Home > NewsRelease > Navigating Legacy and Literature: Ben Gonshor's Reflections on "The Book of Izzy" and Yiddish Culture
Navigating Legacy and Literature: Ben Gonshor's Reflections on "The Book of Izzy" and Yiddish Culture
Norm Goldman --  BookPleasures.com Norm Goldman -- BookPleasures.com
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Montreal, Quebec
Friday, June 14, 2024


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Meet Ben Gonshor, amultifaceted talent whose creative prowess spans writing, acting,music, and entrepreneurship.

As a cherished member ofThe Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre in Montreal, Ben has graced thestage in iconic productions such as "The Dybbuk" and theoriginal musical adaptation of Ted Allan’s acclaimed film, "LiesMy Father Told Me." Notably, his play "When Blood Ran Red"garnered prestigious recognition, winning the David and Clare RosenMemorial International Play Contest at the National Yiddish Theatrein New York. Amidst his artistic endeavors, Ben also leads FLUIDS iQ,a pioneering wellness laboratory in Canada.

Join us as we exploreBen's recent novel, “The Book of Izzy.”

Can you tell us more aboutthe inspiration behind "The Book of Izzy"? What led you toexplore the themes of mental health, creative struggle, and Jewishidentity in this novel?

Ben: The main inspirationbehind The Book of Izzy derived from the fact that for many yearspeople who knew me as a writer and my family background – Holocaustsurvivors, very involved in the Yiddish cultural world, YiddishTheatre specifically as well as Jewish musical entertainment - saidthat I should write a memoir or a family history. 

As a dramatist,neither of these interested me but the notion of memorializing myhistory in one fashion or another did interest me. So in time, afterthinking about ways in which I could do this I settled on a novel, ifonly because it seemed the most appropriate medium to explore thevarious themes I felt needed looking into. 

Indeed, the confluence ofthe mental health piece with the creative struggle and Jewishidentity have mostly to do with the realities I was confrontingduring the time that I was writing the manuscript. It was in the formof a novel that I felt I could weave them all together coherently andwith a breadth of scope that the medium allows.

Norm: As a playwright andactor, why did you choose to transform "The Book of Izzy"into a novel rather than keeping it as a play? How did this shift informat influence the storytelling process?

Ben: First and foremost,at the time that I was conceiving of how to best approach the topic,I was coming from a position of no longer wanting to rely on externalfactors to get my work produced. 

Meaning that if I wrote a theatricalplay or a screenplay I would invariably require a theatre orproduction company to want to take on the project…and I had hadenough of a history of not getting projects produced. 

I thereforepromised myself that I would choose a format that would at the veryleast allow me to be in control of the project’s destiny. 

I hadthis mantra that no matter what, if I wrote a novel I could alwaysself-publish. Not that that was the goal, of course. But I wascomfortable with the idea that at the end of the day the projectwould see the light of day no matter what. 

Once I chose the platformof the novel, and to tell it from the perspective of the first-personnarrator, I felt that it provided me a freedom of expression that Idon’t think a theatrical play or screenplay would have afforded me,if only due to the technical constraints of those two mediums. 

Thereis a much more rigid economy of language that those two mediumsrequire by their nature that the novel is not quite as constrainedby. 

Norm: Your involvement inYiddish theatre is evident in "The Book of Izzy." Can youspeak to the significance of preserving Yiddish language and culture,especially in the context of post-Holocaust Jewish identity?

Ben: I’m firstgeneration North American. My first language was Yiddish. A rarity.From the earliest I can remember I was keenly aware of what was lostin the Holocaust and the need, the rush almost, to preserve what wasleft. 

It probably informs my lifelong involvement in the DoraWasserman Yiddish Theatre company in Montreal. Moreover, somethingthat has begun to crystallize for me as I’ve thought about thisproject and why I took all the years that I did to make it happen, isthat I felt that I had no choice. 

I’ve known, if onlysubconsciously, that as I was seeing the last generations with adirect connection to the world before the Holocaust pass away, Ineeded to say my goodbyes in a way that acknowledges who they wereand the place they occupied in history. And maybe the novel was a wayof saying goodbye and to have it preserved for posterity in writing. 

Norm: Izzy faces numerouschallenges throughout the novel, including failed relationships and afaltering career. How did you approach writing about these struggles,and what message do you hope readers will take away from Izzy'sjourney?

Ben: I think one of thescary things as an artist, maybe even just as a human being, isallowing yourself to be vulnerable and exposed. 

Certainly in writingthe novel and the character of Izzy specifically, I knew that I hadto infuse him with a truth that was both authentic and dramatic. 

Idrew on personal experience, but in order to make Izzy an engagingdramatic character I of course had to take those personal experiencesand heighten them in order to make him as interesting as he couldpossibly be.

I hope I’ve succeeded where that’s concerned andthat readers experiencing Izzy’s story – his ups and downs, hisvulnerability - will not only find him entertaining but will perhapssee a bit of themselves in him and his experiences and agree thatlife is about the challenges we face and our struggle to overcomethem as best we can. 

Norm: The novel has beencompared to works by Philip Roth and likened to "Fleishman Is inTrouble." How do you feel your novel fits within the landscapeof contemporary literary fiction, and what sets "The Book ofIzzy" apart?

Ben: It’s humbling to becompared to Roth and to recognized contemporary fiction like“Fleishman.” I don’t know that I’m qualified as to where toplace the novel within the contemporary literary landscape. I leavethat to the experts. 

As to what I think sets it apart, I wouldventure to say that my choice of highlighting Izzy’s Yiddishbackground both thematically and stylistically in the manuscript issomething that not many authors choose to do these days, though I’mby no means the only one. 

