDS: This sounds both alluring and mysterious. Thank you, Marie, for reading the collection. You’re right that the eight stories in Yom Kippur in Amsterdam aren’t connected by narrative threads. At the same time, thematic ropes and tethers of identity hold the collection together. Seven of the eight stories are set—and the eighth is presumably remembered and told—in Russian America. All the protagonists except one are Russian immigrants or their children. In these stories, I trace various obsessions and aspirations of Russian (Soviet) immigrants in America. There is humor and tenderness in the stories, and also heartbreak and nostalgia. There are boundaries of ethnicity, religion, and culture that my characters desperately try yet often fail to cross. The identities of my characters are overloaded (Jewish, Russian, Soviet, almost or partly American) and therefore unstable, volatile. It’s not simple or easy to generalize about one’s own book or one’s beloved characters. I think my new book offers a collective portrait of Jews in America struggling to come to terms with ghosts of their Russian and Soviet pasts.



2. What was it about these themes that intrigued you? What were you trying to work through or think about as you were writing?



MDS: As you know, there are about 750,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union living in North America, and about a million in Israel. It’s difficult to imagine the fabric of our communities without ex-Soviet Jews. And yet, our stories (or is it our story?) are only now entering the cultural mainstream. Several years ago, in my memoir Waiting for America, I wrote about Soviet Jews waiting in transit, in Austria and Italy, to become Americans. As I worked on the stories in Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, I kept asking myself: Why is it that in America Soviet Jews and their children have been so successful professionally (think, for instance, of the inventor of Google), and yet have not been fully integrated or acculturated as either Jews or Americans? In creating my characters, I wanted to get to the bottom of what it feels like to be constantly wrestling with the mix of prosperity, professional pride, cultural loneliness, and insecurity that defines the lives of many ex-Soviet Jews.



3. A the end of the title story, Jake, the protagonist, has what struck me as a near-mystical experience, this moment of "piercing clarity." What was this clarity? Does it come from within him, or from an external source? What prepares him (and us) for the change about to overtake him?



MDS: You’re absolutely correct that Jake Glaz undergoes a mystical experience while attending the Yom Kippur service at Amsterdam’s Portuguese synagogue. We should also remember that Glaz comes to Amsterdam in the aftermath of having broken up with his Catholic girlfriend Erin, who wouldn’t convert (he still has strong feelings for her). And let’s also keep in mind that upon arriving in Amsterdam (he stops there on the way home from Nice so as to avoid having to atone in flight), Jake Glaz visits the Red Light district and finds some answers to his dilemma of marriage and identity in a paid-for conversation with a part-German, part-Jewish prostitute. Since the experience Jake undergoes during the Yom Kippur service is a metaphysical one, his “clarity” is quite beyond words—either in his native Russian or his acquired English. It would be presumptuous for me to overinterpret in discursive terms what I have related in the story though a combination of metaphors and a lyrical digression.



I will tell you this much: Jake’s realization relieves him of some of his doubts about his own identity. Allow me to offer a brief quote from the scene (this is on p. 141 of the book): “Jake was no longer thinking of Yom Kippur, of Erin, of Jewishness and Christianity. Those matters he had already understood, if not fully resolved in his heart, and this knowledge comforted him. He arrived at a plan—in the streets of Amsterdam: he would return to Baltimore, where after seventeen years his immigrant family had rooted themselves; they had even brought back from Moscow and reburied the remains of his father's parents. In four years, when Jake turned forty, he would have lived in America for half his life. Leaving Russia at nineteen, he had carried with him on the plane baggage so heavy that it took him years to unload it and so lofty that there were still times he couldn't stand solidly on American ground. That first flight over the Atlantic was also a flight from all the demons, monsters, and sirens a Jew can never seem to escape.”



4. How does your book fit into the growing, and fascinating, body of fiction emerging from the post-Soviet landscape?



MDS: That’s certainly not for me to judge, Marie. Take a look at this very amusing flyer (attached). A colleague of mine found it in a blog devoted to things Russian, American and literary. As you can see, this list of younger writers (how young is younger—in the Soviet Union it was 35, sometimes even 40), includes 5 authors born in the former USSR and writing in English, 1 author born in the USSR and writing in both English and Russian, 1 American-born author of Turkish descent with Russian literary interests, and 1 American-born author (whose origins I honestly don’t know) who writes fictions about Russian characters. What do you make of such a category of writers “on notice”? I certainly agree that the Russian-American literary landscape is beginning to expand again. But people sometimes forget that the Russian presence in Anglo-American letters goes back to the 1800s, and also that we have yet to climb peak Lolita or to descend to the bottom of canyon Fountainhead.



