8 for 8 with Aviva Kanoff – The Indiana Jones of Cooking

It’s the second day of 8 for 8 where we are meeting one cookbook author each day of Chanukah. We are talking with Aviva Kanoff  who just published her second cookbook Gluten Free Around the World. Aviva has been described as the “Indiana Jones” of cooking and there are a few reasons behind this nickname. The first is that Aviva regularly travels all over the globe. I have worked with Aviva for a few years now and she often responds to my emails with a brief “I will be in Vietnam soon” or a request to reschedule an interview since she is planning some time in Spain. Aviva is also fearlessly creative with food and art. Her cookbooks are gluten free and kosher but they are far from the usual fare one might initially expect to see in such books. So while Aviva has formal training as a chef and was a personal chef, she hasn’t placed herself into one food style. Whether it is Indian, Jamaican or French food, Aviva is passionate about sharing her food discoveries with the rest of us. In addition, Aviva is an inspired photographer and her books serve up gorgeous photos from the lands where her recipes originate. Her first cookbook The No Potato Passover was a hit because of the recipes but her photography was mentioned by most critics as well.

Aviva SF launch boat Aviva SF launch book cover Aviva SF launch signing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aviva just launched Gluten Free Around the World in San Francisco on a ship built in the 1860’s and I’m excited that she is participating in 8 for 8.

Kanoff menorah

The Kanoff Menorah

Aviva, what stands out for you about celebrating Chanukah as you grew up? Any special food memories? 

My parents are both very musical and creative.  My childhood memories of Chanukah are not as much food related as they are crafty and musically influenced. One of my fathers great joys in life is plumbing. One Chanukah he built a beautiful large Menorah out of copper pipes that we still light every year. My father also composed his own tune for Maoz Tzur that my family sings and dances to after candle lighting.

You are a world traveler – where are some of the places you have celebrated Chanukah? Can you share any wild or unexpected Chanukah experiences abroad?

Not to sound too cheesy, but my favorite place to be for Chanukah is at home with my family. I haven’t yet been anywhere too exotic for Chanukah because if I am traveling then, it would be home to Miami. I do have some exciting stories about shabbat experiences around the world, though :). (You can check out Aviva’s blog for more on her travels, SS).

What do you do during Chanukah to create a memorable holiday atmosphere for yourself, friends or family? 

I enjoy the cozy lighting that the menorah brings and singing around the candles. The smell of latkes cooking doesn’t hurt either, to add to the whole homey vibe.

The Kanoff Family Celebrates

The Kanoff Family Celebrates

How has your Chanukah changed since you became a chef and author?

Because of my love of experimenting with food, my latkes have become a lot more creative over the years. I love to have the traditional potato latkes at least once during Chanukah, but for me, variety is the spice of life.

Are you eating different foods for Chanukah now than you did in the past? What are they?

Definitely! Traveling has really broadened  my horizons, especially as far as food is concerned. Just like meatballs or dumplings, every country has its own version of latkes.  Last year, I made spinach quinoa  latkes with cheddar cheese for a friends Chanukah party which were a big hit!

What is one dish you must eat during Chanukah no matter what?

I always need to have a classic potato latke at least once.

Latkes or sufganiot?

latkes!

What recipes are you bringing us for Chanukah?

Every culture has its beloved fried foods. Since Chanukah foods are so connected to the oil of the Chanukah miracle, I want to share some dishes from around the world which use oil. They may be unfamiliar to many, but well worth trying for a holiday menu!

 

ChurrosChurros (from Gluten Free Around the World)

Yield: 10 churros

Ingredients:

  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • ¾ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup water
  • ⅟₃ cup unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp. brown sugar
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 cup gluten free all-purpose flour
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • canola oil for frying
  • confectioners’ sugar

Directions:

