Jewish Journal

Authors explain Jewish influences on their works

by Anita K. Kantrowitz

Posted on Nov. 8, 2007 at 7:00 pm

The Jewish Journal invited writers who will be featured at Sunday's Festival of Books to answer the simple, essential question that every Jewish writer is often asked: "What Jewish sources -- ideas, writings, traditions -- inspire you, and how do they show up in your work?"

The following show that there is no easy answer to what defines a Jewish author, but there is no question that there's much to draw upon within the faith.

Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket)

The Jewish sources that have most affected my work are stories of my father's family leaving Germany in 1938, for the usual Jewish reasons that one would leave Germany in 1938. And the independence of suffering from redemption -- in other words that you're not rewarded for behaving well, and you shouldn't behave well because of a possible reward.

These seem to me manifestly Jewish ideas, and it is pretty easy to find them in my work. I've written 13 books about terrible things that happen to children who do their best to behave well. This is arguably an encapsulation of Jewish history in its entirety.

Novelist and screenwriter Daniel Handler is perhaps best known for his 13-book children's series collectively known as "A Series of Unfortunate Events," penned under the pseudonym of Lemony Snicket. Under his own name, Handler has published three novels, "The Basic Eight," "Watch Your Mouth" and "Adverbs." An accomplished musician, Handler has played accordion on a number of recordings, including "69 Love Songs" by The Magnetic Fields.

Anita Diamant

Having written six books about Jewish practice -- from weddings to birth, from conversion to mourning -- it's pretty clear that I have been inspired by the way Judaism gives expression and shape to the fluid and ineffable cycle of human life. As a journalist and adult Jewish learner, it was a pleasure, as well as a challenge, to translate the wisdom and joy of our tradition into a contemporary idiom.

The other major inspiration I find in Jewish life and letters is our history of debate. The ongoing, sometimes sublime and sometimes silly, argument found in even our most sacred books (Talmud, et. al.) gives me, as a liberal Jew, a sense of belonging to a grand, ongoing and ever-changing wrestling match with the past, with the sacred, with one another.

Anita Diamant is the author of six handbooks of Jewish life and life-cycle events, including, "The New Jewish Wedding" and "Choosing a Jewish Life." This year marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of her first novel, "The Red Tent," based on Chapter 34 in the Book of Genesis, but told from Dinah's point of view. Her latest novel, "The Last Days of Dogtown," is set in Massachusetts in the early 1800s and chronicles the lives of a group of society's cast-offs in a poor, rural community. For more information, visit www.anitadiamant.com.

Kirk Douglas

When I was writing my last book , "Let's Face It," Peter, one of my sons, said, "Dad, don't make it too Jewish." It's hard for me to obey him, because being a Jew is, as Cole Porter would say, "Deep in the heart of me."

The history of the Jews fascinates me. We are only about 13 million in number, way out of proportion to what we have accomplished in life and what we have contributed to the welfare of people in so many areas. I am proud of that. And yet, anti-Semitism grows.

Being a Jew is a challenge. It's often said, "Schwer zu sein a Yid" (It's hard to be a Jew). To me, it's been a challenge that I try to accept gracefully, and it has given me many rewards.

Actor, producer, director and author, Kirk Douglas was born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in Amsterdam, N.Y. He was a wrestler at St. Lawrence University and worked as a bellhop to put himself through school at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Douglas' books include "Dance With the Devil" (1990); "The Secret" (1992); his autobiography, "The Ragman's Son" (1988), and "Let's Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning," which will be published by Thorndike Press in March.

Gina Nahai

The sources that inspire me are the men and women whose lives I try to render in my stories. They're the people I grew up with or that I grew up hearing about. I watch them now as I did then and describe what I see, hear them, and write what they say. I don't invent so much as reveal, don't comment so much as bear witness. I think a writer's job is to tell the truth as she sees it, and, having done that, be prepared to defend what she has said.

I'm an Iranian Jew, and most of the people I write about are Jews. I don't pretend to capture an entire history or to portray an entire nation. I don't believe that's possible. But I do believe that by telling the truth of an individual's life -- a personal truth -- one can arrive at a universal understanding, and this is what I aim for.

