Monday, December 10, 2007

freeing the elephants

I was just at yet another wonderful U of T celebration - my, those folks know how to celebrate. Tonight was awards night, plaques given to the best teachers in Continuing Studies. A fascinating woman who teaches Communications accepted her award with a story about how elephants are trained: they are tethered by a piece of string when they're very young, and by the time they're a year old, the string can be removed but the beast stays within the same range.

Trained elephant that I am, stomping the same old ground, I take inspiration from my students, who amaze me with their courage. Each class, someone takes a swan dive from a cliff - perhaps terrified, but soaring out and down to a safe landing. Well, relatively safe.

My trip to Vancouver was glorious. When the sun is shining, there is nowhere in the world as beautiful. I kept saying to myself, "Why did I move away, exactly?" Mountains, sky, sun, sea. Luckily there were two days of dark sleet to remind me of the other side. The Book Fair was a pleasant event, well-attended, and I loved visiting old friends from the days when I lived on East Broadway, in a tiny attic apartment with a million-dollar view.

Now teaching is over for the term; time to get on with my own swan dives. Time to march this body right out into new territory. I wish you all a joyful holiday season, more love than you can handle, and a sudden sensation of freedom in the region of your ankle.

Monday, November 12, 2007

All readers; all levels.

My website has finally been updated, and there's now a list of new reviews in the "Book" section. Mmmm - all those lovely words of praise - does the soul good. There's also a brand new review of my "labor of love" in "Choice", a magazine for libraries, which ends, "Recommended. All readers; all levels." Bliss.

I was at a thrilling event last week, a celebration of the U of T's Random House writing competition. One of the winners was Gillian Kerr, who came to my class at Ryerson ten years ago and continued for years in my home class. Gillian is an example of what a busy person can accomplish with grit and focus; she has a high level, extremely demanding executive job in a giant grocery chain, and yet has never stopped writing; one of her personal essays was chosen for the third "Dropped Threads" anthology and now she is studying fiction writing at U of T. I am always sorry to lose a superb non-fiction writer to fiction but with a $500 cheque to celebrate, obviously it's working for her. Next time one of my students whines about having no time to write, I will point to Gillian.

And tonight I'm at a celebration of a Ryerson writing competition. Competitions are valuable in the writing world; they give us a deadline and a goal. Next week the Vancouver Jewish Book Fair, where I have been allotted 30 to 35 minutes to tell the story of this book, which usually takes an hour. I'll think I'll just speak really fast.

It's finally a true November day, yellow maple leaves whirling by the window as I write. Nothing more Canadian than that. Happy November to you all.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Noo Yawk in springtime

Big news: I have been invited to speak about the book at the 92nd Street Y in New York. April 8th, 2008: mark it on your calendar. This Y is the epicentre of literary cultural activity in Manhattan and the absolutely perfect place to present the book, so I am very pleased about this engagement. Plus, any excuse to go to New York is fine with me - museums, theatre, Bloomingdales, the Stuart Weitzman shoestore on Madison Avenue (mecca for the big-footed woman), and the Sunday morning Columbus Avenue Flea Market - here I come! Oh yes, and the 92nd Street Y. My Cousin Ted's where I stay is only sixteen blocks away so I can walk to work.

We are midway through the teaching term and as always, I am in love with all my students, now at both U of T and Ryerson - their courage, humour, depth. How lucky I am to have a job that brings me joy; I hope I manage to impart some back to the classes. U of T has already set up an Autobiography II - an advanced course either for former students who want to go on working with me, or for new students whose style will fit with the old bunch. If you're interested in finding out more, please check the U of T Continuing Studies website:

It is now officially fall, at last - and though I loved the glorious sunshine of the past month, it was just too wierd. As I rode my bike in a t-shirt at the end of October, I kept thinking about the overheated polar bears. Now it's normal out there - grey and bone-chilling. As it should be. This is Canada, after all.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

my autumn letter to the World

Next talk date: Vancouver Jewish Book Fair, Sunday November 25.

I've just come back from Amherst, giving a talk at the National Yiddish Book Center. The site is even lovelier than I had expected, luminous, designed to show visitors that it's a working place where books are used, not a museum. It was a joy to make my own working contribution. The Center staff treated me royally; I was shuttled about and put up in the Amherst Inn, a Victorian mansion. At breakfast that morning, I met two Californians, Nadine and Sterling, in town to visit their children. When they heard about my talk they bemoaned the fact that they'd have to miss it because of prior plans, but when I began, there they were, beaming like old friends in the second row.

