I. A Short, Professional Bio...
Born in 1975 in Buffalo, New York, Jake Halpern attended Yale University. He has written for The New York Times, the New Yorker, the New Republic, Entertainment Weekly, LA Weekly, Outside, Psychology Today and other publications. He is also a commentator and a freelance producer for National Public Radio's, “All Things Considered”. Unlike the people in his first book, BRAVING HOME: Dispatches From The Underwater Town, The Lava-Side Inn, And Other Extreme Locales (Houghton Miflin, 2003), he comes from a family with a long tradition of leaving places: his great-grandmother immigrated to America, returned home to Hungary, then immigrated to America once again. His grandfather was so desperate to get out of New York that he took a job chipping paint on a giant freighter bound for California via the Panama Canal. Jake has lived in New Haven, Prague, Tel Aviv, Washington, D.C., Boston, and India. For now, he lives on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock (New Mexico), where he is busy at work on his third book.
Jake’s lecture program also includes the FAME JUNKIES documentary, which is a short video showing personal responses to the surveys he distributed to Middle School students.
II. A Rambling, Unprofessional Bio...
When I was twenty years old, I took some time off from college and moved to Prague. It was the sort of inspired, half-baked decision that you can only make when you are twenty and clueless. A few weeks into my stay in Prague, I found an apartment and settled into a routine of doing very little – wandering around the city, reading, and living off the money I'd saved. Almost immediately, I sensed that it was a special time to be living there. This was back in 1995 and the city was teaming with artists, expatriates and lingering tourists, living in two-dollar-a-night hostels.
Everyone there was writing a novel, or a play, or at least some essays. The apartment that I took over – a drafty subterranean vault beneath a neighborhood pub – had been the home of a long string of expatriated Americans before me, and the closets were filled with an array of dusty, discarded and abandoned manuscripts, most of them uncompleted. Eventually, I got swept up in the bohemian spirit of it all and set to work on piece of writing of my own, a screenplay to be precise. The screenplay, which was called The Papaya Trap, was about a con artist who falls in love with a beautiful one-armed girl.
The truly transformative event of my time in Prague, however, was my decision to investigate my family's roots in this part of the world. I knew that some of my ancestors had once lived in Prague, and on a whim I telephoned my great-uncle (Joe Garray) in America, and asked him if we had any relatives who were still here. "No they all perished in the Holocaust," he said. But I kept pushing him and eventually he told me that the man who saved him from the Nazis still lived in a farm house in Slovakia at the edge of the Tatra Mountains. A week later I took a commuter plane to Bratislava and then a train to the small town where this man lived. I showed up at his door after sundown and he came to the gate cautiously, leaning heavily on a wooden cane, face trembling and bald except for a few long loops of white hairs, his feet engulfed in a swarm of mutts who guarded his every step. After trying to explain who I was for almost five minutes, he led me through the back door and into his kitchen. It was bare room, illuminated in dingy fluorescent light, occupied only by a few stools, a couch covered in dog hairs, and a hissing radiator. Here he told me about hiding my uncle and their numerous close calls with the Slovak Gestapo. When the situation at the farmhouse became too heated, they fled to the mountains in the cold of winter and lived like hermits for six months.
I was deeply moved by this story and I ultimately spent the next two years turning it into a short film called Ani Mamim, which is now part of the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. More than anything else this story convinced me that I wanted to dedicate my life to becoming a professional storyteller.
This quickly proved difficult – especially when it came to paying the rent – and I was soon working for the man.
After graduating from Yale in 1997, I quickly found myself in a Boston high-rise, cramped in a desk-length cubicle, shirt pressed and starched, summarizing court decisions on insurance law. I can't remember exactly when I realized I had to get the hell out of there, very early on I think, probably around the time I was scolded for hanging a "visually jarring tie" on my coat-rack. I began to feel that I was being watched incessantly; and ultimately, it was this totalitarian, Kafka-esque creepiness that impelled me to leave the job, and as if that weren't enough, the country too.
I set off to Israel where I worked as a writing tutor at the American International School near Tel Aviv. In my spare time, I worked as a freelance journalist. The first piece that I got published appeared in Commonweal in 1998. It chronicled my visit to Hebron in the West Bank – a place infused with a strange mix of religious fundamentalism and Wild West gun-slinging – where Hammas gunman stood poised on street corners as orthodox Jews walked past with holsters and pistols on their belts. As disturbing as all of this was, it was a hell of a lot more interesting than my cubicle back in Boston, and I soon became convinced that I wanted to become a journalist.
After returning from Israel, I landed an internship at the New Republic. My co-workers here were a mix of policy wonks, art critics, and political junkies. I was none of these, and instead of trying to pass as one, I set out to write a different kind of story; yet every time I did, it ended up
being about some outlandish and often hellish place, inhabited by a handful of stalwarts who refused to leave. I became a specialist on burning towns, flood plains, and hurricane islands. My chief responsibility at the magazine was researching and fact-checking. I spent hours, days, and weeks looking for correct spellings and exact dates. Being a quick fact-checker was always a point of pride among the office grunts like myself, and though it was an obscure and largely useless skill, I found it quite helpful in tracking down information on dangerous and outlandish towns. On my lunch breaks and in between assignments I searched for clues, and gradually I found them – reports of holdouts living on lava fields, windswept sandbars, and desolate arctic glaciers. I spent Sunday afternoons combing the web with a smattering of search terms like “squatter,” “won't leave home,” and “people call him crazy.” I became friendly with the press office at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and I pumped them for ideas. It turned into something of a hobby. Some people collected stamps, others pressed leaves, I scavenged for strange and daring homes. Eventually, the short magazine pieces that I wrote on people and their homes attracted the interest of a literary agent who convinced me to write a book, which I then did. This book – BRAVING HOME: Dispatches From The Underwater Town, The Lava-Side Inn, And Other Extreme Locales (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) – allowed me to quit my job and become a full-time, self-employed writer.
While I was working on BRAVING HOME, I carried a Sony Mini Disc player with me to record all of my interviews. This relatively cheap device (which costs about $250) allowed me to capture all of my encounters with “broadcast quality” recordings. With the help of my friend, Ted Gesing, I was able to turn these recordings into a five part series on National Public Radio's “All Things Considered” (Weekend Edition). I loved doing this work for NPR and I have gone on to become a commentator for “All Things Considered” (Weekday).
The other cool byproduct of writing BRAVING HOME was that I began receiving commissions to do journalistic pieces for publications like the New Yorker, The New York Times, Outside Magazine, and Boston Magazine.
Nowadays, I divide my time between producing radio pieces, doing magazine articles, delivering speeches and writing books (I'm just finishing my third). When I'm not working, I enjoy traveling to remote places and hiking in the wilderness with my wife, Kasia, and our baby, Sebastian.
For more on FAME JUNKIES and BRAVING HOME plus audio and video excerpts, please visit Jake’s web site by Clicking Here!
Jake Halpern is available exclusively through the MasterMedia Speakers Bureau.