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Jewish Journal

Authors explain Jewish influences on their works

by Anita K. Kantrowitz

November 8, 2007 | 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.

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