Sunday, December 30, 2007

Why It's Good to Read a Book Aloud

Most readers aren't aware of everything that goes into a manuscript after it's written but before it can be prepared for publication. But you aren't most readers because you're here and I'm going to share with you all the fun (sort of) ups and downs.

So, I finished writing the manuscript (shorthand: ms) last Wednesday. But before I can print out half a dozen copies and give them to my beta readers (more on that in a moment), it needs a read-through.

Out loud.

What may look good on paper and even sound fine when you're reading silently can be downright nasty when spoken aloud. That's not good. Downright nasty doesn't belong in a published book. I did this with Destined and it was amazing how many things I caught:
  • How many times do characters begin their dialog with "Well,"?
  • Do two or more characters use the same idiosyncratic speech pattern?
  • Is the point-of-view (POV) consistent, or is there "head jumping"?
  • Just how many times do you just use the word "just"?

Oh, there is so much to find, so much to correct. And it doesn't work quite as well when you're reading it aloud to yourself. Because, after all, you wrote it.

So we look for an audient. (I figure if many people in attendance is an audience, then a single person listening is an audient.) In my case, Husby is quite convenient.

Consequently, over the last few days (excepting Shabbat, of course), I've been reading the ms to him out loud. Lemme tell ya, my voice is starting to fade, and we're only to chapter 13. But it is already making a difference in what I'm able to catch both in basic errors and in structure and word choice.

Since Tuesday is a holiday (we did our New Year thing back in September; this one we celebrate pretty much simply by buying a new calendar), on Wednesday, the plan is to print and bind about half a dozen copies of the ms and give them, with a complimentary red pen, to my beta readers.

What are beta readers? They're people I've specifically requested read the ms and mark it up. I trust them to tell me the honest truth. If there's something that needs fixing, I want to know about it so I can fix it! Anything they love, hate, don't understand, anything that needs clarification, isn't accurate, or is a must-keep - they mark it and I use it to do Edit #2.

A few people who were beta readers for Destined have volunteered to read this one. And my favorite, to be honest, was a reader who wrote not only comments to me for purposes of the next edit, but also comments to the characters! I'm looking forward to her comments on this ms.

So that's the latest update. Husby gets to hear a bunch more chapters read aloud to him and then I'll move on to the beta readers. And all this before it gets to my editor, who will I hope, edit it within an inch of its life so that it can be the best book possible.

Hey Hey Haveil Havalim #147

Want to know what's going on the Jewish blogosphere? Go to this week's Haveil Havalim over at Soccer Dad's blog and see who's doing what or to whom.

Really. Go. I'll wait. You can always come back here and read more when you're done there. (Plus there's a link there back here, so you won't forget.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Chapter and Terse

88,197 words

2,920 paragraphs

403 pages

33 chapters

20 major characters

6 beta readers

3 book editors

1 novel


Yes, the first major edit of the completed manuscript of the second in the Rabbi David Cohen series is DONE!

Today's assignment is to break it into chapters. I don't write chapters as I'm actively working on the ms so much as I write sections. Later some will become chapters and others will remain sections within a chapter.

I need to look at how the story flows and where a good breaking point for a chapter would be (with an eye always toward cliffhangers and other nefarious means of keeping readers from putting down the book), and then also look at how many pages are in each chapter, to achieve some balance throughout the book.

Next up, making printed copies for my beta readers, who will have something to curl up with and mark up with red pen in January. Then it's on to my primary editor and advance copies to go out to pre-publication reviewers.

In addition to asking for your help with the pitch, you all are also de facto part of my focus group (isn't that cool?) so I'll be asking your opinions on a bunch of stuff, including your votes for the published title (rather than the working title I've had), votes for your favorite cover, and so forth.

You can help determine the future of Jewish literature!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Help Write a Book Pitch! Be Involved from the Very Beginning!

From 12/24/07:
No carolers tonight, but there is a good shot at my finishing the first major edit of As in Days of Old tomorrow. Since there's so much else to do on December 25th. [snicker]

Okay, so I need y'alls help here. I need a good elevator pitch. An astounding one. A 25-words-or-less pitch for the book that will cause everyone who hears it to run to their nearest retail outlet (online or off) and buy it.

I wrote in detail about what a formal elevator pitch (EP) is on the MIPA blog, if you want to know details about it and how to develop your own. For everyone else, let's just say I need to come up with a 10-second (I wasn't kidding about the 25-words-or-less) riveting, compelling, highly provocative sentence to describe the book without giving away the ending.

So... what is the book about? It's the second in the Rabbi David Cohen suspense series, a sequel to Destined to Choose, and, if I may be so bold, much, much better. It takes place six months after Destined ends, during the weeks leading up to and during Chanukah. In it...

"Minneapolis Rabbi David Cohen intervenes to catch a violent stalker while his wife tries to become more involved in his career."

That's what I have so far. There's so much more I could say. That's the problem as the author, you get so caught up in the characters' lives and the story and all the details that it all seems important.

Like, I could tell you that Arik (Israeli-born Minneapolis cop) has a major role in this book, as does Batya (Arik's wife/Reform rabbi).

We get to see the story partly from Batya's point of view, as well as Sara's (David's wife).

Eli, who was briefly introduced in Destined, and his wife come out for a visit during Chanukah, and wind up in the middle of a crime scene.

We meet Shimon, an Orthodox rabbi, for the first time and get a glimpse into his and David's friendship (yes, a Conservative and an Orthodox rabbi can be friends).

And we get to meet members of the larger non-Jewish community as well.

Will you help? I'm thinkin' there might be something in it for you, too (mention in the acknowledgments, a free advance copy...) My publisher's marketing advisor, my editor, and others will have some say, too, but I've been asked for a pitch with the finished manuscript. I'd love your help!

Leave your comments (they get emailed to me so I'll be sure to get them) and we'll continue the dialog. Thanks!

Back tomorrow with updates.

Update 12/25/07: About 20 pages to go and the ms is DONE (with Edit #1) and ready to go to beta readers for their comments, which will result in Edit #2. [Then it goes to my editor for what will result in Edit #3.] I would not be surprised if the ms goes through as many as 5-6 edits all told before publication, but the first three are the big ones.

Already the first chapter has been rewritten and several scenes have been either rearranged or pulled entirely. You know what books need? We need a "special bonus features" thing like on DVDs, where the author can provide commentary during the book and there can be a section for a gag reel and deleted scenes. I wonder if there's a market for that sort of thing...

I am a little sad. It's always sad, finishing and having to say goodbye for now. I expect to be done by tomorrow morning, at which time I will need to - without a pause - write a compelling scene from Book #3, the third in the series (and mostly plotted out already). I really hope to get to the point of writing a book a year. This 4-5 years between books is so not okay. (But then I did give birth to children in the intervening years. That's my excuse and I'm stickin' with it.)

Wish me luck - tomorrow I'm looking forward to posting a DONE post!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Is Carol Coming to My Door?

Received this tucked in the door today:

We cordially invite you to listen to a musical caroling experience (time/date). If interested, please leave a front light on. [Signed by a neighbor]

What to do? What to do?

I want to support the neighborhood. I want to support my neighbors. I love music.


I'm Jewish. I really don't want to hear about the birth of Jesus, sung to me personally, from my doorstep. Already I haven't been able to get "I'm Getting Nuttin' For Christmas" out of my head from a few days ago.

Husby didn't have any vacillation. He made sure the outside motion-sensor lights were turned off.

Update: due to blowing snow and whiteout conditions, caroling has been cancelled (or at least postponed to tomorrow).

I'm a little bit disappointed. I would have loved to have overheard them caroling to someone else who celebrates Christmas. The music is often beautiful, and I can listen to it so long as I know it's not directed at me personally.

And maybe it will replace "I'm Getting Nuttin'" and endless refrains of "I Am A Latke."

Update #2: The tune for the verses in "I Am A Latke" by Debbie Friedman has been buggin' me all evening, bringing memory snippets of Disney videos to mind. I finally put it together. The tune in the verses (not the chorus) is eerily similar to the tune of the verses in "Be Prepared" (Scar's Hitler-esque takeover song) in "The Lion King."


Chinese Food On Christmas

Just how I'm feeling, finishing up Edit #1 on "As in Days of Old," watching the snow blowing outside, and knowing most of the rest of the neighborhood is preparing for the "big day."

Plus, this guy's got talent!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Moving Finger Writes, and Having Writ, Moves On

aka "Yay! No More Rosh Hashana Video!"