  1. In a medium bowl, combine granulated sugar and cinnamon. Set aside for topping.
  2. In a medium saucepan, combine water, butter, brown sugar, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat.  Add flour all at once, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon.  Cook and stir until the mixture forms a ball and pulls away from the sides of the pan.  Remove from heat and let cool.
  3. Line a baking sheet with greased parchment paper. After the dough has cooled for 10 minutes, add egg and vanilla to the saucepan, and beat ingredients well with a wooden spoon to blend them completely.  Transfer the mixture to a decorating bag fitted with a large star tip.  Pipe 4-inch lengths onto the prepared baking sheet.
  4. Heat 3-inches oil in a deep saucepan over medium-high heat. Fry a few strips at a time in hot oil (at least 375°), turning once, until golden brown on all sides, about 5 minutes.  Drain on paper towels.  Roll warm churros in the cinnamon-sugar mixture to coat.  Serve warm

 

Nutty Corn Pancakes (from Gluten Free Around the World

Yield: 4 fritters

Ingredients:

  • 2 large ears of corn
  • 1 cup roasted, shelled peanuts
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • 2 tsp. peeled, grated fresh ginger
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • ¼ cup rice flour
  • ½ cup peanut oil

Directions:

  1. Remove kernels from corncobs with a sharp knife, then place kernels in a food processor along with peanuts, scallions, ginger, garlic, and cumin and process until finely chopped and slightly mushy; transfer to a bowl.
  2. Add egg and rice flour; mix well.

3.  Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Spoon tablespoons of the mixture into the skillet and flatten with the back of the spoon.  Cook until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side.  Drain on paper towels and repeat with remaining mixture.  Serve hot.

 

small_spinachquinoafritters_LowResSpinach & Quinoa Fritters  (from Gluten Free Around the World 

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup quinoa, rinsed
  • 1 large white onion, diced
  • 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil,
    plus more for frying
  • 2 cups diced fresh mushrooms
  • 2 cups chopped spinach
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper, and garlic powder to taste
  • 3 large eggs
  • ¼ cup gluten free panko
    or bread crumbs
  • 2 tbsp. shredded cheddar cheese (optional)

Directions:

  1. Prepare quinoa according to the directions on the package.
  2. In a large frying pan, sauté onion in 2 tbsp. oil over medium-high heat until translucent, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add mushrooms and spinach and sauté for 3 minutes or until fully cooked.
  4. Remove pan from heat. Add quinoa to spinach, mushrooms, and onion mixture and mix ingredients.
  5. Season with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
  6. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and combine with eggs, panko or bread crumbs, and cheese, if using.
  7. Heat oil in a frying pan. Once oil is sizzling, cooking four pieces at a time, spoon 1 tbsp. of mixture into the frying pan.  Cook until golden, about 3 minutes on each side.  Remove from pan and drain on paper towels.

Cheese ballsBocaditos de Papa (Potato-Cheese Fritters) (from Gluten Free Around the World)

Yield: 12 fritters

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 1 cup shredded pepper jack or cheddar cheese
  • 2 tbsp. shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. ground cumin
  • ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • canola oil for deep frying
  • salsa (optional)

Directions:

  1. In a large saucepan, place potatoes in enough salted water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat.  Simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes or until potatoes are tender, then drain.
  2. In a large bowl, mash potatoes with a potato masher until smooth. Fold in cheeses, eggs, cilantro, salt, cumin, and cayenne pepper.  Shape mixture into twelve, 3-inch diameter patties.  If desired, cover and chill for up to 24 hours before cooking.
  3. In a large skillet, heat 1-inch of oil to 375˚. Add potato patties, three or four at a time and fry, about 2 minutes or until golden brown, turning once halfway through cooking time.  Drain on paper towels. Serve hot and top with salsa if desired.

 

 

8 for 8 with Ronnie Fein! Eight Cookbook Authors for Eight Days of Chanukah.

Welcome to the 8 for 8 series in honor of Chanukah 2014. We will be focusing on 8 cookbook authors, one for each day of the holiday. Let’s talk to these foodies and see how they celebrate Chanukah and what they are cooking, baking and enjoying! I do not promise that we will spell “Chanukah” consistently all 8 days.

Ronnie Fein is a renowned cookbook author who literally wrote the Idiot’s Guides to Cooking. Ronnie has just released The Modern Kosher Kitchen (Fair Winds Press)  with a forward by Jamie Geller.

