‘A Passionate Writing Life’

‘A Passionate Writing Life’

November 17, 1966, was not a particularly interesting news day. Not a single story in that day’s New York Times was evocative (and I reviewed all 96 pages in TimesMachine).

And yet that was a very important newspaper day in my life because that was the day a newspaper first published an article I wrote. No, not the New York Times; that still hasn’t happened, though 19 of my letters to the editor have appeared in its pages.

Rather, it was Yeshiva College’s newspaper, the Commentator, that ran my article.

I was a college junior at the time, and for some foolish reason I can’t remember, I hadn’t written for the paper until then. (It wasn’t my worst college mistake — that prize goes to being a math major.) But once I started, there was no stopping me, and I submitted numerous news, feature, and opinion pieces. So when a new editor-in-chief took over the reins for my senior year, he gave me a regular column that appeared in each issue under the banner “In My Opinion.”

Over the course of my senior year, I wrote 11 columns on such topics as student apathy, interdenominational Jewish tensions, student protests and activism, Woody Guthrie, the Vietnam War, Soviet Jewry, the draft, marijuana, improving the RIETS curriculum, the McCarthy-Kennedy primary (spoiler alert: Humphrey was the Democratic candidate), and YU’s reaction to the King assassination. 1968 — now that was an evocative time.

The next few years were hectic; I attended and graduated from law school, got married, and began my career as a commercial litigator. I spent much of my professional day involved in legal writing, while my mentor and friend, Judith S. Kaye, then a law firm partner and later chief judge of New York, honed my skills with a superb editorial hand. I had no time for non-legal writing.

When our first daughter, Micole, was born, Sharon and I decided to celebrate her birth with a simchat bat, devising our own ceremony mixing ritual, innovation, and family with a delicious Sunday brunch. To publicize this unusual Orthodox event, which meshed with my general feminist leanings, I wrote an article titled “An Orthodox Simchat Bat.” As a dedicated reader of Sh’ma magazine, I submitted it to that publication, and once it appeared, I was back as a non-legal writer.

Over the next several decades, I followed this article with numerous others appearing mainly in Sh’ma (where I served for three years in its Fellows program), the Baltimore Jewish Times, and the New York Jewish Week. In addition, I churned out letters to the editors of many publications (in addition to the New York Times) as well as letters to friends, Jewish leaders, and others on all sorts of matters, often relating to Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy, and feminism.

In January 2016, my writing life took an unanticipated turn. After the death of Rabbi Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, a leading Reform theologian of the second half of the 20th century, the founder and editor of Sh’ma, and a mentor who, like Judy Kaye, I also considered a friend, I wrote a remembrance of him that I submitted to the Jewish Standard. Its editor, Joanne Palmer, accepted the article, and then, after publication, unexpectedly asked me to write a regular column. I accepted eagerly and, oxymoronically, with trepidation. (For a fuller version of that story, see “Column A…,” February 7, 2019.)

And here I am, 151 columns later, still writing “In My Opinion” for the Standard — and now also for the New Jersey Jewish News.

Why am I boring you with this banal biography? Well, if you’re a Standard or Jewish News reader (or if you see my columns via email or Facebook), you may have read Joanne’s article in last week’s issue about my new book, “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In My Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’.” (As might be expected, there’s some redundancy between Joanne’s article and this column.) The book is a compilation of much of what I’ve written from my “In My Opinion” column though my 100th “I’ve Been Thinking” one — hence the book’s subtitle – with much of that sewn together with new thoughts, explanations, and personal and general history.

But, as noted on the back cover, the book is neither a classic anthology nor a memoir. Rather, it’s a trip through my life and mind by means of stories of my youth from before elementary school through Columbia Law School; stories of me as a son, grandson, brother, husband, father, and grandfather; stories of my parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, siblings, friends, mentors, and colleagues; stories of my courting of, and almost 60-year love affair with, my wife, Sharon; stories of my sojourns in the Bronx, Far Rockaway, the Upper West Side, and Teaneck; stories of my years as a commercial litigator, Sh’ma magazine fellow, freelance writer, and Standard/New Jersey Jewish News columnist.

But stories are only one part of the, well, story. The book is also chock-full of my ideas and often strong opinions about serious subjects like Modern Orthodoxy, Orthodox Jewish feminism, my liberal politics (and the other kind), the covid and Trump years, the culture wars, theodicy, church-state legal questions, Jewish divorce law, liturgy and ritual, local Teaneck controversies, and much more. Yet it also includes insights into softer, more intimate, topics, including kindness, friendship, responsibility, apologies, writing, change, language, and truth.

And, of course, books and baseball.

(Time out for a shameless plug: The book can be purchased, at a special 10% off book launch sale price, at Teaneck’s Judaica House on Cedar Lane or through the store’s website. And it will also be available soon at the Teaneck library [h/t to my good friend Sharon Siegel] and my shul’s beit midrash.)

Though I’m not prone to large expressions of emotion (my kids must be rolling their eyes at that understatement), I’m incredibly thrilled and excited that the book has gone to press and is now available. Indeed, after Sharon finally agreeing to marry me (a saga of almost book-length proportions in itself) and the births of our four spectacular children and five delicious grandchildren, the book’s publication has given me a sense of joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction that’s hard to match.

I’d been working on this book for about 25 years in fits and starts. Relatively recently, though, I decided to add many of my Standard/NJJN columns (previous book drafts had been limited to pre-Standard articles), and to edit the new and previously unpublished material with a stronger red pen, leaving much of my correspondence and details of my interactions with others on the cutting room floor. Once I made those decisions, the book finally felt right and it was gung ho to the finish line, with the indispensable assistance of my four daughters, Micole, Daniele, Raquel, and Gabrielle. They were essential not only in editing the new material (previously published articles appear in their original form except for corrections of typos) but also in ensuring that the book — from the cover to fonts, margins, line spacing, headers and pagination, column titles and dating, the title, table of contents, and chapter headings pages, and all the way to the back cover — looks engaging and professionally done. To the extent it does not or the text has flaws, all blame rests on my shoulders alone.

I’d love it if you would read, or at least skim, the book. And if you do, please tell me what you think — the good, the bad, and the ugly. (I can be reached at penkap@panix.com. Or in shul after davening.) Any opinion you convey, even the latter two, means that you care — one way or the other — about something I wrote. And once we lay our pens down on the table and close our computer screens, there’s nothing more important or comforting to a writer than knowing that we struck some chord.

Joseph C. Kaplan of Teaneck, a retired lawyer and longtime Teaneck resident, is regular columnist for the Jewish Standard and the New Jersey Jewish News, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck’s Judaica House). He and his wife, Sharon, have been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.

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