Monday, April 9, 2018

Counting the Omer 5778

It's spring, and while Alfred, Lord Tennyson labeled it as the time "when a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love," it is also a significant period on the Jewish calendar -- SEFIRAT HAOMER, or Counting the Omer. The 49 days between Passover and Shavuot are a time when flowers and trees blossom, when the weather becomes warmer, and when the Jewish people transform from a group of slaves to a nation worthy of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.  Much like the plants and trees, it requires light, nourishment, and quite a bit of effort to produce results. These books can aid in the process.

Counting

There are many books to use during the Omer, including
  • Counting of the Omer by Simon Jacobson (Meaningful Life Center, 1996);
  • Sefiros--Spiritual Refinement through Counting the Omer by Rabbi Yaacov Haber and Rabbi David Sedley (JP, 2009);
  • Omer: A Counting by Karyn D. Kedar (CCAR, 2014);
  • Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide by Min Kantrowitz (Gaon Books, 2009); and
  • Through the Gates: A Practice for Counting the Omer by Susan Windle (self-published, 2013).
There are two relatively new books that are excellent:


Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman's Sefirat HaOmer: The Significance of the Days Between Pesach and Shavuot (Ohr Chadash, 2018) offers a clear presentation of how the count inter-relates with the Kabbalistic sefirot, and the pages for each day offer quotes from the Jewish canon, significant events that occurred on the day, a spiritual meditation, and questions of the day. The entries are short enough to make daily reading enjoyable, but long enough to contain some real substance and ideas about which to think.



Journey through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer by Rabbi Yael Levy (A Way In, 2017) includes beautiful pictures of the American Southwest. Each daily entry is very succinct, with a line or two about the sefirot of the day, a practice, and a quote from Psalms. The words "journey" and "mindfulness" are a bit worn out from overuse, but the content is very worthwhile. 





Then there are books that are not specifically about Counting the Omer, but that focus on the same principles of character development, self-improvement, and improving relationships with God, other people, and ourselves.

Stages of Spiritual Growth


Batya Gallant's book is subtitled "Resolving the Tension Between Self-expression and Submission to Divine Will" (Urim, 2010). This unassuming little volume is the perfect complement to Sefirat HaOmer because the Stages of Spiritual Growth focuses on chesed (lovingkindess), gevurah (strength or self-control), and emes (truth, or tiferet - balance). Gallant defines the levels within each stage, so that one would hope to grow in chesed through the care and nurture of self, to the care and nurture of others. This is based on the formula of Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin (1823-1900), a Chassidic master of Torah, but the ideas are timeless and the presentation is right on target and very clear. And there is no spoiler here: expression ourselves and reaching our potential spiritually is what God wants for us.

Fiction

Yochi Brandes is a prolific Israel author. Her bio from the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature reads: 

Yochi Brandes was born in 1959 in Haifa to a family of Hassidic rabbis. She holds a BA in biblical studies and an MA in Judaic studies. Brandes taught bible and Judaism for many years, as well as creating courses on Jewish thought for various schools. She regularly participated in TV programs on Jewish studies, had her own column in the daily Maariv, and was the editor of a book series on Judaism. Today she lectures widely on bible and literature. Her writing is inspired by all Jewish sources: the Bible, the writings of the sages of Israel, Jewish law and prayers, the Kabbala, and Hassidic lore. Brandes has published novels as well as essays on biblical women—all of them best-sellers in Israel. She has been awarded the Book Publishers Association’s Platinum Book Prizes for seven of her books, including Kings III (2008), and the Steimatsky Prize for Akiva's Orchard (2013).


The Orchard is the recently published English translation of Brandes' 2013 book (Gefen 2017). It is the story of Rabbi Akiva narrated by his wife Rachel. The first 33 days of the Omer are a period of semi-mourning because during this time, 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students died. While this vignette is not included, Brandes weaves together the stories of Jewish Sages with the history of the period. The title is taken from an incident recorded in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Hagiga 2:1), where Rabbi Akiva and three other rabbis hope to delve into mystical matters, and he is the only to come out of it unscathed. Those who enjoy "biblical fiction" will want to read this one. 