Of course I visited Emily Dickinson's house. She was a recluse for 25 years, gazing out of her second floor bedroom window and writing nearly 1800 poems, only a handful of which were published during her lifetime, and those anonymously. "This is my letter to the World," she wrote in one, speaking for every writer. My whole visit was made even more extraordinary by the weather - more like August than October, but the famous New England fall colours very much on display.

The book has been favourably reviewed in the "Canadian Jewish News," and I continue to receive heartening notes from readers. I love teaching at the U of T, where my classroom is at the centre of that gorgeous campus, in University College overlooking the Cloisters. We missed Thanksgiving Day this year - I was away - but we'll cook our turkey two weeks late. Anna, Sam and I never miss a chance to give thanks, especially if it involves turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes.

Monday, August 27, 2007

What I did on my summer holidays

My talk in Halifax is postponed. Not one of us planning the event noticed that we had scheduled it for the first night of Rosh Hashanah. My calendar noted the following day as the day, and I forgot that Jewish holidays always start the night before. We are going to reschedule and this time will check carefully. Stay tuned.

I've had an extreme restful August - I conveniently got pneumonia! It was terrific; I couldn't go to the Y or do any work, just lay around reading - it was just like being at a cottage without tedious commute or lake. I enjoyed reading novels, which I don't usually have time for with everything else I have to read, and watched a DVD or two. (Including "God Grew Tired of Us" - a very beautiful documentary, highly recommended.) Now I am regaining my lungs and will start to venture out into the world - my time at my own particular holiday camp drawing to a close, with the summer.

It's a pleasure to announce that as well as my on-going classes at Ryerson, I will start teaching at U of T in the fall. I had a highly enjoyable meeting with Lee Gowan, the writer who runs the Continuing Studies writing programs at U of T. Their calendar already includes Autobiography, Memoir, Finding your Voice and Creative Non-fiction, my areas of expertise, so Lee encouraged me to develop a new course. A former student of both mine and Lee's came up with the idea of a course in Telling the Family Story, aimed specifically at writers who want to do what I did in the book: track fascinating family figures and commit family stories to paper. Lee has put the course in the Spring 2008 Calendar, but in the meantime Autobiography needed a teacher this term, so I start September 24th.

For those of you in Toronto, don't forget the Cabbagetown Festival, coming up Sept. 8 and 9, a glorious community event. For all of you, I wish you many end-of-summer peaches.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

in the fall and on the shelf

Two confirmed book-related events in the fall:
- on Wednesday September 12 I will be speaking in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the Halifax Grammar School, the school co-founded by my father. This will be a true homecoming in many ways, organised by two of my oldest friends, Donna and Ian Thompson, helped by Frog Hollow Books and HGS's Gay Silverman. I am now contacting old Halifax friends to let them know, most importantly the extraordinary Muriel Duckworth, who is 97. Muriel, however, is at her summer home in Quebec and won't return to Halifax till the end of September. We had a long talk, and I, forty years younger, felt rejuvenated by her openness and joie de vivre. Her husband Jack ran the YMCA in Halifax and dragooned the Kaplan family into joining a volleyball club in 1960 or so; I did not enjoy having to play volleyball with my family but I have stayed a member of the Y in every Canadian city I've lived in ever since, and the Y here is one of the cornerstones of my life. I told her I owe it all to Jack and his volleyballs. She had a good laugh. How I'd love to see her, but I will get to see lots of other old friends and the Atlantic Ocean, which feels like a great old friend too, much missed.

- on October 7, I will be speaking at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusets. I had to look at a map with a magnifying glass to see where the town is, though I know so much about the Center itself, started by the aimiable and unstoppable Aaron Lansky. Aaron began rescuing Yiddish books one by one from dumpsters, which led eventually to the building of the vast Center and the cataloguing of millions of Yiddish books. I will be very proud to speak at a place that honours writers and their books in such a vital way.

I forgot to mention one moment from my July trip to New York. My second cousin Lola and I went to a free klezmer concert outside at Lincoln Centre, and on the way stopped at the Barnes and Noble nearby. We enquired about the book and were told it was in the Judaica section, but I really couldn't believe that it would actually be there. But it was - my book, at the Barnes and Noble near Lincoln Centre. Lola even offered to buy it, but she already has a copy, and anyway, then it wouldn't be there any more - there was only one. So I gave it a little squeeze and put it back on the shelf.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Rich with nuanced detail

A beautiful summer is drifting by. August is a month with no teaching income but also no pressure - an ideal time to embark on a new project. But first I had a superb couple of days on the deck with the latest "New Yorker", the new Harry Potter, and a few glasses of rose. A true summer vacation. And now to work, though I'm still figuring out what's next.

