Austin Rat­ner, 2011 Sami Rohr Prize Win­ner and author of The Jump Artist, shares his remarks from the 2011 Sami Rohr Priza Gala.

George Rohr (L) and Austin Ratner ®

82 years ago Philippe Hals­man wrote a let­ter to his girl­friend Ruth Romer from his prison cell in Inns­bruck, Austria.

He wrote: Tell me Ruth have you ever dreamt you were flying?”

And I want to say a few words about flying.

Every­one dreams of fly­ing, at least occa­sion­al­ly, don’t they? I had a recur­rent dream as a child that by assum­ing a cer­tain posi­tion, I could sneak my feet off the ground with­out rest­ing my hands any­where, achiev­ing lev­i­ta­tion as it were by catch­ing grav­i­ty unawares.

Such a dream is a con­crete expres­sion of a wish –the wish to defy the inex­orable laws of the uni­verse, such as grav­i­ty, which claims the dead as they fall and holds them to the earth, nev­er to rise again.

The wish to rise up, and its pred­i­cate – a sense of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, and a dread of extinc­tion –these feel­ings per­vade Jew­ish his­to­ry and Jew­ish storytelling.

There is the winged ser­aph of the Book of Isa­iah and oth­er angels aloft with the pow­er of an almighty God.

There is the bib­li­cal theme of aliyah, ascent, to the land of Israel as an elu­sive ide­al, a sort of heav­en on earth pro­tect­ed by god from mur­der­ous ene­mies, from drought, dis­ease, and famine – a deliv­er­ance from death.

Even Super­man is Jew­ish. (He’s also from Cleve­land.) In 1932 a Jew­ish man from Cleve­land named Mitchell Siegel died in a rob­bery of his cloth­ing store. The next year his son Jer­ry, and a friend Joe Shus­ter, cre­at­ed the Super­man sto­ry in an evi­dent attempt to make sense of this trag­ic event.

Super­man him­self is an orphan, but with­out Jer­ry Siegel and his father’s earth­bound vulnerabilities.

Philippe Halsman’s life sto­ry is almost as par­a­dig­mat­ic. But his sto­ry, while as trag­ic and roman­tic as Superman’s, is also real.

His father fell, and he arose. The Nazi doc­tor Karl Meixn­er pho­tographed his father’s corpse and years lat­er Hals­man pho­tographed Judge Learned Hand, at age 87, jump­ing in the air, float­ing in the plas­ma of sus­pend­ed time that is a photograph.

He went to prison and was freed by the French min­is­ter of avi­a­tion, Paul Painlevé, a for­mer Drey­fusard and one of the first pas­sen­gers of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

The fact is, as of 108 years ago, peo­ple can tru­ly fly. Human beings real­ized that long­stand­ing dream, among many oth­ers, through exper­i­ment, strug­gle, error, and persistence.

It isn’t the super­heroic flight of lev­i­tat­ing at will. It’s flight bur­dened with the com­plex­i­ties of real­i­ty – such as ter­ri­fy­ing­ly loud toi­lets and the unlike­ly event of a water land­ing – but it’s flight nev­er­the­less, up in the clouds.

The sto­ry of the found­ing of Israel is so com­pelling because it is an improb­a­ble, roman­tic dream made into a real­i­ty, how­ev­er fraught with com­plex­i­ty that real­i­ty may be.

In a small­er way, the Rohr prize echoes that notion of Theodor Herzl’s: If you will it, it is no dream.”

Writ­ers spell out dreams and visions on the page, of course. Theodor Her­zl was a writer – for the same Vien­na news­pa­per in which Sig­mund Freud defend­ed Philippe Hals­man, one notes – and so was Super­man – his day job was as a beat reporter for the Dai­ly Plan­et. That’s right. Super­man was a Jew­ish writer from Cleve­land. And don’t for­get it.

And though an artist doesn’t intend his cre­ations to walk the earth, he does hope to cre­ate an object of beau­ty and mean­ing in the real world – a real world that’s often harsh and indif­fer­ent toward its artists.

As the char­ac­ter Lousteau says of the life of a nov­el­ist in Balzac’s Lost Illu­sions:

You will have ruined your life and your stom­ach to give life to this cre­ation, and you will be libeled, betrayed, sold, con­signed by jour­nal­ists to the lagoons of obliv­ion, buried by your best friends.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, Gus­tave Flaubert remarked dur­ing the com­po­si­tion of Madame Bovary:

I am lead­ing an aus­tere life, stripped of all exter­nal plea­sure, and am sus­tained only by a kind of per­ma­nent fren­zy, which some­times makes me weep tears of impo­tence but nev­er abates. I love my work with a love that is fran­tic and per­vert­ed, as an ascetic loves the hair shirt that scratch­es his belly.”

And the reward for all that sac­ri­fice may be noth­ing in a soci­ety that, accord­ing to Flaubert, has the fol­low­ing atti­tude to great literature:

It knows that [the clas­sics] exist, would be sor­ry if they didn’t, real­izes that they serve some vague pur­pose, but makes no use of them and finds them very boring.”


Sana Krasikov (L) and Austin Ratner ®

For a writer, each sto­ry, each book, each sub­mis­sion, is a zep­pelin full of hope, many of which are doomed to descend in flames.

This prize not only keeps aloft writ­ers’ hopes, but helps defend a place on earth for the exis­tence of art. Physics doesn’t favor the arts, but the Rohr fam­i­ly does.

I don’t pre­tend that my fel­low nom­i­nees are unde­serv­ing of this prize, or that I’m the only one who might have won it. I con­grat­u­late them whole-heart­ed­ly and at the same time I hope they won’t begrudge me the right to cel­e­brate today.

Mak­ing this book a real­i­ty was for me an exis­ten­tial strug­gle that seemed at many points as if it would end in despair – with years of my life wast­ed by labor over a book that nobody cared to read. Yet I persisted.

And after all that, this prize is so redeem­ing of the strug­gle. It makes me feel that deep sat­is­fac­tion of mak­ing a good and lofty dream come true in real­i­ty, against all odds. It makes me feel myself like Philippe Hals­man, the Jump Artist.

Win­ner Austin Rat­ner (The Jump Artist) Celebrates

Austin Rat­ner is the author of The Jump Artist. Read more by Austin on the JBC/MJL Author Blog series here and read a mini-essay he wrote on Mark Helprin’s Ellis Island here.

Austin Rat­ner is author of the nov­els In the Land of the Liv­ing and The Jump Artist, win­ner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture, and the non-fic­tion book The Psychoanalyst’s Aver­sion to Proof. He is an M.D., stud­ied at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, and he teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Sack­ett Street Writ­ers’ Work­shop in New York.