The Courage to Change

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (1810-1883) was the father of Mussar, a movement that strives to further ethical and spiritual discipline by developing one's character traits, or middos.  He made the following observation:

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family. 

Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, but I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world.

The Courage to Change (Al-Anon, 1992) is part of the official literature of Al-Anon,  12-Step fellowship for the families and friends of alcoholics. But you can be neither and still need to change the way you relate to people, whether you need to detach from unproductive relationships, or to take care of your own needs without feeling selfish. This book works well for the Omer because it is a collection of short, daily readings, and it offers such insights as "Recovery does not mean that I have to become a different person. It means I need to start being myself again."


And for those who need a musical reminder, Lenny Solomon of Schlock Rock parodies a Paul Simon song to let us know that there are "49 Days to Count the Omer:"


And, our course, the Real Cats of Israel are enjoying the spring weather:



Happy reading!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Jewish "Romance" Books and Coffee

Readers of this blog already know that I enjoy meeting authors and drinking coffee, so when I can combine the two, it is a happy day. Even happier to be in Israel, drinking five shekel coffee at Cofix, and talking with a local author.

Yael Levy grew in Brooklyn, but made aliyah with her family from Atlanta, Georgia. Three of her novels have been published under the Crimson Romance imprint. There are no spoilers, so you will have to read the books.

Brooklyn Love (2012), not to be confused with the urban (African-American) romance series A Brooklyn Love Story, focuses on Orthodox Jewish young women who are dating. As most people are aware, Orthodox Jews do not date for fun or companionship; they date to get married. The book is influenced by real life events -- hundreds of people's stories and things Levy heard. It is not autobiographical, although she did attend the Fashion Institute of Technology like one of the main characters.

While it is a story of relationships and finding true love, it goes a little deeper than many of the bodice-rippers typical of the romance genre. Levy prefers "social commentary" over "social criticism" to describe the book, but there are some harsh realities for the characters. "Why else would a couple marry [other than true love]? asks Jacob, to  whom Rachel feels a connection. "For money, security, to fit into the community. For a Brooklyn Love," replies Rachel, who is engaged to someone who possesses all of that, but for whom she feels no passion.

Then there is Hindy, who has such a good soul and is a competent bookkeeper, but alas, is overweight and has thinning hair. In a rather awkward scene, Hindy is set up with a real "catch:" the son of a rabbinic dynasty from one of the top yeshivas. But her date has eyes for her stunning younger sister. Then there is Leah, who is under a lot of pressure from her mother to get married, but who wants to go to medical school and be able to support herself. With a widowed mother and a nasty rumor flying about the borough, Leah's choices are limited.

In some ways Brooklyn Love is very much a romance novel. There are some stock characters, and things like yichus, or family ancestry, the ability to provide for a young couple (dowry), and some twists and turns and miscommunications, do make for humor and some happy endings. In other ways, it addresses some of the issues of placing so much emphasis on status and income. Some of the "love stories" in the book end in heartbreak, leaving the characters hurt and bitter. In one of the twists of fortune in the book, the commentary is quite sharp, reminiscent of Naomi Ragen's biting criticism of hypocrisy in the Orthodox community.

There isn't a strong sense of place in terms of Brooklyn, although the characters do frequent places like Ocean Parkway, Avenue J and 13th Avenue, as well as the Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead. But there is a strong sense of types: the Hungarian Holocaust survivor who does not want "dark" Jews as matches for her sons and worries about "being caught and taken away;" the yeshiva student who is supposedly learning full time, but has no enthusiasm for his studies; the "boy" (anyone who isn't married is referred to as a "boy" or a "girl") who works full time, but is very enthused to learn during his free time, but is discounted because he works and isn't sitting in yeshiva; the attractive girl who has more to her than looks, and the attractive girl that doesn't.

