Yori Yanover: An Interview

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Yori Yanover is an intense personality. Hey, the guy has a Gawker category named after him, Yori Is the Next Shmuley.

He’s also the author of The Cabalist’s Daughter, which we told you about yesterday. It’s a novel that’s sort of 24-meets-Apocalypse Now-meets-the-Apocalypse novel about the Lubavitcher Rebbe dying, his followers creating a clone, and the clone turning out to be a girl.

Last night, at Mimaamakim‘s remarkable Jewish open mic, we got a chance to meet in person. It’s always awkward to meet someone whom you’ve just written about. Square that when it’s onstage in front of a bunch of people. Factor in any potential uncomfortability that might come about if the book wasn’t a good one. Fortunately, it was, and fortunately, Mr. Yanover is just as large and funny and unhinged in real life as he is on the page — and even more Douglas Adams-dik — and so all was good on the Lower East Side.

A few days previous, we’d corresponded via email. Here’s our first e-meeting, in all its unexpurgated glory. He opened by talking about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
which, somehow, was not surprising.

How did you first get the idea for writing The Cabalist’s Daughter?

The moment I opened the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I knew I wanted to do to Yiddishkeit what Douglas Adams had done to science and philosophy: Turn it into a comic book, into brain candy. This is definitely a work of love.

The Messiah is a 20-year-old sexy redhead who’s a Hasidic Jew and sometimes — allegedly — dresses like Wonder Woman. Why her?

First, because I’m the father of a daughter (who’s almost 18 — will be this summer). Also, in Hasidic tradition, as well as in the general culture, the Princess represents the spirit of the nation (in Likutei Moharan, more than anywhere else). Knesset Israel is also [represented by] a young woman in Song of Songs. So there’s a lot in our common memory that makes a young woman very precious and standing for everything that’s good in us.

Your first book was a nonfiction book about the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, published in Hebrew. There are a lot of specific characters with more than a passing resemblance to actual figures in Chabad. What’s your background with Lubavitch?

Dancing and Crying, published in 1994 and written over the previous two years, was my first introduction to Lubavitch. Through the interviews with everybody who was anybody, I could appreciate how some in the movement responded as grownups to the illness of their leader, others behaved as children.

But you couldn’t help falling in love with this group, which has accepted the role of modern-day Levites for the Jewish people. In 1998 I practically twisted the arms of the bosses at the Lubavitch News Service to hire me as editor of their news and as idea man in the effort to create their international website. I look at it these days and I feel a great deal of affection, and some pride. These days, though, my relationship with Lubavitch is strictly friendship.

What made you specifically decide to portray Chabad in the book, as opposed to another Hasidic denomination or making up your own? What made you change their name?

The early drafts used the actual Rebbe and the actual movement. I later realized that the less specific those details would be, the broader the scope of potential readers. So I made the Chabad references an inside joke in the book — if you get it, it’s meaningful; if you don’t, it won’t detract from your pleasure.

Is this your first novel? What were you doing in the 14 years since your last book?

This is my first published novel. Coming soon from Ben Yehuda Press: Gideon Trumpeted, which is written under a pseudonym, and intended for children. It’s a biblical time travel novel. They’re planning it as a series.

There’s a book for young adults coming as well, about a crazy couple with eight adopted children on Grand Street. I’m also working on the next grownup novel, which will be a bit darker than the Cabalist’s Daughter, but also on a Jewish theme.

Since Dancing and Crying, I worked as editor of the Jewish Communication Network, the very first Jewish webzine (1994-98), then LNS, which I ran concurrent with USAJewish.com, the first daily Jewish news blog. Back then, I managed to make money on the news blog. Then the Internet died for a while and I worked as designer for the new Reform prayer book. In 2004 I founded The Grand Street News, a local monthly, which I own and publish on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

It’s a pretty wild story you’re telling. It’s part road trip, part action movie, and part, well, Bible. How did you get the experience to write the small-town sections, the military sections…the woman sections? And how do you know about, say, El Paso, Texas, and Scranton, PA?

I’m 54 years old, I’ve done a lot, took part in one war, worked as journalist on and off since age 17, and I’m married. I was involved for a while, back in the 1980s, in a stereo business, and drove out a lot to Binghamton, NY, where the famed Macintosh amps were made. On the way I always stopped in Scranton, which to me remains the face of middle USA. I also traveled a bit cross country as a younger man. I know Texas from visiting San Antonio.

Some allusions and concepts in The Cabalist’s Daughter will probably only be fully understood by Hasidic Jews. On the other hand, there are some very un-Orthodox parts to the book, like when Nechama Gutkind touches men…not to mention some of your reinterpretations of the Torah. Who did you have in mind when you were writing this?

I’m not a serious scholar. This is a comic book about the tradition, not a study book. It’s certainly not a book of halacha. And its central message is that you don’t have to be Jewish to be redeemed. So my target audience are readers who hunger for something spiritual, but don’t take themselves or life too seriously. At least, not all the time.

What was going through your head when you wrote the excerpts from the Cabbalist’s Handbook for Practical Messianic Redemption? Were there specific commentators? Specific authors?

Almost all of those segments, with one or two exceptions, are based on midrashim. Our homiletic literature is so rich and so wild, I used to gulp it up like the wildest works science fiction. The Spiritual Continuum of Everything is my invention, though, and there I get to enter all my own political and social biases. I even get to be nasty to Jimmy Carter (yeah!). A little bit came from the Guide to the Perplexed. A little is straightforward Gemara.

What sort of response has the book gotten so far? Has there been anyone, Jew-wise, who you were afraid of showing it to — and have you shown it to them yet?

I was stunned by some of the positive responses. There isn’t a person to whom I would be afraid to show the book. Including the pope.

Why do you think the Lubavitcher Rebbe never had kids?

Because he couldn’t.

Shlomo Carlebach said that Reb Menachem Mendel Schneerson had a choice between being the rebbe of the world or the rebbe of Lubavitch, and he chose the latter. I definitely think that he could have been as big as the Dalai Lama in terms of universal reach, and even more opinionated and more influential. I don’t know why he opted not to go to the max. I think that’s a much more crucial question than the one about his not having children.

Posted on April 29, 2009

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