The third child is doing fine. I went to New York in July to visit family but also to talk up the book. While I was visiting my scholarly friends at the YIVO, the centre for Yiddish research, a woman I'd never met, who is now in charge of YIVO theater research, sought me out and gave the book an enthusiastic endorsement. I also had a great meeting with the helpful and lively Canadian cultural attachee Anna Velasco about a possible launch or reading in NYC. And among copies of the book sent out recently to possibly interested parties was one to Steven Spielberg, who used to sponsor a Yiddish theater website. I have always thought the story of the Jewish Shakespeare would make a great movie, starring, say, Kevin Kline as Gordin. No?

Some very nice, intelligent person just posted a review at saying that the book is "rich with nuanced detail." Love it. Perhaps I'll ask for that to be put on my tombstone. "Beth Kaplan, 1950-2050. Rich with nuanced detail."

Happy reading to you all.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

voices on-line and other wonders

The good news from Syracuse University Press is that the first print run of the book is nearly sold out! I just spoke about Gordin at the Stratford Festival, where one audience member was more excited that Edgar Kaplan the famous bridge player was my uncle than in anything I said about the famous playwright.

Yesterday a podcast about Gordin by Eric Molinsky, a New York broadcaster, appeared on-line at Please have a listen. Something else to marvel over - the technology that allowed Eric in NYC to interview me here in Toronto (thanks to my good friend, CBC's Eleanor Wachtel, who set up the equipment in her living-room) and then to post his documentary, with interviews with me and two others, on a website where it will remain for years. (FYI I was born in New York not Vancouver, Gordin produced his first play in one week not four, he was not "aggressively courted" by Thomashefsky, and as far as I know, converting to Christianity was never remotely of interest to him.) When I listened, I found out that Barbara Henry, who is studying Gordin's life, uncovered information on a trip to Russia that leads her to believe that the man was not chased out of Russia but chose voluntarily to leave, which would be a huge surprise to me.

I myself say, at one point, that Gordin was such a didactic writer that he "never let his characters breathe." That is wrong and I regret saying it. Some of his characters are indeed mouthpieces for him, true, but some are fleshed-out, vibrant dramatic creations. In a typical Gordin way, I was being too critical.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

book launch picture

I am taking a big technological leap with the help of my friend Chuck the computer genius - trying to upload pictures to share with you. So here's my first try - a picture of the author signing her opus, taken at Nicholas Hoare books.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

stack o' books

I was riding my bicycle home the other day, and a neighbour called after me, "I'm on page 148!" My, this is fun. I have been getting all kinds of feedback - a bit not so good, from a friend who told me the book was well written but the story didn't engage him, and a cousin in New York who wrote, "So many details!!!" I'm glad people are honest. But mostly the reviews have been positive. My son's friend Tristan, who's 21, told me he was at the part where the chick was crazy for Jacob Gordin. "Been there, done that," he said.

I was thrilled to hear that Syracuse University Press has sold most of this print run and is considering another. So that's pretty good, considering that there haven't been any reviews yet, except one on-line which gives the book three stars out of four and then ends, "If you have a short attention span, give this one a miss." (It might just as well have said, "So many details!!!")

In the last week I've sent out four pieces to magazines and newspapers. Three were sitting there, nearly done, in my files, but I hadn't had the chance to finish them while dealing with the albatross, no, the wonderful book which is now flying on its own. And one - I went for a walk Sunday morning, had an idea, mulled it over on the way home, sat down, wrote it, sent it out. Now that's the way it should be - no more of this twenty-five years of research, all those @#$%&* details.

Friday, May 18, 2007


I was so high during the book launch on adrenalin and joy - and relief - that the whole thing is a blur. I do remember how my heart leapt, as I approached the beautiful Nicholas Hoare bookstore, to see my books lined up in the window. And then book buyers started to arrive and I sat signing and signing, and then I spoke and read, and Paul Soles and Kate Trotter performed magnificently from Gordin's plays, and I stood on the bookstore balcony looking down at so many friendly faces. And then we continued partying at home, more friendly faces, more blur, more signing. More than a hundred books were sold that night, and I wrote something in most of them, but what, I have no idea.

