• January 2013

Author Faye Moskowitz Is Making "Jewish Literature Live"

By Hope Katz Gibbs, Author
Truly Amazing Women Who Are Changing the World

Jewish Literature Live is a popular class at the George Washington University, and the brainchild of world-renowned author Faye Moskowitz (pictured above)—and DC entrepreneur David Bruce Smith (pictured below), a GW alumni who is the author of 11 books and the former editor of Crystal City Magazine.

What inspired the two writers to create a class for Moskowitz’s students at GWU, where she teaches and is a former chairman of the English Department?

To find out, we sat down with Smith and Moskowitz at Smith’s offices in downtown DC to learn more about the high-profile authors who have educated and entertained students through “Jewish Literature Live,” as well as Smith’s and Moskowitz’s writing careers, and their plans for future collaboration.

First, a little about Truly Amazing Woman, author, and professor Faye Moskowitz.

Professor Moskowitz teaches Creative Writing and Jewish American Literature. She was chair of the English Department for eight years, and director of Creative Writing at GW, where she received the GW Award in Special Recognition for Contributions to University Life.

She served as president of the Jenny McKean Moore Fund for Writers from 1975-1999. For many years, she was the fiction editor of Lilith magazine.

Moskowitz’s writing draws heavily on her life experiences growing up during the Depression and her Jewishness in a largely Christian society.

Her publications include: “Her Face in the Mirror: Jewish Women on Mothers and Daughters”; “And the Bridge Is Love;” “Whoever Finds This: I Love You” and “A Leak in the Heart.” Her most recent book is, “Peace in the House.”

She is represented in dozens of anthologies, and in addition, her poems, essays, and short stories have been published in such places as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Moment Magazine, and the Jerusalem Post.

Inside Jewish Literature Live

Since January 2009, Smith has funded a course in the Department of English at GW—his alma mater—on contemporary Jewish American works of literature. Called Jewish Literature Live, this unique class allows students to study Jewish literature and interact with the prominent Jewish American authors who wrote the books.

Moskowitz teaches the course and is also our “Truly Amazing Woman of the Month in the January 2013 issue of Be Inkandescent magazine.

Be Inkandescent: David Bruce Smith and I have known each other for nearly 20 years. I wrote for him when he was the editor of Crystal City Magazine and I was a freelance writer. Faye, you were 35 when you began your undergraduate studies. Give us the back story on that.

Faye Moskowitz: Well, the back story is that when my husband and I and our four children moved to Washington in 1962, we brought my mother-in-law with us; she lived with us for many years. I think because I married right out of high school and had never had a chance to go to college I went when I was 35 because, God bless my mother-in-law, it was a way to get out of the house when my youngest child was in kindergarten.

Be Inkandescent: You haven’t always been a writer, is that correct?

Faye Moskowitz: No, I became a writer in my last year as an undergrad at GW when I took a course that I thought was called, The American Short Story. However, it wasn’t The American Short Story; it was a creative writing course. And, I will tell you that when people go back to school when they are 35, they have to get A’s because they can’t let those young undergrads, their fellow students, do better then they do. So I said, “No, I’m not taking this class because I don’t know anything about creative writing.” But the professor, Louis Schaffer, was so intriguing, and I said to myself, “Take a chance for once in your life.” So I did. I stayed in the class and Louis convinced me that I was indeed a writer. In fact, I began publishing quite soon after that course.

Be Inkandescent: That is an incredibly inspiring story for all young writers. Tell us about the books you wrote after taking that class: And the Bridge Is Love, and A Leak in the Heart: Tales from a Woman’s Life. Tell us about the theme of your work.

Faye Moskowitz: “A Leak in the Heart” was my first book, and as many first books do, it touched on what was, for me, a singular moment that occurred when I was around 11. That’s when I discovered that I had had a baby sister who died of a leak in the heart around the time I was born.

Be Inkandescent: Does the title refer to her illness?

Faye Moskowitz: Actually, it refers to these little pieces that were emanations from my heart. You see, during the Depression, my family moved from the Jewish ghetto of Detroit to Jackson, Michigan, a little town of about 65,000. We were among 35 Jewish families there and that is where I learned to be Jewish, because when we lived in Detroit in the ghetto, you thought about what you were. You were what you were. It was only when I moved out of my element that I understood what being Jewish meant. So yes, a great deal of my early pieces talk about being a stranger in a strange land.

