AUTHOR, AUTHOR, AUTHOR : Bagels : Noah benShea writes about the person he aspires to be. In ‘Jacob’s Journey,’ that man sets out to reconcile his route to reality.
Here it is, fall in Ventura County, that ripest of times for apples, lemons, kiwi fruits, pumpkins, pomegranates, artichokes, avocados, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, mushrooms, spinach, squash and new books.
Yes, new books. Three writers from this area have been cultivating new projects, and their works make a strange new crop.
“Jacob’s Journey” is a contemplative novel by Noah benShea, the erstwhile leader of a Carpinteria bagel company. The author is expected to speak at 6 p.m. Friday in the Ventura Bookstore in Ventura.
“Tricks of the Trade” is a paperback collection of practical and impractical advice (subjects include checkers and bullfighting; advisers include Chevy Chase and Kareem Abdul Jabbar), all gathered by Jerry Dunn of Ojai.
And “Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast” is just that--an exhaustive yet goofy guide by UC Santa Barbara researcher Robin Milton Love. At the Channel Islands National Park office in Ventura, rangers say the book is the best available guide to fish off this county’s coastline.
Here, Ventura County Life offers a closer inspection of the books and their authors.
In the mid-'70s, at age 30, Noah benShea was a fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, the prestigious think tank in Santa Barbara. One day, he and a visitor from New York were walking the grounds of the center. The man, benShea said, asked him where he lived, and benShea pointed to a bucolic hilltop where he and his wife, Danyel, had just purchased a home, modest in all respects except for the view. The man looked at benShea and simply said, “Don’t blow it.”
He didn’t. Fifteen years later, he is one of the owners of the New York Bagel Factory, a thriving multimillion-dollar gourmet bread business, selling bagels and breads to Vons and the Price Club in Ventura County, and to purveyors across the country.
He is also the author of “Jacob’s Journey,” 30,000 copies of which have just been released by Villard. It is the companion volume to his international best seller, “Jacob the Baker,” published in 1989. Both are slim novels, slight of plot but full of lyrical distillations of common sense, parables, aphorisms, inspiration and truth. While they can be read in less than an hour, one might be tempted to keep them by the bedside for a lifetime.
Both novels are about a baker who has a habit of writing down bits of wisdom on little pieces of paper. In “Jacob the Baker,” one of these papers accidentally gets baked into a loaf of bread, and Jacob is discovered by a public hungry for solutions to the puzzles of life.
One can’t help make the analogy to a Jewish fortune cookie. And like a trade exchange with Confucius’ sayings, “Jacob the Baker” was enormously successful in Asia, selling more than 200,000 copies in Korea. It has been translated into nine languages and, in this country, it was on the Chicago Tribune’s best-seller lists.
Given the success of “Jacob the Baker,” it isn’t surprising that the new book deals with the consequences of fame and the isolation that comes from being considered wiser than other people.
“In many regards, success means doing something other than what you have been successful at,” benShea said. To get away from his “fame,” Jacob sets out on a journey of self-discovery or, as he puts it, “reconciling his route to reality.” In one of his succinct truisms, Jacob says: “Our path in life is often not our decision, but how we decide to live with decisions that have already been made.”
“Jacob’s Journey” is dedicated to the quiet heroism of those who carry on.
BenShea has been crisscrossing the country promoting the new book. He will speak and sign books at the Ventura Bookstore at 6 p.m. Friday.
At home for a few days before leaving to be scholar in residence for a week at the University of Texas, he welcomes a visitor into his sunlit hilltop house. It is surprisingly modest and impressively comfortable.
Now in his mid-40s, benShea is affable and gracious with a bushy reddish beard and blue eyes. He is called a poet and a philosopher and is unabashedly religious. He also drives a Porsche. His manner combines earnest fervor with self-deprecation.