Then there is Touchdown (2013), which is touted as a paranormal romance, not the kind where the male lover turns into an eagle or is a vampire, but where Goldie Fischer,a New York socialite, comes back as a dybbuk and inhabits the body of a southern football hero. Levy classifies this one as a comedy geared toward young adults. There are many comedic moments, including when Goldie takes over for Clayton and enjoys shopping with his Southern Belle girlfriend, Carolyn. Goldie's fight to save her family and earn her place in heaven gets a little complicated, but all ends happily when the characters choose love over practicality.

Finally, Starstruck (2013) is the story of Abby, a busy Jewish mother of three who longs for a life as romantic as the soap opera she watches every day. Her best friend Sara, an orthodox Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn is on the case of the Russian Mafia, but as she turns thirty, she hopes there is more to live than her career, though it doesn't seem likely with the string of losers that she's been dating. Can the two friends find romance, solve the case of the severed hand, and remain true to their faith? Expect a happy ending, and something better than soap opera romance - true affection.




Members of snooty book clubs that fancy themselves connoisseurs of literature probably would not be interested in these books. But those who enjoy a light read, some "brain candy," if you will, will be charmed by the characters and plots of these stories.

And, as always, some Real Cats of Israel:

 

Happy Reading!


Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Magic of Three and Gefen Publishing

What is it about three? Who knows? But many attest that both bad things and good things come in threes. From Multiplication Rock we know that "Three is a Magic Number." And Meatloaf knew that "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad."

I had two errands near the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, and since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to arrange a visit to Gefen Publishing. I was able to return my old router to the telephone store (why the guy who delivered the new one couldn't take back the old one is another story), but I could not donate blood at Magen David Adom because my kitten had scratched my hand. But, unlike Meatloaf, I found the metaphorical "ruby in a mountain of rocks" in a beautiful old building behind the bus station.

Gefen Publishing was founded by Murray Greenfield, whose colorful life including making aliyah in 1947; transporting Jews to Israel from Europe and Cyprus on "rust bucket" boats and breaking the British blockade; serving as Executive Director of AACI; and working to encourage investment in Israel. In 1973, Greenfield wrote a book, How to Be an Oleh, but no one wanted to publish it, so he ended up publishing it himself. The book sold 50,000 copies and provided guidance for new immigrants to Israel, especially about housing and finances.  From there he took on typesetting jobs and officially started the publishing company in 1981.  Since then, more than 700 books have been published. I enjoyed a lively conversation with Murray's son, Ilan, the current CEO, about Gefen, Jewish books, and publishing.


Gefen's mission has always been to "export Israel" and provide a variety of books about the Jewish experience including history and the Holocaust, books about Jewish communities of the past in Spain and Lithuania and communities in Ethiopia and elsewhere, biographies, books about all aspects of Israel including art and culture and the Israeli military.

Gefen publishes between 20 and 40 books a year. Here are three recent ones that are outstanding:



We spend a lot of time talking about probably the most significant book Gefen has published to date -- And Every Single One Was Someone. This unusual volume is a memorial to the Holocaust and sort of an art book, with the word "JEW" appearing 6 million times over 1,250 pages (4,800 Jews on every page). It has been reviewed in the New York Times, been presented to American senators and congressmen, and others have bought books in multiples of hundreds to give to Jewish leaders and libraries.

Ilan Greenfield presenting the book to Vice Preseident Pence.
Photo courtesy of Ilan Greenfield

Combining exquisite photography and reflections from a variety of luminaries that includes Israeli politicians, rabbis, pastors, and Jewish leaders and scholars, My Jerusalem, is a stunning tribute to all the places and people that make it the most beautiful city in the world.


Room for Rent is the new English translation of the classic Israeli children's book, Dira Lehaskir. The adorable story of four animals looking for a new housemate is told in rhyme, and while there is no overt Jewish or Israeli content, there are some great lessons in judging others and friendship.  For this nit-picky reviewer, the translated rhyme is genius, and the vintage illustrations are absolutely charming.