Gina Nahai's novels include "Cry of the Peacock" (1991), "Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith"(1999), "Sunday's Silence"(2001) and her new novel, "Caspian Rain" (MacAdam/Cage, 2007). A lecturer in the Professional Writing Program at USC, her writings have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Magazine. Her column appears monthly in The Jewish Journal.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

The most important Jewish inspiration that I have is the Torah, and especially great characters of the Bible. I am moved whenever I read of the kindness of Abraham, the struggles of Jacob, humility of Moses and the daring and commitment of King David and righteousness of Hebrew prophets.

Discovering these great men in the Bible fills my Jewish spirit with passion and inspiration. It is especially moving to learn of those who embody the patriarchs. In my life, a great inspiration was the Lubavitch Rebbe, who lived with the passion to serve my people and spread the word of Judaism to all corners of the world.He was the one who sent me to Sydney, Australia, and Oxford, England, which was the period of the formable years of my life. The modern State of Israel is flourishing and fills me with inspiration, wonder and awe. I also admire the Israeli soldiers, who work so dedicatedly to serve the Israeli people for so many centuries, and I seek to emulate service to the people of the Holy Land.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is an ordained Chabad Lubavitch Orthodox rabbi and an international best-selling author of 18 books, most notably, "Kosher Sex." He hosts the national TV show, "Shalom in the Home," which airs Sunday nights on TLC at 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.shmuley.com.

Sam Wolfson

When I was 7 years old, my mom wanted to take my sister and me to where she vacationed as a kid, so she took us to the Concord Hotel in the Catskills. We went to see the comedian whose name was Mal Z. Lawrence, and I thought it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. I bought his album in the lobby and tried to remember all the jokes to tell my friends at school. Twenty years later, we went to see a Broadway show called, "Catskills on Broadway," and Mal Z. Lawrence was in the show, and I thought it was so cool to see him again, and he was still hysterical.

That's the earliest memory I have of a Jewish influence on my sense of humor. I always connected with it, even at an early age, since it's in my bones and who I am. The crazy thing is, Bryan Fogel, my "Jewtopia" writing partner, was brought up practically Orthodox, while I was brought up Reform, and yet we still had all the same cultural experiences in our Jewish households growing up, which I think is why our stuff seems to appeal to Jews of all denominations.

Sam Wolfson is a comedy writer and co-playwright of "Jewtopia," Los Angeles' longest-running comedy, with Bryan Fogel. Their book, based on of the play, was one of Time-Warner's major releases for fall 2006. They are currently in preproduction on a film adaptation. For more information, visit http://www.jewtopiaworld.com.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff

What inspired me to write "The Way Into Tikkun Olam (Fixing the World)"? In part, it is what inspires me to be a serious Jew in the first place. Camp Ramah has had a major influence on my life, for it was there that I learned that Judaism is not only emotionally compelling but also intellectually challenging and morally astute. You do not have to turn off either your mind or your heart to be a committed Jew; in fact, Jewish sources from Abraham to our own time require us to wrestle with God and with the problems of the world.

I have ... written books on Jewish medical, social and personal ethics.... This book is an attempt to bring together many of Judaism's moral lessons about fixing our society and fixing our families, so that we can come closer to attaining the ideal world that Judaism would have us strive to attain, as described in the last chapter of the book. It describes, in other words, nothing less than the Jewish mission in life, one that makes life both challenging and meaningful.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff is a professor of philosophy at American Jewish University. He is an expert in the philosophy of Conservative Judaism and bioethics. In his book, he provides a comprehensive introduction to the roots of the beliefs and laws that are the basis of the Jewish commitment to improve the world.

Joel Stern

What I love about Judaism is that it's a system built with rules and patterns, while at the same time offering opportunity for personal expression.You may daven the same words every day, but you invest those words with feelings and emotions that can change from one prayer to the next. You have the weekly regularity of Shabbat with its many observances, but you can experience different nuances of holiness based on your personal practices.