5. Tapping your expertise as a scholar of Soviet and Jewish literature, what are some recent Jewish/Russian fiction and nonfiction that Judaica librarians might consider adding to their collections?



MDS: Volume 2 of Antony Polonsky’s The Jews in Poland and Russia is a must (it was just released), along with the previously published volume 1. It would also make me very happy if Judaica librarians got to know my Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature.



6. Would you be willing to share a personal memory about a library that helped shape you as a scholar and a writer?



MDS: In the spring of 1993 I spent almost two months in Prague gathering materials for what would eventually become my first book, The World of Nabokov’s Stories. I was renting a section in the house of Viktor Faktor, a vintage ’68 Czech dissident. Every morning I would have breakfast in an overflowing cherry orchard and then take a tram to the center of town. I would walk across the Charles Bridge and then disappear in the cloisters of the Slavonic Library. I was researching aspects of Russian émigré culture in then the recently opened holdings of what had remained of the Russian Historical Archive Abroad. Dr. Milena Klímová, at the time director of the Slavonic Library, introduced me to a saintly archivist by the name of Helena Musátova.


A Prague-born daughter of Russian émigrés, Ms. Musátova was herself a living legacy of the great interwar émigré culture which had been destroyed and dispersed by the fires of World War 2 and the Holocaust. With Ms. Musátova’s help, I was able to read though the complete runs of dozens of émigré newspapers and magazines. I made small discoveries. To the librarians at the Slavonic Library—and to other dedicated librarians with whom I’ve had the good fortune of working—I owe a debt of gratitude. So imagine, I would spend the day perusing the time-yellowed émigré publications, and then I would wander around Prague, coming onto vestiges of its Jewish and Russian past—now Kafka’s grave, now a cottage where Tsvetaeva had stayed in the 1920s. That “Prague spring” of research and discovery has influenced me profoundly, and I have yet to cast these impressions and memories into creative prose.



It’s a pleasure to talk to you, Marie. Good luck.



7 May 2010.



Maxim D. Shrayer’s answers copyright © Maxim D. Shrayer.

Posted in: Authors, Interview
Today we have for you an interview with Elana MacGilpin, one of the organizers of the Mandell JCC Jewish Book Fest, an event made up of several book events,  that takes place every year in Hartford, CT.

1.Tell us a little about the Mandell JCC. How many members do you have? What other kinds of activities do you sponsor?

The Mandell JCC is a community of people of all ages, stages and beliefs who share laughter, learning, listening, and leading.  Members are part of a "neighborhood" where minds grow more active, bodies grow stronger, and friendships grow exponentially. On the main campus in West Hartford, CT you will find a range of fitness, recreation, education and cultural
facilities including a new fitness center, a cultural center, a preschool, an aquatics center, a theater, a family room, an art gallery, a lecture hall and a physical therapy center.  Off campus, the Mandell JCC includes two seasonal recreation/educational facilities - a waterfront summer camp in the woods and a suburban swim and tennis club - and two satellite preschools.   The Mandell JCC is a Jewish community open to everyone regardless of faith, who value caring for and sharing with each other.  It is a place that is warm and inclusive and we have 2720 membership units or about 7200 members.
2. Tell me a little bit about the Mandell JCC's Jewish Book Festival.
When is it held? What kind of speakers or authors did you have? How many
people attended?

The Mandell JCC Jewish Book Festival is a year-round series of four Signature Events that usually take place in November, January, March and May.  We also sponsor a program called Authors on the Road where we partner with synagogues, Jewish agencies and schools to host authors outside of the JCC - this is year round as well and add about 8-10 events per year.  We switched to this format in the 2007-2008 series and have hosted Carl Bernstein, Jodi Picoult, Dennis Ross, Martin Fletcher, Jennifer Weiner, Michael Chabon, to name a few.  We host authors who are Jewish or who aren't Jewish themselves but write on a Jewish topic.  The celebrity/marquee authors that we have featured has really heightened the profile of the Festival and we have welcomed over 2000 participants a year.
3. I noticed on your website that rather than having one continuous
event, for a week let's say, the Mandell JCC breaks it up over several
months. Why? What advantages does this approach present?


