An Interview with Mat Tonti

Later this month, the Jewish Federation and PJ Our Way will be hosting a special event with PJ Our Way author Mat Tonti about his book “The Book of Secrets.” Besides being an author, Tonti is a rabbi and a day school teacher in the greater Washington DC area. In order to help our community get to know a bit more about Mat Tonti and his book “The Book of Secrets,” Eliana Moss, an 11-year old community member, had the chance to meet and interview him. Below is the interview she conducted.
How did you come up with the whole book?
    I will try to give you the short version. It starts like this. I love comics. I have always drawn comics. When I was in middle school, pretty much all of my notes would have my drawings all around them. When I started learning more Jewish stories, I kind of started drawing them in my head. I could see them. I always loved Jewish stories. I always loved stories and I would draw little comics of them, just on the sides of things. I kept drawing them and drawing them and I came up with little booklets. I would make little ‘zines. Little eight-page stories. I have hundreds of these. And eventually it got bigger and bigger and I kept drawing more and more stories. At one point, I drew a story that is actually in the book called The Tainted Grain and I was like… this is good. If I put a bunch of these together, I could make a book. And that was in 2013. I started out and said, okay… I want to make a book. So I decided… I am going to find the stories and I started researching and reading and reading stories. And the ones that really hit me in the gut, the ones that either had great characters or great images. And from there, I got enough stories. But then, someone was like, “if you want it to be for middle-schoolers, then you have to have a narrative.” It has to have some sort of thread. And it has to be dangerous. So then, I created the frame story, which is the story of Rose and Ben. So it was kind of like that. I wanted to make a book, and then it evolved from the one story into one with many stories as a whole package.
Why did you decide to become an author?
    Hmm…that’s a good question. It’s funny. I don’t really think of myself as an author. I think of myself as an artist who does comics. And part of comics is a combination of words and stories. Comics have their own language, there is a coolness about comics, and that always excited me. It’s not like I ever decided to do it, and for a long time I only did it for myself and I was like, “I don’t need to make any money or show them to anyone.” But people really loved them. People always loved the stuff I did. They thought it was funny and a great way of telling stories. I’m also a teacher and a rabbi. And I was like, “all the famous rabbis had a book, a sefer that they would pass on as their legacy.” For me, this is kind of my legacy. If you are a kid who may be into Judaism. This is my way of saying that there are a lot of inspiring things within our tradition. And this is my way of making it my own and passing it on. Just like the picture on the last page of the book, I am passing the flame. It is my way, my offering to you, to inspire you.
    That is why I decided to do this.
Who first inspired you to follow your dreams?
    That’s a great question. Well, my parents were always supportive. They got me art lessons, and I took a comic lesson early on in my life at a local comic bookstore. Which was super cool. I loved it. I had a family friend who was an artist and he always thought I had a lot of talent. I guess I was always encouraged by the adults in my life. It’s funny. And in some ways, by friends who didn’t think my work was any good also inspired me. I wanted to impress them and show them. The encouragement came from my parents, but the drive to really do something that was compelling and interesting to people was because I had something to prove to the people who didn’t think I was any good. Do I have something to prove? I guess. I want it to be liked. I want it to be successful. But mostly I want it to be inspiring. I want you to like it.
    Can I tell you one of the secrets of this book? It is a book of secrets… its not just a title. There are a lot of secrets in this book. And when I say secrets I am talking about the deepest depths of what our Jewish tradition has to offer are in some of these stories.
    All of these stories are what’s called bottom-less stories. When you think you know what it means, you realize that there is more to learn and you need to think about it again… like the Torah.
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in creating the book?
    So… it’s one of these things. If you decide you want to do something in your life…. Here’s what I said to myself, “When I look back at the end of my life do I want to have the version of my life where I have created a book or I have not wanted to create a book.” I decided that I wanted the version where I have created a book. Therefore, all of the obstacles, and there were many, made it hard. I will give you a few examples. Getting up. I am very busy as a teacher, as a father and other things. I had to get up at 5:00 am to work on the book each day. I worked on it for an hour a day… and I do not like getting up early. But I got up because that was the time I had to work on it. I had to find all of the stories. Then I had to find an agent who was going to bring it to publishers. Finding an agent wasn’t hard… it was just another step. Then I had to go through the publisher. And the publisher had all of these different things for me to fix. And now I have to sell it. It’s not like I did it and now it is out in the world. It’s hard, but probably the hardest decision was just to do it. Once I decided that I wanted to do it all of those obstacles were part of the journey. I didn’t see them as stumbling blocks… I saw them as part of the journey. I wasn’t going to stop until I either finished my life (G-d forbid) or I finished the book. Luckily, I finished the book first.
    I got a lot of rejection letters from a lot of publishers and also agents. So a lot of people didn’t want it. So I could have felt rejected, but you know if you are feeling rejected you are part of the process of trying to get it out in the world, because not everyone is going to want it. You will find your way in… there is a place… you just have to figure it out.
What would you say is the most important thing you would like people to know about the book?
    If you feel like it needs to be in the world, the only thing that is going to stop you is yourself. The other thing I would say is that when you are part of a tradition, such as Judaism, Judaism is not just a religion… we are a people with a history, we are a family and there are a lot of tools that Judaism has for us. It is up to each of us to decide how we are going to express our tradition in a way that it makes sense to you. This is a tradition that is thousands of years old and comes from amazing places, and it has a lot to teach me and my people and the world. That was my idea. I wanted to go into the stories, into the traditions and make them my own. And I want to express them. And so, that is what this book is. That’s the real secret of “The Book of Secrets.” This is one of my expressions of yiddishkeit (Judaism). This is my, showing you, what I think is important about our tradition. And it’s fun. And it’s colorful.
My last question is what is your favorite subject to write about or make comics about?
    It’s always different. But there is always some emotional… some action and some emotion. Let me tell you… I’m always looking for the pose that conveys the most of that emotion. In a comic, you want to capture the essence of an emotion of a character because you don’t have pages and pages. In a comic you need to be able to capture in one, two or three pictures, the moment that captures who a character is. So I have to make those. So I need to figure out what image conveys that in the least amount of lines. 
    Mat Tonti will be appearing online as a special PJ Our Way program on Sunday, January 24 at 3:00 pm. For more information, or to register for this event, visit or call the Jewish Federation office at 626.445.0810.

JASON MOSS is Jewish Federation’s executive director and a contributing writer to JLife Magazine. 



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