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A Conversation
with Mort Zachter,
author of Dough: A Memoir
by John McLeod, Marketing Director
of the University of Georgia Press

1. You talk about guilt as being one of the driving forces in Jewish life. Do you think guilt was part of what made your family such hard workers? You do not directly address the Holocaust in your book, but by guilt being a driving force in Jewish life, are you offering that past as a major backdrop to this story?

Guilt was a factor in why my mother worked in the Store; she felt sorry for her mother and later, my uncle Joe. Perhaps Uncle Joe was also motivated by guilt and loyalty to his brother. Uncle Harry, as the dominant force in the family, was driven by a desire to accumulate wealth. I don’t think he felt guilty about much. Dough has nothing to do with the Holocaust. My family left Europe on the eve of WWI, not WWII. It’s merely a coincidence that a key monetary figure in Dough is fraught with Holocaust implications.

2. One of the postcards you find in your uncle’s apartment from a customer laments the changing face of the neighborhood saying, “I can’t bear to see the best stores on the Lower East Side closing – and all being replaced with such garbage – art galleries and boutiques, all selling junk, when what we need is bread...” How do you feel about the changes and gentrification in the neighborhood where you came of age?

I have mixed feelings. Today, when I’m lucky enough to walk the streets of the East Village, I can still visualize what the store fronts looked like when I was a kid in the 1960s and I now appreciate the longing my father felt driving down Second Avenue recalling his youth. But New York City has always been a dynamic, ever-changing place; that’s what makes it great. The down side of the constant change is that the working class is gradually being squeezed out. The recent sale of a major middle-class housing project on First Avenue above 14 th Street -- only a few blocks north of the Store -- is a prime example of this. Yet, despite the changes, I miss the city and I hope to move back someday, hopefully before the rents get to high.

3. What’s become of the bakery?

The bakery still exists in the same spot my grandmother picked in 1926 and another family of Eastern European descent owns it. They operate it in much the same way my family did -- nothing is baked on the premises. But the current owners, a nice young married couple with a son, keep a more traditional set of business hours and live a more balanced life than my uncles.

4. The city of New York is as much a character in your memoir as your relatives. Can you talk about how the Lower East Side shaped your family's story?

My family was among the last downtown holdouts of a generation of immigrants that came to America at the beginning of the 20 th century. The traditional immigrant values of hard work and personal sacrifice that so typified that place and time, deeply influenced them. The chapter, Waiting for Cohn, attempts to show this and how my family was not only shaped by the Lower East Side, but were, themselves, an integral part of its history.

5. How do you think your wealth has changed you as a person? Say things had been different, and you had grown up in an affluent household. How would you be a different person today?

I believe my values remain very much the same as they were before my financial windfall. I judge people by their character, not their financial status. Had I grown up in an affluent household, I doubt I would appreciate my good fortune as much.

6. Your family was bound together by work and religion. Does that hold true for you today?

Yes. I feel a sense of responsibility to utilize the opportunity I’ve been given to do well for my family, as well as my community, through my work and my faith.

7. What do you teach your own children about money?

My children are aware of our good fortune. Teaching them limits, however, is a work in progress. As my mother would say, “They’re young yet.” But I lead by example: I drive a Honda and I’m certainly no slave to fashion. They see that my great indulgence is how I choose to spend my time doing what I love: writing.

8. What are you doing professionally now that you have financial freedom? Are there any other writing plans in the works?

With the ability to write full-time, I’m now working on a biography of the legendary Brooklyn Dodger first baseman and manager of the 1969 World Champion New York Mets, Gil Hodges. The man was a mench, an honorable and decent person. The book will be published in 2009 by the University of Nebraska Press. The working title is Gil Hodges: The Man Behind the Miracle.

9. Dough has an unusual structure. The chapters alternate between the more recent past, beginning with Mr. Geary’s 1994 phone call, and the distant past, beginning with the 1947 snow storm. Why did you structure the book this way?

In one of the early versions of Dough, I structured the manuscript in four parts as seasons of a person’s life with each part beginning with a scene involving the cleaning up of my uncles’ apartment. Those scenes would end with the finding of a particular object and then flashback to the past. That version’s structure, with the exception of the clean-up scenes, was strictly chronological.

One night during a memoir writing class I was taking at the 92 nd Street Y with the incomparable, Hettie Jones, I was reading the scene of the phone call from Mr. Geary to the class. Hettie cut me off in the middle of my reading, “Mort,” she said, “that is where your book should start.” And that is why “Awakening” is Dough’s first chapter. The balance of the book, intertwining the distant past and the more recent past, hopes to show how our memories can be influenced by subsequent discoveries.

I took the unusual step, for a memoir, of indicating the year, or years, covered in each chapter in order to alleviate any confusion the reader may have because of the back and forth structure. If I had the time, I would have loved to play with the order again, and, after “Awakening”, go strictly chronological and see how that reads. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the editors at UGA, suggested that since the book won a literary award as currently structured, it might be a good idea to leave it as is. I did.

10. Why does Dough have so many epigraphs?

The manuscript that Kyoko Mori selected to win the AWP Prize had epigraphs in only about two-thirds of the chapters. After the manuscript was sent to UGA, I then learned something about editors: they don’t always agree. Andrew Berzanskis, the acquisitions editor, suggested I have fewer epigraphs. I followed his suggestions and cut out many of them. Later, the head of UGA’s editorial department, Jennifer Reichlin, read Dough, and suggested, for consistency purposes, I have an epigraph for every chapter. I then added the epigraphs I had removed, and, at a very late hour, had to find some new ones for those chapters that never had one.

11. Your book seems to reinforce a particularly negative stereotype of Jewish people being money hoarders. Did you have mixed feelings about telling this story because of that stereotype?

Yes. Initially, as I worked on the manuscript, the only individual portions I submitted to magazines for publication, such as A Tale of Urban Renewal, did not directly involve the money-hoarding aspect. With the publication of the full manuscript, by telling my story in a humane and humorous way I hope to offset that unfortunate view. Ultimately, those who wish to stereotype Jewish people will do so, with, or without, the existence of my book.

 
   
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