I am buried in books, folks. I've got quite a few I'm wading through for reviews (coming soon), an author interview with Tsvi Bisk (coming very soon), and stuff even I wrote (what a novel concept).

Spent Motzei Shabbat last night as the featured/guest author for a synagogue book group. I love audiences like this - warm, generous, genuinely interested. I was a little surprised when they said, "Okay, enough about the book. We're going to buy the book. We want to know more about you!"

My life is just so... well... my life. But some people find it interesting, which I find interesting. Maybe there's a book in there somewhere.

So what IS going on in my life? Some of the usual: kids, Husby, house, pets, vehicular challenges, winter in Minnesota (we're entering a warming trend, they said on the news: temperatures might get [up] close to freezing).

I moved my office from upstairs to dowstairs, which is actually a move up in the figurative sense though down in the literal sense. I have windows now and space. And boxes full of... uh... stuff, yeah, stuff from the former office, which is now a child's bedroom.

As for the writin', As in Days of Old is going through the first major editing and the cover art is starting to take shape. Beta readers ought to be getting their copies within a week or two. I'm hoping for a summer release; we'll see!

Some of you might remember my (very) short story "Saturdays," which was published on Elster's Storytellers blog a [ahem] year ago August. I've decided to give protagonist Coby his own book. Maybe not a series; I'm not sure. But I've got the perfect stand alone novel for him, and yes, folks, this one's a real honest-to-goodness murder mystery. Jewish perspective, yes, but not religiously so. If you've read "Saturdays," it's Coby post-police academy but without the encounter with Mike and Dan. (I have to take some writer's license, right?)

Meanwhile, I've been writing articles and shorter pieces (though obviously not blogging recently. Sorry about that!). One well-researched piece that I'm particularly fond of on the mitzvah of welcoming guests will be published in early January 2008; I should be able to either reprint it here or put in the link as soon as it's out.

I gave a 1-hour multi-media lecture last month on electronic marketing, or as I like to call it, "Book Marketing for Introverts." Due to responses to the lecture, I'm compiling my info along with other resources I've found for a small book. No release date for certain yet, but those who've read my articles on e-marketing (see my many posts on the MIPA blog) have said if the book were out now, they'd buy it sight unseen.

Pretty cool. I like hearing that.

I hope everyone had a meaningful and heroic Chanuka (or at least a nice time), and I'll be back soon. (Bug me if you don't hear from me at least once a week!)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I Gotta' Love You Rosh Hashanah

This video was sent to me recently asking, among other things, for my take on it.

So here's my thought:

The lyrics bear listening to. “Yom Kippur leaves me feeling empty inside.” Wow. That’s not good. Why, I wonder? “Passover reminds me of the tears that we cried.” Okay, that makes sense. Sad, but sense.

So, Yom Kippur = empty
Passover = sad
Rosh Hashanah = date night?

Well… why not? To overuse an already overused cliché, it’s thinking outside the box.

And THEN, I started thinking about one image – just one single image, the first image that comes to mind (oh, let’s be Freudian, shall we?) – for each of the major holidays.

Pesach. Easy. The moment when I was 15 and dipping parsley in salt water and really truly crying because for the first time in my life I finally felt HOME.

Yom Kippur. Also easy. Hearing Kol Nidre in a rich baritone voice and feeling like every nerve is on fire, like somehow this voice, this song, this moment is a fragile, precious reaching out from our most vulnerable to the divine.

Rosh Hashana. Not so easy. I want to say hearing the shofar, or apples and honey or something nice. But the first image that comes to mind… I’m sorry to say it… is what feels like interminable hours of standing and sitting and standing again and maybe getting to sit for a bit and then more standing. And then, exhausted at the end of the first day, my only thought is “You want me to do this AGAIN?”

Or the alternative… think about it a new way. When my feet feel like they want to fall off and I’m just not feeling that into it and I’m prayed out for the hour or the day and I just want to go home, would it be so bad to silently groove to “R to the O to the S to the H to the…”? I might do it. I just might.

Why can’t Rosh Hashana be like a date, that exciting newness of it all, a special “dinner” of apples and honey and wine, of coming “home” and seeing with new eyes, hearing with new ears, letting go of the past and embracing the Book of Life? Especially if it lands folks in shul. And especially if people look forward to it as Rosh Hashana and not simply “Thursday.”

R to the O to the S to the H to the HASHANAH...

What are your thoughts?

Shana Tova!

I've been running around doing the Headless Chicken Dance the past few days, but I want to extend a warm Shana Tova to all of you. Your support and comments and feedback have been wonderful and I look forward to sharing with you in the new year!

Shana tova u'metuka!

Monday, September 03, 2007



I just received an email from Lisa Hamilton, a fellow author interested in both books and beliefs, asking about my blog here, and mentioning that she read a reference to Books and Beliefs in yesterday's New York Times.

She WHAT? My blog is WHERE?

She is right. Sunday, September 2, the New York Times ran an article about author Amy Cohen's blog tour for The Late Bloomer's Revolution, in which I'd participated not long ago. The full article is titled "The Author Will Take Q.'s Now" by Kara Jesella. And there it is, paragraph six.


Well, that totally made my day, and I owe big thanks to Lisa Hamilton, without whom I wouldn't have known it was out there. Her book, I should mention, is due out later this month, and called Wisdom From the Middle Ages for Middle-aged Women and classifies it as Christian (Anglican) fiction.

Thanks, Lisa! And wheeeeee!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Me At Work

No, that's not a mis-spelling of "Men At Work."

Actually, it's a shameless plug to go read a couple of articles I wrote for MIPA, the Midwest Independent Publishers Association. I wrote one on book categories and one on building a publishing backlist. It's the "work side" of me, hence "me at work."

Over-explained, I know.

But go check it out. The book categories one is personal, and has completely changed the way I approach my writing. How? Go read it!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Today's Post Brought to You by the Letter H

Hey Hey, Haveil Havalim is Here, Helpful and Highly Hailed, Honoring and Heralding Hints from Heresies to Histories, Heroically Hoarded (in a Helpful way) at the sHack.

Henceforth, Hurry Hastily and Heed your Hunger for this Hearty Harvest of Happiness.


A Reason for Jewish Optimism: Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

My burning question to Tsvi Bisk after being captivated by his lecture was this: what can we do?

My question was answered on two levels.

"We've done the research on alternative energy," Bisk said. "We have plenty of research. Enough with the research already. What we need is deployment." In fact, Israel is at the forefront of developing and establishing alternative energy solutions, water conservation and desalination, and recycling. And a small community can do this, he said.

Step one: Get the local (Jewish) community together. Do some fundraising, Ask for investments from the local medical community in particular.

Step two: Purchase a solar-powered steam turbine generator from Solel (or a similar Israeli company) with the money raised.

Step three: Donate the generator to a local hospital, where they will substantially reduce their energy bill.

Step four: Take advantage of the media to demonstrate how a small community can make a huge environmental difference within their own community. Help it to "go viral" and spread to other communities.

Who wins? Everyone. The Jewish community wins by getting credit for the donation. The hospital wins by reducing costs. Israel wins by establishing another happy customer. And the earth wins.

There are the usual but still important answers:

  • Replace incandescent bulbs with compact flourescent bulbs
  • Turn off lights and small appliances when not using them
  • Make your next vehicle a hybrid
  • Invest in wind and/or solar energy programs through your local energy company
  • Conserve energy wherever possible
But I wanted more. I wanted to know, for those of us who have already invested in wind energy, replaced our bulbs, and can't afford a new car right now, what can we do today?

Tsvi Bisk will hopefully answer that - what a single individual can do - and other questions about his book and proposals in an upcoming interview here on the blog.

Meanwhile, as I was at the lecture, a representative from Checker Auto Parts came up to me and provided more answers.

What can YOU do today?
  1. Check the air in the tires of your vehicle(s). For every pound psi the tires are underinflated, you lower your gas mileage up to one percent.

  2. Check the air filter in your vehicle(s), even if whomever changed the oil claims they inspected the air filter. Change it if necessary. A clogged air filter can cost you 10% of your gas mileage.

  3. Use "Top Tier" fuel. This does NOT mean the really expensive high-octane stuff. This means fuel that has sufficient detergent added to clean your fuel system as it's being burned. Leading automakers have determined that the minimum EPA standards for detergent added to gasoline only provides about half the detergent needed to keep the engine's fuel system clean and prevent corrosion. For a list of fuel companies participating in the Top Tier program, visit

  4. If there are no Top Tier participating fuel stations nearby, add the best fuel system cleaner you can buy to your vehicle every three months. This is often not the one on sale. Ask your local auto parts store for their best recommendations; there should only be one or two.
I went home and checked tire pressure. Right on manufacturer recommendations. Check one.