For those who cannot visit Gefen in person, their books are available through Amazon and Book Depository.

Finally, those Real Cats of Israel are ever-resourceful:


Happy Reading!

Monday, July 10, 2017

19 Tammuz

The nineteen of Tammuz is my mother's yahrzeit. My mother died on July 6, 2015, and observing the customary mourning period was challenging. I missed several weddings and bar mitzvahs of close friends and neighbors, and I sorely missed listening to music and going to live events.The Jewish custom is to honor a loved one's memory by doing good deeds and giving to charity, and I undertook a project "for the elevation of the soul of Chana Rachel bat Moshe." I also started knitting, something my mother enjoyed, but was never able to teach me.

Now that the second yahrzeit is approaching, I am finding that I can look farther back than the recent past, recount stories and silly songs and corny jokes to her grandchildren, and reflect on what was a complicated relationship. How does a librarian do that? With books.

I have been a fan of Roz Chast since she started at the New Yorker in 1978, which is about the time I started reading the New Yorker, which means looking through the magazine to get to her cartoons. Her 2014 memoir, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloombury) chronicles her parents' decline and demise. She "could see that they were slowly leaving the sphere of TV commercial old age -- and moving into the part of old age that was scarier, harder to talk about, and not a part of this culture." Although my mother's trajectory was different, I dealt with many of the same issues including the lifetime accumulation of such clutter as old eyeglass frames and free gifts from opening bank accounts; sorting through endless financial and medical papers; and that pull between spending time visiting her at a senior facility versus spending time with my children.

Hilarious, touching and spot-on, I mostly laughed and sometimes cried (and sometimes laughed until I cried). It seems I am not the only one who felt like their father's daughter and heard, "I'm not your friend; I'm your mother" many times. My mother also had a fearsome temper and a strong aversion to doctors, whom she "knew" were in cahoots with the pharmaceutical and insurance companies to overcharge and prescribe drugs so they could go to conferences in Hawaii.

But perhaps this tenacity was what enabled both women to live past 90. My mother, a"h, cheated the Angel of Death many times. She outlived the "normal" diagnosis for Alzheimer's patients. She collected every penny of her long-term care insurance, and lived way past the expectancy for those who break hips. She was in and out of ICU several times. She was hospitalized on 19 Tammuz of the previous year, and a rather inept doctor encouraged us to "let her go and stop being selfish." Well, the gauntlet was thrown down. My mother lived another year, just to show the doctor that she was horribly wrong.

©Roz Chast, 2017, ‘Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?’, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, used with permission.


Another memoir, The Bridge Ladies by Betsy Lerner (Harper Wave, 2016) is about Betsy's mother and her mother's bridge partners. Growing up, Lerner saw them as a group of suburban housewives who got together once a week around a card table, but as a grown up, she discovered a new respect for these women who show up every Monday, always dressed tastefully and with accessories, and have a friendship defined by a love of the game and a presence in each other's lives.

My mother did not play bridge with the ladies, but she and my father enjoyed playing with other couples. They would set up the card table in the living room, put out some bridge mix (best part of the game for me. Interesting fact: the chocolate covered nuts and confections seemed to be the perfect snack for card players), and spend the evening playing cards and talking. This is another one of her hobbies that she tried to teach me and that I couldn't master, which might be a good thing, since none of my friends play bridge, either. But Lerner practiced the game and improved, learn the intricacies of play, and bonded with her mother over the game.


Lesléa Newman's I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, 2015), is also a chronicle of her mother's dying and death in a series of poems that vary in style, format and tone that follow both her and her mother's journey during this time. She touches on all phases of the mother-daughter relationship as well as the physical and emotional challenges for both parent and child. Newman found inspiration in classic Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Dr. Seuss works, as well as more modern voices. Her own voice shines through with rhymes that are full of love, sadness, and often irony. She vividly captures the experience: "My mother tells me where she hides her jewels/a nurse comes in to ask about her stools." And in the aftermath "but I know, too, that my mother is involved in everything I know." 


