“If it was easy everyone would be doing it” — doing the important things, like writing a book, is hard. It takes work, patience and most of all a great deal of time. My work on Fighting Back extended over a nearly 20-year period. But there is some solace in the fact that only a persistent few are able to stay the course and accomplish their dream of not just becoming a writer but producing something of which they can be justifiably proud.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeffrey Weiss.
Jeffrey Weiss is the co-author of I Am My Brother’s Keeper: American Volunteers in Israel’s War for Independence (1998) and FIGHTING BACK: Stan Andrews and the Birth of the Israeli Air Force — release date is May 17. He was featured in the 2014 Nancy Spielberg documentary, Above and Beyond. Brothers; Jeffrey is fluent in Hebrew. Jeffrey studied law at Bar Ilan University and in 2022, made Aliyah to Israel.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I am one of seven children — with my mother having had at least one child in every decade from the 1950s to the 1980s. My oldest sister was born in 1959 and my youngest brother in 1981 when I was a sophomore in college. I was part of the group born in the 1960s. I am a fan of big families. I love the fun and the chaos.
My Dad worked for a number of years for IBM. They used to joke that the initials IBM stand for “I’ve Been Moved” and he was transferred a number of times before I turned 12. By that time, I had lived in New York, California and then, after he was done with IBM, we moved to Arizona. I think experiencing different places got into my blood to an extent, and in the 41 years since I turned 18, I have lived in Massachusetts, Israel, California, Oklahoma, D.C., Arizona, Maryland, New York and Florida.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
I don’t think there was a single book but more the experience, which I first had in high school, of reading in clusters. I saw a television movie about Caryl Chessman, the infamous red-light bandit who became a legendary jailhouse lawyer before the State of California finally executed him. I found out that he had written a memoir while in jail and I read it. I became fascinated by the genre of prison memoirs — which basically relayed the different ways in which people tried to use the period of their incarceration to better themselves in some way — and over the next few years read every one that I could get my hands on. I later applied that approach to books about baseball history, the Vietnam war, great American trial lawyers, World War II, the history of Israel’s pre-state underground movements, Israel’s War of Independence, the shared history of India and Pakistan, distance running and Ironman triathlon, personal development/growth mindset, and so on.
It has served me well in my career and personal life to really go deep, to learn everything that I can about something that is interesting to me and that I care about. The clusters approach to reading was essential to giving me the confidence to tackle the writing of my own non-fiction books.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
When I was a litigator, I was once arguing jury instructions before a federal court judge when my phone suddenly rang. As I rushed to turn it off, the judge looked at me and said: “That’s going to be a very expensive phone call Mr. Weiss,” meaning that he was going to fine me for the infraction. I was mortified and I apologized briefly but sincerely. I saw him soften immediately and that was the end of the episode — there was no fine. I think that people can quickly sense authenticity and they are drawn to it. He realized how much the incident had embarrassed me, that I was genuinely sorry, that I meant no disrespect, and thus that there was no need to impose any additional punishment beyond that. What started out as an incredibly embarrassing moment became, in the end, one that showed me the power of a sincere apology.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
FIGHTING BACK: Stan Andrews and the Birth of the Israeli Air Force, which is available for purchase through Amazon May 17, will make a social impact by provoking readers to think about the big issues in life, the path that they are on, and whether their actions are aligned with what really matters to them. On one level of course, the book is about the exploits of Stan Andrews, a World War II veteran and one of the first fighter pilots in the history of the Israeli Air Force — a charismatic and talented individual who led a dazzling life. On another level, it is about Jewish identity and the relationship between Jews and the State of Israel. More universally, I think the book is about an individual who changed the entire arc of his life and in the end made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that he cared about. I think we would all do well to think about the journey that we are on and whether we are making choices, for example with respect to our personal relationships, careers, lifestyle, and so on that reflect the things that we really believe in and that matter to us. If we are off course, we should be prepared to take dramatic action to get ourselves back on track.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
I had really wanted to track down a woman named Virginia — I did not know her last name — who had been Stan’s girlfriend when he was at UCLA in 1947 and 1948. I had interviewed two of Stan’s friends who had known her but neither could recall her last name and I finally gave up on ever finding her, or her children if she turned out to be deceased. Then, one night I had a dream that a letter that Stan had written to one of his friends included Virginia’s phone number. I went back and re-read the letter. It did not actually include her phone number of course — just her first name but also an address which I had seen before, and which had not helped me in my prior searching since the street had not existed since the 1950s. Nevertheless, inspired by the dream, I decided that I needed to take one more look at this. An additional week of searching led me to the San Antonio historical society and through it to an old registry of some kind that gave me the last name of the family — Carvel — that had lived at that address in the 1940s. It was, thankfully, an unusual last name and some additional internet searching led me first to a distant relative of Virginia’s and then to one of her children, a woman named Jennifer. Virginia had in fact passed away a few years before, but Jennifer was a tremendous source of information, and sent me two wonderful photos that appear in the book.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
