Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Ups and Downs of Being an Author OR Check Your Ego at the Door

Be careful what you ask for, the saying goes, because you might just get it. That can be a problem.

The problem isn't getting what you want. The problem is that once you have what you want, you want something different, something more.

In an author's world, there is no such thing as enough. There's always the next book, the next review, the next reader, the next appearance, the next award, the next book contract. Sure, some few lucky writers have more than they ever could have dreamed of in royalty income. Their award shelf is sagging with the weight of having won every award given in their genre. Some might call that enough. But no true writer I know of has ever finished writing a book and said, "Okay, I'm done now. No more books."

There's always another book. Which means there's always more reviews, sales, signings, award submissions. There's always a new opportunity to succeed. Or fail. Most authors do some of both.

This past May, I was feeling pretty down, coming off the temporary high of seeing interior and cover files for Strength to Stand go off to the printer. This book was a long time in coming. I'd finished most of the book by 2006, with the exception of one scene that my editor wasn't buying. The manuscript languished as I put all my efforts into my day job and my kids. Years passed, and while I felt the pull to return to that manuscript, it wasn't until a good friend prodded me into rewriting that one scene, late in October 2014, that I finally picked up the mantle of author again.

I was a writing machine for two months, the book coming together seamlessly. In January 2015, it was back in my editor's hands. By April, Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) were being prepared, and by May, I was four chapters into writing book 3 (No One to Fear) in the series. And then I did the Bad Thing. The Bad Thing that authors should never do if they want to keep their sanity. (No, not that one. The other Bad Thing.)

I compared myself to other authors.

I was skimming through Facebook and seeing posts from fellow author friends, some struggling with their work in progress (WIP), some also anticipating a new release in the fall, and then others who were awash in good news—every few days a glowing review or the announcement of an award won.

If you've ever compared yourself to someone whose life's work is somehow related to yours, you know the inevitable outcome: when you compare yourself to others, you always, always lose. I am now convinced that authors should only ever compare their current work to their work from at least a year ago. No one else's. Ever.

But the book industry thrives on comparison. "If you like x author, you'll like y author." The various bestsellers lists are all about ranking sales, and if you know anything about the book industry, you know that sales are not a factor of how good the book is. Rather, sales are a measure of how effective and broad the marketing campaign was (hint: $$$). But any author who is deemed a "bestselling author" will claim the title without asking any questions, and they certainly won't ask if they're now a bestselling author because of the quality of their work or because a well-timed publicity campaign followed by a few Goodreads giveaways happened to go viral and it could have happened to anyone.

And then there are awards. The ultimate in comparison. Awards are supposedly an objective ranking of the best books in any given genre. But even this is suspect. Awards judges have biases, including sometimes a bias against Jewish books, no matter how well they're written, or a bias against small presses, no matter how beautiful and professional the book appears.

In the space of one week on Facebook, I watched no fewer than three authors, whom I knew personally, receive highly prestigious awards nominations, win other highly prestigious awards, and receive amazing reviews in some of the most highly regarded media, all for their debut novels.

I felt sure my book, which wouldn't even be out for another five months, was doomed to fail.

I wrote an impassioned note to an authors' group in which I'm active, hoping for some comfort or support: "I'm finding that as I'm seeing all the awards nominations and the photos from conventions, reading about new book deals and bestseller lists, I'm happy for those involved, and it's also kicking into overdrive my tendency to compare myself to others, in which I always lose.

It's hard sometimes to remember that I write the books that are in me, in my soul, not the books in someone else. I don't write for the purpose of winning awards or making a bestseller list, though both would be welcome acknowledgments.

I'm learning to focus on my own writing, on being true to that part of me that MUST put words to paper, reminding myself that I'm me and you're you and there's no need to compare. And yet..."

The responses were as expected: Yep, that's life. Keep on writing. Me too. One author posted a blog article on writer envy. I didn't want to admit this was what I felt.

Another well-published author sent me an email in response, and managed to hit the nail on the head, saying their reaction was twofold: happiness, on the one hand, for these other authors' successes because they deserved them, and a mixture of hurt, despair, and even anger, that after years of writing and being published, they still didn't see the level of acknowledgment these other authors were now enjoying.