Ronnie Fein

Ronnie’s new book focuses on creative and interesting recipes while not being intimidating. There is a lot of buzz surrounding the book which is really nice to see. I had the pleasure to work with Ronnie over the past year as she edited the new cookbook Gluten Free Around the World by Aviva Kanoff which I coordinated. (Aviva will be featured in 8 for 8 this week!). It is always terrific to work with such nice and professional people and I am grateful that Ronnie agreed to be part of 8 for 8 and I am thrilled to kick off the series by speaking with her.

Ronnie pic

What stands out for you about celebrating Chanukah as you grew up? What about when you were raising a family? Do you have any special food memories?

 Chanukah wasn’t as important when I was a youngster as it seems to be today. Purim and Passover were the bigger holidays. Still, it was festive enough, but there weren’t elaborate preparations, special blue giftwrap and certainly not 8 days worth of presents. I do remember it as a special time because that’s when my Aunt Roz and Uncle Mac would take me, my brother Jeff and cousin Leslie ice skating. What a treat, especially the year we got satin lined skating outfits and our own ice skates for Chanukah! And of course we got gelt, chocolate of course, gold wrapped in mesh bags! We each got our own bag and I still remember clawing the wrappers open to get to the chocolate.

hanukkah-gelt-msn-divine-chocolate

Chanukah became a more celebratory event when I was raising my own children. There was more talk about it at school, even though the majority of children were not Jewish, in an effort to be more inclusive. So it more or less had become a well known Americanized holiday that everyone knew about, not just Jewish families. My husband Ed and I also gave the children 8 gifts, usually one or two big ones, the others that were just fun or silly. My kids were excited to open one each night to see whether it was the “good” one or not. And they still joke about the socks, which was always one of the eight. As for food – they also got gelt, same awful chocolate, same mesh bags.

 Has your Chanukah changed since you became a chef and author?

Significantly. As I read more and more about Chanukah in order to prepare for my food articles, I learned about the historical events that preceded our celebration. More to the point, not only did I understand the Maccabee victory and what it meant for the future of the Jewish people, but I learned about the part that Judith played. Judith was a brave widow who lived in the town of Bethulia in Judea in the second century BCE. Who knows what the outcome would have been if Judith hadn’t dined with Holofernes, a general in the enemy’s army? She made him eat plates and plates of salty cheese, which got him thirsty and so he drank lots of wine and fell asleep, whereupon she decapitated him! When they learned their general was dead, the Greek army was confused and broken, allowing the Jews to launch their victorious attack.

I have two daughters and it was important for me to tell them about a woman’s role in the victory. I retold the story every year and made sure that we had a cheese-oriented meal, in honor of Judith. Now I have three grand daughters and we still follow that tradition. Some say Shavuot is the cheese holiday, but for us, it’s Chanukah. 

What is Chanukah like with the Fein family?

Our family is kind of tribal! We get together for every major holiday. My children and grand children sleep over, the kids play together and we eat lots of good food. I make fresh, hot, crispy latkes every year, no matter what else I cook. Cheese latkes and potato latkes and sometimes a new variety (last year it was sweet potato latkes with dried cranberries). For Chanukah we line the kids’ presents up on our hearth and on top of the pile we put that old classic, a mesh bag filled with chocolate Chanukah gelt. This year it will be a little different. I wrote an article for the Jewish Week on “gourmet gelt” – upscale chocolate coins. When our family got together for Thanksgiving, the older kids saw the boxes in my cabinet and were curious. They said they are expecting the “good” chocolate gelt this year!

Are you eating different foods for Chanukah now than you did in the past? What are they?

Most definitely. My parents didn’t know that Chanukah was originally a holiday on which people ate cheese. As a historical matter, centuries ago, the first latkes people ate to celebrate Chanukah were made with cheese. Unfortunately, many Jews in some of the northern countries such as Russia and Poland, were very poor and couldn’t afford cheese, so they made their latkes with potatoes. As Hillel says, “the rest is commentary.” Maybe not being able to buy cheese was not so unfortunate! Can you imagine life or Chanukah without potato latkes?!