When an interviewer on a Chicago radio show recently asked him, “How could you have so much wisdom on 112 pages?” he responded: “I don’t know. When I wrote the book, there were 75 pages.” But he is quick to reach for the book, to read from it and use it to illustrate a point.
In his office, filled with family pictures, mementos and symbols of Jewish faith, he admits that Jacob’s habit of scribbling on little pieces of paper is also his, and he opens a file drawer, scooping out handfuls of scraps and cocktail napkins to prove it.
Jacob and his creator are also both bakers, with benShea insisting that Jacob is a baker who writes, while he is a writer who owns a bakery. BenShea crafted Jacob’s words, but Jacob is really the person that benShea aspires to be.
“I wrote Jacob in order to be Jacob.”
He began writing when he was in his 20s. Born in Toronto and raised in a poor section of Los Angeles’ inner city, he was the first person in his extended family to graduate from high school. He went on to UCLA, where he was made an assistant dean of students at 22.
His first book, a collection of poetry, won the Schull Award for new poetry. After its publication, he began to travel and give poetry readings, which eventually became talks that reflected his own attempts to make sense of life. It was then that he began to create the stories about Jacob.
Over the next few years, he was invited to be on the faculty of a number of schools and colleges. The president of the International College once looked at a collection of his stories, he said, and told him: “You know, Noah, if you were a 65-year-old rabbi, people would think this was the compilation of a lifetime. But from a 28-year-old man, people are really going to be suspicious.”
Although he continued to write, he said that in his 30s, he gave up public appearances.
“At 30, I just wasn’t sure I was wise--or prepared to be any kind of a guru figure,” he said. “I was uncomfortable with the responsibility that people wanted to coronate me with.”
Between 30 and 45, he says, he began the bakery business, raised a family and said goodby to his father.
“These experiences connected me with a sense of compassion and kindness that was the final bonding between myself and so many of my readers,” he said.
About five years ago, a former student, now the editor at a small publishing company, contacted him about doing a book using the stories and parables benShea used to tell.
“It took me six months to find the right attitude,” benShea said, “and two years to put together the things I had written over the previous 18 years of my life.”
Then came “Jacob’s Journey,” which is also filled with quotable, elementary and useful sayings such as “Reality is only a memory ahead of its time” and “People who grow old can also grow love.”
BenShea is one of those rare individuals who splits his time with ease between the world of business and the isolated work of writing. He writes at home in the morning, then goes off to the factory in the afternoon.
“For many people today, work is singularly a vehicle for the release from work,” he said. “What makes my work such an indulgence is that it is a challenge that is endlessly enriching for me.”
Like a modern-day Santa Claus at the North Pole, benShea receives letters addressed simply to Jacob the Baker, Santa Barbara, California.
But in case he gets too cocky about his new-found success, he has his children to keep it in perspective.
One time he asked his 15-year-old daughter: “Do you know what the definition of a giant is?” She just looked at her watch and said, “Is this going to be one of the long ones or the short ones?”
As it turned out, it was one of the short ones: “A giant is anyone who remembers we are all sitting on someone else’s shoulders.” Short in words, long in clarity.
Noah benShea will be speaking at the Ventura Bookstore at 600 E. Main St., Ventura, at 6 p.m. Friday. His book “Jacob’s Journey” (published by Villard, a division of Random House, $17) is the companion volume to the international best seller “Jacob the Baker.” For information, call 643-4069.
From “Jacob’s Journey”
We usually fall asleep in our relationships, not because we are tired of love but so we can dream of new relationships.
Wisdom surrounds us. It is seldom hidden but often overlooked. When we shut our eyes, the truth does not go into hiding.
Like life itself, your children are a gift to you, and only expectation can find disappointment in gifts that have not been opened.
Anyone who has suffered a loss knows that a man does not have to be a hero for his death to be a tragedy.
Experience is a mask we wear to hide our innocence.
Only those who are afraid to fear, fear too much. Strength is not the absence of weakness but how we wrestle WITH our weakness.