That was exactly it. I was thrilled for my author friends, who were finding such success (and with their first novel!), and at the same time, there was a little voice inside asking, "But what about me?"

Ten days later, I learned experientially that I should be careful what I ask for.

Ten days later, Destined to Choose, my first book, the one that was first published back in 2003, which was re-released as a tenth-anniversary edition in 2013, was named a National Indie Excellence Award finalist. Kindle sales of Destined to Choose spiked and it ranked #1 in the Kindle store under Jewish literature. Back on the authors' group, I felt like eating crow.

Sometimes we human beings learn best by experiencing what we need to learn. And often times, especially for the hard lessons, the Universe decides to teach us also through repetition. So it was with me, though whether that's because it was a hard lesson or because I have a hard head remains to be seen.

By the end of May, about 180 ARCs had been sent out to reviewers, bloggers, magazines, newspapers, and journals. I figured by August, I'd start seeing reviews. August 15th came with nary a review, and not knowing where to turn, I emailed my publicist, trusting her experience and trying hard not to whine.

"Oh, who knows?" my publicist said, adding that many reviewers shoot for publishing reviews closer to a book's pub date (in this case, September 1st), so I may see more in September. Some may hold on to reviews until late fall, since the book takes place during Chanukah, and then they could review it as a "Chanukah book." (It isn't, really, but I could see the point.) In any event, she instructed me to keep working on those things I could control, check in with some of the places to which ARCs had been submitted, and let the rest go.

A trusted advisor pointed out to me that, really, I'd already received reviews in the form of blurbs. They were all fantastic. No one said, "Sorry, I can't blurb this; I didn't care for this book." The same advisor asked me what I felt about this book.

"I love it," I said. "I think it's a better book than the first one, though I'm loving book 3 even more than the second one."

"Isn't it a sign of growth as a writer that each successive book is better than the one before it?" she asked.

"Yes. It's when the first one is spectacular and the second one tanks that you have a problem."

"And you love Strength to Stand?"

I had to separate out my own feelings from what I'd taken in from others. "I do," I said.

"Then there you go."

I'd gotten myself to the point where, even if no one else reviewed Strength to Stand, I still believed in it. I still loved it. I was coming to understand that reviews didn't define my book, and they certainly didn't define me. I could live with that.

And then this morning, I received an email with a link to a review of Strength to Stand, which reads in part: "Sheyna Galyan offers a sophisticated blend of insight and entertainment; suitably complex, flawed, and yet commendable characters; well-developed action and suspense; and an authoritative rendering of synagogue-centered Jewish life. This is a very fine book group selection and teaching text." The review will appear in the fall issues of three publications in Florida.

Okay, I get it, Universe. Really. Do I have to eat crow again?

Monday, June 15, 2015

Please join my street team!

I'm looking for a few good people. Or maybe a lot of good people. I'm looking to form a "street team," a roving gang of readers who can do things I can't for David, Sara, Batya, Arik, and the rest of the folks in the series. Here's how it works:


    What you get:
  • Your very own ARC (advance reading copy) to read and enjoy
  • Unfettered access to me (Sheyna) via email and, if enough people are on Facebook, a Facebook group
  • My undying gratitude
  • Gifts, giveaways, and discounts at my discretion (only available to street team members)
  • A chance to be a part of something bigger




