Back to my original subject: why I haven't been blogging so much. The main reason, and I guess the best, is that Iíve started writing my new historical novel. And when I write the first draft I need a minimum of two hours of uninterrupted time to complete a scene; otherwise I'll stay awake at night thinking about it. I mean actually writing, as opposed to outlining and researching. Not that Iíve stopped outlining and researching, which Iíll continue to do until the book is finished. Iím on the last scene of chapter four, out of what I plan to be a thirty-chapter novel. I plan each chapter to contain approximately 5000 words, although that will certainly change.
You may note that I have not revealed the novel's title, location or time period. Rest assured I know these details, but I don't have a contract for this book and the lawyers at Penguin advise me to say nothing about it until I do. At this point the book's future is somewhat nebulous, because Penguin has merged with Random House and my previous house editor has moved on. So while my current contract says that Penguin has rights of first refusal to my future fiction, I would have to find a new publisher if they donít want it Ė at which point Random Penguin could step in and say they do want it. Oh well, thatís what literary agents are for, and thankfully I still work with the same one.
What I can tell you is that the story involves women and Talmud study, no surprise there. Of course there is romance and a happy ending as well. It is set in 20th century America, and while most scenes take place within a two-year period, there is also a significant backstory about the protagonistsí parents. As you can imagine, the research involved is more complicated than my previous works. Easier because there is a great deal of information available, much of it literally at my fingertips on my computer. Difficult because of the tremendous amount of information, more than I could sift through in a lifetime. Tricky because there are people alive who would know personally if what I write is incorrect.
I hope to blog weekly while Iím writing the new book, just to keep in touch. Iíll end with a car update. Iím enjoining the Niro and have discovered a couple of cool touches. Very nice that my fanny-pack fits in the center console; I've never driven a car with a specific place I could put my purse, a complaint many women have about car design. Also nice that there is another compartment in the cargo area between the spare tire area below and the carpeted "floor" above. I discovered this hidden area, which is divided into smaller sections, while looking for the spare tire. Perfect storage for towels, tennis shoes, water cartons, a rain jacket, and other items I might need in an emergency. Best thing so far is that the hybrid really does save gas; I've driven 300 miles so far and still have well over half a tank left.
Here is part two of my new car search. We subscribe to Consumer Reports and April is the car issue, so I quickly checked their rankings. Check-rated subcompact SUVís were Subaru Crosstrek, Honda HRV, and Mazda CX3, all three of which would fit in my garage. Unfortunately the Kia Niro was too new and hadnít been tested yet. Among the compact SUVís, the Kia Sportage was the only model that was both check-rated and fit in the garage. Goodbye Toyotaís RAV4 and Subaru Forester.
This month's Consumer Reports had a useful article on all the new advanced safety features, with daunting acronyms like FCW, AEB, ACC, BSW and RCTW. The Subaru website let me compare specs on up to 4 cars, at which point I discovered that the HRV doesnít come with any of these safety features, not even as an option. Our family has driven only Hondas for almost 30 years, but I would now be buying something else.
The Kia Niro test-drive came first, mainly because I really liked the idea of driving a hybrid and not having to buy so much gas. The EX model, whose optional safety package included all the ones Consumer Reports recommended, tested out fine, although there were a few disappointments [only driverís seat had power adjusting, no way to open hatch door from inside, dark interior]. The Sportage also drove well, but it cost more and got worse gas mileage than the Niro so out it went.
Next was Subaru, where the Crosstrek driverís seat was so uncomfortable that I didnít even bother to drive it. The salesman encouraged me to try the Forester, which was Consumer Report top pick, so I did. The seat didnít hurt my back/neck and the test-drive went so well that we chalked out how it would fit in the garage when we got home, and my original conclusions were sadly confirmed. Plus its gas mileage was about half what the hybrid Kia got. Off to the Mazda dealer, where I knew from our chalk marks that the CX-5 would be too big, so it was down to the CX-3. This one test-drove okay, but the driverís seat could only be adjusted manually, which made it not as comfortable as the Kia's. Another drawback was that the cargo area behind the back seat was only 12.4 cu ft while the Kiaís held 44 cu ft. I liked that the Mazda offered cream-colored upholstery, cooler to sit on; every other carís interior was either black or dark grey. But none of its good points could outweigh its crummy storage area and comparatively poor gas mileage.
