“I’ve always found that writing and illustrating can slow the world down a bit so a person can think harder; if it doesn’t sound too pretentious, that’s partly what religion tries to do—to stop you in your hasty tracks and remind you of what’s going on; what’s right and just; what’s a priority and what’s a distraction.”
These are the words of Michael J. Rosen, the award-winning Jewish author and illustrator in our midst. Rosen lives on a 100 acre property in the foothills of the Appalachians east of Columbus and has published over 100 assorted works, such as children’s books, adult novels, cookbooks, poetry and even haikus. He has also written several Jewish books, including his newest work, Chanukah Lights, coming out this September. The celebrated writer and self-proclaimed “fidosopher” gave us an exclusive sneak peak into this astonishing pop-up book and told us about his life as an author and beyond.
Growing up in Columbus, Rosen had a precious number of interests and talents. He delighted in the beauties of nature and art and loved investigating how things worked. He says, “When I was a kid, I looked for myself in books. We all do. We want to see our story between the lines of another person’s story. We want to be identified. Having grown up as a Jew and a minority, I feel that I need to continue in that role, and share the stories that aren’t being told.”
Rosen also recalls a letter from pre-school in which his teacher describes him in a way that’s nearly identical to how he is today: “I talked fast, I was always the first person to notice something, I was involved in all the activities, always socializing with people and always willing to help. This is me…done by the age of almost four!”
In terms of his Jewish identity, Rosen attended Sunday school, worked with a tutor for his Bar Mitzvah and involved himself in every area of the local Jewish Community Center. But he notes that his real connection to Judaism is cultural, having the good fortune of growing up with both sets of grandparents and a great grandmother in the neighborhood, with whom he and his family celebrated Jewish traditions. Rosen feels that he incorporates his Jewish values into his books, claiming, “I have come to feel that the moral, guiding principals of Judaism—whether tzedakah (charity) or compassion—are profound influences. Regardless of the subject matter or whether the material has specific Jewish content or not, my approach is informed by what I think to be an upbringing informed by Judaic tradition.”
Rosen declared himself a pre-med major, studied zoology, and enrolled in medical school at St. George’s University in Grenada, West Indies. Even so, he continued to write poetry, take ceramics classes, and teach writing to young children. “What I had taken to be my avocations eventually became my livelihood,” he says, which is why he decided to switch gears and obtain an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. Thus, a critically acclaimed writer and illustrator was born.
When I asked the author to explain his writing process, he replied, “I think every writer has to pay attention to his or her own rhythms, factor out distractions, factor in discipline to provide the ideal circumstances, times and environment to produce the best work.” These factors have changed for Rosen over the years, from living in the city to living in the country, and from working in a small studio to working in a spacious area with room for interns from nearby universities. “Inspiration doesn’t ‘hit’,’” he says, quoting another Jewish American poet, Richard Howard: “You strike UNTIL the iron is hot.” Rosen constantly carries a notebook upon which he strikes that iron.
When it comes to illustrating, Rosen demonstrates a similar preparedness, with fountain pens and magic markers always in tow and an irrepressible tendency to draw on napkins and paper tablecloths. He is primarily a sketcher and a drawer, finding inspiration from many different illustrators, particularly Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast.
Beyond the artistic or literary qualities of Rosen’s books, they often serve to promote great causes. The author has partnered with numerous charities, including Share Our Strength, where he particularly felt his talents could be utilized. “I don’t have a lot of time or a lot of money. I’m not very good at arguing and debating and being political. But when the organization asked if I could write a story to benefit their cause, the answer was ‘absolutely!’ And that request was transformative. I immediately went back to Share Our Strength with the idea to take this anthology concept to others and edit children’s books whose profits would help their work to end childhood hunger.”
One such book is Home, an illustrated work that 31 children’s book authors and illustrators created to help the homeless. Rosen then started working with different writers, illustrators and photographers to produce books to benefit a granting program he began in 1990, The Company of Animals Fund. With profits from seven books and two traveling art exhibits, the Fund was able to donate $370,000 to 100 animal welfare organizations in ten years!
Fifteen years in the making, Chanukah Lights, Rosen’s fourth book surrounding the holiday had to be different. For this collaboration, he researched the original, fundamental aspects of the holiday, engaging experts such as Cincinnati’s Rabbi Steven Greenberg. Focusing on the dedication—the re-dedication that is the essence of Chanukah—Rosen learned that, “We light the lights as a means of saying, ‘I choose to be Jewish again. I continue my commitment to God and the Jewish people.’” To help him bring the book to life, Rosen enlisted the help of internationally-acclaimed illustrator Robert Sabuda. Rosen explains that he and Sabuda decided to do the book in pop-up because, “We wanted something dramatic, that could come alive in three dimensions. So our idea was to make each page into a window, just as Menorahs are to be placed in the window to show the world I’m Jewish and dedicating myself to my faith.” Each page or window depicts a moment in Jewish history: from the desecration of the Temple to a Russian shtetl, from a refugee ship to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The beautiful windows are meant to illuminate these experiences and their impressions on Jewish History.
Upon my inquiry of what’s next for the author, he replied, “Surviving all of this work and touring!” Rosen refers to his upcoming book tour across America, and will be promoting his four new books, including Chanukah Lights, in Cincinnati at “Books by the Banks” on October 22.
To find out more about Michael J. Rosen and his new books, visit www.fidosopher.com.
Sharona Balk is an English Communications major with a focus in Advertising at Stern College in New York City. She thrives on the excitement of the city but also enjoys basking in the quiet of her hometown, Cincinnati. Sharona loves to write, eat, needlepoint, learn new things and laugh with family and friends. But her favorite pastime is singing- a talent she hones in her school’s acapella group as well as in the shower. Sharona was interning at David’s Voice this summer and hopes to continue her involvement in the Jewish community at large.