  • What you need to do
    :
    • Read the ARC. Note that there are errors in it. I'm aware of them, which will be corrected before the final printing.
    • Do as many of the following FREE things as you can:
      • Post about Strength to Stand on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Shelfari, BookLikes, The Reading Room, etc.)
      • Review it on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Library Thing (Goodreads is available now; others may not be available until closer to the on-sale date)
      • Talk about it in Goodreads groups
      • Include my book in a photograph of you or a friend. BONUS: post the photo on Instagram
      • Ask your local bookstores to order it (they can pre-order), and if you go on vacation, ask bookstores at your destination to order it
      • If you see my book at a bookstore, tell the owner/manager what you love about it—they might not have read it and aren't familiar with it
      • Ask your local libraries to order it (and libraries at any vacation spot you might be at) and tell the librarian about it, and why you like it
      • Tell any book clubs you know about it
      • Ask your local book clubs, synagogues, churches, or other organizations to carry it in their gift shop (if applicable) and consider having me do a presentation, reading, and/or signing
      • Let me know if you see any good reviews, or post about them and tag me
      • Take a photo of my book in a bookstore and post it (and tag me) or send it to me and I'll post it (it's good publicity for the bookstore too)
      • Vote for Strength to Stand as one of your favorite books on any contests, especially through social media
      • "Like" my author page on Facebook if you haven't already, and encourage your friends to do the same. BONUS: Click on "get notifications" (hover over "liked") so you know when I post something
      • Comment on (don't just "like") my posts, which gives those posts greater visibility to others
      • Share my Facebook posts
      • Follow me on Twitter (@sheynagalayn) and retweet my tweets. Encourage your friends to do the same
      • Encourage your friends to sign up for this newsletter
      • Add me to your Google+ circles
      • Talk to me about my book when you see me (I don't get sick of it, really)
      • Follow my blog (Books and Beliefs)
      • Come to my launch party, either in person or my virtual launch party on Facebook
      • Attend my in-person or virtual events. There's nothing more disheartening than going to a signing and having no one show up
      • Write about my book or series, or interview me for your own blog, or ask me to do a guest post for your blog
      • Tell all of your friends
    • Do any of the following not-free things if you can:
      • Pre-order my book
      • Buy copies to give as gifts
      • Buy copies and donate them to fundraising auctions
      • Buy a copy to donate to your synagogue or church library (if applicable)
    That's it! Unless you think of more things, and then by all means, please do them. And let me know what you did, because I may add it to my list. 

    Remember, authors don't make much money from book sales, and believe it or not, small publishers don't make much either. If everyone bought books on Amazon or at bookstores, I would make $0.80 per book in royalties, so I need to sell A LOT of books to afford to travel to signings, give out author swag, and bring in money to the household so I can work on Book 3. The only way to sell A LOT of books is to have a lot of buzz and word-of-mouth publicity. That's where YOU come in! 

    If you'd like to join my street team, just email me at sheyna@sheynagalyan.com. Or if you're on Facebook, go to  https://www.facebook.com/groups/RabbiDavidCohenMysteries/and request to join.

    Thursday, May 28, 2015

    Fiction: to describe or not to describe is the question

    Less than a week ago, I had a conversation with another author in which she asserted that she can always identify an amateur author by the fact that they describe their characters upon introduction. I didn't respond. I was a little shocked and I didn't know what to say. She explained that she could be friends with someone for years and never know what color their eyes are, so an eye color description in a book was a tell, practically a sign screaming amateur. She went on, saying that in her first book, she didn't describe any of her characters. At all.

    "But do they need to be described?" asked a second author, who'd joined the conversation.

    To answer that question, I have to pull out my favorite Jewish answer: it depends.

    I've thought about this, worried about this, even obsessed about this a little (okay, maybe more than a little) since the conversation took place. I know that I'm sensitive to it because my first ever bad review (to which I did not respond, thank you very much) was about my character descriptions. This reader (not a professional reviewer) even used the same trigger word, saying that descriptions are the mark of an amateur writer.

    I'm willing to take constructive criticism. Some of my beta readers actually wanted more description (body type, clothing, stature, facial features) because they couldn't picture the characters otherwise. Other beta readers took the opposite stance: "Why do I care what color her hair is? Get on with the story."

    I was (and am) adamant that some descriptors are important, even essential, for the reader to know. It's important for the reader to know that David (my rabbi protagonist) is clean-shaven, because there's this assumption that all (male) rabbis have beards. It's important for the reader to know that Arik looks Middle-Eastern (and in book 3, that will cause him a lot of grief).

    That said, I also have learned in my growth as a writer that the old instructions to writers, imparted in sage tones by prestigious-award-winning authors, no longer apply in today's reading climate. It used to be that description, whether of character or setting, was the place where an author's prose could have free rein to explore flowery language and poetic combinations of sounds when read aloud. But now? Now readers want action. They want dialog. They want, it seems to me, something more like a script.

    There's no description on TV or in the movies. What a character wears, looks like, observes in their scenery is just there. We know which cops wear suits and ties and which ones somehow manage foot chases in low-cut silk blouses and high heels because we see it. But we don't really process what we're seeing. We're too engaged in the plot and the dialog.

