Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
So far, we’ve heard our Sami Rohr Prize finalists discuss high school, future grandchildren, writing thank you notes, and archival research. Today we hear from Nina S. Spiegel, whose first book, Embodying Hebrew Culture: Aesthetics, Athletics, and Dance in the Jewish Community of Mandate Palestine, was published in June by Wayne State University Press.
Embodying Hebrew Culture has been hailed by Yaron Peleg as “a clear, concise and comprehensive guide” to the major cultural innovations of early Zionism. Among the topics covered, the book explores the beauty competitions for Queen Esther and the first Maccabiah Games.
Below, Nina S. Spiegel discusses her background in dance, her interest in place and memory, and the importance of light to her writing:
What are some of the most challenging things about writing non-fiction?
One of the greatest challenges is finding the archival material. I was determined to uncover and portray a sense of the streets, stages, and stadiums in the Jewish community in Mandate Palestine in the 1920s through 1940s. This quest took me to a number of archives around Israel, from small local archives such as at Kibbutz Dalia, to large national collections such as the Jewish National and University Library, to a variety in between, such as the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive and the Dance Library of Israel. Many of these archives held only snippets of the story and I was often concerned I wouldn’t find enough materials to paint a detailed picture. In the end, searching for and piecing together different strands of the story is one of my favorite parts of the process. The moment when, after sifting through unrelated items, you find an unexpected document, poster, photo, or film that holds a key to the narrative makes the long hunt worthwhile!
What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?
I was inspired by the many creative dancers, athletes, and cultural producers who took it upon themselves to establish a new society. This was a very creative era. They viewed the city, the street, and the field as open studios in which to develop. And it has been such a privilege to give a voice to their previously untold stories. For example, I spent many hours with Yardena Cohen, the first prize winner of the National Dance Competition in Tel Aviv in 1937. At nearly 100 years old, she was still teaching dance and inspiring younger generations! Cohen died in 2012 and I will always cherish this time with her and the incredible insights she shared.
Who is your intended audience?
My goal is for the book to be accessible to a broad audience, for individuals with and without a background in Jewish or Israeli history. Because my work is interdisciplinary, my aim is for it to appeal to readers with varied interests.
Are you working on anything new right now?
I’m investigating the impact of place and memory on the Jewish experience, especially following the large migrations of Jews from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to places such as the United States, Palestine, and Argentina. One question, in particular, has long intrigued me: given that these Jews shared a common cultural base, how did they come to develop such distinct cultures and such different relationships to the Eastern European Jewish past? There are clues to be found by looking anew at a diversity of experiences such as the Yiddish tangos in Buenos Aires, the delis on New York’s Lower East Side, and the Israeli hora.
What are you reading now?
I’m revisiting The Plough Woman: Records of the Pioneer Women of Palestine. I’m also reading Twyla Tharp’s, The Creative Habit.
Five books you love to recommend
It’s a tough call! Here are a few:
- Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition
- Amir Guttfreund, Our Holocaust
- Naomi M. Jackson, Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y
- Joelle Bahloul, The Architecture of Memory: A Jewish-Muslim Household in Colonial Algeria, 1937 – 1962
- Carmit Delman, Burnt Bread and Chutney: Growing Up Between Cultures – A Memoir of an Indian Jewish Childhood
When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?
My writing emerged in dialogue with a variety of experiences including teaching, dancing, and curating. I grew up dancing — during my undergraduate years I choreographed and performed in a student-run dance company. Before becoming a professor, I was a museum curator. For me, these experiences all complement each other and have moved me to think about different audiences and different approaches to framing and presenting a story.
What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?
I am so honored to be selected as a Sami Rohr Prize finalist and moved that the inspiring stories of the many creative dancers, athletes, and cultural producers are being recognized in this way. When I first began this book, there was very little work being done on Israeli culture and I was continuously told along the way that these topics were irrelevant. The acknowledgement of dance and public culture as valuable and as important avenues of understanding Jewish and Israeli society is immensely rewarding.
The most important thing for me is my surroundings: a quiet space with lots of light. I had just moved to Portland when I was completing some of the final stages of the book and sat perched on the floor with moving boxes serving as a desk (not something I recommend long term!). But as long as I was near windows with good light, all was well.
What do you want readers to get out of your book?
My goal is for readers to walk away with a deeper understanding of Israeli culture and society and an appreciation for the creativity and complexity of its formation. I also hope readers will enjoy hearing new voices and will gain an appreciation for the value of examining the physical and performing arts arenas.
Nina S. Spiegel is the Rabbi Joshua Stampfer Assistant Professor of Israel Studies at Portland State University. She holds a BA from Brown University and a PhD in history from Stanford University. Her first book, Embodying Hebrew Culture: Aesthetics, Athletics, and Dance in the Jewish Community of Mandate Palestine, was published by Wayne State University Press in June 2013. Her articles have appeared in publications such as Jewish Cultural Studies, Jewish Folklore and Ethnology Review, and Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice. Spiegel has conducted curatorial work at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. She has also served on the Board of Directors of the Congress on Research in Dance.
Originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Naomi is the executive director of Jewish Book Council. She graduated from Emory University with degrees in English and Art History and, in addition, studied at University College London. Prior to her role as executive director, Naomi served as the founding editor of the JBC website and blog and managing editor of Jewish Book World. In addition, she has overseen JBC’s digital initiatives, and also developed the JBC’s Visiting Scribe series and Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation.