Getting booed at Tablet and my first appearance in The Jewish Press

I had a bad feeling when my editor at Tablet — who I really love — sent me an email telling me that my latest essay there (about how I unintentionally set my hand on fire but believe it was no accident) would run on Tisha B’Av.

Being an Orthodox Jew, I pretty much regard that as the worst day of the year, so I was immediately filled with a sense of foreboding. And it now seems I was right to be Continue reading

Silence is golden: how to be a writer without harming others

Shimon, the son of Rabban Gamliel, said:

“I was brought up all my life among the Sages,

and I have found nothing as good for the body as silence…”

                                                                                                   (Pirkei Avot/The Sayings of our Fathers)

Sometimes a punch is less painful than a verbal blow.

Usually, when we hear about the value of silence, we think about what literally comes out of our mouths. According to Jewish law, before speaking, we’re supposed to chose our words carefully, and use them to teach, to learn, to express love and gratitude, to connect with people and with G-d.

However, as we become more conscious of our speech, we discover how often we use our words to accomplish the opposite. How many people have we offended because we mouthed off with the first thing that came to our heads? How often many times have we said something hasty and then wished we could take it back? Are there people who don’t trust us because we let slip their secrets?

If we’re lucky, we learn–like Rabbi Shimon, above–to value the word that is withheld as much or more than the one that is expressed.

Recently, I’ve noticed that sometimes silence can be golden when it comes to writing, too. It’s striking that many writers out there will justify misusing words for “art” or for profit. In the news lately, we’ve seen writers paid to produce reviews of books and others who write college and graduate school essays for a fee. Both are misleading their intended audiences.

I once read a novel that portrayed a beloved historical figure as a murderer. I guess the author thought it was was okay because it was just “fiction,” but the personage has living relatives. If she were living, she could sue, but because she’s dead, there’s nothing to protect her reputation.

And think about all the memoirists who paint vengeful, unflattering one-sided pictures of their nearest and dearest “because it’s the truth.” It might feel great to tell everyone you were mistreated by your drunken father, but how does your sister feel? And what if dad decides to become sober and you patch things up…how will you be able to retract the words you published for all the world to see?

It’s interesting, but in Jewish law, you can say something that could be harmful to a person’s reputation if it is for a constructive purpose–but ONLY if it is for a constructive purpose. If you have even the slightest thought of vengeance when you write a review, or you take the smallest grain of pleasure in describing your neighbor’s foibles, you are not allowed to share them. Imagine if everyone held themselves to that standard.

With the new year approaching (at Rosh HaShanah), I’ve been considering how much a writer has to say…and what shouldn’t be written. Even the non-professional writer has moments wishing they could push “unsend” after sending an email or drop a fishing line into the mailbox in order to retract the angry letter they’d just posted. Let’s hope we all channel beauty and purity into the world through our pens and our keyboards in the coming year.

Counting down (or is it up?) ’til Shavuos

This time of year is always a little interesting for me, since my one-and-so-far-only (yes, I’m still whining about that) book is seasonal, as it is set on erev Shavuos. I read my book at synagogue, have friends and acquaintances purchase it, do a school visit…that type of thing.

There aren’t many Shavuos books out there, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book. When A Dozen Daisies for Raizy finally came out (I think it holds the publisher’s record for longest stretch from manuscript sale to publication), it came out the same year as the Shavuot book in the Sammy Spider series. My first thought was “Oy!” but others told me that people about to purchase Sammy Spider (a very well-known commodity) might see my Shavuos book and then either buy mine instead or as well. I felt a little better.
Then, reviews started trickling in. Most of mine were good or at least okay–the kids, parents, teachers and librarians who’ve spoken to me have been much more enthusiastic–but there was ONE review that was SO BAD I wanted to cry. And when A Dozen Daisies for Raizy became available through Amazon, that was the review posted on the page for the book, because it was from the most prestigious source.
One of the things that was most hurtful was that the person who wrote the review compared my book unfavorably to another book, A Mountain of Blintzes.
Buy this book
This was like turning to your kid and saying, “You’re terrible, but your big sister…she’s terrific.” Right to her face.
The thing is…I really like A Mountain of Blintzes! But I almost couldn’t, because of the hurtfulness of the reviewer’s words. It’s the tragedy of saying Onaas HaDevarim (hurtful speech prohibited by the Torah). My anger at the reviewer almost carried over to anger against Barbara Diamond Goldin (author of …Blintzes) who I’m sure had NOTHING to do with the aforementioned hurtful statement.
Thankfully, I’m pretty much over this whole episode now. I’m actually sad for Barbara Diamond Goldin, because her funny, lovely book is tragically out of print. You can still find it in libraries and through online booksellers who deal in out-of-print merchandise. I urge you to borrow or purchase it during the upcoming holiday season.
And if you can borrow or buy A Dozen Daisies for Raizy, too…that’s even better.