I checked the air filter despite the oil changing place claiming to have checked it three months ago. I don't think it had EVER been changed. Icky. A new one cost less than $10. Check two.

No Top Tier stations around here, so I bought the recommended fuel system cleaner specifically for engines over 100,000 miles. Two weeks later (as of this writing), my average gas mileage - which I've been tracking since I bought our minivan - increased by 9 mpg. From 19 mpg to 28 mpg. For a minivan!

And then, because I was inspired and because our six-year-old gas-powered lawnmower is clearly on its last wheels, we retired the noisy gas-guzzler and bought a push reel mower from the local home improvement store for a well-spent $65.

Here's the amazing thing: it pushes easier than the gas mower, is easier to maneuver, cuts just as well (or better), is nearly silent (I can talk on the phone while mowing the lawn; who else can claim that?), and doesn't benefit Iran, antisemitic propaganda, or spew who knows what fumes into my face and the environment.

All because I reviewed a book and it touched me.

Whether you agree with the entire message or not, the fact remains that energy is an issue looking desperately for a solution, and the Jewish Energy Project might just be one of the answers.

A Reason for Jewish Optimism: Part 1

I recently attended a lecture in St. Paul by Israeli author Tsvi Bisk and in some very real ways, it changed my life.

First of all, Tsvi Bisk is an incredible speaker. He had a large room with a standing-room-only audience mesmerized for nearly two hours. This is hard to do under the best of circumstances but he pulled it off successfully. Part of it may have been his resonant voice, growing louder to emphasize some points and then pulled back to a soft this-is-between-you-and-me camaraderie. But most of it was the message itself:

We can
  • neutralize the war on terror
  • significantly decrease antisemitic propaganda around the world
  • bring both religious and secular, Diaspora and Israeli Jews together, and
  • put a dent in global warming

all in one program. And we can do it within twenty years or less.

The answer: become energy independent.

Not everyone agrees with this, but hearing Tsvi Bisk talk, it is hard to find fault with his logic, his passion, or his proposals.

Much of the detail about what he calls the Jewish Energy Project is detailed in his latest book, The Optimistic Jew, reviewed here on this blog. In the lecture, he summarized much of it with the following:

  • A great deal of the antisemitic propaganda and literature spread around the world originates in Iran (big surprise)
  • The vast majority of Iran's income comes from the sale of oil
  • Reducing or even eliminating dependence on foreign oil will hurt these anti-Jewish, anti-Israel governments far more than sending more troops to the Middle East to risk their lives against roadside bombs and insurgent attacks
  • Energy is something that can bring together both young and mature, secular and religious Jews in Israel and the Diaspora; it is something consistent with Torah values and taking care of the earth
  • By showing our local communities, regions, states, countries that it is possible to reduce or eliminate dependence on foreign oil by tapping alternative energy resources and conserving energy, this is a grassroots campaign that can make a global difference. This is an important way we can become (again) a light unto the nations.

"I don't care if it is down-up, top-down, grass roots, grass tops, so long as it is done," said Bisk during the lecture. Everyone has a share in it, he emphasized. Everyone needs to participate.

Among attendees were representatives from the Alliance for Sustainability, who agreed with Bisk that energy independence and conservation are the keys not only to neutralizing the war, but to avoiding future wars that would, experts agree, likely be about either energy or water. Or both.

There was much discussion on the feasability of Bisk's Jewish Energy Project, on its impact at the legislative level and the response (or lack thereof) from American and Israeli political leaders. Bisk quipped that the term "Israeli political leader" was an oxymoron, and admitted that this can only succeed if people demand it of their representatives and leaders. The payoffs for current political leaders to maintain the status quo is simply too tempting.

What, I wanted to know, can we, as individuals, as small communities, do right now?

That was where it got really interesting.

Continued in Part 2.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Dear Sheyna...

Two and a half articles done, I just took a break and retrieved the mail, finding a hand-addressed letter to me from a vaguely familiar-sounding name in New York.

Curious, I opened it.

"Dear Sheyna,
I am Jewish and I believe Yeshua (Jesus' Hebrew name) is the promised Messiah of Israel."


Icky drop it drop it - no, throw it out OUT OUT! - no, better yet SHRED IT! Ewwww...

Right. Emotional display of disgust over. I think.

How did they get my home address? Oy. Just when I thought I was getting a handle on all the email spam, now it comes in my house. Ick.

Okay, so I understand the need for Christians who believe that witnessing or whatever is part of their purpose in life. Don't like it, but I understand it's what they believe. But former sort-of Jews preying on other Jews? That's just wrong. Wrongwrongwrong.

I know it happens. A lot. Way more than it should. I just consider myself lucky to have dodged most of it.

So I invite readers here to share what y'alls would do if you got such a letter? Send them a letter back referring them to Jews for Judaism?

Do you just ignore it, shred it, burn it, or otherwise purge it from your house, and if you do that, does it in some way perpetuate it by not stopping it?

Brainstorms welcome. (Conversion attempts not.) What would you do and why?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Coming Up...

Soon, as soon as I can get my other four articles written and off to the appropriate editors, I'll have posts on:
  • Tsvi Bisk's lecture in Saint Paul
  • a recent book club talk
  • and reflections on a recent question about whether my books are kosher.
Meanwhile, back to writing about flexibility, backlists, and categorizing books. All three of those articles will eventually wind up on the MIPA blog, hopefully within the next week.

More to come!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Bridge In Troubled Waters

By now many of you have heard about the 35W bridge collapse in Minnneapolis yesterday evening. First a personal note of gratitude: we are all fine, thank G-d.

It's quite a ways from us and not a route we use often, though I almost drove across it yesterday morning until I found myself driving on "autopilot" and heading a different way to the same destination. (I'm not sure whether that "autopilot" thing was not enough coffee or just enough Divine Intervention, but either way, I'm safe.)

It's very surreal here. Husby and I went out for a walk last night and met several other neighbors who were outside just trying to make sense of it. Everyone knew someone who crossed that bridge during rush hour. The cell phone towers are overloaded and last I heard, there are at least 30 people unaccounted for and at least six fatalities.

We had the news on at 6:00pm last night and saw the first "breaking news" story. Stopped us in our tracks. I stared in disbelief until my brain kicked into gear and then all I could do was whisper "Baruch Dayan HaEmet" repeatedly. There was nothing we could do except watch and worry and pray.

I just saw the CNN video of the bridge as it actually collapsed. I'll add it in a post just after this one.

I couldn't sleep last night from all the news, finally took something to help and I'm groggy today. Not a great day for writing, let me tell you. But I've got two articles due and another blog post update on watching Tsvi Bisk in action (wow), so it's a writing day whether my brain wants to or not.

Interstate 35W Security Footage of Bridge Collapse

Here is that shocking video of the bridge collapse I just wrote about.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Optimistic Jew

It seems appropriate today, the day after Tisha b'Av, to turn toward the future with hope and optimism.

Tsvi Bisk, Director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking in Israel, is the author of the just-released and very well-written The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century. Somehow he found li'l ol' me and asked if I'd consider writing a review. Just a summary of the book had me intrigued, and The Optimistic Jew is well worth the read.

As an added bonus, Tsvi will be speaking in St. Paul this Sunday at 10:30am at the St. Paul JCC, and also at the World Future 2007 Conference at the Minneapolis Hilton between July 29 - August 1. I'll be attending his lecture at the St. Paul JCC. If you're in town, come see him! (And me! I'm friendly, honest!) With any luck, I'll be able to post an interview with him here, too.

So without further delay, here's more on The Optimistic Jew.

With the sobering predictions from successive American Jewish population studies, it’s easy to become pessimistic about whether it’s going to be worth it in the long run to raise an increasingly smaller new generation with a strong Jewish identity. Is there a reason for paying thousands of dollars for a child’s Jewish education?

Unequivocally, yes, says Tsvi Bisk in his new book, The Optimistic Jew (Maxanna Press, 2007). Director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking in Kfar Saba, Israel, Bisk not only knows that there’s a reason to be optimistic, he outlines exactly how we can create a strong, vibrant Jewish future, attracting younger generations of disenfranchised and unaffiliated Jews in the process. And we can do it in our own lifetime.

