Learning to Speak

October 13, 2022 § 17 Comments

By Beth Kaplan

I sit on the bed in the hotel room, staring out the window at the rusty fire escape, sipping water to wet my dry throat and trying to calm my thudding heart. Notes beside me, I whisper my talk to myself for the hundredth time, taking peeks at the paper to be sure I haven’t left anything out.

I’m about to deliver the Wexler Lecture in Jewish History at the Jewish Community Centre in Washington, D.C., and I am terrified.

What awaits me tonight is the nightmare audience I envisaged all the years I worked on my book: a roomful of scholarly Jewish intellectuals. Surely there’s no group in the world more critical, with analytical techniques perfected over centuries of Talmudic study. This august group, attending the eleventh year of the annual event, will be expecting the usual prominent scholar, delivering a lecture weighty with research and theory. 

And instead — me. An imposter disguised as an academic, because although I teach at two Toronto universities, I’m not a tenured professor but on contract to their departments of continuing education in the flaky world of creative writing. Disguised as Jewish, because, although my father was Jewish, he was an atheist who wanted nothing to do with any religion, and my mother was Anglican. So I’m not Jewish. 

Yes, I’m the author of the book I’ve been invited to speak about, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. It’s the biography of my father’s grandfather, a once-famous playwright with a titanic personality who wrote scores of plays produced in New York and then all over the Yiddish-speaking world, including one called The Jewish King Lear. I worked for over two decades on this challenging book. I’m proud of it. But still, I was floored when the producer of these annual talks invited me to Washington, sent a plane ticket, and paid for the hotel. 

Surely she’d made a mistake. Surely a chatty, personal talk about my great-grandfather and his life is not the kind of thing her audience will expect or appreciate. I’ve been struggling to gain acceptance for the book from academics; now here’s a unique opportunity to convince them of its worth. If my talk fails, I fear the book will continue to sink. Have I devoted over two decades to a losing proposition, a 250-page biography no one wants to read?

So I’m pacing about the room in my respectable suit from Goodwill, incredibly nervous, thinking, Who do you think you are? You’re a fake. This will be a disaster. They’ll hate … 

And then I stop. I just stop. 

Wait a minute, I think. I worked hard on the book, and I’ve worked extremely hard on this lecture. I’ve done my best. All I can do is hope they like it. And if they don’t — it’s a shame. But I can do no more.

I realize I’ve set up an enemy, a wall of critical faces. Why? The audience wants to hear a good story, wants me to succeed. Why invent criticism? Why shut myself down? How is the world a better place if I am silent? Silenced? 

I’m offering them something of value, I think, giving the gift of my thoughts and words and work. And standing in the hotel room, I open my arms, palms up. Here it is, my gift to you. 

A moment from the past comes back. I was at a party when, with the help of a glass or two of wine, I felt for the first time how painfully tight and restricted my shoulders were. Lowering them, I made myself relax. How much more easily I could breathe without tension. As I remember that feeling, I realize, When you’re relaxed and open, you’re not just giving, but receiving.

That evening, as I walk out on the stage, I’m still nervous, heart pounding, mouth dry. But I’m also eager and energised, not condemning myself to failure. I take in the audience, rows of intimidating-looking men, yes, but friendly faces, some women and young people too. Briefly, so only I know, I take a deep breath and open my hands toward them. Imagine, all these people have come to hear me. What an honour. 

And then, with a good story to tell, I start talking and continue for more than an hour. 

They line up afterwards to buy the book — we sell every copy on hand — and the producer tells me it’s one of the best lectures they’ve ever had.

Now when I’m nervous about public speaking, I take a moment in front of the audience. It’s not about you, I tell myself. You have a job to do. You have something to give, so make sure they receive it. They’re waiting. Give them your gift.

And I open my hands. 


Beth Kaplan’s second memoir, Loose Woman: my odyssey from lost to found, was a finalist for the Whistler Independent Book Award. A former actress, she’s the author of three previous nonfiction books: a biography, another memoir, and a textbook guide to nonfiction writing. She has taught memoir and personal essay writing for decades at two Toronto universities; the University of Toronto gave her the Excellence in Teaching award. You can reach Beth at her website

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