June 9, 2017

Making Kosher Crosswords

Guest Contributor: Yoni Glatt

“What do you do?”
It’s as common a question as an adult will get upon a new encounter. I’ll usually respond first by mentioning my nine-to-five job where I’m the Director of the Jewish Teen Educational Experience Network (JTEEN) for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ (pause, catch my breath). This is usually met with polite smiles and nods of feigned interest.
I might follow that up by saying, “I’m also the Youth Director of Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston.” Eyebrows dart up and immediately drop when I tell them that I don’t personally know Jared Kushner. Then I’ll throw in, “Oh, I also oversee a charity that integrates special needs teens with mainstream peers and takes them on incredible trips to places like Alaska and Iceland.”
More polite smiles. More nods of boredom and exclamations like “Oh that’s so sweet” or “I have a (insert family member here) that has special needs. Bless your heart.” But then I’ll say, “I also run a syndicated Jewish crossword puzzle to about two dozen publications each month.”
Suddenly, I’m interesting.
I would say the above scenario happens to me about once a month. Most people don’t really care about any of my other jobs. They’re perceived as boring. But making crossword puzzles? Well that’s interesting. Why? Well, probably for one main reason: they’ve never met anyone who actually makes crossword puzzles. Sure they’ve seen crossword puzzles plenty of times. But an actual person who makes them? That’s unique.
Why have they never met someone who does this? Well, there are only a few hundred people who regularly construct crosswords in the whole world and I’m one of them. During a typical month, I publish eight different puzzles in over two dozen publications across four different countries. On occasion, I do a secular puzzle, but 95 percent of my work is making “Kosher Crosswords,” the title of my upcoming book from Behrman House Publishing.
All of my puzzles have a Jewish theme to them. An American crossword is generally a puzzle with 15x15 grid (some are 17x17 or 21x21 like a Sunday New York Times puzzle), with no more than 19 percent of it black squares and approximately one quarter of the grid being connected by a theme; everything else is what we call “the fill.” But in my puzzles, even the fill is Jewish, albeit not connected to the central theme.
This might sound incredibly hard to pull off, especially eight times a month. However, I have a tremendous advantage over my other constructors: Jewish vernacular. While words like erev, kol, chag, va’ad, and Iyar would never fly in a secular puzzle, they routinely appear in my grids. I hardly ever make a puzzle that doesn’t have some Hebrew, Israeli slang or even Aramaic terminology in it. As a result, I’m working with a word library at least three times larger than my fellow crossword constructors.
I get asked dozens of questions related to puzzle making, but here, I’ll focus on the three most common:
  1. Do you use a computer program to make your grids? Of course, but it still needs to be manually run. I can hit the “Autofill” button and a puzzle will appear, with no theme and archaic – and even inappropriate – words. So I have to first put in the theme answers, manually construct the grid (i.e. putting in the black squares) and then I generally do half autofill, half “Yoni” fill.
  2. So if all of your puzzles have themes, how do you keep coming up with ideas? That I truly attribute to G-d, as I think anyone who makes a living out of being creative should. Four years ago, I honestly started freaking out, thinking there was no way I could keep coming up with original ideas week after week. But here I am, 400 published puzzles later (blee eyen hara). I consider each original idea a gift from Hashem. Now, I do “phone-in” a puzzle every few months (e.g. by making a puzzle whose theme answers all have two B’s in the middle and calling it “Bibi”) and when a major Jewish figure dies I can put together a tribute puzzle pretty quickly, as was the case for Gene Wilder last summer, but more often than not, an idea just hits me. In fact, a great many ideas just come to me as I’m walking to or from Etz Chaim on Shabbat, which makes the trek up Route 10 much more enjoyable.
  3. How did you learn how to make puzzles? I have enjoyed doing puzzles since high school, as I love random facts, so I had a knack for the general layout. But nearly every crossword constructor apprentices with an established professional in the field. They will generally work on some grids together, with the apprentice learning all the dos and don’ts from his mentor. This work is always done pro bono. I learned a tremendous amount from my mentor and am happy to pay it forward. If any GOA kids out there have an interest in learning how to make crosswords, feel free to get in touch at koshercrosswords@gmail.com. I promise you that if you publish a few puzzles, people will find you much more interesting.

Try a crossword now! Answers can be found on the second page.

In addition to his work making crossword puzzles, Yoni Glatt is the Director of the Jewish Teen Educational Experience Network (JTEEN), the Youth Director of Congregation Etz Chaim and the founder of Aryeh Adventures. His crosswords can be found in many Jewish periodicals, including the Jerusalem Post and the New Jersey Jewish News.

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