There are several keys to achieve this, according to Bisk. One is embracing cultural pluralism, and he likens it to an environmental paradigm:

“Environmentalism recognizes that “monoculturalism” (the cultivation of a single crop over extensive areas) endangers the health of the entire ecological system. Ecological systems that have an increasing variety of species and ever-increasing interactions between these species are healthy, vigorous, and robust. Ecological systems that have a diminishing variety of species and diminishing interaction between these species are sick and susceptible to collapse.” (p. 31)
And Bisk dismisses the idea that one has to choose between cultures: Jewish versus American versus Israeli versus any other cultural heritage, stating, “Individuals who cultivate within themselves a plurality of cultures also have a much better chance of succeeding. […] To the extent that Israel and the Jewish people at large can make this cultural attitude a norm, we will truly be a light unto the nations.” (pp. 139-140)

Another key is redefining Zionism for the 21st century. While Zionism was indeed a success, it is no longer applicable either to Israelis or the Diaspora. Writes Bisk, “Many young Diaspora and Israeli Jews have grown distant from Israel in recent years because Zionism is a 19th century ideology trying to come to terms with a 21st century reality.” (p. 57). In clear, down to earth language, Bisk retraces the history of Zionism, how it grew, how it succeeded, and what needs to happen to reinvent it for today and the future.

The third key relates to the role of Israel, within both Israeli and Diaspora culture. Since the creation of the State of Israel, the primary relationship has been one of the Diaspora financially funding Israeli organizations, ultimately directed by Israeli politics. Some Israelis, Bisk writes, claim that not only have these contributions had little effect on Israeli citizens, they have actually become detrimental.

“The time has come for a new paradigm wherein these relatively small sums go directly […] to more efficient and effective public administration, innovative educational initiatives and national projects (such as energy independence) that could mobilize the energies and skills of large numbers of uninvolved Jews.” (pp. 68-69)
Bisk casts a sharp eye on the secular European Enlightenment, citing it as the basis for a global return to fundamentalism in any religion. While Jewish responses to the Enlightenment brought us this far, he writes, they cannot sustain Jewish identity into the future. This is not simply a case of changing beliefs or creating belief where there was none, but rather creating entirely new Jewish expressions.

Pulling together politics, psychology, economics, history, sociology, and ecology, Bisk describes where we’ve been, where we are, and where we can be. He offers specific ideas and suggestions for creating the optimistic future he envisions, and cites actions we can take as both individuals and a people. Of particular interest is his outline for the Jewish Energy Project, which can all at once invigorate today’s Jews, reassert Israel’s place in Jewish life, and tackle the growing dependence on foreign oil.

For anyone who is interested in what the future of the Jewish people can look like—if we will it—this is a highly recommended solid read with a potentially real outcome.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Interview: Amy Cohen, author of "The Late Bloomer's Revolution"

I am just tickled to introduce to you my first author interview here on Books and Beliefs. Last week I read The Late Bloomer's Revolution and thoroughly enjoyed it. Today, I'm delighted to share my interview with the author, Amy Cohen:

Sheyna: Amy, welcome to the blog, and thank you so much for including Books and Beliefs in your blog tour. Let's get right to the interview.

You write about such painful, traumatic experiences, such as your mother's death and the broken engagement, yet you write with such levity and humor. How do you feel about sharing your pain in such a funny way?

Amy: First, I’m so happy you thought the book was funny. I love hearing that, so thank you. I come from a funny family. I think it’s just the way we deal with things. It’s never something we even think about, it just is.

Like today I did this radio interview by phone and of all days, workers were drilling and hammering in the apartment below me, so I couldn’t hear anyone who called. So I asked my doorman if from 1:30 to 1:45, they could stop banging and drilling and he said yes. So at 1:30 I begin my interview, and then not only does the drilling get louder, my doorman starts ringing my buzzer – repeatedly. After it was over, I said, “Julio I said NOT to call or drill at 1:30,” and he said, “oh sorry. I got confused.” Was it a nightmare? Yes. Was it such a disaster it was funny too? Absolutely. I guess my feeling when things go wrong is always, “might as well laugh.”

I think the second part of the question for me is “how do you feel about sharing your pain?” Which was incredibly hard for me. Maybe the hardest part. For many drafts, I was very glib and jokey and you could tell I was hiding a lot. So I had to go back and then back again and yes, again and again, and rewrite. And in order to do it, I had to be really honest with myself. Was I afraid of saying I got depressed (yes, absolutely I was) but why? Was I afraid to talk about how insecure I feel sometimes (yes, again.) And so I asked myself why and what I was so afraid of. And it took a lot of work.

I think also when I was going through all my most painful times, I wished so much there was a book like mine. I’d read other memoirs that I loved, but couldn’t find one that captured the feelings I was having. So I’m happy to share.

Sheyna: I found that the parts I laughed hardest at (with?) were the situations I found most familiar (and there were many), yet I was engaged at 19 and married by 23. Can you comment on the universality of what you wrote about relationships and what it means to be a "late bloomer"?

Amy: I have to say, I am just thrilled people are using the word “universal” in reference to the book. I think part of the universality (love that word), is that the book deals with all kinds of relationships, not just between men and women. It’s about relationships with your parents, with yourself, and also with your idea of yourself (your job, the things you think define you and make you a success, and the ongoing issue of where you think you’re supposed to be in life.) Those are universal concerns.

I’ve gotten a bunch of letters from men and women of all ages and different backgrounds (which has been amazing). Letters that include a film-making bachelor in London; an older, widowed grandmother from New Jersey; and a lovely, young Palestinian Israeli woman who said that she felt the book had a very universal message about relationships and how complicated they are.

Who knew? I actually wasn’t expecting so many people to use the term “universal”, but as I said, I couldn’t be happier people feel that way.

Sheyna: You clearly write from a Jewish perspective. In what ways do you think your Jewishness had an impact on how you dealt with the situations you wrote about?

Amy: What a terrific, interesting question. First, I have to say my Mother must be smiling now, because she would love this question so much (she was a “career volunteer” for UJA and the Jewish Theological Seminary.)

The ways in which my Judaism influenced me and my writing are numerous.

My father’s mother, Grandma Flossie, was one of those Jewish grandmothers who was more afraid if something good happened, because then it could all be taken away and if you never knew how good things could be, you’d never know what you were missing, so better that they should never be good. I think that’s such a recipe for high neuroses – if things are bad, they’re bad. If things are good, they’re bad. That played a lot into the way I see and write about things.

I’m also reminded of the woman on my bike trip who said, “how many Jews do you think are on this trip?” which I think was her way of saying “who’s like us?” I think Jews so often have a sense of being included, but also being outsiders. That certainly plays into the way I think too. There we were up in the Canadian Wilderness with sturdy, Bison-eating, Nordic types and there was a sense of assimilation, but also not. I’m reminded of that great scene in Annie Hall when Alvy goes to visit Annie’s family in Wisconsin, and he just feels like an alien. He tells the family he’s been seeing an analyst for fifteen years, and says, “I’m making excellent progress. Pretty soon, when I lie down on his couch, I won’t have to wear the lobster bib,” and they look at him like he’s nuts.

I also got a strong sense of my Judaism from my mother who believed Judaism was about compassion. In terms of writing, I always have a great deal of compassion for my characters, especially ones who broke up with me just after I’d gotten fired.

Sheyna: Finding a lasting relationship is just as much an issue within the Jewish community than in the rest of American society, and maybe even more so for those who will only date other Jews. What would you suggest Jewish organizations, especially synagogues and JCCs, can do to create more opportunities for Jewish singles?

Amy: Well, since my brother and sister met their spouses THE SAME NIGHT at a Jewish Singles party thrown by a few of my mother’s friends, I always think that’s a good way to meet people. I have a lot of friends, too, who met on JDATE. MAKOR in Manhattan is terrific, too, because they have great, cool music and hip lectures and classes and a cute cafe. It’s an excellent model.

Sheyna: As I was reading The Late Bloomer's Revolution, I kept thinking it was kind of like a Jewish Bridget Jones' Diary, but your book is true. Have you heard this comparison before and what do you think about it?

Amy: I haven’t heard this comparison – although let me say I think it’s genius. I’ve heard “Jewish Sex and the City, but with family.”

I’ve also heard people call my book a “beach book,” and someone said, “How do you feel about that?” And I said, “Beach book. Gym book. Subway book. I don’t care. I’m just so happy people are reading it.” Kurt Vonnegut said, (and I’m completely paraphrasing him), “read a soup label. Read a gum wrapper. Just read.”

Sheyna: Based on your experience, what do you think is the greatest obstacle to singles finding happiness today? (Note that "happiness" does not necessarily mean "relationship" or marriage.")

