As American Airline Flight 21 lifted off from LAX headed toward New York City, my mind filled with numbers: a 5 hour and 25 minute flight, covering 2461 miles to deliver a 2-minute speech that could determine the fate of my novel.
I had practiced on my daily walk to and from Venice High School where I teach, standing in the check-out line at Ralphs, for my wife, for my dogs, when I showered, shaved, even when I flossed.
A week earlier I incorporated these two minutes into my talk at Village Books in the Pacific Palisades at my book launch party. But that was different; there my audience was 100 friends, colleagues and students, a welcoming crowd that had feasted at a dessert/wine table prior to my performance. And still I'd been nervous.
Now I was winging my way to the annual Jewish Book Network's Meet the Author conference where representatives from over 100 Jewish Community Center book fairs, synagogues, Hillels and Jewish Federations would gather for three days and hear 250 authors pitch their books in hopes of landing invitations to these coveted events.
Over Blythe, California I envisioned myself 28 hours later on the pulpit of the Park Avenue Synagogue, the JBN's venue. I whispered, "Hi, I'm Dennis Danziger, author of A Short History of a Tall Jew."
Hold for laughter. If none came, sprint off stage, hail a cab and fly home.
The following morning, I recited the speech for my friend Ben on the stoop of his West Village apartment. Ben nodded as he ate a bagel. I was too nervous to eat.
At 3:45, I arrived at the Park Avenue Synagogue, but since we were instructed not to enter until 4:45, I strolled the neighborhood. I visualized myself on stage and my temples throbbed. I hoofed it to the nearest Duane Reade and popped two Bayers on my walk back to the synagogue, where I checked in and entered the ballroom.
Two hundred and fifty folding chairs, bright lights and 60 authors, who were to sit alphabetically in the first three rows. I found my seat in Row 1. I shucked my usual shyness and befriended the author to my right. Not to be gracious, just to make sure I could still form words.
Erica Brown, author of Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things greeted me with a comforting handshake.
"You nervous?" I asked.
"Absolutely," she said. "I've done this before and it's always nerve-racking."
"So Erica, what do you do when you're not writing?" I asked.
"I'm a public speaker," she said.
The program began. A very persuasive woman in black sternly warned us not to go over two minutes. At the appropriate moment, she would hold up bright red placards that read: 1 Minute, 30 Seconds, 15 Seconds, and Your Time is Up (the subtext: "Get off the stage or you'll spend the night in Rikers").
The show began with Scott Aaron, author of Jewish U: A Contemporary Guide for the Jewish College Student. I couldn't imagine how difficult leading off must be, but Scott held his own. I worshiped him. I wanted to be him. I wanted my speech to be over.
Six or seven authors later, as Kai Bird, the erudite, uber-calm Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, began his remarks, I had an epiphany: I had no business being in this room.
I decided to make a run for the exit. No. Wait. Give my speech one last shot. But I blanked on the opening line, which was, "Hi, I'm Dennis Danziger."
Bird finished his remarks and as he headed off stage I refrained from leaping out of my seat and asking for his autograph.
The timer introduced me.
"Coming to the stage, Dennis Danziger, author of A Short History of Tall Jews."
The timer got a laugh. My laugh. On my title. Which she misread.
I corrected her. "It's actually A Short History of a Tall Jew. Singular. I wrote about myself."
Some laughter. Smiles.
Whoa! They didn't want me to fail. That felt good. For the next two minutes I felt as if I was having an out-of-body experience, but I delivered my speech without embarrassing myself. Mission accomplished.
I sat and surprisingly relished the next two hours, amazed by the breadth of subjects discussed, swept away by the cumulative intelligence, scholarship, research, charisma, wit and the talent displayed by the authors.
I scribbled notes. "Buy multiple copies of Ken Krimstein's Kvetch as Kvetch Can to pass out at Hanukkah." "Order Michele Lang's magical realism novel Lady Lazarus for (my daughter) Molly."
I wanted a copy of Martin Lemelman's graphic memoir, Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood, right then and there. I devour graphic memoirs and so do some of my brightest students.
I'd buy Rhodes Scholar Sasha Polakow-Suransky's The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa for my father-in-law, Skip, a history buff, and Richard Klein's Surviving Your Doctors for my hypochondriac friend Mel, who never believes a word his doctors say, but can't quit going to them.
When the final pitch ended, we received an ovation and the ballroom's back wall slid open to reveal a buffet. We milled about chatting, schmoozing, noshing and an hour later I left the Park Avenue Synagogue, exhausted but pleased. My wallet bulging with business cards from interested parties.
As I headed toward the Lexington subway I remembered reading that more than 190,000 books are published in America each year. I couldn't help but think that all authors need more than a publisher, a publicist, a website and a lot of luck to promote their works. Every author needs a village. Which is exactly what the Jewish Book Network provides.
Though I think of it not so much as a village, but as an embracing literary shtetl.