Thanks to AJL super-colleague Rachel Kamin for suggesting these books on several platforms, and for the Hashgacha pratis that I got to read them when I did -- another example of bibliotherapy.

My mother, a"h loved poetry, and one of her prize possessions was a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass that she received as a birthday present. So many lines are so appropriate:

"This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless, 
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best. 
Night, sleep, and the stars."


"I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or 
wake at night alone, 
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again, 
I am to see to it that I do not lose you."


Finally, not one of the Real Cats of Israel, but the best cat ever, Connie, whom my mother trained to not go upstairs and not jump on tables or counters.  Everyone thought they were Connie's favorite human, but Connie was very smart -- she knew who was in charge of the food (and who didn't chase her around the house to try and play with her), so my mother was Connie's best friend.







Stay cool and happy reading!


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Lost and Found

What was I expecting when I attended an event advertised as "Etgar Keret and Maira Kalman -- artist, author, and illustrator at The New Yorker will share with Professor Evan Fallenberg stories of their journey through Israel in the footsteps of Mark Twain in an endless search for places, people, and things with music by Jane Bordeaux?" I was hoping for a discussion of art and literature and some insight into the creative process.  I got that and more.


I am a HUGE fan of Kalman's work, both in children's books and in The New Yorker.  Her style of whimsy with a certain intelligence makes me laugh and think at the same time. Keret is a master storyteller, whose work has been translated into 17 languages. Kalman was born in Israel and moved to the United States when she was four. Keret is a child of Polish Holocaust survivors and has lived in Israel all his life. They have collaborated with each other and with other authors and artists to creative an impressive mix of interesting and multi-faceted projects. Kalman is in Israel as the artist in residence at Mishkenot Sha’ananim as part of the Rothschild Foundation’s Marie Residency program, a tribute to the life of Italian artist and glass sculptor Marie Brandolini, who died in 2013 at age 51.The program – in the spirit of Brandolini’s love and appreciation for literature – brings accomplished writers to both Venice and Jerusalem, two special cities in the deceased artist’s life.



Keret and Kalman talked about current and future projects that include museum exhibitions, operas and movies.  As far as Twain's Innocents Abroad, the pair brought their own irreverence as they talked about their fascination with minuscule and trivial things that created vivid moments including buying two envelopes; going to the Arava, looking through a telescope and seeing Saturn's rings and moons; and visiting a bookstore that specializes in Romanian books. Right now Kalman is working on a recipe book of cakes, so that is a big topic of discussion.

For his part, Fallenberg asked questions about creativity, celebrity and artistic obsession. I loved that coffee is a part of Kalman's artistic rituals, and that Keret likes his fame and often finds it useful. As far as obsession, Keret seems to write a lot of stories about the father-son relationship, and Kalman admits to being obsessed with time.


Keret spoke a lot about his older sister and brother, to whom he introduced
Kalman. At the end of the program, I was able to ask him personally what I've been dying to know: how did he get the name "Etgar," which means "challenge" in Hebrew, and did his siblings have equally unique names? No, his brother is named Nimrod, and Etgar got his name because his mother had an emergency C-section in her sixth month of pregnancy with him, and the situation was very precarious for a while. He beat his first challenge (probably his biggest), and has been taking on challenges since then.

The surprise of the evening was Jane Bordeaux, which is a trio of musicians: Doron Talmon - vocals and percussion; Amir Zeevi - guitar and vocals; and Mati Gilad - double bass and vocals. I enjoyed their folksy sound and the clever lyrics.  In what translates to "How is it possible not to:"

Like a stubborn fisherman with a mesh made of holes In a small wooden boat swinging in turbulent waters You did not give up and you did not give up and my heart started beating again Like an oyster on sand washed ashore with no choice Here came a big wave sweeping her back I had already given up and I almost gave up and my heart pounded again How can you not fall in love with you How can you not fall in love How everyone in the world is not in love with you either
How can you not fall in love 