Amy: Listening to friends who say you want it too much or not enough. Or that they need to “get out there,” or try online dating again even if you hated it, or go out with a friend’s mother’s ex-coworker’s son, who isn’t much of talker or a looker, but “you never know.”

The whole process is enervating. You have these nights where you’re sitting with a stranger and you have nothing to say and it feels like your life is seeping away. My advice is always to embrace the life you have – really embrace it – go on that trip to Thailand you wanted to take; sneak into a movie that’s almost sold out and get the best seat and never stop believing the life you want will happen, just not necessarily in the time you thought.

Sheyna: And because I just have to know, and wondered about it all through the book: how did the rash on your face finally resolve and what did you need to do to keep it away? (Really, I was ready to break out the champagne in anticipation of the chapter where you wrote about it disappearing and you being able to leave your apartment again!)

Amy: I love that you were going to break out the champagne. We’ll have to toast something else (like you getting married at twenty-three!) Actually the rash just slowly and I mean, sloe-hoe-hoe-holy went away. The doctors never knew what it was. And, not surprisingly, now I’m a lunatic about my skin.

Sheyna: Thank you so much, Amy, for sharing yourself in your book!

Amy: Sheyna,Thank you! It was a pleasure. What fantastic, thought provoking questions. Really, really just so great.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Relationship is a State of Mind

I'm always amused when I hear nouns used as verbs. "Let's coffee tomorrow." or "I'm going to office from home today." And of course the now-infamous "I googled him before we went out."

Then I started to hear, "I'm in relationship." Excuse me? In relationship? Isn't there an "a" missing, as in "in a relationship?"

But I realized that, no, it was true. Relationship is not just a state of being, a state of couplehood versus singlehood. It's a state of mind, too.

I know, this coming from the girl who met her husband-to-be just before high school graduation, got engaged to him a year later, and married him a year into graduate school. In fact, we just celebrated our 16th anniversary. Over 20 years together, I've known Husby longer than I didn't know him. It's a cool milestone to pass. We're in relationship.

I also just finished reading Amy Cohen's The Late Bloomer's Revolution and sent off my interview questions for her blog tour.

If I'd seen the book in a bookstore, or even in the library, I probably would have passed on it for one simple reason: relationship. And I would have missed a great book.

It's a memoir, a sometimes heart-rending, sometimes exhilarating, always funny account of looking for love but not quite finding it. And as a long-time married woman, with kids no less, I wasn't quite sure if I'd see any of myself in this book.

Boy, was I wrong. Because it's not just about being single or being married. It's about - all together now - relationship. It's about how you see yourself and how you project that to others. It's about how much you love yourself (without going overboard) being the measure of how much another can love you. It's about coming to terms with who you are and where you come from and using it all to take risks to grow and change. It's about life.

I suppose dead people might not get that much from reading it, but I recommend it to everyone living. Especially if you're in relationship, or looking to be.

Being a Packrat Pays Off

I went looking in the garage for a second broom just now.

Oldest and Youngest sons decided to have a Spaghetti Fling in the kitchen last night, and after scraping limp pasta off the front of the dishwasher and picking it out of the mudroom rug, I decided they would spend today doing chores. After washing walls, chairs, doorjambs, and the toilet (they're closer to it, and besides, they're boys - they get it dirtier), I figured they'd be less likely to redecorate my kitchen again anytime in the near future.

So their last chore was to sweep the outside walkway from the back door to the back gate. Hence, I needed two brooms.

This should not have been a problem. We have four. But three are apparently missing, perhaps eaten by the nocturnal garage-dwelling Broom Monster.

At any rate, that's not what this post is about. Because as I was searching for the now MIA broom, I found a piece to an old baby gate that we replaced with a new version of the same thing and use to keep the dog off the back deck. Until now, we've been wedging the gate closed in a creative fashion that the dog can't - yet - figure out. But with this piece I found in lieu of the broom, we can actually lock the gate closed now!

See, there is a reason to keep anything that just might be useful at some point in the future. Now if I could only find those brooms...

Monday, July 09, 2007

Late Bloomer Blogger?

So cool. I received an email recently from author Amy Cohen's publicist, asking if I'd participate in Amy's blog tour for her new book, The Late Bloomer's Revolution.

Of course!

I know firsthand how important creating that WOM-BUZZ is. WOM-BUZZ, which makes me think of wombats, is a publishing industry acronym standing for Word Of Mouth Buzz, and basically means doing everything possible (generally legal) to get Lots of People talking and writing about Your Book.

So, I am reading

The Late Bloomer's Revolution, and loving it!

By Monday, I plan to have an interview with the author, Amy Cohen, herself.

And if that wasn't enough, in the next week or so I'll be posting a review of The Optimistic Jew by Tsvi Bisk.

So stick around... things here are heating up!

I Miss New York

New York was amazing. Just... yeah. Amazing.

One week on my own without kids, pets, spouse, bills, ringing telephone... and five awesome days in the company of other authors and publishers and book people where we mutually supported and encouraged and applauded each others efforts.


And now I'm home and Oldest Son is out of school and Youngest Son is into everything and Husby is working lots of overtime and... did I mention I miss New York?

Looking forward to next time. And Shira, you can bet I'll call when I'm in the neighborhood again!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I Never Knew There Was So Much I Never Knew

Turns out I may be a techie (as far as that goes; I couldn't hold a candle to Husby the technogod), but there ARE limits. Blogging on a Palm TX with a small folding IR keyboard and a dodgy wifi connection is truly an exercise in patience.

So I'm blogging about my book/author/publisher experiences at the MIPA site:

I hope you'll come check it out. Meanwhile, I'm celebrating the recent milestones in my weeklong stay here: seeing Times Square when it's not nearly midnight on New Year's Eve, giving someone else directions (ha!) and riding the subway for the first time.

It's nice when the little things satisfy me.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Start Spreading the News...

I leave for NYC tomorrow to attend PMA University (think college for publishers) and BEA - Book Expo America - the largest English-speaking book trade show in the world.

The plan (yeah, right) is that I'll take a few minutes each evening to blog about the events of the day, with a few highlights from the classes I'm attending. More details from the classes will come after I return home and catch up on a week of missed sleep.

You can follow along with what I'm learning as both an author and a publisher on either of two different blogs:

Yaldah Publishing (of course), at

and the MIPA (Midwest Independent Publishers Association) blog at

Next check-in from New York!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Still Alive...

I can't believe it's been a month since I last posted. My many apologies for just dropping off the face of the earth. Casa Galyan has been under the weather lately, with sick kids, sick Husby, sick me. Honestly, I know they're teaching Oldest Son to share in kindergarten, but I'd rather he NOT share the viruses.

Much to share but I'm exhausted, which seems like par for the course lately.

The latest book news is that The Powers That Be decided that an early 2008 release would make more economic and marketing sense than a fall 2007 one. That bummed me. I wanted to take advantage of the fact that the book takes place in the weeks leading up to and during Chanukah. Marketing experts wanted to avoid having a book that was considered - in the publishing biz - already a year old come January. And a novel, I'm assured, can be released anytime.

So I'm taking advantage of that and not rushing into editing to get a galley out with minimum time. It also means that being either sick or caretaker (or both) was not a huge obstacle to overcome in the book timetable.

The exciting news is that I'll be attending Book Expo America in New York City from May 28-June 3. I've never been in New York City, and while I won't have a ton of time to sightsee, it'll be fun just to be there. Book Expo America (BEA) is the largest English-speaking book trade show in the world. Awesome experience!

More to come... I need to go sit and check my eyelids for light leakage.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Fun with Search Terms

Every now and then I find it fun to see what search terms led people here. Some are expected: my name, the name of my book or character(s), even the name of the blog itself. But some are just so interesting. They make me tilt my head and say, "Hmm..."

Recent search terms that brought folks here:

Tzedek hechsher
Makes perfect sense.

Jewish identity versus practice
Led to my post Toward Jewish Identity.

Children's mad libs
Ah, obviously resulted in the As in Days of Old spoof of "Mad Libs."

Writing on Shabbat
Also makes sense, though I wonder if my Shabbat writing post was at all close to what they were looking for.

Jealous of my husband's biological family
Uh... no idea. None at all. This earns the "Hmm..." Award for this round.

The rabbi detective
Also makes sense.

Dr. Seuss's beliefs
I did a Dr. Seuss parody to announce a Haveil Havalim. Must be it.

Purim, Esther's vulnerability
Did I ever post my Megilat Ester parody? [searching] Yep. Last year.