I also love the fact that Judaism embraces a respect for nature -- the Jewish calendar is built around the cycles of the moon and sun; we demonstrate our desire to live in harmony with nature through Tu B'Shevat observances.

Finally, I appreciate the fact that Judaism is limitless. You can spend your entire life studying Jewish texts and continually discover new insights and find new ways to apply Judaism to your life.

My love of origami (from the Japanese word for paper folding) is very much interconnected with my feelings about Judaism. I love the challenge of being creative within a system that imposes certain limits or constraints. Like Judaism, paper folding has constraints, not governed by halacha [Jewish law] but by principles of geometry and physics -- a piece of paper only has two sides; it can be subdivided only so many times without tearing; the most natural kind of fold is a straight line.

Yet despite these constraints, there is no limit to the kinds of things that can be represented with origami -- animals, people, plants, natural forms, abstract figures. And when folded by a master, origami models manifest a stirring harmony with the natural world, exhibiting the texture and vitality of living beings.

Joel Stern, author of "Jewish Holiday Origami," has published two books on Origami, as well as "Washington Pops!," a collection of do-it-yourself pop-up cards of famous buildings in Washington, D.C., which have been exhibited in the United States, Japan and Israel.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg

People inspire me. People like Wilhelmina Perry, an African American lesbian who lived in a 30-year relationship, and then when her partner died, lost her home and half her income because there is no marriage equality in this country. While she is nervous to speak in public and is by nature a quiet person, she decided that she needed to become a spokesperson for the thousands like her who could not stand up ... she is courageous, well spoken, direct and graceful.

I hope that my work holds the [Jewish] tradition to its own best lights. I hope that it forces those who easily quote familiar verses to get as acquainted with the real people who live and struggle with them daily. I hope that it offers motivation to gay and lesbian people to stay trusting of the Torah and faithful in God, and that it begins to open the doors of Orthodox communities to welcome in their own children.

And perhaps one day, we will sing of this inclusion, "The rock that the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone."

Rabbi Steven Greenberg is an advocate for Jewish gay tolerance in the United States and abroad and has been a senior teaching fellow at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City since 1985. The author of "Wrestling With God and Men," Greenberg was the first rabbi with Orthodox ordination to announce his homosexuality. In 1996, he was awarded a Jerusalem Fellowship. He founded Moah Gavra, a gay men's study group in Jerusalem and created a documentary with filmmaker-director Sandi Simcha DuBowski about Orthodox gay Jews.

Judy Gruen

Jewishly, I am inspired by the incredible wisdom of Torah to enrich my life and make it more meaningful and by the amazing people from whom I have learned so much and from whom I continue to learn.

I am also inspired by my children, who have been raised religiously from birth (I was not), and whose knowledge and dedication make me very, very proud. When you are Jewish, you can never say, "OK, I've mastered that. Time to go fishing." You can certainly go fishing, or sailing, or anything else, but you'll always have another level of personal and spiritual achievement to aspire to.

My first goal in writing humor is to look for things that strike me as funny or worthy of parody, but my Jewish values are there. Whether I'm writing about everyday dilemmas of dealing with chain e-mails, the lure of exotic and overpriced moisturizers or trying to impart wisdom to teens who already know everything, the flavor is Jewish.

I've written about what it's like to be the only kosher diner at a large business function, and they bring your meal wrapped in so much plastic you need a hacksaw to get through it ... and trying to serve God with joy even when you can't find parking. That's why even bad news can be good news for writers: Everything is material.

Judy Gruen, author of "The Women's Daily Irony Supplement," has written for Woman's Day, Ladies' Home Journal, Family Circle, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and The Jewish Journal. She writes a monthly column for The Journal's Jewish Life magazine and for http://www.Mommasaid.net.

Ruth Andrew Ellenson

There has been no greater influence in my life as a writer then the late, great Grace Paley. A Jewish feminist, activist and brilliant wordsmith, her short stories, essays and poetry were infused with compassion, humor and scalpel-sharp wit. But what made them most stand out for me was her overwhelming sense of love for the people she wrote about.