Bottom line: we bought the Kia Niro [pronounced "nilo" in Korea] with optional advanced technology package. Hereís the LA Times review.
Another activity that has kept me busy recently, one only peripherally related to Judaism or my book biz, is deciding to buy a new car. For years my family has been urging me to replace my 1994 Honda Civic, also known as Bubbiís piŮata car because of its many dings outside and goodies inside. But it only has a little over 150,000 miles on it and still gets 35 mpg, so whatís the hurry? In the past I drove a car until somebody crashed into it and the insurance company declared it totaled, at which time I would quickly replace it with a new model. Of course as my cars grew older it didnít take much more than a fender bender to ďtotalĒ them, which is what I assumed would eventually happen to my Civic. But it didnít.
I started thinking about a new car after my husband passed his 2005 Accord on to our son and got a 2014 model. I saw firsthand how auto technology had improved, not only that he could play podcasts from his iPhone via the carís audio system, but also the impressive new safety features. Slowly but surely, when I had to drive more than 60 miles to a book talk, especially at night, I drove his car. I didnít mind too much when my Civicís radio sometimes cut out, but then it began needing expensive repairs: replacing a cracked radiator in 2015 and the rack & pinion assembly in 2016.
I got further encouragement from the media. Consumer Reports wrote how the new small SUVís were becoming popular among seniors because the higher seat both gave drivers a better view of the road and was easier to get into. Plus the hatchback saves your back from bending over to get heavy stuff out of a trunk; important for someone often shlepping 30-pound boxes of books. Then the LA Times favorably reviewed the new Kia Niro, a small SUV hybrid that got 50 mpg. After measuring what size car would fit in my garage, I decided to test-drive models from several manufacturers, something Iíd never had the leisure to do before. Iíll detail the test-drives and how I made my decision in my next post.
Besides preparing to lead services, Iíve been busy organizing three upcoming book tours. Iíve been working on a 2-week October trip to Chicago since March, plus a weeklong Texas trip in November since May. I have to start that early because many Jewish groups plan their entire yearís calendar in the preceding spring. When no one organization in Chicago stepped up to pay my airfare, I figured that if I got 10 different groups to invite me, then it shouldnít cost each one more than $30. Thankfully I have a good friend there who is happy to host me, so I donít have to arrange different lodging for each night like Iíll need to do in Texas. But at least the Texas venues have no problem paying my travel expenses.
Many people have asked who sets up my book tours and are both astonished and impressed when I reply that I do it myself. Yes, it is time consuming, but I donít trust anyone else to do it right. I start by searching my emails that are labeled Ďspeakingí to see where I spoke in a particular community in the past. I send each of these contacts an email announcing that Iím coming to their city at certain time and ask would they like me to do a program for them while Iím there. Next I search my emails labeled Ďpotential gigí to find groups who asked me to speak, but for some reason it didnít work out. I send them a similar email. I ask all of these to let other Jewish groups know that Iím planning a book tour.
A few venues reply quickly and, since the early birds get the worms, they get to pick their preferred dates/times. Some reply that theyíre interested but need to get approval, and sadly, a few say theyíre not interested. For my Texas tour, I was able to finalize the entire trip from that first batch of emails. However, I needed to send out a second round of emails after Passover to those in Chicago who hadnít chosen a date or rejected me, letting them know which dates were still available and urging them to make their decision soon. Eventually most of the available dates were spoken for, and those who contact me now have to be very flexible. In case youíre reading this post and live in the Chicago area, the only dates still available are Oct 15, 22 [afternoon or evening], or 25.
My third book tour is to Colorado at the end of July. This came about quickly with an email out of the blue from the rabbi of Bínai Vail, inviting me to speak there with all expenses paid. In addition the rabbis put me in touch with some other synagogues along Interstate 70, and they asked me to speak to their congregations as well. My husband rarely accompanies me on book tours, although he has joined me for a vacation on occasion when my trip is over in an especially nice area. Which is how we came to spend a week driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, a week snorkeling in the US Virgin Islands, and a week celebrating my 65th birthday at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. This summer weíll be staying a week in Vail and doing day trips to surrounding cities like Aspen and Evergreen - hiking, biking and river rafting in the scenic Colorado Rockies.
For details on my upcoming schedule see my website
I have several good reasons for not having blogged for three weeks. Iíll try to devote a blog post to each of them, saving the best for last. First, the rabbi at my congregation, Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, is going on a 3-month sabbatical, so I volunteered to be one of several lay folks to lead services during her absence on July 7.
