Look no further than Clayton to find JPost crossword writer


Ladies and gentlemen, get out your pencils – or your pens or purple markers or whatever writing implement you prefer when solving crossword puzzles. Starting today, the Jewish Light will offer the Jerusalem Post Crossword Puzzle, which is constructed by St. Louis native David Benkof and Matt Gaffney, who lives in Virginia.

The puzzle, which will appear each week, features Jewish content “from Israeli poets to Hollywood comics, from Jewish neighborhoods to Jewish novels, from Talmudic rabbis to Jewish politicians,” says Benkof. The puzzle also runs in Jewish newspapers in six North American cities, including Seattle, Orlando, Boston and New York.

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Here are some clues from a recent Benkof/Gaffney puzzle: First name in Jewish painters, Poet Nadel, Recites “Mah Nishtanah,” Monologue writer Eve, Talmudic scholar Steinsaltz and “The ___ of David Levinsky.”

How did you do?

Benkof, 38, grew up in St. Louis, where he attended Epstein Hebrew Academy and Ladue Horton Watkins High School. He holds a master’s degree in modern Jewish history from Stanford University. In 1995, Benkof founded Q Syndicate, a gay-press syndication service that he later sold. He is the author of Modern Jewish History for Everyone and Gay Essentials: Facts for Your Queer Brain, and he writes for Q Syndicate, the Jerusalem Post and several other newspapers.

Two of Benkof’s puzzles have been published in the New York Times; one in 2000 and one three years ago. Gaffney is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Crossword Puzzles, Gridlock: Crossword Puzzles and the Mad Geniuses Who Create Them and six books of puzzles.

We caught up recently with Benkof, who is staying in Clayton at the home of his mother, Barbara Bianco. (Born David Bianco, Benkof changed his name to honor his late grandfather, Julius Benkof.) Benkof took time to answer some questions.

How old were you when you first got interested in crossword puzzles?

I was not a kid who played with words. I learned how to make a puzzle from the people I hired for Q Syndicate. I also learned what a theme was, and what makes a good puzzle.

What makes a good puzzle?

A lively theme or interesting, longer answers. And a rich ‘fill.’ What I do now is come up with Jewish filler answers–anything from Biblical characters to Israeli cities to American actors who are Jewish.

What is the level of difficulty for your puzzles?

The equivalent of a Tuesday or Wednesday puzzle in the New York Times. But it all depends on the individual. Some people may know all the Talmudic rabbis in a puzzle but have no idea about pop stars. The opposite is also true.

What has been the response to your and Gaffney’s puzzles?

We have had a lot of good feedback. People who enjoy the New York Times puzzle and are actively Jewish like having a puzzle that combines both their interests.

How do you and Gaffney split the work?

This year, I’m doing half the puzzles myself, and Matt is doing the other half. I edit all of them.

The back cover of Gaffney’s latest book notes that he is one of two dozen people who earn a living as a cruciverbalist (a constructor of crossword puzzles). Do you have a day job?

No. My main project is crossword puzzles. And I’m getting ready to make aliyah in November or December. I hope to write and teach in Jerusalem once I am settled there.

How long does it take to construct a puzzle?

It might take three to five hours to complete one puzzle. I like to work on a lot of them at one time, and I work about four months ahead. I’m constantly learning more about the process.

What is the hardest part of the process?

Coming up with tricky clues. You don’t want too many in one puzzle, because that makes it too difficult to solve. A straightforward puzzle with a few surprises is really rewarding for the solver.

What is one of your best tricky clues?

A four-letter word for conservative cantor. The answer was “Eric,” for Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Minority Whip in the House of Representatives.