In my growing up there were always potato latkes on Chanukah but these days I serve cheese dishes in addition so the event is one big dairy feast. Some of our favorite Chanukah foods are gougeres (cheese puffs), spinach pie, macaroni and cheese and Chocolate Cheesecake brownies

I serve old fashioned dairy sour cream with the latkes (although some prefer applesauce) but over the years I have also created some interesting dips to go with the latkes, including an interesting tangy one made with plain yogurt and lemongrass.

What are the top questions people ask you about baking for Chanukah? For other holidays?

 I always get questions about my challah, no matter what holiday and frankly, even when it isn’t a holiday. It’s a recipe I developed from my grandmother’s notes that had no real measurements and no instructions. I have to brag – it’s the best challah, the very best (it  is the only traditional recipe in my new book). One of the most poignant, touching moments of my life came this year when my daughter asked me to bake the challah for my grandson Zev’s bar mitzvah. I will treasure that request to my dying day.

Challah

I also get requests for rugelach, butter cookies and Grand Finale Cookies (in my book, Hip Kosher), which is a combination of chocolate chip and oatmeal-raisin cookies. These recipes are all available at www.ronniefein.com.

Finally: Latkes or sufganiot?

Ach, it’s not even close. Potato latkes.  Everything else is extra. I like sufganiot but fried potatoes? It’s my “what one food would you take to a desert island if you could only choose one” choice. Anyone who knows me knows I love modern food and have spent my life creating new recipes. But there is no food quite so delicious as potato latkes (and challah!).

Ronnie shared a few recipes with us – just reading them and looking at the pics will likely make you want to include them on your holiday menu:

Chanukah-Levivot-13 (Large)
Potato Latkes with Lemongrass Yogurt Dip

4 large peeled baking potatoes

1 large onion

3 tablespoons matzo meal, breadcrumbs or potato starch

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

vegetable oil for frying

Grate the potatoes and onion into a bowl or, if using a food processor, shred the potatoes and onion together. If you prefer latkes softer, after shredding, place the shreds back into the food processor and use the S-blade. Process the potatoes and onions to a fine consistency. Either squeeze the vegetables in a kitchen towel over a bowl or place the mixture in a rigid strainer set over a bowl and press the vegetables. In either case, wring or squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Place the vegetables in a large bowl. Add the matzo meal or breadcrumbs or use the solid potato starch that remains at the bottom of the bowl containing the squeezed liquid. Stir in the eggs, salt, pepper and baking powder. Heat about 1/4” vegetable oil in a cast iron or other heavy heat retaining skillet over moderately high heat. Drop some of the potato mixture into the pan, using equal amounts to make each pancake. Fry for 2-3 minutes per side or until the pancakes are golden brown and crispy. Drain on paper towels. Serve with dairy sour cream, nonfat plain yogurt, applesauce or Lemongrass-Yogurt Sauce (below) Makes 12-16

Zucchini-Pancakes-45 (Large)

Lemongrass-Yogurt Dip

1 cup plain Greek-style yogurt

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

1 scallion, finely chopped

2 teaspoons finely chopped lemongrass

1/2 teaspoon finely chopped chili pepper

1-1/2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon grated fresh lime peel

2 tablespoons lime juice

salt

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly to distribute them evenly. Let rest for 15 minutes before serving. Makes about one cup

 

Chocolate Cheesecake Brownies   Ronnie Fein Choc. Cheese cake

1 cup butter

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate

2-1/2 cups sugar

4 large eggs

1 cup all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt,

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 8-ounce package cream cheese

1 cup chopped nuts, optional

Lightly grease a 13”x9” baking pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter and chocolate together in a large saucepan set over low heat (or in the top part of a double boiler set over barely simmering water). When the butter and chocolate have melted, blend them and stir in 2 cups of the sugar and 3 of the eggs. Whisk ingredients thoroughly. Add the flour, salt, nuts (if used) and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and stir in the ingredients with a large wooden spoon. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 egg and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract until thoroughly blended. Spoon blobs of the cream cheese mixture on top of the chocolate batter. Cut through the cheese, making swirls in the chocolate mixture. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool. Cut into bars with a sharp knife dipped into hot water. Refrigerate. Makes 24-36 pieces

 

