Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it hardly seems like a Jewish forte. Take the Passover seder, for instance. And then there’s the Torah, and the Talmud.
So to communicate something about Jewish life in six words or less might seem preposterous, if not impossible.
Not so, according to Larry David, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ayelet Waldman, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, and the 356 other people — including celebrities and regular folks, politicians and rabbis, Orthodox Jews and atheists — who contributed to “Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life,” a new book by the editors of Smith Magazine.
The collection, which is, incidentally, the sixth in the popular Six-Word Memoirs series, will be celebrated with a live production and reading July 12 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Participants include San Francisco Chronicle writer Leah Garchik, Rabbi Noa Kushner, memoirist Piper Kerman and more. The event is co-sponsored by Reboot, a nonprofit that encourages young Jewish creativity.
As legend has it, Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in six words. The result: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” In 2006, veteran writer and editor Larry Smith drew inspiration from the minimalist writer in launching the Six-Word Memoir Project online at www.smithmag.net, inviting anyone to contribute extremely short stories of their own.
The project lasted only a month, but five years later, the concept of the extremely short story has taken on a life of its own; more than half a million people have contributed memoirs, and the books consistently reach best-seller lists.
The six-word memoirs on Jewish life are reflective of Jewish life itself: They run the gamut from hilarious to deeply poignant, with stops everywhere in between. “Suspended disbelief for the bar mitzvah.” “Tikkun olam is my raison d’être.” “Real bagels don’t have jalapeño peppers.” “Skiing? A person could get hurt.” “I’m the Messiah … so are you.”
Contributor Amy Keyishian, a San Francisco-based writer (by way of New York), will be expanding on her six-word memoir (“Half Jewish, half Armenian: All survivor”) at the CJM event. She was drawn to the six-word memoir project not long after it began, when her New York-based friends were sharing ones they’d written. When the website called for entries on Jewish life, Keyishian submitted a few of her own and was thrilled when one had been chosen for the book.
Keyishian says the form seems deceptively easy. “There’s something elemental there, because it’s about distilling your story, which is something writers and storytellers always need to do. It’s not just a question of shortening — it’s finding your hook, finding the emotional button at the center of it, figuring out the moment a story turns around.”
She’s “amazed” by the range of responses a six-word memoir prompt can get. “It’s unbelievable how touching and significant and deep these can be. It made me want mine to be that much better,” she adds.
Smith — whose mission with the project and with Smith Magazine is simply to encourage and spread storytelling — agrees that there’s nothing easy about writing a good six-word memoir. Far from it — he thinks the challenge is a big part of what keeps people coming back.
“It’s extremely addictive because it’s simple, but it’s also complex; it’s literary but it’s also really magical,” he says, adding that Smith Magazine is moving toward publishing longer books of personal narratives and that “we couldn’t have done it without the six-word memoirs.”
Smith is pleased that the books give equal space to the work of regular folks as to accomplished writers and celebrities — though receiving Larry David’s “I should have had the chicken,” was an excellent way to spend Christmas Day last year. The editor will be on hand at the event to sign books.
San Francisco-based contributor David Katznelson, a music producer and co-founder of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, says the creative process took on an almost spiritual element for him.
“It was so much fun, but it was also meaningful,” says Katznelson, who has known Smith for some time; he also heard about the project through Reboot.
“Obviously I wouldn’t say this could replace prayer, but as someone who’s not big on praying, this is a way of taking an intentional step out of your life, slowing down and forcing you to think differently,” he says.
“There’s an intentionality to it. If someone says ‘Tell me why this is your favorite record,’ you can go on for five paragraphs and not say anything … When you have six words, the stakes are higher,” he adds.
“I wanted to talk about what Judaism means to me, which is tradition, celebration, community … and then to some degree ethics and morality. So I sat, and I thought, when I finally had some time after my daughter was asleep, and I wasn’t on the Internet. I had to make time for it.”
Katznelson’s entry? “Life is to dance ‘Hava Nagila.’”
“Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life,” will be celebrated 6:30-8:30 p.m. July 12, Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Members free, public $10. Tickets and information: [email protected]