The Creative Process Behind “And Every Single One Was Someone”

This Sunday’s New York Times tells the creative story behind a fascinating new book called And Every Single One Was Someone. Here’s how the Times article* begins:

The book, more art than literature, consists of the single word “Jew,” in tiny type, printed six million times to signify the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust. It is meant as a kind of coffee-table monument of memory, a conversation starter and a thought provoker.

The author, Phil Chernofsky, says:

Get closer, put on your reading glasses, and pick a “Jew.” That Jew could be you. Next to him is your brother. Oh, look, your uncles and cousins and your whole extended family. A row, a line, those are your classmates. Now you get lost in a kind of meditative state.

The creative process behind this innovative book, like all creativity, was not grounded in a brilliant flash of insight. Instead, it was a wandering, zig-zag process over several decades. It began back in the 1970s, when Mr. Chernofsky was a teacher at the Yeshiva of Central Queens in New York City. One year, he was put in charge of the bulletin board for Holocaust Remembrance Day. He decided to get his students involved:

I gave them blank paper, and I said, no talking for the next 30 minutes. I said, I want you to write the word Jew as many times as you can, no margins, just pack them in, just take another paper and another paper until I say stop. We added up the whole class. It was 40,000–nothing.

Many years later, Mr. Chernofsky remembered this assignment. By then, laser printers had been invented. He printed out pages with the word “Jew” six million times, and put them in a loose-leaf notebook. He kept it in his office and would show it to visitors.

One year, his uncle borrowed the thick notebook and took it to a Jerusalem book fair, where a bookbinder saw it, and made a limited edition. Eventually, a Jerusalem-based publisher, Ilan Greenfield of Gefen Publishing, stumbled across one of these limited edition copies. Just over a year ago, he contacted Mr. Chernofsky and asked if he would be interested in a larger print run. The result is And Every Single One Was Someone (I just checked on, and it’s the 69th best selling book today, and it’s out of stock, which is amazing for a book that lists for $80).

This is the nature of the creative process: It begins simply, with a small idea, and with the twists and turns of the zigzag path (and contributions from lots of people) it gradually builds into something great. That’s the key point of my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity.

*Jodi Rudoren. “Holocaust Told in One Word, 6 Million Times.” New York Times, January 26, 2014, pp. A1, A12.