Ronnie Fein Herb and Cheese Gougeres

Herb and Cheese Gougeres (Choux Puffs)

 

1 cup minus 2 tablespoons water

1/4 pound unsalted butter, cut into chunks

1 cup all purpose flour, sifted

3/4 teaspoon salt

4 large eggs

1-1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh mixed herbs, or 1-1/2 teaspoons dried

1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese

pinch cayenne pepper

egg glaze: 1 large egg mixed with 2 teaspoons water, optional

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cook the water and butter in a saucepan over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the flour and salt all at once. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture is well blended and begins to come away from the sides of the pan. Remove pan from the heat and let the mixture cool for 2-3 minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time, blending well after each addition.* Add the herbs, cheese and cayenne pepper and blend them in thoroughly.

Butter and flour a baking sheet. Drop 3/4 to 1-inch mounds of dough from a teaspoon onto the sheet. Leave space between the mounds for the puffs to rise. For a shiny surface on the puffs, lightly brush the tops of the mounds with some of the egg wash. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until the puffs are lightly brown and crispy. Lower the heat to 300 degrees and bake for another 5-6 minutes. Turn off the heat but leave the puffs in the oven for 3-4 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature. Or cut them open and fill them. Makes about 60

*Incorporating the eggs is what most people find difficult. Be sure to add them one at a time. Use a sturdy wooden spoon to help you. The mixture will be sticky and at first you think it will never come together, but keep mixing and you’ll see that it does come together. After each egg is incorporated the mixture becomes softer and pastier and stickier. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

 

A Hanukkah Music Video Which Has (surprise!) Great Music

Many holiday music videos are fun to watch or have a great message. But the music? Sometimes mediocre. But Shtar, a Jewish hip hop band of Yanks and Brits in Israel has solved the problem. A holiday music video with terrific music.  Full disclosure – Shtar were clients of mine for a bit – which makes this video all the more a pleasure. Also….the band members (as well as the very talented video editor and director Brian Spector are all neighbors of mine (cool, no?).

Enjoy. It is a wonderful song and video.

 

Score! A Jerusalem Bookstore. A Jewel.

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A modest, somewhat misleading storefront

 

I know Jerusalem very well. When I see a store I can recall what was there before that store and the one before that. So discovering a great bookstore is rare. Almost a holiday. While I have been to The Book Gallery in Jerusalem before, I’d never entered far enough to realize that room after room of used books awaited me. I am unsure how this treasure eluded me but I don’t want to cry over book experiences missed when the future looks so bright.

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Upon entering, there is an understated invitation to visit downstairs

 

Wow. What a store. As one of the employees told me “We are like an iceberg. You only see the top but underneath there is so much to be seen.” True. Outside there are some tables and shelves with books selling at about $2.50 US. And upon entering, a modestly sized book store greets visitors (or so it seems). A quick look around and one could just be on their way. But take the steps downstairs and an underground expanse of books awaits.

Hebrew, English, French, Yiddish….it is all there. Every genre. History. Fiction. Zoology. Records. Posters. And the staff? When asked if they have a somewhat obscure title they answered almost as one “We don’t have that now”. OK. A bookstore with a staff that actually…well…knows books! Score.

Moshe Bar, owner of the store, sat dusting and repairing books while explaining that their website  offers tens of thousand of titles with delivery world wide. But if you are in Jerusalem, visit them at Schatz 6.

Prices were very reasonable for used books in good condition. And the music was great. More pics below. Visit. It is better than the pictures.

 

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The background music could have been playing from these records

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For The Season of Renewal: A Classic Text Revised

Gates of Repentance, new edition 3D

The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur period is always a time of focusing on books with ethical messages and guides to improvement.  The classic Shaarei Tshuvah: Gates of Repentance is probably a top choice for many to learn at this time. Written by Rabeinu Yonah and first published in 1505, this book is a pillar of  mussar (ethics) study and is used year round. For quite some time I have been planning to dedicate time to learning this book and Feldheim’s newly revised Shaarei Teshuvah: Gates of Repentance was the impetus to start.  There is a new English translation which makes the book as accessible as possible. I found it very helpful when confronting some of the (literally) medieval Hebrew. Footnotes appear often enough to inform and assist but not so often that they distract. I am grateful to have had this book over Rosh Hashanah. I smiled when I realized that the translator (Rabbi Yosef Leibler) and I belong to the same shul!

