Welcome to the inaugural edition of Author Spotlight, featuring a compelling interview with Jonah S.C. Muskat-Brown. In this first-ever series, we delve into the creative mind behind Expanding Potential, exploring the inspirations and challenges that shaped the journey from a social worker-turned-educator to an author merging the profound wisdom of Judaism with contemporary psychology. Join us as we uncover the essence of his thought-provoking work and the personal experiences that fueled his passion for writing.
Inspiration and Writing Process
- What inspired you to write your book?
I love bringing the deep wisdom of Judaism to life, particularly the inner dimensions of Torah, known as Chassidus, in approachable and practical ways. As a social worker-turned-educator, I firmly believe in everyone’s capability to grow, and the more I learn from the fields of psychology and human development, the more I’m able to appreciate the interconnectedness between our spiritual and human growth — and our need to grow.
Over the years, I’ve sadly discovered that many Jews have become conditioned to believing that, unless they’re “Orthodox,” Torah wisdom is beyond them. Many more individuals, whether Jewish or not, and regardless of background, are convinced that spirituality isn’t for them. Throughout my own Jewish journey, I’ve been inspired by a diverse array of individuals who’ve taught me to appreciate Torah beyond being just a dogmatic text and shopping cart of rules that G-d expects us to obediently follow. They’ve inspired me to live more genuinely, intentionally, compassionately, and accepting.
My goal in writing Expanding Potential, as well as the overwhelming majority of my other writings and publications, was to offer this gift to others, as well. My hope was that people would realize that growth doesn’t mean changing who they are, but instead, (re)discovering who they authentically are beneath all those external voices of society that dictate what they are or are not able to achieve or who they can or should not become. Equipped with reflection questions in each chapter, Expanding Potential is a guidebook for everyone, taking them on a journey of personal realization and empowerment — today, tomorrow, and across the entire span of the yearly calendar.
- What was your writing process like?
Somehow, at the last minute, I decided to take time off from academics, between high school and college, and spend a year exploring my Judaism in the Holy Land. I began circulating a weekly email to a few family members and friends back home as a way of sharing updates on my travels and what I was learning. When I returned to Toronto and began my college studies, I kept those weekly emails going as a way of maintaining the spiritual connection I had (re)discovered while living in the Holy Land.
As my college responsibilities began piling up, those weekly emails transformed a bit into a pre-festival email. I was delving deeper into Torah, so instead of shorter, weekly insights, my Yom Tov emails gradually became fuller and deeper. Readers began asking when my emails would be available in book form, which was when I decided to publish my first book, Unfolding Potential. This is a slim, psycho-spiritual book on many of the Yamim Tovim in the Jewish calendar, primarily consisting of edited drafts of those emails.
My email list continued to grow over the years, and I continued to journey deeper into Torah and the wisdom the Jewish festivals have to offer us as tools for personal and collective growth. Expanding Potential, which, as I write in my introduction, is, essentially, an expanded edition of Unfolding Potential, and an edited collection of Yom Tov emails from between the years 2016 and 2022 (with a few additional entries that didn’t appear in email).
- What resources did you find helpful when you were writing your book?
All the sources I used to build Expanding Potential were Torah-based, either original verses, commentaries, or contemporary insights from various Rebbes from our more recent history and the present day. As well, although not officially cited, I relied a lot on my clinical background and training, in efforts to intertwine the worlds of modern psychology and self-help with the wisdom of Torah and Chassidus.
Challenges and Enjoyment in Writing
- What are some of the challenges you faced while writing your book?
I’m a firm believer in speaking and sharing ideas that are rooted in evidence and spiritual truth. Hence, I strive to work with ideas developed in primary sources. While I do find inspiration and generate ideas and theories from talks I listen to, books I read, or conversations I have with others, I pride myself on authentically sourcing everything I write (as best, and as much, as I can). Hence, one of the most challenging tasks of putting together my manuscript for Expanding Potential was ensuring that every idea was accurately cited from a primary source (and, with some exceptions, a secondary one).
When working with mystical texts and hard-to-access books, finding these sources and ensuring their accuracy can be far from easy at times — especially when they’re written in languages other than English or Hebrew, and contain complex ideas and jargon that isn’t commonly understood. I’m very thankful to have had so many individuals I was able to turn to for this aspect of the manuscript, but at times, I had to reach out to several different individuals to find the source and check its accuracy for only one footnote.
- What are some of the things you enjoyed most about writing your book?
I love learning new ideas in Chassidus and seeing how so much of Torah is interconnected and connected with our modern world. When I prepare each email, which later becomes chapters within my book, I usually have anywhere from five to fifteen books in front of me — allowing me to explore new themes and ideas. I also love making Torah (and Judaism in general) accessible and approachable to a vast array of readership, so I enjoyed taking complex ideas and presenting them in chewable ways without losing their depth and authenticity.
- Does writing energize or exhaust you?
To be honest, sometimes the first draft gets pretty labor intensive because there are really so many raw ideas floating around in my head (and sometimes it can get a bit frustrating to dig into those many books for novel insights that I haven’t seen prior, and which I think readers can feel energized and empowered by). But once I start seeing actual structure form and the ideas begin coming together, I’m energized by the creativity that writing enables me to tap into. I feel energized by sharing ideas with others and encouraging them to see their lives and themselves with fresh eyes.