One of the things that fascinated Stan was the World War II adage that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” While at UCLA he wrote several short stories on that theme. Stan regarded himself as an atheist and his stories would put the protagonist, a fictionalized version of himself, in a scene of extreme danger and then explore whether he in fact would call out to God to save him. Stan’s final mission, in which the bomber that he was on was shot down behind Egyptian lines during a climactic battle in Israel’s War of Independence, tracked in uncanny ways the plot of one of these stories, which he had titled “Milk Run.” My face flushed as I read it. For me there was always a spiritual element to my effort to tell Stan’s story. I felt drawn to tell it, felt that in some ways he had left behind clues for me. It had been Stan’s goal to write a book about his experiences, and over time I felt that his goal had become mine, to finish a project that he had cared about so deeply.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I shared several drafts of the manuscript with a niece of Stan’s, a daughter of his older sister. She told me that her mother had often spoken of Stan and what an amazing person he had been. His death had clearly haunted the niece’s mother. The niece thanked me profusely for writing this book, telling me that it had not just allowed her to learn about her remarkable uncle but also to understand her mother and her mother’s pain so much better.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- I think we need to encourage people to think about life goals — to try to define one (or several for that matter) and to then figure out how to organize their life so as to best be able to achieve it. Whether it is a person or a company, I think it is great to be “mission-driven.” This can be a challenge for politicians — though John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” line may be a classic example. It is more an issue for educators, spiritual leaders, and parents to address.
- I also believe that community leaders can encourage young people in particular to learn more about their identity — be it ethnic, religious, or otherwise — and to be proud of where they come from. I think a strong sense of identity is important to self-confidence and personal well-being.
- Finally, I do think there is great value in learning history. In the case of Israel’s War of Independence, the setting for Fighting Back, there is much in the history that led to that war that would surprise people today, and yet that is so crucial to understanding why true peace has for so long eluded this area of the world.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I would define it as bold action that inspires others. It is a cliché, but the greatest leaders are those who lead by example, those whom others naturally want to follow. Military history is filled with stories of leaders like these — Stan Andrews was certainly one.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- “If it was easy everyone would be doing it” — doing the important things, like writing a book, is hard. It takes work, patience and most of all a great deal of time. My work on Fighting Back extended over a nearly 20-year period. But there is some solace in the fact that only a persistent few are able to stay the course and accomplish their dream of not just becoming a writer but producing something of which they can be justifiably proud.
- “If not now, when” — I have come to believe that it is helpful to always have a sense of urgency. To the greatest extent possible, we should err on the side of getting things done at the moment that we realize that we need to do them in order to advance what matters to us. Internalizing this attitude, to the point where it becomes second nature, is essential to being able to maintain relentless forward progress.
- “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” — writers are prone to perfectionism. We want to write the best book that we are capable of writing, something that will truly hold up, that will stand the test of time. And yet, an obsession with perfection can be paralyzing. It can make it hard to put words on a page day after day, words that may not be perfect but that are good and that will become progressively better during the revising process. True perfection is an illusion. We need instead to focus on always doing good work and, within reason, constantly seeking to improve.
- “Fortune favors the bold” — We should not be afraid to chase after our dreams. It is natural to experience self-doubt, a concern that we are not up to the task. With my first book I kept expecting interview subjects to ask if I had written any prior books and, upon discovering that I hadn’t, to dismiss me as not being a real writer. No one ever asked. Had I allowed my doubt and lack of confidence to hold me back, I would never have been able to achieve my dream of becoming a writer.
- “Who is wise, he who learns from every person” — everyone that we meet has had some life experience that we haven’t had and knows some things that we don’t know. If we think ourselves wise, we will try to learn from every person that we meet. This is, certainly, a critical attitude for anyone who is embarking on a non-fiction writing project that will involve a great deal of interviewing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I really love Mary Oliver’s “What is the one thing you plan to do with your wild precious life?” It is so important to pursue our dreams, to take chances, to recognize that looking back we will regret more the things that we never dared to try, rather than those that we tried and failed. That attitude led me not just into writing but also to a relatively late career change and to marathons, ultramarathons, and Ironman triathlons.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
The person I would most like to have a conversation with would be Sebastian Junger. I love his books — Tribe and War are my personal favorites. They are profoundly insightful. They reflect not just that he has thought deeply and researched thoroughly his subjects and that he knows how to tell a good story, but they also reflect his personal immersion in the subject matter — especially War. Junger seems to have very consciously lived his life in a way that will expose him to things that will make him a better writer — sometimes at significant personal risk — and I am truly impressed by that.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
For better or worse, I am not active on social media. The best way to follow my work is by reading my books or by watching the 2014 Nancy Spielberg documentary “Above and Beyond,” in which I appear.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Jeffrey Weiss Is Helping to Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.