Is holly berry offensive to Jews
No clue. This earns the Honorable Mention "Hmm..." for this round.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Writing About Not Writing

Years ago in a college prep writing class, I wrote an essay entirely about not being able to write an essay. It actually went on to win a few awards for high school writers.

Now Yid With Lid has taken the same idea and written about not being able to write this week's Haveil Havalim... in this week's Haveil Havalim.

Check it out!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Why I Can't Watch "24"

This is probably going to get me kicked off the J-Blogosphere, but here goes.

I can't watch the TV show, "24." I used to. I watched the first two seasons and it was Addictive with a capital A. But I'm one of those sensitive souls and after several graphic torture scenes, I said goodbye to the show and haven't tuned in since.

Now it appears I'm not the only one. In the current issue of the New Yorker, an article by Jane Mayer titled "Whatever It Takes" explores the use of torture in the show.

The Parents’ Television Council, a nonpartisan watchdog group, has counted what it says are sixty-seven torture scenes during the first five seasons of “24”—more than one every other show. Melissa Caldwell, the council’s senior director of programs, said, “ ‘24’ is the worst offender on television: the most frequent, most graphic, and the leader in the trend of showing the protagonists using torture.”

Over and over, both protagonists and antagonists use unimaginably cruel torture (Howard Gordon, the show's lead writer calls them "improvisations in sadism") to gain information. Given the recent debate over whether torture - physical or psychological - is an approved method for US troops when dealing with Iraqi insurgents, the show seems to take the side that it's okay, at least when the ends justify the means. The article defines the show's credo as "Everyone breaks eventually." And in every case, except where Bauer himself is tortured, it works.

What are we learning from this? This show is incredibly popular among Jewish bloggers. Does it reflect Jewish values in any way? Or is it popular among Jews because the bad guys get it worse than they give it out in the end?

Is "24" a kind of gritty modern version of Megilat Ester?

While my life's work is tied up in an assumption that most people know the difference between real life and fiction, I am also well aware that values espoused by a fictional story can still influence its audience. In fact, when I write, I depend on that. But my writing perpetuates values of family and human compassion, obligation to self and community and G-d, leaving the world a little better than you found it. What values does 24 perpetuate?

U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and others "had come to voice their concern that the show’s central political premise—that the letter of American law [prohibiting torture] must be sacrificed for the country’s security—was having a toxic effect."

The show's creator, Joel Surnow, a political conservative, is interviewed exensively in the article and shares his views on 24's political leanings as well as his view on the torture scenes, which is pretty well summed up by his comment:

“We’ve had all of these torture experts come by recently, and they say, ‘You don’t realize how many people are affected by this. Be careful.’ They say torture doesn’t work. But I don’t believe that."
You can read the full article here:

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

When the Muse Has Left the Building

I am so incredibly tired today. Wiped out. Bed sounds like heaven. As an aside, a Christian friend of mine joked that when she sleeps in on Sundays, she refers to it as praying at "Our Lady of the Sheets." I don't know if we have a Jewish equivalent, but I usually drag my sorry self to shul anyway and take a Shabbat nap after.

So. Where was I? Tired. And there's a point to this post, actually. Because it's really hard to be creative and write when one is exhausted. But I have to write, have to finish this book. It's way beyond deadline as it is, and I'm only hurting myself by waiting any longer.

This begs the question: How do you write when you don't feel like it?

I know Jack tackled this question not long ago. Today it's my turn.

Back in the days when I took writing classes, I learned the value of the timed free write. Materials needed: timer, pen and paper or computer (preferably working), one writer who doesn't feel like writing. Set timer for 5 minutes. Begin writing. Do not stop until timer beeps (or buzzes or dings or whatever your timer does). Write about anything, everything, whatever is in your head. You can spend five minutes writing the following:

I have no idea what to write about. I have no idea what to write about. I have no idea what to write about. I have no idea what to write about. I have no idea what to write about.

Eventually you'll get bored with that and other words will take their place. The point is, when doing a free write, it doesn't matter what you say or how badly you say it. The point is that you simply write.

True, that doesn't get a book written. But think of the free write as a warmup. Now I go to the manuscript. I reread parts of it, to get myself back into the story. I reread the scene(s) just before where I need to write new material. Then I push through. I start by putting one word in front of another. Which character speaks first? What does s/he say? Does the reader need anything described to make this part of the scene work?

Word by word, it gets written.

And this is the time - the most important time in my opinion - when I do NOT edit as I write. Because editing when I'm pushing through the manuscript will just stall me even further and then I wind up certain that I'll never write another coherent sentence in my life and I should just give up now and go find a job slinging treif burgers.

I just write. Just. Write. Yeah, it may be stilted and awkward, but the next time I come through that scene, I can tweak it and reword things.

And here's the other Big Thing to remember: I love my editor. I love her because she's my safety net. The times when I had to slog through and never could find a good way to say something, she'll find and she'll probably have some good ideas. And she'll probably tag a bunch of things I thought were said brilliantly, too, and maybe weren't so much.

Any author out there considering self-publishing, a professional book editor can be your best friend and seriously can make the difference between a mediocre book and an excellent one.

So, that was my free write for today. Seven minutes instead of five, but I took time out to find that link to Jack's site so it evens out. And now, despite the fact that I'm bone tired, I'm going to reread a few scenes and, with one word in front of another, write the book.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Moving Finger Writes

Just a quick check-in post for my loyal readers (thank you, dear ones!) to say that all's going... er... well... it's going.

That quotation from Under the Tuscan Sun comes to mind:
Q: How's the novel going?

A: Not so well. But the procrastination is coming along fabulously. Soon it will breed abject self-loathing, and then I'll just become a writing machine.

I am TWO scenes away from finishing. TWO!! (Normally the editor in me is apalled by multiple quotation marks, but that one deserved an extra.) I've surpassed 80,000 words. Which is a good thing, really, if you think about it, because once my editor has me cut all the best sentences bad parts out, it will be the right length.

As it happens, I have been smiled upon and my otherwise busy week has been reduced to lots and lots of writing time. So it is my goal, my stated public goal, that I will FINISH THE BOOK THIS WEEK. And then I can get on with the rest of my life.

By the way, I have had just an awesome time writing Arik's character. More than I thought I would, though he's had me doing hours upon hours of research so I can get his dialog right. Back when I was learning Hebrew daily, hours a day, I got to the point where I was dreaming in Hebrew. And then two years of other schooling followed closely by the birth of two children and now my six-year-old knows more Hebrew than I do. It's shameful, I tell you. The next local ulpan that offers child care and costs less than $100, I'll be the first to sign up.

Anyway, back to Arik. I have decided (or he has decided for me), that there's a good chance part of Book 3 will be told from his point of view (POV). That stresses me out a bit for all sorts of reasons. Aside from the Hebrew barrier, and the fact that I didn't grow up in Israel, and the whole cultural piece he carries with him, it also means I get to learn about gun safety, how to tell if it's safe, how to make it safe if it isn't, how to fire one. Husby has said when the time is right, he can get me lesson(s) through a university or reputable gun dealer. I was actually thinking about asking Minneapolis Police for their recommendation, as well as a ride-along. After Book 2 comes out and they love it, of course!

For now, the goal is just to finish and get the manuscript to my editor. Enough procrastination. Bring on the coffee and let's get to work!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Anything but Terrible!

This week's edition of Haveil Havalim is up over at Jack's Shack. I want to thank Jack for hosting, for pouring through what had to have been a ton of submissions, and for including not only the post I submitted, but also one I didn't. Jack's a great guy, an important part of the J-blogosphere, and also a talented writer. If you haven't spent time at the Shack, it's worth it.

Thanks also to SoccerDad, as always, for keeping Haveil Havalim going and coming up with such a brilliant idea in the first place! Anyone with a Jewish blog can submit articles at the Blog Carnival.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


I found this while I was wandering around the Net, probably started as a meme. But I liked it and am rather surprised by my answers.

Things I have done are in bold. Comments are in italics.