Personal Reflections and Experiences
- How has your background influenced your writing style or themes?
Having had to overcome a variety of personal obstacles growing up, with an abundance of “professionals” voicing their opinions about what they thought I would or wouldn’t be able to achieve in life, instilled in me a drive to discover (and create) my own voice. My incredible parents, who never gave up on my ability to surpass any goal I set for myself, taught me to believe in myself even when I didn’t. They empowered me to be my own person and be confident to share that person with the world around me, never settling for second best when I knew I could do or be more.
I think this influences a lot of what I write about and teach: themes of courage, resilience, authenticity, and self-growth. I hope my writings empower others to believe in themselves and (re)discover their own voices, while being unapologetically themselves. Difficult moments in life don’t need to weigh us down if we don’t let them, and just as I learned to do with myself over the years, I strive to encourage others to dig deep within themselves to find inherent strengths and hidden talents already embedded within them.
Lifestyle and Hobbies
- What do you do to relax, recharge, or simply have fun? How do you make time for that, and how often?
When not at work or working on a new piece of writing, I try to spend as much time in nature as I can. I grew up outdoors, snowboarding and playing ice hockey during my winters, mountain biking and wakeboarding during my summers. As Reb Shlomo used to say, nature gives us a new boost of energy to start afresh. I’m extra mindful during busy days or weeks to carve out time in my busyness to spend even only a few moments away from my devices and out in the open air. I also feel immensely empowered when I’m able to empower others and, in the past bunch of years, this has manifested when leading Taglit-Birthright trips for young adults through the Holy Land. Working for Birthright has been a total game-changer for me in so many different ways, and I make a solid effort to schedule trips into my work schedule when I can; I know how inspired and energized I am during, and following, a trip, and how positive of an impact it has on my performance at work and in life, as a whole.
- What is your favorite mitzvah?
V’ahavta l’rei’acha ka’mocha!
Writing Community and Influence
- Which book (or books) have you given as a gift, and why?
I’ve gifted many of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s books, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s books, and What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid? by Michal Oshman. I love gifting books in general, because I believe that there’s a certain holiness embedded within books, and when we own them and fill our spaces with them (even if we don’t manage to read each one in its totality), we increase the levels of holiness within our spaces. I try to really think about what books might inspire those to whom I’m gifting. And, of course, I also gift my own books!
- What is your favorite sefer?
There are too many to list, but I deeply gravitate toward the works of the Baal Shem Tov and his many students.
- Who are some authors or thinkers you admire or draw inspiration from?
To list just a few, and in no particular order…Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach is way up there. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Rabbis Y.Y. and Simon Jacobson. Rabbi Abraham Twerski. Rabbi Judah Mischel. Rav Moshe Weinberger. And, of course, the Baal Shem Tov and his many students.
Current and Future Projects
- What are you working on next?
I’d love to publish a children’s book on positive self-esteem. I’d also like to publish a parashah book from the collection of weekly divrei Torah I’ve written for the Birthright community over the past five years.
Writing Practices and Routines
- Do you see writing as a kind of spiritual or therapeutic practice?
Absolutely! In Kabbalah, we each experience a process of transition from abstract internalization to external manifestation with any idea we know to be true. For example, I can have a thought (or an epiphany of a thought) in my head, but without processing it in tangible ways, it’ll always remain in abstraction. We first think, then speak, then act. As much as we can speak about our ideas to others, the actual act of writing them out solidifies them and helps us compartmentalize them into their appropriate spaces. So many times, I understand ideas more clearly after writing them out and “seeing” my thoughts on paper. Not only does this help me organize my mental processes, but it actually helps me expand upon them and crystalize them, realizing what I might have missed when they only existed in abstract form in my head moments ago.
- Do you write alone or in a public space?
I think it’s a combination of both. I write wherever I can because I try not to lose out on ideas just because I’m not in the ideal space (even if they’re only rough notes). I do find it distracting when there’s a lot of noise or people in my background, or when people are trying to talk to me when I’m in editing mode. I try to write when I’m inspired (instead of attempting to force that inspiration at a specific time), wherever and with whomever I may find myself. When I’m in editing mode, I become 100 percent invested and focused on the writing in front of me, so I make sure not to respond to others or I place myself in a space that’ll allow me the headspace to focus uninterruptedly.
- What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
When people find out that I’ve published two books, they often ask me how I did it and usually go on to tell me about a book idea they have for themselves. I encourage people to write. Pashut. I tell people that if they don’t believe in their own writing, they can’t expect anyone else to either. I encourage people to crystalize their manuscripts before reaching out to prospective publishers, however daunting that task might feel.
Just like with my students, who feel overwhelmed by their workload, I advise aspiring authors to break up their goal of producing a polished manuscript into tangible steps/pieces that they can work on gradually (without feeling stressed by having to reach their end goal of a polished product). I tell people that writing should be fun and inspiring and not feel like a burden or chore; taking breaks and creating a healthy work-life balance is crucial to producing an engaging finished product that is reader-friendly and welcoming.
- What is one piece of advice you’ve received that has significantly influenced your career?
The only person who can decide how far I’ll go in life, and what I can or cannot achieve, is myself