Similarly, to my knowledge, the spotlightI’ve shined on the Yiddish Theatre hasn’t been given the samekind of platform in fiction like I’ve tried to do in the novel. Butdon’t quote me because I’ll no doubt be proven wrong ?

Norm: "The Dybbuk"plays a crucial role in Izzy's life, both as a theatrical productionand as a cultural touchstone. How did you weave elements of Jewishtheatre and heritage into the narrative, and what significance does"The Dybbuk" hold for Izzy?

Ben: I’ll start myanswer with the end of your question. I think for Izzy it begins andends with The Dybbuk. It is without a doubt the greatest play in thecanon of Yiddish theatre and Izzy knows this to his core. 

So when heis confronted with the fact that a production of the play is going totake place and he’s been asked to play the lead role he has a verydifficult time saying no, if only because in his heart he reallywants to see how it’s going to turn out. 

But I also think he wantsto be a part of it because the play, as the apotheosis of all thatYiddish attained it, allows Izzy to touch a part of himself that liesdormant. I’ll let readers discover what happens to Izzy and how thenarrative unfolds when he agrees to take part in the play and allthat transpires as a result. It’s quite mystical and otherworldly,like the play itself. 

Norm: The mysterious birdthat visits Izzy adds a fantastical element to the story. Whatinspired the inclusion of this supernatural element, and how does itcontribute to the novel's themes?

Ben: Again, I don’t wantto give too much away to the reader but the conceit of the bird is amechanism I played with to represent a number of themes that Iexplore in the novel.  

Readers will come to uncover what thebird represents both literally and figuratively, but I will say thatthe bird represents one of the foundational reasons I chose to writethe story in the first place and that has to do with legacy, historyand memory and is tied closely to Yiddish folklore. 

The use of thebird is also a device that helped me deal with the mental healthpiece that I explore in the book and I hope that I used itsuccessfully.

Norm: "The Book ofIzzy" incorporates Yiddish words and phrases. How did youbalance authenticity with accessibility for readers who may not befamiliar with Jewish culture or language?

Ben: Well, the truth isthat I used a glossary of Yiddish words and phrases that are usedthroughout the manuscript. Which is not an unusual approach and Ihope that answers the accessibility piece. 

But you’re right, Iwanted an element of authenticity and for that reason I let Izzyspeak in a language that was more familiar to him and that meantusing Yiddish words and turns of phrase.

I hope that by combiningboth the authentic language and the accessibility mechanism of theglossary presents a comfortable balance for the reader that hopefullydoesn’t take them out of the narrative too much.

Norm: Izzy's journeyinvolves rediscovering his Jewish identity. How do you see thisexploration of heritage intersecting with the broader themes of thenovel, such as creativity and self-discovery?

Ben: I may disagree withyou slightly there. Izzy doesn’t rediscover his Jewish identity somuch as he’s confronted with the fact that Jewish identity in thenarrative is being expressed by other individuals in ways that makehim confront his own preconceptions and biases. That is one of thebroader themes of the novel you speak of; new, creative ways ofexploring Jewish identify that Izzy interacts with and asks himselfwhether he can be comfortable with it. 

Norm: Family plays asignificant role in Izzy's life, particularly in their concern forhis well-being. Can you discuss the dynamics of Izzy's relationshipswith his family members and how they influence his decisionsthroughout the novel?

Ben: One of the nicethings I discovered about Izzy’s character and his world is thathe’s incredibly close with his mother. I was glad to uncover that. 

They share a journey of mental health that they’re extremely openabout with one another and it’s quite beautiful, I think. 

They’reeach other’s home. I would say that because of this, Izzy is keenlyaware of how his life decisions could impact his mother. In otherinstances of family, Izzy has a confrontational relationship withthose who don’t have as much of an appreciation, indeed asensitivity, for what he struggles with from the mental health pieceand as an artist as well, a writer. 

To that extent, Izzy’sinteractions with his family members are representative of what we asindividuals go through in life both in general and in more intimate,private instances when we interact with those near and dear to us.  

Norm: Your experienceswith anxiety, depression, and psychotropic medications are aprominent aspect of "The Book of Izzy." Could you discussthe importance of addressing mental health issues in literature,particularly through your own narrative?

Ben: I’m really excitedto be living at a time when we’re breaking down the barriers todiscussion of mental health. My adding the mental health piece as oneof the layers to The Book of Izzy is, I hope, my contribution to theongoing discussion that we’re having more and more in society. 

While I could have added my voice to the many who are speaking out invarious media including non fiction writing, my choice was to do itwithin the context of literary fiction, in the form of a protagonistfacing a mental health journey. To the extent that I succeeded orotherwise I will leave to the reader to judge.  

Norm: As we end ourinterview, in what ways do you believe "The Book of Izzy"can bridge the gap between younger Jewish generations and classicYiddish theatre? How does it contribute to the preservation of yourheritage?

Ben: One of the challengeswe face in transmitting Yiddish culture in general and Yiddishtheatre in particular to future generations is one of language.Specifically, if you do not speak Yiddish, you can’t access themajority of Yiddish culture. 

The sad reality with Yiddish is thatmost native speakers perished in the Holocaust and the remnants whosurvived simply struggled to keep the language going. So if you’renew to Yiddish, unless you have a commitment to learn the languagethe door to that world is simply closed. It’s sad but true. 

To theextent that in some way, however small, "The Book of Izzy," written inEnglish but dealing with Yiddish culture in general and Yiddishtheatre in particular, can inspire its readers to want to explorethem further, then I’ve succeeded.

Norm: Thanks once again and goodluck with all of your future endeavors.

 Norm Goldman of Bookpleasures.com

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