[caption id="attachment_161" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Author Jennifer Weiner"][/caption]

We worked with the traditional Festival model for 14 years and decided that in order to give it some fresh ideas and a fresh perspective having four major events throughout the year with authors who are household names would accomplish this.  It gives us the opportunity to provide something for everyone on a schedule that fits better for our audience members who lead busy lives.  With the traditional model if you happen to be on vacation for that week, or have other family or work commitments, you lose the opportunity to participate - with the year round model if you miss one event, you can still be present for the rest.  We sell tickets to individual events as well as for the series.
4. What were the highlights from the

[caption id="attachment_160" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Author Mitch Albom"][/caption]

2009-2010 season? What was your most well-attended event? What kinds of feedback do you get from the community?


Our kick off event featured NY Times Bestselling Author Alice Hoffman in  conversation with RJ Julia Owner and West Hartford native Roxanne Coady.

Our festival established a new partnership with RJ Julia this year and are so thrilled to be working with them.  Our most well attended event of the year happened on November 5 with Mitch Albom. His newest book, Have A Little Faith, was #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list when he spoke in West Hartford which was such a thrill - we had 650 people in the JCC that night and had to move the event from our theater which seats 400 to our gymnasium!  In January we hosted Rabbi Joseph Telushkin whose new book - The Code of Jewish Ethics: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself - was presented. This event happened on the heels of the devastation in Haiti and the theme of Rabbi Telushkin's talk really resonated with participants. Our final event was on April 13 with Oprah favorite Chris Bohjalian. His book Skeletons at the Feast is based on a real life diary about a young woman in Germany at the end of World War II and pulled in characters who were fighting for their lives during the Holocaust.  This event was held just after Yom Hashoah so it was very meaningful.


[caption id="attachment_163" align="aligncenter" width="451" caption="Rabbi Telushkin with festival organizers"] [/caption]

5. How is the festival supported? Who organizes it? Does the Festival
have paid staff and/or volunteers?



The Festival is supported by corporate and community sponsors who have been very generous over the years.  The Mandell JCC is the overall organizing body and I serve as the Director.  I work with an outstanding volunteer committee comprised of JCC members and community members who are passionate about literature and Jewish culture.  This amazing team spends countless hours throughout the year, working on every details to ensure that our participants have an enlightening experience with our featured authors.


[caption id="attachment_165" align="aligncenter" width="451" caption="Festival organizers schmooze with author Michael Chabon."] [/caption]




6. What do you have coming up for the 2010-2011 season?



We are in the planning stages for the 2010-2011 season so we don't haveanything to announce just yet.  Myself and three members of our steering committee are attending the Jewish Book Council conference in New York City where we will hear from over 200 authors.  We have our wish list as well and will announce our season mid-summer.  We will also be launching a new book club initiative with an event in October where Roxanne Coady from RJ Julia will come talk to book club members, give them tips on how to run a successful book club, talk about her favorite book club picks and will give the participants an opportunity to shop for books as well. It is going to be our 18th season so we will surely be planning something special.

7. What tips or do's and don't's would you offer to JCCs or small organizations looking to put on their own book festival?



In my experience, working with a volunteer committee who is as committed and dedicated as the staff is so important.  Authors come and go but engaging your members and the community can lead to years of success. Certainly knowing your community is also key - like if your community only likes household names or has interests in specific themes.  Being a member of the Jewish Book Council is also a great way to expand your access to and repertoire of Jewish literature and authors as well make connections to staff at JCCs and organizations who run their own Jewish Book Festivals.  Their website is www.jewishbookcouncil.org.




[caption id="attachment_182" align="aligncenter" width="601" caption="The Committee"][/caption]


Elana, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to AJL and share your successes. Mazel tov and best of luck for the future! I hope you keep us posted about your activities!