This book is a classic for a reason. It clearly lays out the importance of repentance as well as how to accomplish this task. In painstaking fashion, the various mitzvos and prohibitions of the Torah are categorized so that an understandable system is available to the reader. In fact, the whole book is structured with incredible precision, each category followed by sub-categories and more sub-categories.  It is sophisticated and rich in detail and wisdom.

The messages of the book are powerful, often way beyond what our generation is used to hearing. Yet, I think this book ought to play an important role in education today. A properly prepared Rebbe or teacher could use this book as a full curriculum. It would be wonderful if Feldheim could provide a study guide or lesson outline for educators to accompany this book. Despite being over 500 years old, there is so much that a modern Jewish education system can glean from this work. Feldheim should be thanked for the investment of time and resources to publish this completely revised edition. I hope that it will lead to this important book being used to a greater extent in schools and yeshivos.

This book belongs in every Jewish library – home or otherwise.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Best Reads for the High Holiday Season?

 

Photo: Karen Horton

Photo: Karen Horton

Books are dead? Not this year. I am always pleased to see an article like this one which appears in Jewish Action Magazine in advance of the High Holidays this year. A number of Jewish “movers & shakers” were asked what they read to prepare for this important season.  People like Allison Josephs, the innovative founder of Jew in the City, well known writer and public commentator Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and other respected and interesting Jewish thinkers and educators shared their choice books for holiday inspiration and growth. Their selections will be helpful to many but either way this sort of article is an important vote of confidence and reminder of just how relevant and important books are.

A Jewish Werewolf – Unorthodox Fiction from an Orthodox Jewish Author

Possible book cover photo

Wolves are “in”. Werewolves seem to be even more “in”. A few years ago someone approached me with a book about Jewish vampires and I wasn’t sure there would be readers for it. By the time Ira Berkowitz called me about his book A Wolf in the Soul, I knew it was time. This theme seemed to be popping up everywhere I looked and I thought his book was really good.  I have heard many readers (especially younger ones) complain that they don’t connect with fiction written for Orthodox Jews. Wolf in the Soul was not written for Orthodox Jews – yet it is something that many will feel is “kosher” and doesn’t offend their sensibilities or values. Yet, it is out of the box. It is definitely not “same old, same old”. The reviews have been great. And you read more of them here, here and here. It has been fun to work with Ira on getting his book published as well as seeing how much readers enjoy it. The following interview with Ira ought to help readers know him better. Enjoy!

Why did you undertake the huge task of writing fiction?

Shortly before I undertook writing this novel, I was dying to be an actor. I talked about acting, read about acting, took acting classes, and even prayed to God that I’d fulfill my dream of being an actor.

But it was nearly impossible to be an actor, both because I’m an Orthodox Jew and because my dream meant too much to me. Acting was too daunting to undertake! But writing, which I knew I could do, didn’t intimidate me so much. So I put my creative energy into that instead.

 Your book is not typical of what is seen as “Orthodox Jewish Fiction” – do you see your book as part of that genre?

In a word, no. Orthodox Jewish fiction is meant exclusively for Orthodox readers. It assumes a common background and common values. My book doesn’t assume either. So while Orthodox Jews (albeit somewhat daring ones) can enjoy my book, so can other types of Jews and  non-Jews. In fact, three non-Jewish readers told me personally that they liked the book.

How much of the book is biographical?

Okay, I’m going to state this for the record: I did not become a werewolf when I was a freshman at Columbia!

I was a senior in high school when it happened.

In all seriousness, I can say that–not surprisingly–some of the book is autobiographical and some of it isn’t. Like Greg Samstag, the main character, I did grow up on Long Island, and I did attend a modern Orthodox yeshiva, and I did attend Columbia University.

But my family was Orthodox, unlike Greg’s. And my parents were very close to each other, unlike Greg’s parents.

Which details of Greg’s life correspond to my life? I’m not telling!