Be Inkandescent: David, did Faye’s experience make you want to co-create Jewish Literature Live with her?

David Bruce Smith: Actually, the idea actually came to us a few years ago when Jeffery Jerome Cohen, who had been chairman of the GW English Department, took me to lunch and mentioned that the Jewish literature program was on the cutting block. I didn’t want it to be axed, and I knew that Faye was in the department—and I had been a fan of her work. So together we made a plan. Faye created the course, making sure that the element of “live” was critical, because we wanted famous Jewish authors to come in and talk to the students. Today, I believe it is the only course of its kind in the country, and what makes it so unique is that it is not just about having the students read great works of literature. They also get to ask the authors questions, and learn about what inspires them, and what their books are about from the insider’s point of view.

Be Inkandescent: Who has come in to lecture so far?

David Bruce Smith: Erica Jong, Neil Doctorow, and perhaps my favorite, Bel Kaufman, who wrote, “Up the Down Staircase.” She is 101 and she is the granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem, whose stories inspired “Fiddler on the Roof.” Seeing her speak six months ago at the age of 101 with no notes, no nothing. It was quite amazing.

Be Inkandescent: What has surprised you both about the series?

Faye Moskowitz: I was thinking about this recently, and I would say the biggest surprise was the students’ receptivity to Erica Jong—because the students were absolutely knocked out by her. Jong’s bestseller, “Fear of Flying,” was published so many years ago, and still it is relevant.

I have to agree with David, too, that Bel Kaufman was a knockout. The students worshiped her. I have never seen anything quite like it. At 101, she was perfectly made up, from her hair to her high heels. The students loved “Up the Down Staircase,” and it encouraged many kids to open up about their experiences in high school. Their parents who are high school teachers still experience the kinds of things that Bel Kaufman talked about in that book. What struck me about those two lectures in particular is that here are two women from other generations, and the students responded beautifully to both.

David Bruce Smith: I also want to note that Bel Kaufman said something unforgettable. She told us that her grandfather, Sholem Aleichem, died when she was 6 years old. That is 95 years ago. Then she looked at the audience and told us, “I’m the only person on the Earth who remembers what it is like to be touched by Sholem Aleichem.” That is a piece of history that is really striking.

Be Inkandescent: Can anyone come to the sessions, or is it just for GW students?

Faye Moskowitz: The course is just for the students, but I always have four or five adult auditors, and anyone can come. We also host an event prior to the lecture that is open to the public. That is getting to be an increasingly popular opportunity for Washingtonians to meet these incredible authors.

Be Inkandescent: Does the class mostly attract Jewish students?

David Bruce Smith: That’s a great question because we suspected that might be the case when we started the program.

Faye Moskowitz: That’s right. But in fact, the class has attracted a wide array of students from all kinds of backgrounds, including Asian Americans, African Americans, and Muslims, as well as a range of underclassmen, from seniors to freshman. I am also proud to report that we tend to book up on the first day of registration. I am working to find a larger classroom so more students can participate!

Be Inkandescent: Who is coming to speak this year?

Faye Moskowitz: We are excited that our lineup this year is as impressive as in years past. On our syllabus is Lisa Zeidner, author of “Love Bomb”; Jami Attenberg, who wrote “The Middlesteins”; and Bruce Jay Friedman, who wrote “A Mother’s Kisses.” He is in his 80s, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the students react to his book and his lecture. A big celebrity, Tony Kushner, will also be on campus, and our finale will be with Nathan Englander, who will talk about Anne Frank.

Be Inkandescent: That is quite the line-up! How does Jewish literature differ from other literature? What are the undertones?

Faye Moskowitz: That is a question that we explore all semester long, starting with a discussion about, “What does it mean to be Jewish in America?” There is no way to talk about Jewish literature unless we talk about that question first—and every semester we have come up with a different answer. I always try to include a novel, or short story collection, by an immigrant to the United States. I try to include something from the Orthodox community, the Ultra Orthodox community, and unfortunately that means it will be someone who has left the community, because only then will she be able to write about it. Often the works are about Jewish families, many permutations of literature. What makes a novel Jewish, that’s the question that we talk about.