Even when I tried to refuse to be determined How could I have remained indifferent to you? When you looked at me like I was ice cream and you spoon And when you especially told me today, you're beautiful How can you not fall in love with you How can you not fall in love Just please, it was already painful Try not to break my heart How can you not fall in love with you How can you not fall in love How everyone in the world is not in love with you either How can you not fall in love

Besides my evening at Mishkenot Sha'ananim, which is right near the windmill, I made a stop at a historic house. My colleagues enjoyed The Language of Angels (Charlesbridge, 2017); me not so much, but that is a different discussion. The book tells the story of the modernization of the Hebrew language, a massive project undertaken by Eliezer ben Yehuda. The family lived at 11 Ethiopia Street, across from the Ethiopian Church. The street is extremely narrow, but the houses are magnificent. The neighborhood borders on the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Geula and Meah She'arim, but this block is a rather quiet corner of the world, with all the residences (except ben Yehuda's house) situated behind heavy metal security gates. It appears that no one is living in the house, which could definitely use a little renovation.

And what is a trip to Jerusalem without seeing one of the Real Cats of Israel, this one just rolling with the punches:

Happy Reading!

Monday, May 15, 2017

May Jewish Book Carnival

Welcome to the May 2017 Jewish Book Carnival -- a selection of book reviews; interviews with authors, publishers, librarians and others about Jewish books; and essays about Jewish books and literature. 

The purposes of the Jewish Book Carnival are to build community among bloggers who feature Jewish books in their posts and to promote Jewish reading, and fields supporting this reading such as publishing and library services.

This month's selections:


At The Book of Life, Heidi Rabinowitz interviews Suzanne Nelson about her teen novel Serendipity’s FootstepsBecome a patron of The Book of Life for as little as $1/month and Suzanne will send you an autographed copy of Serendipity’s Footsteps!

Jill at Rhapsody in Books reviews I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes her Mark by Debbie Levy.  This book for children explains how Ruth's early experience of prejudice against Jews, women, and other groups inspired her later dedication to equal rights for everyone. Originally posted for Women's History Month (March), this 2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner for Younger Readers is a great read any time of the year.

At AJL's People of the Book blog, Kathleen Bloomfield, the president of the School, Synagogue and Center Division of the Association of Jewish Libraries addresses the current violence and hate with "literary suggestions for children that affirm the values of kindness and acceptance of others."

At Israel Blogger, Batya Medad is very happy that Rabbi Emanuel Feldman has republished his lovely and honest memoir, The 28th of Iyar, his day by day journal written during the weeks leading up to the Six Days War and the war itself. Feldman and his family had been winding down their sabbatical year in Israel when the Arab countries began threatening to annihilate the State of Israel...

On the Fig Tree Books Blog, a series of posts spotlighting past winners of the Edward Lewis Wallant Award continues with a look at Allegra Goodman's Kaaterskill Falls, which took the prize for 1999.

I attended the Jerusalem Women Writers' Conference (JWWS) on May 9th.  You can read about the great speakers and sessions at Life Is Like a Library.

Over on the Jewish Book Review author Deborah Kalb shares her big secret with Rivka Levy (and you), and explains why she stopped writing for adults and started writing fiction for children instead.


On My Machberet, Erika Dreifus reports on the celebration for this year's finalists for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature (and looks back on the very first such event, ten years ago).

Deborah Kalb interviews a wide variety of authors on her blog, Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb. Here's a recent interview she did with Peter Szabo about his new book, Finding Maria, which looks at his family's history and his relationship with his grandmother.

Penguin Random House's Newsletter "Signature: Making Well-Read Sense of the World" covers all aspects of reading and literature, but I was drawn to two recent posts:

 from author David Samuel Levinson -- "5 Novels That Illuminate the Problems and Dangers of Anti-Semitism"

and "No Excuse for Ignorance: Books to Understand the Holocaust" by Lorraine Berry. 