You write detailed descriptions of what a wolf senses, feels and does. How did you learn about this? What sort of research did you do?

At the age of 10 or 11, I became interested in wolves. A teacher of mine, named Mrs. Fox (no, I’m not making this up), gave me an LP narrated by the actor Robert Redford that gave a glimpse into wolf behavior and provided some great recordings of wolf howls. I loved it. In my 20’s, I read books and articles by Barry Lopez, L. David Mech, and others. In preparation for this book, I did even more reading and studied videos of wolves. It became something of an obsession.

Cover

How did you know how to craft the dialogue and banter between the characters in your book – so much of it is specific to certain age groups, etc?

I’m flattered by the question. Really, I just try to imagine how a particular character would speak. It takes more work, though, imagining the dialogue of female characters.

And working with a good editor certainly helps if you’ve struck a wrong note! Deborah Meghnagi Bailey‘s advice was invaluable.

What tips do you have for someone who is interested in writing fiction?

Okay, a few tips. But I’m not a veteran writer.

1) Writing an outline for a novel is a good idea. Even if you veer from the outline, you’ll still feel more secure if you have one. Also, sketching interiors is a good idea. You don’t want to put the stove on one side of the kitchen on page 14 and then end up putting it on the other side of the kitchen on page 237.

2) For Heaven’s sakes, write notes for yourself. If you try to keep all your ideas in your head, you’ll literally give yourself a headache. I wrote notes on two small whiteboards in my study. They saved my sanity.

3) Say a psalm or two and give a coin to charity before you start a writing session. Ask God for help.

4) I learned this one from Joseph Kaufman: Every part of your book should be as good as every other part. If you think one section is a little weak, you’ve got a problem.

5) If something sounds awkward, it is.

6) Take care of tiny details that no one else would notice.

7) No matter how hard you work, the book is not going to be perfect. You have to accept that.

8) Writing a book is not an impossible job, nor is it an exalted calling. Don’t idolize some famous authors, and in the process, disqualify your own work.

9) Write the kind of book that you yourself would like to read.

That’s it!

 

 

Self Publishing a Kid’s Book: From Dream to Reality

Dirty Tzitzit front book cover

Tsivya Fox is one of those people who “did it”. She dreamed of writing a book and well, wrote one and published it. While so many people dream of publishing a book, Tsivya took the plunge and went through all the steps of publishing. Her book Dirty Tzitzit, Shiny Neshama is really attractive with colorful illustrations which are upbeat and quite detailed. I can attest to the fact that kids love the book!  I asked Tsivya to share some of her experience here.  What do you think? For those who have published, how is her experience similar or different to yours? For those dreaming of publishing, does Tsivya’s journey make you want to take the next step?

What is the story behind this book and why did you write it?

My friend and I were chatting after he had a long day doing some messy volunteer work for someone.  During our conversation he said, “WOW, I have dirty tzitzit and a grimy kippa.”  I immediately said, “That’s a great name for a children’s book!” and, thus, the book was born.

What surprised you about the whole process?

The whole process took about a year of loving labor. The basic story was written relatively quickly. When I am inspired, the words flow.  However, once the story was on paper, I spent a lot of time perfecting the word usage and story line. I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “This word is better than that word, etc.”  Then, I sent the story to several friends who provided additional helpful input.

I hired a freelance illustrator who did an amazing  job with the illustrations.  They are very beautiful, loving and happy.  However, making sure that each picture reflected accurately the story as well as wanting the book to be universally accepted by all groups of people was also very time consuming – though totally enjoyable for me.

How did you price the book?

I researched the current prices of Jewish kid’s books so that my book would be in the “ball park” price wise.

What would you do differently now that you are a veteran of writing and publishing your own book?

For financial reasons, I did the first printing of the book as a paperback.  Several book stores and some parents said that they would only take a hard cover.

What were the most effective ways of promoting your book? What worked? What didn’t?