    Some readers (and some authors) think that not describing characters allows the reader to put him/herself into the story. If the protagonist is a redhead and the reader is a brunette, it's harder for the reader to imagine herself as the hero, is the argument. Lack of description allows the reader to fill in their own.

    I disagree. It's the opposite for me. Lack of any description leads (for me) to a difficulty in seeing and therefore connecting with the characters. I don't want to have to do my own casting for the story. I want to know what the author pictured. I want to be invited in, to feel like I'm there, and that's hard when all I have are faceless names on a page.

    But I'm also a visual person, and not all readers are. Perhaps, then, it's simply a matter of style, or taste. I like it when authors use some description, because that draws me in. I don't like long laundry lists of description for every character (age, height, weight, hair color, eye color, distinguishing marks, corrective lenses, clothing style/color, gender expression, organ donor: yes/no, ad nauseam). I don't like laundry lists so I don't write them either.

    Part of what sticks in my craw is really the application of the word amateur. So I did a little digging (in my bookcase) for other mystery/suspense/thriller novels. This is by no means an exhaustive list. It is, however, a nice sampling, and I think it supports my point that the use of description is the author's style and may not be for everyone, but doesn't make that author any less talented or skilled or experienced. Here's what I found:

    Agatha Christie, Evil Under the Sun (1940), "pocket book" edition, p. 16: "Young Mrs. Redfern had taken off her rubbery cap and was shaking out her hair. She was an ash blonde and her skin was of that dead fairness that goes with that colouring. Her legs and arms were very white. With a hoarse chuckle, Major Barry said: "Looks a bit uncooked among the others, doesn't she?"
         Wrapping herself in a long bath-robe, Christine Redfern came up the beach and mounted the steps towards them. She had a fair serious face, pretty in a negative way, and small dainty hands and feet."

    Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Ultimatum (1990), mass market edition, p. 6: "...the driver a long-framed man, his sharp-featured face intense, the muscles of his jaw pulsating, his clear light-blue eyes furious. Beside him sat his strikingly attractive wife, the reddish glow of her auburn hair heightened by the dashboard lights. In her arms was an infant, a baby girl of eight months; in the first backseat was another child, a blond-haired boy of five..."

    Note: This is a description of the protagonist, which could justify more description, and it's important to point out that the description here does not stand alone but also gives us mood and setting and the protagonist's feelings. So let's look at a non-protagonist character...

    Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Ultimatum (1990), mass market edition, p. 13: "There was a brief knock on the door and the DCI called out for the visitor to enter. A medium-sized, slightly overweight man with wide eyes magnified behind steel-rimmed glasses walked into the room..."

    Jonathan Kellerman, Therapy (2004), hardcover edition, p. 4: "He waited, green eyes dimmed to near brown in the miserly light of the restaurant. Under the spotted napkin was a baby blue polo shirt that really didn't work well with his pallid complexion. His acne pits were flagrant, his jowls gravid as freshly filled wineskins. Long white sideburns frizzed his big face, a pair of skunkish stripes that seemed to sprout artificially from his black hair. He's a gay policeman and my best friend."

    Note: While not the protagonist, this is a major supporting character. This description does not overtly provide mood or feelings, but it does paint a clear picture, and gives us some insight into what the character thinks of himself and what others think of him, which come into play later in the book. Let's look at a minor character...

    Jonathan KellermanTherapy (2004), hardcover edition, p. 9: "She was in her midforties, trim but wide in the hips, wore green velour sweats, glasses on a chain, and nothing on her feet. Ash-blond hair was texturized to faux carelessness. At least four shades of blond that I could make out in the light over the doorway, blended artfully. Her nails were painted silver. Her skin looked tired."

    Lee Child, Bad Luck and Trouble (2007), hardcover edition, p. 16: "She hadn't changed much in the four years since had last seen her. She had to be nearer forty than thirty now, but it wasn't showing. Her hair was still long and dark and shiny. Her eyes were still dark and alive. She was still slim and lithe. Still spending serious time in the gym. That was clear. She was wearing a tight white T-shirt with tiny cap sleeves and it would have taken an electron microscope to find any body fat on her arms. Or anyplace else.
         She was a little tan, which looked good with her coloring. Her nails were done. Her T-shirt looked like a quality item. Overall she looked richer than he remembered her. Comfortable, at home in her world, successful, accustomed to civilian life. For a moment he felt awkward about his own cheap clothes and his scuffed shoes and his bad barbershop haircut."