The next day I went into a wierd frenzy, decided I had to sell my house, began real estate dealings, and was told firmly by several friends that I was suffering from postpartum depression and should calm down. Which I did. Now, still in my house, I'm enjoying the interesting reality of my creation floating about out there - what is the child up to now? It had its first review, which has appeared on several websites - favourable, three stars out of four, though at the end advising readers "with short attention spans" that they should "pass on this one."

Most importantly, I have started work on something else. A very small something, but it's a step into the future, leaving this part of the past behind. Time to move on.

Friday, April 27, 2007

It's my party and I'll muse if I want to

Today I was shopping at the local dollar store for paper plates for the book launch party, which is in only a few days. There were bright yellow or blue ones, and then there were fancy ones, black with "Happy Birthday" in swirly type on them. I almost bought those, because on Tuesday May 1st we are celebrating not only the extremely protracted arrival of my book but also my great-grandfather's 154th birthday. The birthday plates were much more expensive, however, and knowing my great-grandfather, he would have objected to the extravagance. So plain plates it will be, but the thought is there.

It's funny that I write "knowing my great-grandfather" though he died in 1909 and I, contrary to my childrens' suspicions, was born some decades after that. Jacob Gordin and I have spent so much time together over the years that I do know him. And also, in many ways he was a lot like my dad, whom I certainly knew, and who wouldn't have noticed the plates at all because he would be too busy eating whatever was on them.

He would have loved the book launch, loved all the Russian food my daughter and I bought today, and the fact that his dark-eyed granddaughter is going to prepare it, mountains of sour cream and all. My mother and her sister, who are in their eighties, are coming to Toronto for this event, and so are several far-flung friends. Other friends have been calling, sending emails and notes, even funny email cards with music and animated dogs. So many people are happy for me. Something new has arrived in the world, and everyone who knows me understands how much that matters to me. And in a way matters to them too; when each of us achieves something after a long struggle, we all do too.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Holding the Taj Mahal of books

India is a country of the most extreme contrasts, full of exquisite treasure and garbage, magnificent, appalling. Agra is typical - an unspeakably filthy town where in the parking lot men battle over tourists, shouting and shoving. From the parking lot you go through extensive security and more aggressive touts pushing postcards and souvenirs. And then you stand weeping in front of the most beautiful building on earth, the mystical Taj Mahal, graceful, serene, lovelier than any photograph. Perfect. And then you go out again through the touts, the skinny dogs and cows, the garbage and mud.

I kept a diary throughout the trip of course, and am working at transcribing it to see if there's a story. I mean, of course there's a story, but is there one to publish? The short answer is yes.

The day after I returned, woozy with jet lag, the doorbell rang; it was a FedEx man with a box. "It's heavy," he said. "It's books." "I know," I said, heart pounding. I slit open the box and there they were, my author's copies of the most gorgeous book in the world, the Taj Mahal of books. Syracuse has done a wonderful job - the book is as well produced as I could ever have imagined. The cover, font, chapter headings, spacing - all ideal. It has the right heft, solid but not daunting. I wonder if the world will agree. The next day I sat down and read the thing, and at the end was able to say that I found no typo's, and as I read I didn't scream in agony once. A wince or three - I wish I'd said that better, oooh, turgid here - but not, to my surprise, excruciating.

I wonder if the world will agree.

Two weeks later, I am still waiting to find out. It's a curious kind of limbo, this period when the book is out in the world but no one has read it yet. I've had two important reviews: from my friend Gerry Caplan and from my daughter. Gerry seemed genuinely to like it, and thrillingly, Anna told me that one day she read for five hours straight. "It's good," she said. High, high praise; I expected her to be bored with the factual, biographical parts. Now I'm preparing for the book launch, issuing invitations and copies of the book, mailing, phoning, checking, making lists, finding bits in the plays for the actors Paul Soles and Kate Trotter to perform.

But in the scramble part of me is still standing, in tears, before the Taj Mahal.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

"Jewish Shakespeare" events and speaking engagements

These are the 2007 dates and places so far confirmed for talks on "Finding the Jewish Shakespeare" :

May 1, Toronto: Book launch 5-7 p.m. at Nicholas Hoare Bookstore on Front St., and celebration afterwards at 308 Sackville Street. Books for sale and signing at both places.

June 7, Ottawa: The University of Ottawa.

July 6, Stratford: The Stratford Festival.