Jewish themed children’s books do not sell themselves.  When I participate in artisan sales, Pre-Chanukah and Pre-Pesach sales, the book sells well.  I found that random advertising doesn’t do too well.  However, the personal presentation shows people how great this book is. Once people read the story, see the colorful pictures, and get the happy reaction from children, they come back to buy more books for friends and family.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Everybody seems to love this book. People stop me on the street to tell me that their children, grandchildren, or students keep asking to hear the story again and again.  I am very grateful to have provided a book which sends a message of kindness, judging favorably, and warmth between parent and child to home and school libraries.

How can someone get the book?

Outside of Israel, the book may be ordered through Amazon.com here. In Israel, the book may be ordered directly from me by e-mail.

 

Social Media is Hand-selling!

 

inside-bookstore-with-customer

Today, I was speaking to a web guy discussing how to get a blog up onto the site of a new and growing Jewish publisher.  We were talking about how helpful a blog is for sharing material with people.  The web guy described how he has been setting up more stores on Facebook lately.  I asked if people actually shop that way and he said “Probably not too much. But it puts the images in front of people, they start thinking about what we are selling and then down the line they often do buy.”  I knew the answer before I asked but, I still always ask.  As he spoke about how social media is often just getting people aware and interested in something for a later purchase, I had a “eureka” moment and I thought “social media is hand-selling”. I’d never connected the two so clearly.

A little explanation is in order. When I started working in the publishing world, a big part of how we promoted books was by getting the staff of bookstores knowledgeable and excited about our books. We sent them covers and then when there were advance reader copies ready, we sent those. And finally, when the book was published, we often sent them copies of those as well. We even visited the stores and met the people (I know, hard to believe, no email, no online chat but a real live encounter with another book person!) We schmoozed about the book, we told them about the plot, the author, who might read it and why we loved it. And then we hoped they’d read the book and feel the same as we did because if so, they’d share it with their customers. And this led to book sales. It still does.  It was (and still is) a process that sells books. And social media today is a new version of  hand-selling.

We share book reviews on social media. We quote them. Others share them. Readers talk about books they read. Others react. And so on. And all of this leads to books being sold and read. And that is a good thing.

Holocaust Memorial Day. Books and Memory. Which Book Impacted You the Most?

War Against the Jews cover

Holocaust Memorial Day or “Yom Hashoah” will be commemorated in Israel and much of the Jewish world beginning Sunday evening, April 27, a siren will pierce the air across Israel for a few moments of silence, prayers will be recited, ceremonies will be held. As the years go on and the generation of survivors leave us, the commemoration is less raw but maybe even more important.

I knew about the Holocaust from a very young age. I was aware that my family had lost 119 members to the Nazis (on my Mother’s side) and survivors were people one could meet regularly. There was always someone to hear stories from – a friend’s parent, or grandparent, a guest speaker at school.

Despite my familiarity with so much of the Holocaust, it was a book which changed my perspective. Reading The War Against the Jews by Lucy Dawidowicz while in college was the point where I was hit with how unbelievably horrible the Holocaust was (as much as I could really understand that 40 years later).  Dawidowicz’s  descriptions of mass murder, torture and destruction left me speechless and often in total despair or filled with fierce, hot anger.  I recall being almost unable to contain the knowledge and pain. Her book impacted me greatly.  I sometimes found it almost impossible to read but I was driven to finish it. I think it is a “must read” book about the Holocaust.

There are many ways to confront the Holocaust: hearing from survivors, films and of course, the popular visits to Eastern Europe.  Books continue to play an important role in documenting and remembering the holocaust. Over the past few years I have worked on the publicity of a number of Holocaust memoirs which seems to be part of a rush to get memories documented before it is too late. Pointing out one book over another feels unfair but I think it is better to mention a few titles rather than none at all. One of the strongest books I have read in years was A World after This by Lola Liebler. The author tells of the unraveling of her middle class life under the boots of the Nazis while honestly sharing her doubts and personal flaws as she experienced them. The recent Sori’s Story was also valuable as it showed how a normal life could be turned upside down overnight for an average Jewish child and her family. I am currently honored to be working on the new Running from Giants which is a memoir  about an 8 year old boy’s survival of the war – written by his granddaughter. Filled with illustrations and sharp prose, it is a worthy new addition to the literature.

What book about the Holocaust has impacted you the most?