My name is Noah benShea, and I am a Pulitzer Prize-nominated international bestselling author of 23 books that have been translated into 18 languages. My father and mother, who have passed, are proud of a great deal more on my bio, but that is enough to begin this “How I Did It” story.
I am from a blue-collar family and the first person in my family to graduate from high school let alone college. Academic achievement was my rocket ship out of my circumstances to the other side of the tracks.
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By the age of 22, I was an assistant dean of students at UCLA, and I knew that I wanted to be a poet. I also knew that poets never had to worry about selling out because there was no one buying.
A collection of my poetry entitled Don’t Call It Anything won first prize from the oldest poetry society in California, the Southern California Poetry Society, and was published when I was 24.
Consequently, I spent my mid and late 20s being invited to speak and was introduced as a poet, philosopher and theologian. But by 30, I was convinced that no matter what anyone else thought, I still had a lot to learn. My wife and I moved to England, and shortly after, we discovered that we were going to have a baby. Or, as my mother liked to say, “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell her your plans.”
I had already been on the faculty of several universities and think tanks, including the International University in Los Angeles and the Center for Humanities at USC, and so I was invited to be a fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, Calif., and moved there in 1975. The Center is the world’s first long-range think tank, preceding the famed Club of Rome. The founding and central figure at the Center was Robert Hutchins, who became the dean of Yale Law School at 28, and later hired Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to serve on its faculty.
By 30, Hutchins was appointed president of the University of Chicago and went on to head the Ford Foundation before envisioning the Center as a place to bring the world’s best minds together to discuss and work on social issues. The concept was civilized and Quixotic, and for both reasons quietly disappeared with Hutchins’ death by the late 1970s.
At this point, everything I had done in my life was with the intention of making the world a better place, and because everything I had done was verbal and intellectual—and because I loved cooking—my next step was to open a bakery. Go figure. I thought it would be fun and it turned out to be a success, but that’s a very different story.
But when the bakery started to unfold, my friend Aron Hirt-Manheimer, who had been a student of mine at UCLA and was now editor for the Reform Judaism Magazine, wrote me a letter that went something like this: “Hey, Noah, whatever happened to all those stories you told and the way you saw things when you were giving the talks in your 20s? How ’bout we do an interview with you?”
I remember writing back, “Aron, I’ve got this bakery, I’ve got two little kids, my son Adam now joined his sister Jordan, and I’ve got very little time. But if you want, send me the questions.”
Two months later, I received a letter from Aron: “You know, Noah, there are so many interview books. What if you write a book about a baker who is a wise man, like you? And this baker is always writing notes to himself, like you. And people are always coming up this baker and asking him questions, like people do with you. I know this sounds like a fairy tale, but your life is a fairy tale, and you should write it.”
So, the short and shorter of it goes like this: I signed a contract to do this book for the Reform Jewish Movement in North America. In exchange, I received an advance large enough to buy myself a leather jacket—albeit a nice one—but a leather jacket. Their plan was to publish my book and sell it in temples and synagogues. You get the picture, no big book here.
My challenge was simply to find the time and the right attitude to write from, always the starting place for a writer. For two months, I just thought about “the book.” The next part of the plan was to get up earlier. And so, for the next two years I worked, usually from 4 to 6 a.m., and said nothing to any one.
After two years of meeting the dawn before dawn, I had my book Jacob the Baker. Here is a brief description: Jacob is a poor but pious baker who lives an anonymous life in a timeless world. While waiting for the ovens to rise to baking temperature in the morning he writes little notes to himself trying to make sense of life. Unknown to Jacob, one of his notes falls into the mixer and is baked into a loaf of bread. It is then sold to a woman, who comes upon the note, reads Jacob’s thought, is dumbstruck and rushes to the bakery to see who wrote it and where it came from.
Soon word is out that there is a special person in the community who has been ignored, and now everyone near and far comes to see Jacob with their questions about life, prayer, love, family, growing older and…and…Without any sense of hubris, Jacob answers the growing line of visitors with his parables and stories. Even the children come after school and sit on the flour sacks to listen to Jacob.
When I sent the finished book to Aron, and it was confirmed original by the rabbis/scholars, and Reader’s Digest said they wanted to take lines from Jacob the Baker for the next 20 years. The publisher also asked if I could help sell the paperback rights so they could send me on a book tour, a first for them.
I went to the American Booksellers Association National Conference that was alternately held in LA and New York and met a great guy, Mark Bloomfield, who was then a sales executive with Ballantine/Random House. I told Mark that I knew nothing about publishing, bought him a cup of coffee and told him about my book. He, kindly, asked me to send it to him. I did. He sent it to Patty Breitman, a literary agent in San Francisco.
Patty took Jacob the Baker to New York, held an auction with several of the major publishing houses and sold the book to Random House/Villard to a fantastic editor, Diane Reverand. The book I signed to write for a leather jacket sold for a six-figure deal. I have even been told that Julia Roberts walked around the set of Pretty Woman quoting Jacob!
Today, Jacob the Baker continues to touch lives around the world. There is now a Jacob series with three books, which has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. Jacob is now in development as major motion picture, as reported by Variety, and I have repurchased all the rights to Jacob back from Random House. Out of this small starting gate, I have 20 more books with publishers, as well as several corporate clients featuring my work, including Starbucks and Costco.
Certainly, I am honored and humbled with this success, if I may borrow from my character: “Jacob was a reed. And the breath of God blew through him, made music of him.”
The bottom line? Put your faith—not your fears—in charge. Do the work. In every aspect of your life, play the part, not the result. Over every finish line in life are the words, “Begin here.”
Noah benShea is one of North America’s most respected and popular poet-philosophers. He is also a scholar, theologian, long-range thinker, executive adviser, speaker and international bestselling author of 23 books, which have been translated into 18 languages. With global sales of over 2 million copies, his books continue a tradition begun with the Jacob the Baker series, which has been embraced around the world. You can find Noah at NoahbenShea.com.