And then there were the images she conjured up, the sheer joy of her language. As a character watches her father dying in bed, she describes his heart as a "bloody motor." In another story, a child refusing to leave his mother places his hand across her chest, and she watches her heart light up in stripes through his fingers, like a jailed light.

If to be Jewish is to be part of a community, I felt I'd finally found my Jewish home when I read her book, "The Little Disturbances of Man," when I was a teenager in Jerusalem. With Paley's writing, I felt I'd found myself in her words -- the greatest gift any writer can give a reader.

Ruth Andrew Ellenson was born in Jerusalem and raised in New York and Los Angeles. A graduate of Columbia University's master of fine arts program, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, People, The Forward and Heeb. Ellenson received the National Jewish Book Award in 2005 for her best-selling anthology, "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt" (Dutton, 2005). She lives with her husband in Los Angeles and is at work on a novel.

Elisa Albert

For me, the process of creating narrative begins with what I know, where I come from, the way I perceive the world. Having grown up immersed in institutional Jewish practice (day school, synagogue, Camp Ramah, Hebrew High and on and on), I felt I knew a lot about how that world works, and I was inspired to place characters in such familiar contexts. For a writer just beginning to shape stories, the raw material was just too good to pass up.

But if I've done my job, Jewish ritual and observance should simply serve as backdrop for the universal experience at the heart of any good story: love, loss, family, pain, happiness, sorrow, whatever. Not incidentally, I've always been inspired by the fact that Yisrael means struggle: My Jewish identity, like my literary identity, relies heavily on the conviction that scratching the surface and disturbing the peace in pursuit of truth is a moral duty. Even when (or especially when) it pisses off one's elders.

Elisa Albert is an assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University and an editor-at-large of http://www.Jewcy.com. Her writing has appeared in Washington Square, Pindeldyboz and the anthologies "Body Outlaws" (Seal Press, 2004), "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt" (Dutton, 2005) and the forthcoming "How to Spell Chanukah" (Algonquin, 2007). For more information, visit www.elisaalbert.com.

Rabbi Mark Borovitz

My inspiration to write comes from my understanding of and practice of teshuvah. Teshuvah is, in my opinion, repentance, return and response. In order to do repentance, I have to take an honest look at my life and see what I have done well and what I have done poorly. Then I tell my story to the people I have harmed, with a plan to make restitution and repair and a plan to not repeat this action. In doing this, I am able to clean the shmutz that I put on my soul and return to my roots. I then am able to have a new response in the future to old situations.Teshuvah is something that we have to do out loud. My inspiration to write is to be an example for others on the effects of our choices on others, good and bad.... I have learned so much from authors like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Edward Feinstein, Harold Schulweis and others; I believe it is my obligation to share my knowledge and experience with others as a life-learning lesson.

Rabbi Mark Borovitz is the spiritual leader of Beit T'Shuvah, a recovery center whose program is based in Jewish teachings. It is located in West Los Angeles. In his book, "Holy Thief," he writes about his journey from petty thievery to rabbinic ordination.

Judith Viorst

Inspired may be too fancy a word for me, but I certainly have been influenced in my writing by what I see as a particularly Jewish kind of humor -- self-deprecating humor -- where the laugh tends to be on the person telling the story (on the narrator, on me), rather than on the other guy.

Jewish self-deprecating humor is confessional (listen to the dopey/embarrassing/klutzy thing I've just done) -- a way of making fun of ourselves before anyone else does, and it probably originated as a preemptive strike against being picked on or attacked. It is quite the opposite of "roast" humor, where the narrator is speaking from a superior position, looking down on the fools and jerks below. Jewish self-deprecating humor also allows me to write about my family without getting into big trouble.

Judith Viorst is the author of several works of fiction and nonfiction for children, as well as adults. Her children's books include "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney" (1971) and "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" (1972) and its sequels. Her writings for adults include books of poems; the novel, "Murdering Mr. Monti" (1994); and works of nonfiction, including "Necessary Losses" (1986) and "Imperfect Control" (1998). "Alexander and the Wonderful, Marvelous, Excellent, Terrific Ninety Days" (Free Press) was released last month. Viorst lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, political writer Milton Viorst.