The first thing I did was check the Torah portion for that week, which turned out to be Balak. You know, the one in Numbers with the pagan sorcerer who tries to curse Israel but can only bless instead and his talking donkey. I figured this would be a perfect opportunity to drash about sorcery in ancient Judaism, a subject in which I have some expertise.
To my delight, I learned that a new book on the subject, Jewish Magic before the Rise of Kabbalah by Yuval Harari, has just been translated into English. His book focuses on magic in the Second Temple and Rabbinic era as well as Heikhalot literature, Geonim and Karaite writings. I was thrilled to discover a wonderful interview with the author about his work. Iím including a few of his quotes here, followed by a link to the complete interview.
Harari begins by stating, ďThe Talmud is chock-full of magic and ways to ward off demons Ö Most ignore this topic because Modern Jews feel they have evolved beyond the past and Orthodox Jews ignore it because they cherry pick this material out as folklore or the ideas of the common people irrelevant to the their reading of the halakhic project.Ē Another quote I appreciate is, "the term 'magicí'is problematic, because it has generally been used to describe the religious and ritual practices of people whom the speaker disapproves of. In the sense that what I do is ritual, but what other people do is magic or idolatry."
But Harari does note that the purpose of ancient Jewish magic was not to become a wizard in the Harry Potter sense, but rather as pragmatic actions for specific practical goals such as healing or preventing illness or other misfortunes. He also notes that, "Jewish magic assumes that God gave us this power to do magic, just as He gave us the ability to farm or heal as doctors, and therefore it does not detract from Godís providence."
For the complete interview, click on this link.
Many Jewish organizations sponsor a Community Read where a group of people all read one book over a specific period of time. Often there are times when readers get together for discussions. I think the first volume of "Rashiís Daughters" is especially appropriate for such a program, but the challenge for me of getting it, or any of my novels, chosen is twofold. First, most of these Community Reads are not well publicized outside of their local areas, and thus I am not even aware of how to make a nomination. Then, my book has to win out over the competition. Thus, in the few Jewish places where I heard of these projects, my attempts to pitch my novels have proved unsuccessful.
Imagine my pleased surprise when I got a Google Alert that "Rav Hisdaís Daughter" had been chosen for the ďOne Book, One Community, One SummerĒ read by Congregation Ohev Shalom in Maitland, FL. They will be reading and discussing my novel, five chapters every two weeks, starting June 10 and concluding August 17. I promptly emailed Ohev Shalomís rabbi about the possibility of my skyping with them, and he responded positively. I love the idea of engaging with readers who have dived so deeply into my book. I hope I will be able to do it.
For more about the program, check out this link.
I am increasing impressed, as well as amused, by the large number of National Something-or-Other months or weeks. I just learned, courtesy of an article in AARPís newsletter, that June is National Bathroom Reading Month. While this is not on any official government list [who knew there were such official lists?], I am happy to publicize it since my new book is a perfect bathroom companion.
What criteria does this entail? In my opinion the ideal bathroom book should be entertaining light reading, non-narrative [i.e. no plot or characters to follow], and consist of a series of pithy sections that need not be read in order. Thus readers can open to any page and spend as little or as much time as needed.
In my humble opinion, "Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say about You-Know-What" meets these criteria. Plus it has an additional advantage of being less than 120 pages so it doesnít take up much room if you want to keep a copy in your bathroom permanently. Another book to consider for your bathroom bookshelf is 53-page "Jewish Wit and Wisdom", edited by Herb Galewitz. I found this little gem in a hostís bathroom while on book tour. Here is a link to learn more about National Bathroom Reading Month.
After all the research I did on my two Rav Hisdaís Daughter novels, "Apprentice" and "Enchantress", I consider myself an expert on ancient Jewish magic. Which is why I was particularly intrigued by an opinion piece in todayís Los Angeles Times by Diana Wagman about the proliferation of people casting binding spells on Donald Trump and the abettors of his administration.
In ancient, and not so ancient, times people believed that illness, death in childbirth, and pretty much any misfortune were caused by three things: demons, curses and the Evil Eye. In order to prevent these afflictions, or to heal someone so afflicted, one hired a sorceress to prepare a protective amulet. Indeed, the vast majority, above 90%, of Jewish spells and incantations were for defensive purposes. Many of these called upon secret names of God and Jewish angels to bind and expel the demons responsible for the clientís suffering.
