Ben Romano and I meet over cold brew and jasmine tea in a DC Compass Coffee. It’s no surprise that he’s a songwriter and author – he speaks with careful purpose that does nothing to dampen the obvious, overflowing enthusiasm he holds for the act of artistic expression and creation. Fresh off a Washington Post feature in August 2022, Ben arrives brandishing a beautifully illustrated copy of his book, I Have a Choice. We chat about writing, publishing, moments of inspiration, metaphor, and, of course, our cats. Read on for the full conversation!
Samuel: Hi Ben! You had a pretty amazing 2022, including publishing a book! Tell me about that process.
Ben: This is my children’s book, I Have a Choice. I actually had the idea almost four years ago, living in Cincinnati. At the time, I was thinking about ways I could communicate the principles of the High Holy Days in a meaningful metaphor. My idea was that choices are like leaves and mistakes are like shadows. I wrote two books at the time; I wrote I Have a Choice and I wrote something that was called What Do You Do With a Mistake? I wrote them and then was like: Okay, I have no idea what I’m going to do with this. I have no idea how to ever turn this into a real book.
Samuel: What did writing those initial drafts look like?
Ben: As someone who’s done Jewish music for the last ten years, writing isn’t so different from imagining that you are sitting right in front of a group, or in front of a kid. You’re doing your best to explain a very difficult concept to them in words that they understand. That was the initial work for me, thinking how I might talk this out with a kid who can only understand so many different kinds of words or concepts.
I started thinking about what kinds of choices a kid makes. Different flavors of ice cream. What color am I drawing with today? And at the same time, I thought about what makes up a choice. At the end of the day, what I came out with was that choices are related to what someone cares about. What are the things that make me me? That’s what helps me determine the best choice for myself.
Of course, this iteration of the book is not the original version. I wrote something that was done, in my opinion, and then three years later I came back to it and reworked it, turned it into something else.
Samuel: What changed in that time period?
Ben: The biggest thing was making the transition from words to words with images. I found my illustrator, Emma Adams, on TikTok. I was just swiping through, and really loved her art, and found her Etsy page, Fox and Fables. I reached out on the off chance that she does children’s books, and she said she’d actually just finished her first children’s book and was interested in new opportunities. That was really fortuitous.
At that moment, I was like: Okay, let’s see if we can make I Have a Choice real again. A songwriter friend of mine suggested that I turn the text from prose to poetry – just try it, see what happens. One morning, I woke up, and within an hour I had the finished text. Sometimes you finish something and you just know: This is done. And I had that feeling. And not only that, but I need to copyright this shit right now because I know this is going to be a really beautiful thing.
All of this was well before the Dobbs decision, too.
Samuel: That was something I was really curious about! In the Washington Post, you talked about the alignment between some of the book’s themes and the themes of our real life story here – ongoing legal restriction of choices for women and the LGBTQ+ community in particular. I was wondering how that informed the writing.
Ben: At that point, the writing was mostly completed. But it informed the way I communicated about what the heck [I Have a Choice] was! I’ve crowdfunded two albums of Jewish music [Editor’s Note: Check out Ben’s albums Ehyeh and Ashrei, plus the page for his third project, You Shall Pursue, coming soon! ] and launched the GoFundMe for the book right around [the Dobbs decision]. I thought a lot about choice and it being on everyone’s mind right now. I thought about…How do I ask for support for this idea while also being thoughtful about the real impact and implications of this moment, considering how much pain people are feeling about their ability to make choices? From the perspective of bodily autonomy, but also being able to choose who I’m going to love, or how am I going to practice my religion?
Samuel: As a writer myself, I’m always interested to hear people talk about their creative process and inspiration. You talked earlier about having ideas that you feel like you need to get on the page immediately. What opens that spigot?
Ben: I just finished Dar Williams’ How to Write a Song that Matters. Reading that, I was thinking about my process…for me, an idea is like a nut. Once it gets stuck in your head, you can’t get it out, and it just has to become real because I believe in it so deeply. It becomes a part of me.
[Creating art] is also a product of my experience, being someone who’s grown up and been part of Jewish spaces. There’s a collection of wisdom that’s come to me over time. Part of what I’m meant to do is capture those synapses, those moments of connection where two things you wouldn’t imagine would be connected suddenly come together.
Samuel: With all that knowledge that’s been passed to you, you almost have a responsibility to create and keep passing it along.
Ben: I think I do feel a generational urgency that comes from being Jewish. The sense that, in order to stick around, we need to keep doing Jewish things. I feel like I could die tomorrow, so I need to do this right now in order to put it out in the world. I don’t want to leave this world not having done anything.
Samuel: You mentioned that I Have a Choice was tied to the High Holidays thematically. Could you explain more about that connection?
Ben: Not to shade or put out any truly negative feelings on these kinds of books, but…Judaism has a lot of books that are like “Schlomo Celebrates Hanukkah” or “Barney Goes to Pesach Seder” – children’s books that are meant to teach a certain experience and a specifically Jewish one. It’s important for our kids and our educators to have those sorts of books as resources for kids to say: Oh, that’s just like me! That’s really good. But I tried not to do something focused on the particulars like that. I finished the book after the High Holy Days and thought of the story as a way to capture the essence of all those things that might get thrown at you when you sit down at a service.
Samuel: We’ve only got a few more minutes together, so I have a few closing questions. First off, GatherDC is [Editor’s Note: not entirely, but mostly] a team of cat people. Tell me about yours!
Ben: His name is Motzi Lechem. That’s the blessing for bread.
Samuel: Is that a cat loaf pun?
Ben: It totally is, one hundred percent. It’s also, like…my wife suggested we name him Mozart. It’s a cute name, we’re both musicians. But we settled on Motzi because we thought that would be really cute, too.
Samuel: Apart from, of course, I Have a Choice by Ben Romano, what’s the greatest piece of art you’ve encountered recently?
Ben: Right now I’m really hot on this song by Theo Katzman of Vulfpeck – it’s called “All’s Well That Ends Well.” What’s interesting about it Jewishly is that it uses a story we often share in Jewish contexts about not always immediately thinking about whether what just happened was a good or bad thing. It could be good, it could be bad, we don’t know!
Samuel: You can have Shabbat dinner with any three people – who are they and why?
Ben: Martin Buber, author of I and Thou. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. And my great-grandfather, Grandpa Mike, who ran a fur coat business and helped get people out of the camps [during the Holocaust] [Editor’s Note: More on Meilach Winick’s story can be found here]. If there’s room for a fourth, Viktor Frankl.
Samuel: We can pull up a chair.
Ben: There’s a chair for Elijah, there can be a chair for Viktor Frankl. He writes this idea that, between stimulus and response, comes our freedom and power to choose. I definitely wanted to put that idea into I Have a Choice, the idea that when something happens to us, that opportunity to pause and think about what might be our response to it…that’s our freedom. That’s power.
Samuel: Last one. Finish the sentence for me: When Jews of the DMV gather…
Ben: We express the ongoing revelation that started at Mount Sinai. Through small moments of meaning and connection that come – even when we don’t realize that what we say has a full impact on someone else – we become angels for each other.
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