    John Sandford, Gathering Prey (2015), hardcover edition, p. 32 (protagonist description): "Lucas was a tall man, dark-haired except for a streak of white threading across his temples and over his ears, dark-complected, heavy at the shoulders. He had blue eyes, a nose that had been broken a couple of times, and a scar that reached from his hairline down over one eye, not from some back-alley fight, but from a simple fishing accident. He had another scar high on his throat, where a young girl had once shot him with a piece-of-crap street gun. So his body was well lived in, and he'd just turned fifty, and didn't like it."

    John SandfordGathering Prey (2015), hardcover edition, p. 77 (minor-character description): "Chet got out of the car and an old man came to the front door of the house, pushed the screen door open, and stepped out. He had a mustache over a three-day beard, watery blue eyes behind plastic-rimmed glasses. He was wearing overalls and rubber boots, and carrying a pump shotgun, a 12-gauge."

    None of these samples are from first books for these authors, so we can't say that it was a newbie mistake and they're better now. All of these authors are award-winners. All are or have been bestsellers. All have sold a freaking lot of books and have huge fan bases.

    I had to look a little harder for a book with little or no description, but I did find one...

    Erin Hart, The Book of Killowen (2013), hardcover edition, p. 20 (non-protagonist description): "For three days and three nights, she had studied his face against her pillow—dark hair and eyes, flawless pale skin that had somehow retained the high color of youth, though he was probably at least forty."

    Erin HartThe Book of Killowen (2013), hardcover edition, p. 29 (protagonist description): "She let her gaze caress the back of Cormac's head, admiring, as she so often did, the curve of his skull, how pleasingly it intersected with the angle of his jaw. Whenever he turned to speak she once again remembered the meandering path those same lips had traced across her bare skin only a few short hours ago."

    There is a great deal of description of setting (Ireland) and scenes ("The cottage roof was stoved in and the windows were broken, the frames peeling paint; every wall seemed invaded by damp and mold."), but almost nothing of characters.

    I'm not willing to say that Erin Hart is the only professional, experienced author in the group I've just surveyed, nor am I willing to say that her books suffer from the lack of character description. (In fact, I could argue that with the detailed descriptions of scene and setting, adding descriptions of characters might be too much description, and perhaps the author was well aware of that. Or maybe her editor hated character descriptions and cut them all out. I'd have to ask.)

    What I am willing, even eager to say—and say loudly—is that character description is part of the author's style and what the author wants to convey to readers. Every traditionally published book (and these all are) goes through at least one editor's hands many, many times over. If it makes it into print, it was okayed by the editor(s). If character description was a bad thing, it would be edited out by all editors, not just the ones who don't care for it.

    And that's ultimately what this all comes down to: preference. Some authors use a lot of description while others don't feel they need to use any. Some readers prefer description, others can't stand it. Most readers have learned that if they dislike description, they can skim over it and quickly get back to the dialog.

    But description or not, it doesn't mean the author is an amateur, it doesn't mean the book is bad, and it shouldn't be used as a weapon to beat up either author or book.

    One last note: self-published books and books published through publishing services (like CreateSpace) are a mixed bag. Some are extensively edited by professional book editors, and in such cases, the use of description is the same as with a traditionally published book—author style. Others are barely edited, or edited by an English major, or not edited at all, and these may be a little more suspect, simply because they haven't been as thoroughly vetted. A professional editor might leave the character description alone, or trim it down, or remove it all together.

    What's your preference on description? Do you like it or hate it or don't care either way? What do you do when you encounter character description in a book?

    Tuesday, May 19, 2015

    Destined to Choose named award finalist!


    I'm super-thrilled to share that my first book, Destined to Choose, has been named a 2015 National Indie Excellence Award finalist!