But there were a few spells to bind a specific person, to prevent them from performing some evil against the client. These were typically inscribed on a tablet that was buried, often in a cemetery. A short one from John Gagerís Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, which Iíve updated for modern purposes, would go as follows: ďI bind Donald Trump and climate change deniers, who are with Donald Trump, and their tongues and words and deeds; and if they are planning or doing anything, let it be in vain. Beloved Earth restrain Donald Trump and climate deniers and make them powerless and useless. Beloved Earth, help me; and since Iíve been wronged by Donald Trump and his climate deniers, I bind them.Ē The metal tablet, pierced by a nail, with the original spell dates from the third century BCE.
Jewish binding tables were to be buried at sunset just after the full moon, thus the spellís object's power would wane along with the moonís brightness. The ritual Ms. Wagman describes is to be performed once a month at midnight the night of a waning crescent moon, so those who wish to follow it should do so tonight, May 23. For detailed instructions, visit this link
Last post was how not to ask for a blurb; here is what I suggest you should do. So youíre a writer with a complete manuscript and hope a published author or small press will like it. First prepare a synopsis, following the format that any good book, or website, for writers will provide. With a small press, go on their website and see if they have submission guidelines. If so, follow them exactly. If not, email [do not call] them and ask for the guidelines.
With authors, email to ask if they read unsolicited manuscripts. You should be able to get an email address from their business card if youíre meeting them in person or from their website, which may have an alternate way of contacting them online. Include the short [1-page at most] synopsis of your novel and why you think the author would be interested in it.
Should an author express interest, find out if she prefers a print or e-version. If the former, mail it to her with a cover letter and the synopsis. If the latter, email her a pdf. Email once to ask if she received it and how long she expects it to take to get back to you. But understand that she will only read your manuscript if something hooks her in the beginning. Donít assume she will slog through an entire book that bored her in the first chapter. Understand also that it may be weeks or months before you hear from her, if at all. If she likes your story, youíll hear from her. If you donít, assume she didnít want to hurt your feelings or spend any more time on your work.
Remember youíre not paying her, sheís doing you a favor. Donít bug her for explanations or critiques. And donít expect her to return your manuscript. Sheís spent/wasted enough time on it. To learn more check out this article on Writers Digest
Every so often I am approached, usually at a book talk, by a woman who wants me to read the manuscript sheís written. My stock response is to give her my card, ask her to email me with some information about the book, and say Iíll get back to her. Unfortunately, most of these encounters end with me not wanting to read the work. Perhaps the synopsis isnít compelling or the story deals with topics I donít want to read about [i.e. adultery, intermarriage, sexual abuse]. These criteria also apply to inquiries from published authors who want me to blurb their next novel. I try to reply with a non-judgmental statement along the lines of their story idea just isnít my cup of tea.
Yes, Iím very picky about reading draft manuscripts by unknown writers. Nobody is paying me for my time, and a 400-page novel might take at a minimum an entire day to read. I know plenty of authors who refuse to read anything unless a publisher or literary agent sends it to them. But because best-selling author Naomi Ragen took a chance and read my first Rashiís Daughters novel before it was published, and then liked it enough to give me a wonderful blurb, I feel an obligation to play it forward by doing the same for others.
But recently I had the unpleasant experience with a woman who apparently doesnít use email because she kept calling about how to get her manuscript to me in person. Heaven forbid she should merely mail it to me, and she insisted that I lived too far away to drive it to my home. We finally agreed for her to drop it off at my synagogue for me to pick up the next time I was there. Then she called me every few days to see if Iíd gotten it yet, as well as harassing the staff there so much that they called me to hurry up and get her off their case.
You can imagine how eager I was to read this nearly 350-page tome [not!]. The one-page single-spaced synopsis described ten characters whose lives were interconnected, but I couldnít discern a plot. In fact, I couldnít tell if this was a novel or memoir. I had no idea when or where the story took place. I figured that if the synopsis was so poorly written, I wasnít about to read what followed.
Months later, the woman called me and demanded to know why I had taken so long to read her manuscript. I prevaricated by saying I was busy, and admitted I was unlikely to have more time in the near future. Furious, she lit into me for not getting back to her in a timely fashion. I tried to be nice, but finally I felt forced to admit that I didnít like what little Iíd read and I wasnít going to read any more. Then she insisted that I return the manuscript to her; remember, she thought I lived too far away for her to come and get it. I wasnít about to pay to mail it to her, not to mention the hassle to going to the post office. So I suggested that she should just print out another copy if she needed one. She continued to complain until I hung up.