If you have an event you'd like to see covered on the blog, email me at mcloutier at jewishlibraries.org and we'll talk about how to make that happen!
Posted in: Events, Interview
On the last day of National Poetry Month, I have for you today an interview with Boston-area poet Ellen Steinbaum, Pushcart-nominated author of Container Gardening and Afterwords.

1. Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been writing? Who or what influences your work? What poets do you love to read?
I have always been a writer. As a child I wrote a family newspaper (which was a little pathetic since I was an only child, so there wasn't much news, but I persisted). For much of my life I wrote magazine and newspaper articles and then later found myself drawn to the idea of what I could do with poetry that I couldn't do with prose.
Influences include my teacher, Ottone Riccio, and contemporary poets like Linda Pastan, Gail Mazur, Ruth Stone, Marie Ponsot, and Dorianne Laux who combine "the materials at hand"--details of daily life--with careful craft.

I also love the work of Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, and Richard Wilbur who does rhyme so elegantly that it looks effortless. Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman--two very different poets whose work intrigues me. And the sound of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems is so wonderful. Keats...Mark Doty...Wislawa Szymborska...Edward Hirsch. Yeats. Yehuda Amichai. Octavio Paz. So many--depends whose work I've read most recently. And two friends whose poetry I greatly admire and enjoy, Susan Donnelly and Patricia Smith.


2. What is your approach to or style of poetry? Do you think it's important to have a style or define yourself within a movement? Does it limit or expand what you can do?
Obviously, when you write poetry you're going to be aware of what other poets are doing and of the long tradition you are part of. But my concern is more on doing my own work than on figuring out where I fit in. I'm just concentrating on writing in an authentic voice and trying to make it as clear and true and precise as I can.



One thing I do want to mention is what I visualize as almost the collaboration between poet and reader. I know there are poets who feel that the poem exists only as they intend it to, but I don't entirely. I believe the poet has his or her intentions, but readers come to the poem with their own set of attitudes and experiences and so what the poem is varies a little from reader to reader. It becomes at some level a combination of the original intent and the received thing.

It's a huge gift to a poet to have readers willing to bring themselves fully and respectfully to the work. It's humbling. I am always grateful when readers tell me that my work has meant something to them.
3. Onto the poems themselves, which I loved. My favorite poem in Container Gardening is probably "Gathering," about using shells collected by speaker's aunt to mark her grave. Can you talk about some of the themes in this lovely poem?


Thank you! I am writing this, actually, on the birthday of that very dear aunt. Primarily what I was thinking about when I wrote that poem was how the small pieces of our lives that, at some point, have real meaning to us, get lost to ourselves and to others. They just melt away, the way we forget where the stones were from. We think we'll never forget this experience, and then we forget, though of course something of it remains with us. And when the stones and shells are someone else's, they show how impossible it is to really know another person's life. No matter how close you are to that person, there are always mysteries.
4. In the first poem, "Standing at the Shore," the moment described- people on the beach, children rooted but striving for freedom- starts as "soft"- "the same soft moment"; later, it's "that messy instant." Why the change? Is the moment soft and messy at the same time?


The softness, I guess, is the light just at dusk, the quiet on the beach, and everyone concentrating on standing there and looking good for the photograph. At least the adults are feeling that. But the children always have another agenda. While the adults are thinking about preserving the moment, the children are busy living it, squeezing the juice out of it.

But I hadn't actually thought about that before. (This is why I knew it would be fun to answer your questions--they make me think of new things about my work and about poetry in general.) What I was thinking about--or at least what I thought I was thinking about when I wrote this was time and impermanence, which is probably what I am often thinking about when I write.
5. In the first part of the book, dominant themes include loss, memory and history, and the poems are deeply personal. In the second, the tone is somewhat more political with mentions of wars, terrorism and allusions to first-world privilege; still, the poems are rooted in day to day life. In the third section, there's a hint of menace as we move from the past through the present and into the future- an idea that the future is a dark place. Can you talk about this progression? Is there optimism as well or is it all bad news?


I didn't think of it as menacing, but rather just as life with its certainty of pleasures and sorrows. When I named the book Container Gardening, I was thinking of how we construct our own little universes to live in. Partly they're private, built out of our own experiences. Partly they are touched by the larger world we live in, and that's where the political poems come in.


But then--and I guess this is that third section--we take those pieces and go forward with our lives into whatever happens next. And we hope that some of what happens will bring us joy. And we know that some of what will happen is bound to bring us sorrow, simply because we are mortal beings connected to other mortal beings. And all we can do, I think, is muddle through the best we can. There's a Jewish saying I read once about the idea that at the end of our days we will be called to account for every fruit we did not taste in its season. That is often in my mind and I hope that's what that third section is about, the sense that with all the certainty of sadness, we still can--must- notice the joy. As the last words of the last poem say, "rest within the wonder/of this gift."

Thank you so much for agreeing to participate! This interview was originally posted at the weblog Boston Bibliophile as a part of the National Poetry Month Blog Tour, hosted at Savvy Verse and Wit.
Visit Ellen at her site, www.EllenSteinbaum.com.
Today we have a special treat- an interview with comics artist and author Steve Sheinkin, author of three terrific graphic novels featuring his character Rabbi Harvey: 2006's The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey, the 2008 follow-up Rabbi Harvey Rides Again and Rabbi Harvey vs. The Wisdom Kid, just out this month. All three are available in paperback from Jewish Lights Publishing.

1. Tell us a little about yourself and Rabbi Harvey. How did he come into your life?

That question really takes me way back to my Hebrew school days. I was bored to death by all the memorization, and my dad, seeing this, got me a book of Jewish folktales. I loved the stories, and started imagining how I would change them – mostly by adding jokes. Rabbi Harvey evolved years later, when I came up with the idea of setting Jewish folktales in the Wild West. I wanted a main character who was part rabbi, part sheriff, someone who could defeat villains without using a gun, and that led me to Harvey. His look has changed a bit since those first sketches, but he always had the unibrow.
2. Who or what influenced your particular style of art? What comics artists do you like to read?

I wasn’t a big superhero comics reader as a kid. It wasn’t till I was in my 20s that I realized you could do any kind of stores you want in comic format. Reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus was a big part of that realization. I started little drawing comics of crummy jobs I had, and it was a lot of fun. These days I love a wide variety of artists: Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, Joann Sfar, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and many more. What I love about the format is that everyone has a unique visual style. It doesn’t matter that I’m not a great artist, as long as stick to my own style.

3. Why did you choose to do a book-length story after your previous two volumes of shorts?

Partly for the challenge – to see if I could string a few dozen Jewish folktales and bits of Talmudic wisdom into a cohesive plot. Also, I thought it would be fun to read. Comics are so close to movies, and I’m a huge fan of old Hollywood westerns. So it seemed natural to try to do a Harvey “movie” in comics form.


4. You draw heavily from the rich tradition of Jewish folktales for all of your Rabbi Harvey stories; one of the pleasures of reading about the rabbi's adventures is recognizing familiar tales retold and learning new ones. Which ones are particularly meaningful for you? What are some that you like that haven't made into the rabbi's stories so far?

I read hundreds of stories, maybe thousands, looking for just the right ones for these books. I always wanted to use the beautiful story of the two brothers – each gets the idea of helping the other by secretly bringing wheat to the other’s barn. I finally figured out a way to work that one into the new book. I’ve also been trying to think of a way to get some of the Wise Men of Chelm stories into a Harvey book. With this new book, I realized I needed to create a whole new town, Helms Falls, Colorado, where these stories could take place. I look forward to revisiting in future volumes…
5. Rabbi Harvey, a question for you. How do you feel about the way Steve Sheinkin portrays you? Does he portray you fairly? And- what's really going on between you and Abigail?

Yes, I would say that the books are a fairly accurate portrayal of life in Elk Spring. One minor point: Steve had taken to drawing me with pants that are a little too short, and I don’t feel that’s 100 percent accurate. Overall, what I enjoy is the ability to share wisdom from thousands of years of Jewish thought. The danger, of course, is that people think I’m the one who thought up all this stuff. They think I can answer any question they throw at me. Like Steve says in the books, it’s not always easy to be the rabbi.

As for Abigail, well, I lobbied Steve to give her a larger role in this new book, and my motives were not wholly unselfish. I’m hoping her part in these stories continues to grow. But I suppose it’s not entirely up to me…

Steve, thank you so much for a great interview and I'll be watching for the Rabbi's latest adventures!

You can also visit Sheinkin's webpage or Rabbi Harvey's Facebook page.