    DTC-cover-3D-frontleft-finalist-smHere's two things I've learned from this:

    1. CELEBRATE! To celebrate this win, Destined to Choose is being offered for FREE as an ebook from Tuesday 5/19/15 through Saturday 5/23/15, and the paperback is 36% off at the publisher's website (https://yotzeretpublishing.com/blog/celebrate-with-us-free-ebook-or-36-off-paperback-of-destined-to-choose/). For those who don't know why it's 36% off and not some more "normal" number, it's a Hebrew language thing. In Hebrew, numbers are written with Hebrew letters. The number 18 is written as חי (chai), which means "life." The number 36, as a multiple of 18, becomes "double life."

    2. STAY IN THE GAME! Destined to Choose was first published twelve years ago. Yotzeret Publishing re-released it in 2013 as a new edition with a 10-year-anniversary update to the Author's Note, a few error corrections, an updated interior design, and a new cover (which I LOVE!). That re-release made it eligible for the National Indie Excellence Awards.

    I could have said, "You know, it's had a good run. Why invest the extra money to submit it for an award? After all, it hasn't won any awards yet." Reminder to self: it didn't win any awards because it was never submitted for any awards when it came out! Instead, I said to myself, "Self, submit this book! It has a shot at winning. It's a beautiful book, readers love it, and it meets all the eligibility requirements. And, there's still time before the submission deadline. You read about this award for a reason, so submit it already!"

    And now here I am, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to put FINALIST stickers on my books. It's exciting. It's something I've wanted for a very long time. And I'm really pleased that I—and others—still believe in this book, because that paid off this week.

    And just think: it's less than four months until Strength to Stand comes out!

    Friday, January 02, 2015

    Finding the Good: Parshat Vayechi

    Today is my oldest son's birthday. This week's parsha (also spelled parasha) — Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 - 50:26) — was his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah, and he and I spent months examining and re-examining it, talking about it, occasionally arguing about it. He chose to speak about whether or not Yaakov was blessing his sons or rebuking them, and what exactly constituted a rebuke. He also chose to avoid speaking about how the legacy continues of the younger son receiving the older son's blessing (much to my younger son's consternation). You can read the full text of his d'var Torah here.

    Last year, the part that stood out for me was the passing on of one's legacy — knowledge, wisdom, beliefs, hopes, and dreams — from one generation to the next. Of course that made sense: my eldest was claiming his place in our community, accepting the legacy I and others were handing down to him.

    And this year? This year a different part spoke to me. That's as it should be. That's why we read it again and again, year after year. The text doesn't change, but we do. Where we are in our lives a year later allows us to see messages that we weren't ready to hear a year earlier.

    This year's gem is a short phrase that Joseph utters when his brothers beg his forgiveness after their father, Yaakov, has been buried. The brothers are worried that Joseph might still hold a grudge against them, and they send Joseph a message saying that their father (allegedly) instructed Joseph to forgive his brothers. And Joseph responds by claiming that he is no substitute for G-d, and further, in part:

    וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה השם חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה
    And you intended evil upon me but G-d intended it for good...

    For many of us, our lives are filled with a succession of adversaries. Some are small and easily overcome. Some are lifelong struggles that, G-d willing, when we look back in our final days, we'll see that we finally triumphed against. Overcoming the messages from my childhood (particularly the notion that no matter what I did, or who I became, I'd never be good enough) was a big one. Dealing with my depression, which I did actually liken to the yetser hara — the evil inclination as an adversary — here, was another. Coming to terms with having chronic physical illnesses is yet a third.

    It's so easy to cry out, "Why me? It's not fair! Haven't I had enough?" It's even easy to look at others who have battled (or are still battling) cancer, loss of limbs, loss of their entire family in a tragedy, or other horrendous experiences and write off our own as not worthy in comparison. But pain is pain. Loss is loss. We're not in a competition. And I'm wondering if there's more to be learned from the adversaries I now face.

    Somehow, I drew the genetic straw that gave me physical limitations that are sometimes severe, and a few even life-threatening. I can imagine speaking to them, to the genetic code, to the physical health legacy passed down through my biological ancestors, and saying to them, v'atem chashavtem alai ra'a, Hashem chashabah l'tovah. You intended me harm, but G-d has intended it for good.

    And some day I will look back and see, clear as day, what the good was, and why this obstacle is so necessary to my growth.

    Shabbat shalom!