Thank you to all our contributors.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

2017 JWWS

Yes, it's that time of the year again. The jacarandas are in bloom in my neighborhood;



it's almost Lag B'Omer,



and I had an uplifting and informative day at the Jerusalem Women Writers' Seminar (JWWS). So what words of wisdom and inspiration were bestowed by the speakers?

Rebbetzin Sara Meisels (the Bobover Rebbetzin) opened the day with a dvar Torah and reminded the packed hall that writers inspire and influence their readers. That is their gift from Hashem. If you are given that gift, you must use it to the benefit of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish community).

Jonathan Rosenblum is a regular columnist for many Jewish publications. As the lone male speaker, he felt a little pressure, but he spoke about the ability of writers to connect to others. He reminded the group to develop a thick skin, to seek constructive criticism, and not to be obsessed with the money aspect of the craft.

Esther Heller, editorial director of Menucha Publishers, spoke about "Writing Great Leads." There are many types of leads -- narrative, questions, summary, etc., and seminar participants were able to practice writing them after a mock press conference.

Next were the Shapiros:
Sarah Shapiro spoke about "The Role of Jealousy in a Writer's Life," while Debbie Shapiro discussed "Keeping Your Privacy When Your Personal Life Is Public." After some amusing anecdotes and family stories, she talked about writing about her challenges with Parkinson's Disease. While she did not want to be defined by the disease, she concluded that it pays to talk about something personal sometimes. She has received phone calls of support and empathy; has helped people to understand what people with the disease go through, and started an organization, Tikvah for Parkinson, that provides knowledge, support and advocacy.

Avigail Sharer, aka Leah Gebber, spoke about "Tales as Old as Time." Looking at fairy tales, there are prevalent themes and prototypes that can be guides for writing fiction. So don't think of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Snow White as children's stories. Think of them as stories about "Overcoming the Monster," an underdog or someone who goes from rags to riches, and a tale of rebirth, respectively.

After a very appetizing lunch, back again, those twins that epitomize "twinness:"


Miriam Zakon and Emmy Leah Zitter.

Miriam has been writing a weekly serial, Freefall, in Mishpacha Magazine. It takes place between 1939 and 1945 and is about World War II, but not the Holocaust. Emmy Leah, a professor of literature, provided a literary analysis of Miriam's work to help attendees improve their own writing.  

In a session entitled "Serial Murder," the sisters' lively banter covered the elements of a good story:
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Characterization
  • Symbols
  • Metaphor.
Quote of the day: "Getting off topic that's on topic, we need good (well-written) Jewish books. They don't end with the wedding and "they lived happily ever after;" they continue through the marriage and life with all it joys and sorrows."

In the afternoon, two sets of workshops were offered. I attended Tzippora Price's "Writing with Passion and Purpose." Tzippora read two selections about childhood memories and then asked the group to write with both the voice of innocence and the voice of experience -- a memory from childhood with all the sensory details and looking back on it as an adult. Then we had to answer two questions: what is so special about this memory now? and what does it mean now that I couldn't have known then? Those brave enough to share wrote about childhood bullying and experiencing words that hurt.

Malka Schapps, aka Rachel Pomerantz, provided exercises in "Telling the Truth in Fiction." The task was to take a real interaction or event and turn it into fiction. Some stories need a little embellishing to entice readers, while other stories, even though true, are so crazy that no one would believe them.





I am the lucky winner of Rabbi Benjamin Yudin's new book, Gateways to Greatness (Mosaica Press, 2017). In it, Rabbi Yudin shares "gateways -- ideas, methods, teachings, and practical wisdom -- to become happier, better and more connected people." A fan of his weekly dvar Torah on Jewish radio, I can almost hear Rabbi Yudin's voice as I "have the privilege of reading about unlocking one's potential. 




Thanks to Stephanie Weiss for the ride home via "the beautiful way," aka the back way (not on Highway 1).




Thank you to Tamar Ansh and Esther Heller for organizing another great conference.

















and Happy Reading!