This is exactly the reason many authors never read anything an unknown writer asks them to. Although Iíve also heard tales of authors receiving an unsolicited manuscript and then getting sued by the writer for plagiarism, who accused the authors of stealing their idea. Next post will be about how a newbie writer should approach an author about reading their work.
Read How to Ask a Famous Author for a Blurb for another look at this.
Passover may be behind us, but weíre still counting the Omer. I have blogged previously that according to the Talmud, women are exempt from any positive commandment that is time-bound. This means any to-do mitzvah that is assigned to a specific time, such as tzitzit, which are only worn during the day, or lulav, which is only taken on Sukkot. The Mishna gives no explanation for this exemption, but the usual excuse is because of their heavy household and childcare responsibilities.
However, women are obligated to perform some time-bound mitzvot, such as lighting Chanukah candles, hearing the reading of Megillat Esther, and various Passover rituals, because the Talmud says women were part of those miracles. And women are obligated to observe Shabbat and fast on Yom Kippur, obviously time-bound, because there are also negative commandments associated with those days. These days women have taken on two additional time-bound mitzvot, dwelling in the sukkah and hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, to the point where some rabbis consider women obligated perform them. After all, women attend services on Rosh Hashanah and if their home has a sukkah, they will eat there along with the rest of their family.
But women are still considered exempt from counting the Omer, for the Omer is only counted during a specific time of the year. Yet this mitzvah takes only a minute or two, and can be done at any time during the 24 hours, so it surely wonít interfere with a womanís household responsibilities. For those women who wish to take on these mitzvot, being exempt doesnít mean forbidden. We can thank Rashiís grandson Rabbeinu Tam (Rosh Hashanah 33a), who has written not only that women may in fact perform mitzvot that they are exempt from, but if they do so, they should say the blessing.
For those interested in the subject, I give you a link to a thorough explanation of which Seder rituals are incumbent on women and why. The discussion includes matzah, Pesach offering, four cups of wine, maror, telling the Exodus story, Hallel, and reclining. Click here to read it.
The Torah portion Acharei Mot [Leviticus 16-18], along with previous weekís portion Tazria, are two sections of Torah that bnai mitzvah students most fervently hope to avoid. Luckily Acharei Mot is often read together with portion Kiddushim [Lev 19-20, aka the Holiness Code] on the same Shabbat, giving the 13-year old an opportunity to read from the latter instead of the former. This decision is also a relief for the childís parents, since Acharei Mot details a long list of prohibited sexual behaviors, some of which a younger teenager might not be aware of yet [at least the parents hope not].
First come the laws of incest, which are specific in their detail. Children shall not uncover the nakedness of their parents, nor their siblings or cousins or aunts or uncles or grandparents. Parents shall not uncover the nakedness of their children, nor their childrenís children. Nakedness of in-laws and relatives shall not be uncovered. Also a man may not come near a woman during her period of uncleanness to uncover her nakedness. Nor may he have carnal relations with a neighborís wife and defile himself with her. Next comes the infamous prohibition of male homosexuality: ďDo not lie with a man the 'layings' of a woman,Ē followed by, ďDo not have carnal relations with any beast.Ē
When speaking about "Fifty Shades of Talmud", I always mention this piece of Torah as one of the reasons the Talmudic rabbis had so much say about sexual relations. Modern readers certainly donít know what exactly it means to ďuncover the nakednessĒ of someone, and the Sages werenít sure either. Clearly it is some kind of sexual activity, but since there are bad consequences for doing it, the Talmud needs to define this activity in detail. This is particularly important for adultery, which is a capital offense. After all if youíre going to execute people for engaging in adultery, you better all agree on what precisely the two witnesses need to have seen the couple doing. And the Talmudic rabbis do precisely that, in explicit detail, apparently using their own sexual practices for reference.
In contrast the Rabbis do not define exactly what it means for a man to lay with a man the ďlayingsĒ [note plural] of a woman, which is the literal translation of Leviticus 18:22. Indeed they discuss instead that there are two different ways for a man to lay with a woman, vaginal and anal, and this Torah verse teaches us that if he does either one with a forbidden woman, he has sinned. In plain words, if a man has anal sex with a another manís wife, he has still committed adultery.