    Thursday, January 01, 2015

    Counting What Counts

    Image: Flickr/Christine Urias
    Last night, while at a small and lovely New Year's Eve party with friends, we counted down to 2015 three times. Once, at about 10:30pm, to King Julien's (Madagascar movies) New Year's Countdown on Netflix. Once, at 11:00pm, to one of the local news stations that airs the New York countdown in real time. And once at midnight, local time. At the first two, I felt a bit like I was playacting. At the third, I had to blink back a few tears.

    "You can never have too many countdowns," said Sharon, one of the hosts of the party.

    She's right.

    What made the first two countdowns seem insignificant had nothing to do with the discrepancy with local time. They seemed insignificant because I didn't allow them to have meaning. Only the third met my criteria for being "real." Which means I'm missing out on a lot of potentially meaningful moments. It's time to change my criteria.

    We celebrate a lot of transitions in Judaism. Marking time with lit candles, with specific prayers and blessings, we don't just wait for meaning to hit us; we carve meaning into the fabric of our reality. And sometimes it feels like playacting, and sometimes it's a deep, heart-wrenching shift from what was to what can be.

    We're not wired this way. Left to our own devices, the days blur into one another, weeks into months into years, with the occasional lit countdown ball or birthday greetings to remind us that another year as passed, another year we've walked the earth, another year gone that we could have made holy.

    As it says in Tehillim (Psalms): "Let us then know how to number our days, that we may obtain a heart endowed with wisdom. [...] Oh satisfy us in the morning with your kindness, that we may be glad and rejoice throughout all our days. Cause us to rejoice as many days as those wherein you have afflicted us, the years wherein we have seen unhappiness." (Ps. 90:12, 14-15).

    It's a mindful act, to attend to each day. It requires thought, focus, intention. Each evening deserves its own countdown, that "there was evening, and there was morning" — a new day, a new chance to start over, a new opportunity to be the person we are each intended to be.

    We don't just wait for meaning to hit us; we carve meaning into the fabric of our reality.

    My days used to be ruled by to-do lists, responsibilities and obligations to others, a never-ending litany of tasks like laundry and dishes, tasks that seemed to benefit no one in the long term, yet still needed to be done. Work was predominant in my life, and the fact that others were waiting, counting on me, was the only taskmaster I could hear, driving me on to the detriment of all else.

    This year — this day — is an opportunity to change that, to attend not only to my work, but to the rest of my self: my physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual needs. It's a new year. It's a new day. It's a new now.

    Let the countdown begin again.

    Wednesday, May 28, 2014

    Mystical Judaism

    This past weekend, Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, MN hosted Rabbi Art Green as their scholar in residence, to teach about Jewish mysticism and Neo-Hasidism. Jewish mysticism is enjoying a resurgence in interest, due in part to the Jewish Renewal movement, as well as the yearning of younger, often unaffiliated Jews who see contemporary synagogues as legacies of their grandparents and want to know if that's all there is.

    My personal interest in Jewish mysticism goes way back. There were definitely signs of my interest when I was a young child, and by my high school years, I was meditating daily, asking Big Questions, and searching for signs beyond Uri Geller's spoon bending.

    Add to this the fact that I've interviewed my characters, some more than once. These interviews would be part of what I've always thought of as the "bonus material" on a DVD—the deleted scenes, interviews with the director and actors, and how-it-was-made videos. So it should come as no surprise that I have an interview (albeit brief) with my rabbi character David about mystical experiences.

    When I attended Rabbi Green's talk Friday night about how he came to be a scholar on Jewish mysticism, during the Q&A I asked him the same question that I'd posed (fictionally) to David. What I found most intriguing is that Rabbi Green's answer was, in its essence, the same response.

    Here's the fictional interview, from April 2006:

    I knocked softly on the mostly closed door, feeling a little hesitant.
    “Come in,” came the response.
    I entered the small study and saw him behind his desk, a legal pad full of doodles in front of him, along with the stubby end of a roll of Tums and enough other books and papers that I feared they’d tumble down onto the floor. An immediate grin brightened his face.
    “Sheyna! What a pleasant surprise! What brings you here?”
    “I was wondering if you had a few minutes.”
    “For you? Of course. Is this business or pleasure?”
    I considered the question. “Depends on how you define them. But I suppose the short answer is a bit of business and a bit of personal.”
    He set down his pen and stood up, and I was suddenly aware of how much taller than me he was. When I write, I’m seldom in the same room, and observers aren't nearly as cognizant of height. “Let’s sit down,” he said, his arm indicating the chairs across from his desk.
    We sat and I knew the ball was in my court. “I’m sorry for the unexpectedness, David. Let me do some explaining. Or at least try.”
    David cast a curious look at me but remained quiet.
    “First of all, I have some questions for you regarding the next book. That’s simple enough. Second, I have some personal questions for you. And third, I have a confession to make.”
    David raised his eyebrows. “You realize you’re in the wrong religious building for confessions?”
    I smiled. “My confession is directly related to the personal questions I have for you.”
    “Where do you want to start?”
    How do you feel about Jewish mysticism?”
    Surprise was evident on David’s face. “That’s a question I wasn’t expecting. How do I feel about it? Well, I haven’t had much personal experience with it. But my own psychology training leaves me open to it. There’s so much we don’t know about the human brain, about the development of the personality, about where body ends and soul begins. So, do I think it’s possible to have spiritual experiences? Absolutely. Do I believe in reincarnation? I don’t know, but there’s a precedent for it, and I’m comfortable leaving it as a possibility. Do I believe in alternate realms and journeys to Pardes and conversations with Elijah?”
    He let out a long breath. “I believe strongly in God – obviously, or we wouldn't be sitting here. As far as I’m concerned, alternate realms and the existence of Pardes in some form comes with the territory. As for the rest, I believe that people have encounters with the Divine all the time, usually without knowing it. And I’m sure sometimes people are quite conscious of it, though I think it takes a certain level of spiritual understanding to not just be aware but interact with what’s going on and not be psychologically injured by it.”
    I nodded. “I figured you were pretty open-minded. What do you think about angels and other messengers of God?”
    “I've never met one to my knowledge. But to deny their existence is to deny part of God, don’t you think? I don’t take the Torah literally; you know that. But angels and other divine messengers and helpers are so central to religious Judaism that I have to accept the possibility, if not the probability. Where are you going with this, Sheyna?”
    “I’ll get there, David. I promise. If a congregant came to you and said they'd had a mystical, spiritual experience—been visited by an angel or had some encounter with God’s presence or had a conversation with an ancient Tzaddik—what would you tell them?”
    “Not a congregant scenario I've anticipated, but on the spot, I’d have to evaluate it in context. I’d be very concerned, and very doubtful, if this hypothetical congregant’s life was in chaos, if there were other red flags: difficulties at work, in relationships, legal troubles, isolation, self-harm or threats to others. But if this experience somehow enriched the person’s life, led them to greater self awareness or connection with God, brought them closer to community in a healthy way, I’d take them at their word. It’s not my place to judge someone else’s experience. I've heard stories of people who, after having a profound religious experience, suddenly also experienced a resurgence in their business and a new commitment to religious observance and the needs of their community. I can’t in any way consider that a bad thing. And to reduce their experience to a skeptic’s scientific explanation might somehow take away from the good it did in their lives.
    “The bottom line, if I may, is that when your life’s work centers around religion, you have to be open to all the ways in which people experience that religion, and when your primary goal is to bring people closer to God, you have to be open to all the possible ways that God might also approach those very same people. If I wasn't open, I couldn't believe that we have a covenant with God, that Torah is somehow God speaking to us, that our prayers mean something to someone other than ourselves.”
    “But you have colleagues who would disagree,” I prompted.
    “Of course. There are rabbis who got into the business in spite of the spiritual aspects. I personally don’t think you get to pick the pieces you like about Judaism and reject or label the rest as impossibility. Becoming a rabbi, in my opinion, means accepting the gift handed down through centuries, even if you don’t understand it all, even if you have doubts. It means committing to a lifetime of learning, and being willing—even eager—to say that God is so far beyond our understanding that we can’t possibly say that an experience of God’s presence is out of the question. We should be seeking them, not trying to explain them away.”


    Hopefully, as a result of Rabbi Green's visit, and an openness to those Big Questions, we will be doing more seeking. I know I will.