Welcome, Mark! Mark Lichtenfeld is the author of LINE CHANGE, a fun, witty, and powerful YA adventure with special appeal to Jewish day-schoolers and lovers of Israel. LINE CHANGE affirms the sacrifice that day school students, parents, faculty and staff undertake for the advancement of our Jewish communities. But you don’t have to be a day-schooler to love this story!
Mark lives in Chicago’s suburban North Shore and is a member of the North Suburban, Illinois Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. He is a licensed, USA Hockey and American Collegiate Hockey Association referee, and has officiated nearly five thousand games over the past twenty-three years. He writes a column for Rink Life, a Midwestern hockey newspaper, and has been featured in many other publications during his career. Mark and his family have traveled to Kiryat Shemona many times, and of course, he has skated at the Canada Centre. I was happy to learn more about Mark during our interview.
You have an interesting background in the world of sports. What inspired you to pursue fiction writing?
Growing up in Chicago, sports was everything. My friends and I couldn’t wait for little league to start in the spring and we’d spend all summer playing organized and pick-up baseball. And high school baseball was basically a five-month commitment. But what I loved best was hockey season. Come December, we’d follow the weather every day, hoping for that first Arctic blast so the park district could freeze the outdoor rink. Hockey guys are simply fanatics about the game and we’d be out there every day, even when the city would close the warming house during those exceptionally-frigid days when it was deemed too cold to safely skate. Trust me, it hurts to lace up skates with your bare fingers when it’s 10-below without the wind chill! But we were die-hards.
Like sports, writing has always been one of my passions. I was the sports editor of my high school paper and have written articles and columns about sports and law for legal and hockey publications for many years. I’d always intended to write a book about all the crazy officiating experiences I’ve had over the past 23 seasons and I assure you, writing fiction was never on the radar. But several years ago I just happened to read of my daughter’s books that she had checked out of the library. It was YA fiction—I can’t even remember the title. I liked the author’s voice and saw some of my own style in it. At first, I thought it was odd to be enjoying YA fiction, but then I joined my local SCBWI chapter and at the very first meeting I remember everyone saying how they loved YA and found the narratives to be less rhetorical and easier to process. That’s when I decided to scrap the officiating memoir and concentrate on YA. Since then, I’ve read almost everything I could and decided to incorporate my commitment to Israel and Judaism into something YA. And using the Maccabiah games as a setting allowed me to integrate hockey and Israel into a meaningful hook. Looking back, I loved the challenge of writing a boy-oriented, contemporary Jewish teen story that promotes Jewish values and love of Israel. Not much YA out there featuring a male protagonist.
Ethan is a character that teens will relate to on many levels. How have young readers responded to Ethan and his experiences in Line Change?
Most day-schoolers absolutely identify with Ethan’s struggles. Though Chicago Jewish Academy is a fictitious school, it represent all levels of day school, from Conservative-affiliated Hebrew high schools to Yeshiva academies. Line Change incorporates numerous components of Ethan’s social life that resonate with all types of religious, Jewish teens. For example, at the fictitious Chicago Jewish Academy, Ethan is always looking over his shoulder to ensure he doesn’t run afoul of Rabbi Klepstein’s religious radar. That corresponds to Yeshiva high school guys I know who will never go to a Chicago area kosher restaurant with a girl because they cannot risk being seen by one of their teachers or rabbis. Likewise, some Orthodox day-school students are shomer nagia, while other kids from those very same schools date. And I know that secular readers of Line Change have been enlightened about the difficulties and social sacrifices that constitute the everyday world of observant, day-school teens. And everyone seems to love the culture shock Ethan experiences while he’s boarding with the secular family in underprivileged Kiryat Shemona. But what’s most important is that day school teens that I know who have read the book were excited that a contemporary story was written for them. In fact, the city of Skokie is mentioned in Line Change many times and the Skokie Public Library already has a three-deep waiting list for the book!
Have you had any unexpected experiences in the writing process or since Line Change was published?
Right after I finished Line Change, I was notified by Maccabiah that I had been selected to be a referee for the 2013 games. But it turned out that it required a two-week commitment and I just couldn’t take that much time off of work. A couple days after the Maccabiah call, I received word that Line Change won first place a Writer’sType.com contest. But what really shocked me during the writing process was when Scott Shay agreed to do a cover quote. I had no idea that Scott had attended day school in Chicago and played high school hockey in Skokie too!
The sports world today is extremely competitive and hockey seems to be one of the most intense team sports. In your experience, can kids like Ethan truly find the right balance?
Very difficult at the upper levels of competition. That’s the sad truth, particularly for hockey. Sure, there are leagues in Jewish communities that cater to shomer shabbat players. But you’re not going to find anything super-competitive for those kids—definitely nothing on the college-scholarship track. Let’s take Ethan Conners. In reality, there is one shomer shabbat high school hockey team in Illinois. It’s a Junior Varsity team based out of Skokie. In fact, the coach just returned from Maccabiah last summer with a gold medal in the adult league classification! But junior varsity hockey is not going to lead to an NCAA free-ride. Competitive AAA hockey requires extensive weekend travel and that’s not an option for a religious skater. Of course, Ethan’s dad is doing everything he can to assure the scholarship, but chances are that an NCAA Division-One hockey program is not going to be able to accommodate Ethan’s Orthodox restrictions and unless Ethan is rated as hockey’s next Duncan Keith, he’s either going to have to periodically violate Shabbat in exchange for the college cash, or just play club hockey.
The same goes for myself as a referee. There are one thousand registered hockey officials in Illinois but only three are shomer shabbat. For a young referee to fast-track to Division-One college or professional hockey, there is no way to avoid working on Shabbat or the Jewish holidays. National training camps are always on weekends and you are not going to get far by restricting your availability to officiate. That’s the reality of the situation.
What’s your favorite holiday?
I love Succot and Simchat Torah, because fall is the best season in Chicago. High school hockey is just around the corner and more importantly, our synagogue always has this wonderful Simchat Torah celebration. We parade all over town with three Torahs and a half-dozen Israeli flags. It’s really an inspiration, especially when a hockey player or parent recognizes me.
Did you attend day school?
I’m a public-schooler. But our daughter attended day school and it had and still has a profound impact on her life. Many kids from her school attend Israel seminaries before college, make aliyah, or even serve in the IDF. I dedicated the book to day school parents, students and administrators.
Mazel tov, Mark!