Naomi Ragen

The Bible is an endless source of inspiration for me. I was always struck by how God, when He wrote His own book, never seemed to hold back when there was something constructively critical to say. We get the story of Cain and Abel, Lot's daughters, Joseph and his brothers, Dina's rape and her brothers vengeance on the entire town.

This is not a white-washed history, a magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest people of them all. The painful truthfulness of the Bible led me to believe that a writer must view his or her own society with honesty and never be afraid or intimidated to write that truth, no matter how uncomfortable the consequences. This gave me the courage to write "Jephte's Daughter," a book about domestic abuse.

Jewish writings are also the source of my humor. For example, in my latest book, "The Saturday Wife," a gentle satire, the rabbi's wife finds inspiration "and a deeply spiritual message" for women in Queen Esther soaking in precious oils for six months.

Naomi Ragen is an American-born novelist and playwright who has lived in Jerusalem since 1971. She has published seven novels, including "The Ghost of Hannah Mendes" (St. Martin's, 2001) and "The Covenant" (2006). Her play, "Minyan Nashim" (Women's Minyan), ran for five years at Israel's national theater (Habima) and is now available in book form. Her latest novel is "The Saturday Wife" (St. Martin's, 2007). For more information, visit www.naomiragen.com.

Abbie Kozolchyk

As someone who makes a lot of her living as a travel writer, I'm not only inspired by -- but reliant on -- the principle Rabbi Akiva famously deemed the most important of the whole Torah: V'Ahavta l'rayacha kamocha. Granted, the precise meaning of loving thy neighbor as thyself has been debated through the ages (what hasn't in Judaism), but in travel writing, as in life, I choose to go with the most liberal, global-villagey interpretation: My neighbor is pretty much anyone I come across along the way.

And while trying to do right by said neighbors has probably led to some good stories, the reverse unquestionably has. In fact, one of my favorite travel experiences, oddly, was getting deathly ill in Cusco, Peru, a few years ago because, as I wrote in the subsequent story: I was nursed back to health by a team of self-appointed mommies, all complete strangers. That they treated me as one of their own is something that has stuck with me ever since.

Journalist, editor and frequent travel writer Abbie Kozolchyk is based in New York. A contributing travel editor for Martha Stewart Living's Body + Soul magazine, her work has also appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Forbes Traveler, "The Best Women's Travel Writing 2007," Redbook and other publications. For more information, visit www.abbiekozolchyk.com.

Ellen Feldman

While researching and writing "The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank," I discovered an aspect of the Jewish experience unique, perhaps, to mid-20th century America, which greatly influenced my outlook and work. The deeper I dug into the source material, the more stories I heard of Jews who had come to this country in the wake of the war and never admitted that they were survivors of the camps -- or even Jews.

Everyone I spoke to knew someone who had done this. A few even passed on privately published memoirs. At talks and signings after the book was published, people stood up to speak of a parent who had never told them they were Jewish until their teen years or later.

This denial was, I believe, indicative of a more subtle mentality prevalent in this country in the immediate aftermath of the Shoah. Never, ever, deny being a Jew, the message went. But do not be in too much of a rush to shout it from the rooftops. After all, look what can happen. This is the perplexing dichotomy I tried to deal with in "The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank."

Journalist and author Ellen Feldman has written three novels of historical fiction: "Lucy" (2003), about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherford; "The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank" (2005), and "Scottsboro," which will be published by W.W. Norton in April 2008. She is a frequent contributor to American Heritage.

Debbie Robins

What inspires me Jewishly is the profound tradition of the Jewish people to example tolerance and forgiveness, even in the face of unending intolerance. I feel it is my responsibility as a Jew to do whatever I can to make the world a more loving and respectful place. With that intention in mind, I wrote "Where Peace Lives," a parable for ages 6 to 106 about finding the three keys to peace.