Be Inkandescent: David, you and your mother, Clarice Smith, are also Jewish and have written books of your own. Tell us a little bit about that.

David Bruce Smith: My mother has been my collaborator for 20 years. Most of the books we have done have been limited-edition books, including a book we did for DC’s Shakespeare Theatre on Tennessee Williams. It coincided with a Williams’ revival. Then we did a book on Abraham Lincoln that coincided with the “re-inauguration” of Lincoln’s Cottage in 2008. And we have a children’s book coming out in 2013 about Chief Justice John Marshall.

Be Inkandescent: I also want to add that your grandfather, Charles E. Smith, built a real estate empire here in DC, and you wrote about his life and your relationship with him in the book you penned, “Conversations with Papa Charlie.”

David Bruce Smith: I wrote that book after he died—mostly to cope with the grief of losing him. And he and I collaborated on three books prior to his death, including, “Building My Life,” which was his autobiography. We also published a collection of his speeches called, “Building the Community,” and another book called, “Letters to My Children.”

Be Inkandescent: Did he want to record his life?

David Bruce Smith: At first that was the goal. But with each succeeding book, he found that they just made him happy. By the time we did the last book, he was 93. He was deteriorating, and he was getting depressed. The books helped. And for his 90th birthday, we created a film about his life.

Be Inkandescent: He was very successful, and clearly is quite well-known. You obviously had a wonderful relationship with him.

David Bruce Smith: He was quite a guy. In fact, he was very ahead of his time—a true visionary. He believed in things that businessmen were not supposed to believe in those days, like signs from God or messages from God or dreams. A lot of the major decisions he made were based on his dreams—including creating the Jewish Community Complex in Rockville, which no one believed could happen. But he proved them wrong.

Be Inkandescent: And your dad, Robert H. Smith, founded the University of Maryland’s business school. We were sorry to hear of his passing. Tell us more about him.

David Bruce Smith: My father was what he would call a “Grateful American.” He believed that we live in this wonderful democracy that the Founding Fathers were responsible for achieving, so he and my mother became very involved in Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, James Madison’s home, Benjamin Franklin’s home in London, and Lincoln’s Cottage, which I mentioned earlier. Though Lincoln was not a Founding Father, he was the one who preserved the Union. Had it not been for him, we probably would have been four countries instead of one. My father also felt that history was not being taught well in school and he wanted to change that. So he dedicated the last 15 years to 22 causes. Not all historical, and many were Jewish. He dedicated the last of his life to the community, much the same way that my grandfather did.

Be Inkandescent: You come from quite a legacy, and now you are creating books that live on—as do the books that you bring to GW students through Jewish Literature Live. Have you two known each other for a long time?

Faye Moskowitz: It seems like we have known each other for ages, but it has only been a few years. We both want to have a continuing voice for Jewish American Literature in the English Department, and that’s what I believe attracted David the most to this project. For me, it has been a capstone after many years of teaching. I can’t be more grateful to David for sponsoring the program. There are a lot of lucky students at GW.

Be Inkandescent: It sounds like it. Are you working on any more books right now?

Faye Moskowitz: I am working on several shorter pieces. As my time gets shorter, the pieces get shorter, but I am fortunate enough to have a 20-year-old book of mine be reissued just this past October when The Feminist Press reissued “And the Bridge Is Love.” I think I am having a little renaissance!

David Bruce Smith: Well deserved, by the way.

Here’s to a renaissance, and the continued success of Jewish Literature Live.

Are you ready to be inspired, educated, and entertained?

  • Peruse David Bruce Smith’s newest children’s book and learn more about his collection at davidbrucesmith.com.

Be on the lookout for more Truly Amazing Women!

  • March 2013 is our Women in Power issue, so be sure to tune in for our upcoming interview with David Bruce Smith, and his illustrator mother and collaborator, Clarice Smith, in March 2013.
  • Ditto for our interview with Moskowitz’s daughter, Shoshana Grove, Vice President of the powerful organization, Executive Women in Government.

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