October 7, Amherst, Mass.: The National Yiddish Book Center

November 25, Vancouver, to be confirmed: The Vancouver Jewish Book Festival

Elizabeth Hurley and I in Rajasthan

Pending, pending, pending. The book is being printed as we speak, the publicist is preparing her "email blast," bound galleys have been sent to anyone who might "blurb," the book launch is planned for Toronto and speaking engagements set up for elsewhere. At this stage I am convinced that after all this build-up, the actual reading of the book will be a giant disappointment to everyone. So to counter my pre-launch anxiety and impatience I am going to do the most obvious thing: tomorrow I leave for 3 weeks in India. For several years my dear friend Chris has spent the winter there and has begged me to join him; this year, using the ton of travel points I earned from the post-fire renovation of my home - a good story - I am actually going. Our mutual best friend Bruce is also there now. Chris, Bruce and Beth, touring Rajasthan for 20 days - another good story. Just before I went to Rome two years ago, the Pope died, and I shared the city unexpectedly with four million Christian pilgrims. Now I read that Elizabeth Hurley has decided to be married, shortly, in Rajasthan. Perhaps though this news will not result in an overwhelming flood of Elizabeth Hurley fans.

I would love to hear from you. If you write I will figure out how to respond, though perhaps not for the next three weeks.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Birthing a book

"When my book is out ..." "My book will be out in April," "After the book comes out ... " I find myself saying. I'm now almost through the lengthy, tortuous process of taking something that is IN - a compilation of thoughts, ideas, research, words, structure - and pushing it out. The irony of my particular journey through this process is that the independent life of the book has coincided almost exactly with the independence of my children. The book began to germinate when my daughter was in utero, and continued growing through her life and that of my son; he told me once that when I went to work on the book, he felt I was going to tend to his little brother. Now my daughter is nearly 26, living and working on her own; my son, 22 and six foot eight, is living and working in Australia, and demanding little brother is at last moving out too. (A more accurate analogy would be that I have been pregnant with this book for 26 years and now the birth is imminent, but that is too appalling a thought.)

The plan, now, is to get on with other kinds of writing work. But instead of mulling over my next book, I had this website to get going, and now I'm emailing the book publicist in New York, the publishers in Syracuse, the directors of various book fairs, the friends who are helping to organize the book launch here, contacts who may be able to get "blurbs" from famous people. And there's the pitch I wrote to Steven Spielberg, which a screenwriter friend has promised to get to him. A Balenciaga ballgown from Goodwill hangs in my closet, ready to wear to the Oscars.

Yes, fantasyland. I know that every writer with a book coming out imagines that the world is going to change drastically once the glorious object is in reader's hands - money, interest, commissions will flow in, new work, unleashed by renewed confidence and acclaim, will pour out. And I also know that reality, almost always, does not resemble this. No matter. There will be a big party this spring to celebrate an ending and a beginning. I can't wait for both.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Moving out of the 90's and onto the web

My former Toronto neighbour Tom, who now lives in Laguna Beach and is my webmaster (my, that sounds kinky) emailed last night to say, "Congratulations, the site is now live, you have officially moved out of the 90's." I logged on and there was my sparkling new site. Today I keep checking it as if it might have changed overnight - yes, still there. In fact it did change - my friend Deb, a writer in Newfoundland, added the first post to this blog. I know that to anyone under 30 my excitement at all this is absurd - I who have no cell-phone, have never downloaded a song and don't know how an iPod can hold so many songs when it is so very small. And how do they all get in there?

But I have managed to move out of the 90's. Woo hoo!

Here's today's message for writers, from a review by A.O.Scott in the NYTimes Book Review of Alice Munro's latest:
"The point of storytelling, as Munro practices it, is to rescue the literal facts from banality, from oblivion, and to preserve - to create - some sense of continuity in the hectic ebb and flow of experience. 'We can't resist this rifling around in the past,' she writes in an epilogue, 'sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging on to threads, insisting on being joined to dead people and therefore to life.'"

Happy Valentine's Day. L'chaim to you all. To life.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

beginning the blog

I am sitting here at my desk in downtown Toronto in front of the buzzing little box, contemplating this new outlet, tool, gift - the capability of opening my life and my heart to anyone on the planet who also has a buzzing little box. One of the unimaginable joys of the twenty-first century, this instant connection - a world of billions that feels like a village of buzzing boxes. I love it. Hello to you all.

I'm feeling shy now - as if I've danced onto the stage and pulled open the curtain and am startled that there's an audience there, waiting for words.

But maybe there isn't, and I can just go on talking to myself and only myself as I have in my diaries for the past forty-five years.

I guess I'll find out if you're out there or not. Buzzing.

Do I sign off? Over and out, for now.