Distilling a Life into a Book: A Behind the Scenes Look at The Book of Asher
Today we welcome Sonia Usatch-Kuhn, author of The Book of Asher: Memoirs of A Passionate Jewish Life. Originally from Long Island, Sonia now makes her home in Fuquay-Varina. I’ve known Sonia for six years and in that time she’s amazed me with her writing, tenacity, improv, humor and joie de vivre! I remember when Sonia first called me about authoring The Book of Asher and I’m so thrilled that she’s now guestblogging about this accomplishment three years later. Enjoy!
As I passed through the double doors of Beth Meyer Synagogue’s sanctuary on the morning of March 27, 2010 my eyes scanned the rows of seats. I hurried passed a stately-looking man in a wheelchair. His tallis was draped over his shoulders, yarmulke in place. He greeted me, a stranger, with an easy smile and eyes that twinkled with warmth.
Although I was certain I had never made his acquaintance, I smiled, nodded and found a seat. Every now and again I glanced in his direction. I couldn’t help turning ever so slightly toward the gentleman in the brown suit. That simple acknowledgment he offered me, he extended to several latecomers who were received by him with an innate graciousness. His smile relaxed their anxiety at being tardy.
I never met up with the man in the brown suit again. I tucked the essence of his generosity aside. I could not have conceived that an image of him would soon be revealed to me in a new light.
On June 24, 2010, I was introduced to Judi Margulies, the man in the brown suit’s daughter. She was seeking a writer for a project in mind that would honor the memory of her father who had passed away in May. She thought the condolence cards, notes and letters she received could be the foundation of a book, a book about the man in the brown suit.
I was immediately intrigued by and felt connected to Judi’s vision. Here was an opportunity for my love of the writing process to flourish—from inception to completion.
It seemed fated, that three months after being greeted by one Asher Edelstein, I would get to know him by compiling stories about him, his family, friends and admirers.
Judi provided me with a short list of friends and relatives. The list had wings. It expanded with her enthusiastic utterances of, “well, so and so just has to be in the book.” One by one, names were added until the list ballooned to seventy.
It was up to me to set a trusting atmosphere when conducting the interviews. It is my belief that face-to-face encounters give way to more than just words; the interviewee’s body language enhances the story.
Contributors, much to their own surprise, shared poignant moments with me; scenes they hadn’t thought about for a while, bringing out a smile, a laugh and tears. Each person had a similar perspective, feeling the force of the man who never forced his beliefs on them. Every person experienced him uniquely, expressing the belief that they were his favorite. They all were.
My main challenge was how to tell the stories that carried one theme—everyone loved him and missed him. How could I tell so many stories and make each exciting to the reader? After writing up one particular piece, I realized as I re-read the story that by removing some of the plain prose, I was staring at the images of a poem.
I titled each story and took license to format them in special ways. This included an old-fashioned letter from someone he grew up with, emails from his techno-grandsons, a lesson plan layout from a teacher, a sermon from one of the five rabbis I spoke with and a consult frame from one of the physicians. This added variety to their tales and gave me immense pleasure in shaking up the mix of people who ranged from thirty something to several of his contemporaries.
While speaking with a gentleman at the Universal Nursing Home where Asher spent the last few years of his life due to the amputation of his leg, I found one of my favorite lines spoken with the innocence of a babe. Paul said, “I don’t know for sure, but I do believe he sort of converted,” (to Catholicism).
His passion for Judaism, enchanting cantorial voice and generosity are told in sixty-five stories in The Book of Asher, now available on Amazon. The book launch for The Book of Asher will be held Sunday, April 14, 2013 from 3-5pm at the Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh.
In The Book of Asher the spirit of the man and his escapades come alive. You’ll discover his humor, pathos and his love for all people, golf, basketball and music. Leaping off the pages are the seven inspirational principles he lived by.
His method of engaging his bar/bat mitzvah students are another story. They were pure bribery—lots of orange soda, burgers and fries and chocolate. As a result, each pupil performed their portions of the haftarah perfectly knowing the meaning of the words they chanted.
He was praised by the learned for his knowledge, applauded by his students and the congregants held him as a hero. Members of the Beth Meyer Synagogue formed a volunteer army, taking turns driving him to weekend services following the amputation of his leg.
For the opportunity to have made his acquaintance in a most imaginary, literary and fun way, I am truly grateful.
About the Author, Sonia Usatch-Kuhn
Sonia Usatch-Kuhn is the author of Noodle Kugel & Life’s Other Meichels and the editor of Living in the Rooms of our Lives. Her poems, short stories and articles have been published in Main Street Rag, The Journal of Poetry Therapy and numerous anthologies. She was a contributing author for Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making. Usatch-Kuhn has been a correspondent for the News and Observer’s community paper, Southwest Wake News and for the NBC produced website, MyNC.com. On Long Island, she taught second-year medical students at Stony Brook School of Medicine. She is passionate about the words of playwrights and has appeared on stage in New York, Raleigh, Durham and Cary. She and her husband call Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina home. Contact Sonia HERE