  1. Bought everyone in the bar a drink
  2. Swam with wild dolphins
  3. Climbed a mountain
  4. Taken a Ferrari for a test drive
  5. Been inside the Great Pyramid
  6. Held a tarantula
  7. Taken a candlelit bath with someone
  8. Said “I love you” and meant it
  9. Hugged a tree
  10. Bungee jumped
  11. Visited Paris
  12. Watched a lightning storm at sea
  13. Stayed up all night long and saw the sun rise
  14. Seen the Northern Lights
  15. Gone to a huge sports game
  16. Walked the stairs to the top of the leaning Tower of Pisa
  17. Grown and eaten your own vegetables
  18. Touched an iceberg
  19. Slept under the stars
  20. Changed a baby’s diaper
  21. Taken a trip in a hot air balloon
  22. Watched a meteor shower
  23. Gotten drunk on champagne
  24. Given more than you can afford to charity
  25. Looked up at the night sky through a telescope
  26. Had an uncontrollable giggling fit at the worst possible moment
  27. Had a food fight
  28. Bet on a winning horse
  29. Asked out a stranger
  30. Had a snowball fight
  31. Screamed as loudly as you possibly can
  32. Held a lamb
  33. Seen a total eclipse of the moon
  34. Ridden a roller coaster
  35. Hit a home run
  36. Danced like a fool and not cared who was looking
  37. Adopted an accent for an entire day - and convinced someone!
  38. Actually felt happy about your life, even for just a moment
  39. Had two hard drives for your computer
  40. Visited all 50 states
  41. Taken care of someone who was drunk
  42. Had amazing friends
  43. Danced with a stranger in a foreign country
  44. Watched wild whales
  45. Stolen a sign
  46. Backpacked in Europe
  47. Taken a road-trip
  48. Gone rock climbing
  49. Midnight walk on the beach
  50. Gone sky diving
  51. Visited Ireland
  52. Been heartbroken longer than you were actually in love
  53. In a restaurant, sat at a stranger’s table and had a meal with them
  54. Visited Japan
  55. Milked a cow
  56. Alphabetized your CDs
  57. Pretended to be a superhero
  58. Sung karaoke
  59. Lounged around in bed all day
  60. Played touch football
  61. Gone scuba diving
  62. Kissed in the rain
  63. Played in the mud
  64. Played in the rain
  65. Gone to a drive-in theater
  66. Visited the Great Wall of China
  67. Started a business
  68. Fallen in love and not had your heart broken
  69. Toured ancient sites
  70. Taken a martial arts class
  71. Played D&D for more than 6 hours straight
  72. Gotten married
  73. Been in a movie - My line was "Toe cleavage?"
  74. Crashed a party
  75. Gotten divorced
  76. Gone without food for 5 days
  77. Made cookies from scratch
  78. Won first prize in a costume contest
  79. Ridden a gondola in Venice
  80. Gotten a tattoo
  81. Rafted the Snake River
  82. Been on television news programs as an “expert”
  83. Got flowers for no reason
  84. Performed on stage
  85. Been to Las Vegas
  86. Recorded music
  87. Eaten shark
  88. Kissed on the first date
  89. Gone to Thailand
  90. Bought a house
  91. Been in a combat zone
  92. Buried one/both of your parents
  93. Been on a cruise ship
  94. Spoken more than one language fluently
  95. Performed in Rocky Horror
  96. Raised children
  97. Followed your favorite band/singer on tour
  98. Taken an exotic bicycle tour in a foreign country
  99. Picked up and moved to another city to just start over
  100. Walked the Golden Gate Bridge
  101. Sang loudly in the car, and didn’t stop when you knew someone was looking
  102. Had plastic surgery
  103. Survived an accident that you shouldn’t have survived
  104. Wrote articles for a large publication
  105. Lost over 100 pounds
  106. Held someone while they were having a flashback
  107. Piloted an airplane - a 1929 Stearman biplane, for about five minutes
  108. Touched a stingray
  109. Broken someone’s heart
  110. Helped an animal give birth
  111. Won money on a T.V. game show
  112. Broken a bone
  113. Gone on an African photo safari
  114. Had a facial part pierced other than your ears
  115. Fired a rifle, shotgun, or pistol - I’ll be taking lessons soon!
  116. Eaten mushrooms that were gathered in the wild
  117. Ridden a horse
  118. Had major surgery
  119. Had a snake as a pet
  120. Hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon
  121. Slept for more than 30 hours over the course of 48 hours
  122. Visited more foreign countries than U.S. states
  123. Visited all 7 continents
  124. Taken a canoe trip that lasted more than 2 days
  125. Eaten kangaroo meat
  126. Eaten sushi
  127. Had your picture in the newspaper
  128. Changed someone’s mind about something you care deeply about
  129. Gone back to school
  130. Parasailed
  131. Touched a cockroach
  132. Eaten fried green tomatoes
  133. Read The Iliad - and the Odyssey
  134. Selected one “important” author who you missed in school, and read
  135. Killed and prepared an animal for eating
  136. Skipped all your school reunions
  137. Communicated with someone without sharing a common spoken language
  138. Been elected to public office
  139. Written your own computer language
  140. Thought to yourself that you’re living your dream
  141. Had to put someone you love into hospice care
  142. Built your own PC from parts
  143. Sold your own artwork to someone who didn’t know you
  144. Had a booth at a street fair
  145. Dyed your hair
  146. Been a DJ
  147. Shaved your head
  148. Caused a car accident
  149. Saved someone’s life

Tzedek Hechsher Slammed by Orthodox

"As rabbis of Conservative Judaism begin work on a new, ethically motivated food certification, they are coming under attack from a number of Orthodox kosher authorities."

This from the most recent edition of The Forward, in an article called "Orthodox Slam Effort To Monitor Conditions at Kosher Factories" by Nathaniel Popper.

If you've been following the issue, serious concerns about the treatment of workers in the kosher food processing plant in Postville, IA led the Conservative movement, represented by a task force of rabbis with personal experience at the AgriProcessor plant, to create a supplementary hechsher to attest to the fact that not only were animals treated according to strict halacha in how they were raised and slaughtered, but also that those who work in the plant doing the slaughtering weren't inhumanely treated either.

"Lederman and his committee have been adamant that any new certification would be a supplement, not a replacement, for current kosher certification that looks solely at the process of food preparation. But this argument appears to hold little sway with Orthodox critics." (emphasis mine)

Condemnation of the Conservative movement's insistence that we are morally responsible not only for animal rights but also human rights in the production of the very food we are required by Jewish law to eat (if we eat meat) appeared in both the recent issue of the Jewish Press and also Kosher Today, the industry's trade publication.

The rabbinic administrator for Central Rabbinical Congress (Hisachdus Horabbonim), which is leading the opposition, has told kosher companies not to even let Conservative rabbis into their plants.

The Orthodox Union, the largest kosher supervision organization, has not taken sides, but indicated human or worker's rights issues should be left to the government, not the rabbinate.

Some Orthodox believe this entire issue will serve only to drive a wedge between Orthodox and Conservative Jews, far more than even the recent controversial decision regarding openly gay and lesbian rabbis.

You can read the full article here:

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Good Question

Got this one via e-mail and thought it was a good one to answer publicly. The question was:

I understand you want to write about American Judaism and its issues. But why choose a rabbi? If you want readers to see themselves in your book, why didn't you choose a typical American Jew to be the hero?

There are three primary reasons I chose a rabbi as the protagonist.

One is that a rabbi character has more authority within the fictional construct. The possibly controversial opinions of the average person could be summarily dismissed easily enough. But if they're espoused from the bima, or as part of a response to the board, it opens up possibilities for argument and debate and criticism and praise. In other words, CONFLICT, which is always good in novels.

Two is that a rabbi character provides a vehicle to explain Judaism to those unfamiliar with it, without being condescending or boring to those who are well-versed in Judaism. I don't write for a Jewish-only audience for a reason: knowledge is the antidote to ignorance and fear, and I believe, ultimately part of the answer to hate.

I've received dozens of e-mail messages and letters from readers who tell me that they're not Jewish, knew next to nothing about Judaism except that their churches taught that it's obsolete, and after reading this they had a new perspective, a new respect, and they wanted to learn more.

And in one notable case, that she'd been toying with the idea of converting for years, and reading this led her to call the local rabbi and set up a meeting. She said reading my book helped her get over her fear of rabbis, that she hadn't really seen them as human beings with families and foibles. They were just authority figures. (I did warn her that she wouldn't be meeting with David, him being a fictional character and all, and not to expect him when she met with a rabbi. She understood and I gather the meeting went well.)

From average American Jews I've received e-mail and letters and other feedback that they identified with one or more characters, that they learned something they didn't know about Judaism, that what had been boring or too complex in Hebrew school seemed more interesting in the novel and they decided to take a Talmud class or join a Torah study or read more Jewish books.

