Jon Papernick – Writing Through the Storm

7 min read
Picture of Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher
Jon Papernick – Writing Through the Storm

Jon Papernick is not a writer who shies away from strong currents. From growing up in the Reform movement in Toronto to working in Israel during one of the state’s most turbulent years, Papernick was never afraid to dive deep. His emotionally charged stories revolve around Jewish identity, extremism, politics, and relationships. Besides being a novelist and Assistant Professor at Emerson College in Boston, he also happens to be one of our beloved students.

Jon, Let’s start at the beginning: what was it like to grow up in Toronto, Canada?

I grew up at a reform synagogue called “Holy Blossom,” a major synagogue in the Reform movement. My childhood rabbi wrote the Plaut commentaries which is kind of a big deal in the Reform world. I went to a Hebrew day school in first grade and basically failed the Hebrew part. The Israeli teacher used to smash rulers on the desk, and one day, I asked her if I could go to the bathroom. She asked me to say it in Hebrew, and I couldn’t say it properly, so I ended up peeing in my pants. It was that kind of school.

Oh god, I’m sorry. 

Yes, so I was really kind of against learning Hebrew. I learned a little bit for my Bar Mitzvah in the basement of a 90-ish-year-old Rabbi from Europe who had probably experienced things I could never imagine. I grew up not being super proud of being Jewish, feeling a little sense of denial. I knew that people hated Jews, and I didn’t think that people should hate me for something I didn’t believe in. But when I was 22 years old, I had a girlfriend suddenly broke up with me, and I was extremely distraught. A close friend was living in Kibbutz Shoval, and I remember thinking to myself, “I’m going to Israel”. I ended up staying seven months in Israel, volunteering through the “SAR-EL” organization, taking an Ulpan at the Hebrew University, and learning some more Hebrew in Kibbutz Givat Oz, where I milked cows. I knew enough Hebrew to get myself into trouble but not much more. And that is where my Hebrew stayed until October 2022, when I started taking classes at Citizen Café.

Could you tell me more about the time you’ve spent in Israel?

I spent a year in Israel in the 90’s, arriving in Israel a day after the prime minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated. I was there to be an intern reporter. It turned out that I had no idea how to be a reporter, but it was one of the most interesting years of my life. I got to cover the first Palestinian elections, I attended many demonstrations, and I even met Yasser Arafat. Basically, I was taking in so many events and conversations that would later on feed into my fiction. In 2002, I published my first book, The Ascent of Eli Israel, which is a collection of seven short stories set in Jerusalem after the collapse of the Oslo Peace Accords. Even after 22 years, I think the book, in many ways still speaks to the moment we are living in now. I would describe the stories alternately as political nightmares or religious comedies.

The Ascent of Eli Israel by Jonathan Papernick

What is your writing process like? Are there certain topics or themes that you are usually drawn to?

I was always fascinated with extremism. There was a fair amount of it in my first book, but I’ve come back to extremism again and again, including with the work I’m writing now. I wrote my thriller novel The Book of Stone (2015), which I actually started writing in the year 2000, and used a lot of the leftover material and ideas from my first collection of stories. When I lived in Jerusalem, I would frequently meet people and interview them: Ultra-Orthodox Jews, a doctor who specialized in “Jerusalem syndrome”, and even the mayor Teddy Kollek. I met with the author David Grossman, who was an absolute gentleman. I actually got lucky when I wrote my first book because I wrote it entirely without the Internet, relying on interviews, books, and newspaper articles.

How does your Jewish identity come into play in your writing? 

Pretty much all of my writing, except for a few super NSFW short stories, is Jewish-themed. I used to joke that my rabbinic education was the writing of my first book. Some people say to write what you know, but I believe that you should write what you want to know, so I learned a lot in the process of writing my stories and novels. My work really helps me figure out how I feel about my place in the Jewish continuum. Nothing crystallizes my feelings more than working through a story through a compelling character and these stories and novels stand as monuments to a certain place and time in my own personal Jewish journey.

Have you personally been affected by the changing political climate in colleges and universities since October 7th?

I have been deeply affected by the changing political climate in the aftermath of October 7. I can’t tell you how shocked I was to find so many of my liberal students and colleagues spewing hatred against the Jewish people. I had to walk past a pro-Hamas encampment on the first day of Passover, and I was utterly sickened to see signs calling for ethnic cleansing of the only Jewish state in the world, signs and chants calling for Intifada, so many hateful things written on walls and sidewalks about Jews and Zionists. I spoke to a number of Jewish students as the semester was winding down to hear their stories. Each and every one of them suffered brutal campaigns of hatred and bullying from fellow students and even professors, and the college did nothing. A number of them are leaving the school and it makes me so sad because these students are so bright, talented, and determined; exactly the kind of students that any college would be lucky to have. I feel completely disillusioned and betrayed by the progressive movement and I have no idea how this is going to end. I will say that this past semester made me realize once again how important a strong and proud Israel is. And now my son who just graduated high school is going to be joining the IDF this fall rather than going to college in America. I’m afraid for whatever may be coming, but I’m very very proud of him.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be in your position. Have you been able to process any of this through writing?

I haven’t been able to do much writing since October 7, partly because of the crazy semester and partly because of my intense grief. But I did write a short story in December/January from the perspective of three children who had been freed as hostages in Gaza and they are traveling up to Jerusalem during the biggest snowstorm ever to find a rabbi, a mystic they believe can bring their parents back. I think this might be the best story I’ve ever written. I felt an intense responsibility to create these fictional characters to channel a serious sense of grief, longing, and pain. Creating these characters helped me in the sense that filling the darkness with creation is always a positive step, and these characters now exist as a monument to this terrible time.

A few months before October 7, I started writing my first play, and without giving too much away, it involves a school shooting, organ donation and a massive wave of antisemitism. At the time I thought, perhaps I was writing a little bit speculatively about such antisemitism in America. But after October 7, it became clear that I was sadly prescient. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find someone to produce it before too long. It’s an important play but it’s emotionally challenging – like all of my work.

Jon it has been a pleasure to speak with you and hear your story, your personal perspective about current events and being a writer during these complicated times. To end our conversation, what are your plans for the future?

For the future, I just want to keep creating work that I believe in and hopefully it will find its audience and make a difference in the world, no matter how small. I also hope to spend more time in Israel now that my son is moving there. I’m looking for opportunities over the summers where I can stay for a while and do something meaningful. So that’s a work in progress. But I’ll let you know when I figure it out!

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