The characters in the book are based on some of the great peace teachers, including Moses. The book's message of tolerance is found on every page, and it is my hope that this magical adventure to save the world will inspire us to make peace a part of our global educational curriculum. Peace is a choice at every age and in every circumstance. We can make a difference.

Producer Debbie Robins is co-founder of the consulting firm, scoreBIG, which teaches organizations how to achieve their full potential. She has also written "Where Happiness Lives," which will be published in 2008, and has served as president of Roland Joffe's Warner Bros. company, Lightmotive, and vice president at Hollywood Pictures, a division of Walt Disney Entertainment.

Renny Shapiro

I am Jewish, I live Jewish, my heritage is Jewish and it's my life. We [Shapiro and her husband] wanted to live our dream of flying around the world, and we used our wings to do so.

The trip took two months and included 65 hours of flying time. We visited historically Jewish places in Poland, which is where my mother is from. We worked closely with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and carried goodwill gifts with us, donated from The Jewish Federation.

Renny Shapiro lives in Malibu, and "Eastbound" is the first book that the former pilot has authored. She continues to serve as a co-pilot with her husband, who is a private flyer. Proceeds generated from "Eastbound" will be donated to the American Jewish Joint Distribution committee.

Sylvia Rouss

When I first started teaching in a Jewish preschool, I looked for holiday books that were appropriate for 3- and 4-year-olds. When I didn't find that many, I started making up my own stories for use in my classroom. Eventually, I took the risk of sending a story to a publisher.

I think my stories work for little ones because they use age appropriate symbols and concepts. Little children can relate to numbers, colors and a curious spider -- so that was a good place to begin the story of Chanukah, and those became the concepts for my most popular book, "Sammy Spider's First Hanukkah."

Sylvia Rouss is an award-winning author who created the popular children's series, "Sammy Spider and Littlest" series. She is also Los Angeles preschool teacher and conducts seminars for parents and teachers. As a featured author and lecturer, she appears at numerous book fairs throughout the United States and Israel. For more information, please visit www.sylviarouss.com.

Diane Levin Rauchwerger

I have been involved in Jewish education since I was 16 and had the privilege of being a teaching assistant to a wonderful Sunday school kindergarten teacher, Celia Bronstein. Celia was knowledgeable and passionate about her love of Judaism and her desire to share that love with young children and their parents.

My other inspiration was my mother, Ida Levin, of blessed memory, who wrote original poems for every birthday, anniversary and Chanukah. My sister, also of blessed memory, and I followed in her footsteps, writing poems, both serious and funny, for every occasion.

My dinosaur series ("Dinosaur on Hanukkah," "Dinosaur on Shabbat" and "Dinosaur on Passover"), published by Kar-Ben Publishing, combines humor and poetry to tell holiday stories that entertain while teaching about the holidays. Like Celia, it is my greatest joy to share my love of Judaism with young children and their families in a way that is educational and entertaining.

Diane Levin Rauchwerger is a former religious school and day-school teacher. Her dinosaur series amuses young readers with a friendly, curious dinosaur, who explores the many wonders of Judaism. She is currently a librarian.

Anne-Marie Asner

The goal of Matzah Ball Books, a Yiddish-inspired children's publishing company, is to introduce a bissle (little bit) of Yiddish to the new generation in a fun and easy-to-learn fashion. Titles include "Noshy Boy," who loves to snack; "Shmutzy Girl," who gets into messes; and "Kvetchy Boy," who is always complaining.

Asner's desire to preserve and inspire interest in Yiddish comes from being raised in a Jewish home that values Yiddishkeit. Her bubbe (grandmother) is fluent in Yiddish and acts as Asner's personal Yiddish dictionary. Although Asner's childhood did not include Yiddish as mother tongue, there were enough Yiddishisms peppered throughout to ignite in her a fondness for the warmth and descriptiveness that it provides.

Anne-Marie Asner has a master's degree in psychology from Brandeis University and currently lives in Los Angeles. She has written for the Jewish Observer, the Jewish Family Life teen Web site, www.MzVibe.com, and the Anti-Defamation League. Her work has also been featured on www.JewishAustralia.com. For more information, visit www.matzahballbooks.com.

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