Three and perhaps most important for me as a writer is that a rabbi character allowed me to explore all aspects of Jewish life, as well as the issues that affect us as a larger human community. In Destined to Choose, I was able to explore the lessons learned – or not – from Tisha b’Av, the effect of the Shoah on today’s kids, work-life balance, and the need for reconciliation in a society that frequently writes off relationships like so much bad debt.

In As in Days of Old, I've been able to explore hate crimes, the struggles of singles in the Jewish community, the power of confrontation and apology, Jewish self-image, and the effects of in-fighting between various Jewish movements.

Book 3 (untitled) will explore domestic violence in the Jewish community, racism, and the importance of Israel to the American Jewish community.

I can show meetings with congregants and the issues they bring in with them. I can show friendships with other rabbis that transcend the inter-movement politics. I can demonstrate some scholarly research. I'm not sure I could have done all that with a representative character of the typical American Jew.

It does mean I have to do my homework. A lot of homework. I'm not to the point yet where I can churn out a book a year because it typically takes two years to research a book. I hope as my knowledge and skill progress (and with my kids in school), and with the encouragement and support of readers, I'll be able to finish books faster.

Thanks for the question!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

One Cool Guy

I was recently on one of my frequent trips over to Renegade Rebbetzin's blog, and while I love and enjoy her wit and candor, I did decide early on that I was going to have to find someone else's perspective to serve as the model for Sara's mentor as she makes the transition from "rabbi's wife" to "rebbetzin." RenReb is just too unique, too funny, and occasionally a little too irreverent (in a good way) to be what Sara needs. (Sorry, RenReb!) And there's no way I can justify using the word "cockyhead" in one of my books, unless it's a cultural reference to RenReb's blog. Which could be a possibility at some point...

But that's not what I wanted to write about.

No, what I wanted to write about was another blog that RenReb linked to: Rabbi Without A Cause. After her glowing recommendation, and being all about PROCRASTINATION mind you, I headed over there and read his response to her post.

I nearly fell out of my chair laughing.

So since I was there and I'm all about PROCRASTINATION lately, I read a few more posts. And a few more after that. And then when I was done reading every post he'd written and I still wanted to read more, I figured I ought to say something.

I was going to post a comment to one of his posts, and I got as far as pulling up the comment screen and then I stopped cold. What in the world was I going to say?

Hi, I'm a big fan can you sign my blog for me?

Pathetic. I can do better than that. But what? I sat and thought and thought and sat and started any number of comments and then gave up. And then I realized I was nervous.

ACK! Nervous?!! I've probably interviewed about two dozen rabbis, half of them in face-to-face conversations, over the past eight years in the course of my research for my rabbi novels. The only rabbi I've ever been nervous around in person is my rabbi (and I suspect he may be slightly surprised and slightly unhappy about that tidbit) but that's a different sort of relationship. With some of the others, I've had serious conversations and not-so-serious conversations and I've not been afraid to argue or joke or warn them - albeit humorously - that anything they say can and will be used against them in a book of fiction.

But none of these rabbis are Orthodox. Because when I asked around for willing victims, er... subjects for interviews, there was serious concern and no volunteers. Concerns ran the gamut from:
  1. I'm not Orthodox myself, to
  2. I might misrepresent Orthodoxy as presented by my interviewee and my offer to have him review the manuscript was insufficient, to
  3. Fiction in general and creative license in particular are inappropriate, to my favorite one,
  4. It is inappropriate for a female non-Orthodox Jew to write about a male Orthodox rabbi

So I did a ton of reading and observing and I made one up. Well, three actually. But only one will be a recurring character.

Now here I am at RWAC's blog, wanting to say hi I like your blog, but wanting to say more than that too, and all I can think of are these four arguments for why my request for interviews went unfulfilled.

Don't get me wrong: I don't think he'd be offended by my leaving a comment or by my enjoyment of his blog. I don't think. I haven't confirmed this yet. But I'm pretty sure not.

What does make me hesitate is turning the perspective around. While my comment(s) may be welcome, would what I do be offensive? (Nobody needs to answer that; I like my delusions of total acceptance.)

Of course, this post is going to totally blow that out of the water.

It does bring up enormous issues of the role of fiction in Jewish life, the clear preference for non-fiction over fiction within the Jewish community, questions about the value of Jewish artists within the Jewish community, and the sheer audacity that someone (me) would represent non-Orthodox movements as legitimate and valid expressions of Judaism. Whether I agree with any of those expressions or not.

So, I've got mixed feelings over here about what to put in a comment, but I really do enjoy his blog and no matter what your leaning, it's worth checking out. Besides, he's an awesome writer (I know a little something about that) with a humorous, conversational tone that leaves you - well, me anyway - feeling like it's an informal chat over tea some Sunday afternoon. It's well worth the trip.

Cast of Characters

I don't know how many of you who visit here have read Destined to Choose, but I'm going to assume most have not. (Yet?) Therefore, since I'm sure I'll be referencing my characters from time to time as I finish Book 2 (Strength to Stand) and start working on Book 3 (already), I thought I ought to present you with a cast of the major and otherwise important recurring characters, who they are and what they do, and maybe a bit why this ensemble is so important to me.

Rabbi David Cohen is the main protagonist in the series and a Conservative rabbi at the fictional Beth Israel synagogue in Minneapolis, MN who leans about as far right as one can go within the Conservative movement and still remain egalitarian. David entered the rabbinate one semester and a dissertation short of a Ph.D. in clinical/counseling psychology after he found himself drawing from Judaism for all of his class projects. His father was a Shoah (Holocaust) survivor with multiple severe health problems; his mother died of a pulmonary embolism after giving birth to his younger sister, Naomi. He grew up in Milwaukee WI, living with his father, sister, and maternal grandparents. Though his first loves are family and Torah, he occasionally takes on challenges that get him into one form of trouble or another, especially when with his friend Arik.

Sara Cohen is David's wife and a stay-at-home mom to their three children. A former real-estate agent, Sara was raised non-observant and remains self-conscious about her lack of Jewish learning growing up. Sara has lived on the periphery of shul life until events lead her to want to take a more active role in both the shul and her husband's career.

Ben Cohen is the eldest of Sara and David's children, age eight in Destined to Choose. He simultaneously idolizes and resents his father and blames his father's job for the time it takes away from their family.

Jonathan and Judy Cohen are Sara and David's twins, four years younger than Ben.

Naomi Cohen is David's sister. Fiercely non-religious, she is a defense attorney in Los Angeles, CA and prefers little to no contact with David, despite his attempts to the contrary.

Rabbi Batya Zahav is a Reform rabbi at the fictional Temple Shalom in Minneapolis, MN and a friend of David's. Batya grew up Orthodox and rebelled in high school. When she announced her plans to become a rabbi in the Reform movement, her parents declared her dead and said Kaddish for her. Knowing David's personality and psychology background, Batya sought him out to help her cope while she worked to reconcile with her parents. She is firmly committed to the Reform movement and believes patrilineal descent may hold the answer to the end of antisemitism.

Arik Zahav is Batya's husband, David's only non-rabbi friend, and a sergeant with the Minneapolis Police Department. Born and raised in Israel, Arik came to the States on a sports scholarship after his army duty, met Batya, and decided to stay. After working several years in the domestic abuse unit, Arik made the move to homicide because, as he says, he "was tired of seeing the torture in action." Intensely secular, Arik tolerates religion and fails to see its relevance to his life. He first met David when he almost arrested him.

Rabbi Eli Lowenstein is David's study partner from rabbinical school and one of his closest friends. Eli has a pulpit at the fictional Am Echad synagogue in Spokane, WA and jokes that he needs to get his excitement by hearing what trouble David has gotten himself into. He is remarried after divorce and has a teenage daughter, Danielle, by his ex-wife.

Bev Lowenstein is Eli's second wife and well-loved by their congregation. She loves to cook, entertain, and teach all things domestic.

Talia Friedmann is the wife of a rabbi who teaches at several Twin Cities MN universities. She is a close friend of Sara's and considers herself a "free agent rebbetzin."

Rabbi Shimon Gerson is an Orthodox rabbi and a friend of David's who "agrees to disagree" on their differences, and is about to become quite a bit more important in David's life.

John Clausen is a pastor at the fictional Calhoun Lutheran Church in Minneapolis MN, an advocate of dual-covenant theology, and a friend and colleague of David's.

When I created this ensemble, I wanted to illustrate the struggles that rabbis have, both with their congregants and with Jewish tradition and law. I wanted to give readers something they could relate to, the possibility of seeing themselves on the pages. To that end, I tried to represent different perspectives and motivations while creating characters that were fresh, unique, and entirely human.