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Brontë, Beyoncé, and the Case for Mediocre Adaptations of Great Literature

Friday, December 02, 2016 | Permalink

Internal Dialogue is a Jewish Book Council blog series on literary trends, ideas, and discussions of interest to Jewish readers and community organizers, curated by the Jewish Book Council editors and staff. Posted by Nat Bernstein.

The new issue of The New Yorker arrived earlier this week, but I’m still holding onto the last one; I loved reading Amanda Petrusich’s retrospective on the “resurgent appeal of Stevie Nicks” in The New Yorker’s November 28, 2016 over Thanksgiving. Writing about the ex-lover muses that inspired Nicks’ second solo record, The Wild Heart, Petrusich mentions that “Nicks frequently cites as a guiding influence for the recording sessions the 1939 film adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which depicts an undying, almost fiendish love. Mostly,” Petrusich connects, “the songs are about bucking against the circumstances that separate us from the people we need.”

A songwriter inspired by a film adaptation of Wuthering Heights—I’ve heard this before.

In January 1978—half a decade before Stevie Nicks reunited with her ex-lover and Bella Donna producer Jimmy Iovine to put The Wild Heart together—a doe-eyed adolescent crooned her eerie debut through a thick brunette mop of bangs, instantly taking the British music scene by storm. No one knew what to make of Kate Bush, a soft-spoken young woman who blushed shyly through interviews and then walloped the airwaves with her hyper-stylized siren’s call, wailing to Heathcliff at the window in her first released single.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the difficult story of Wuthering Heights speaks so directly to songwriters: the saga of Cathy and Heathcliff is, of course, about the the potency of love and its potential to simultaneously drive and incapacitate those who plunge headlong into its deepest, darkest depths. It’s a story of self-destruction and despair—is there any romance that hasn’t been to some degree beleaguered by both? If music is supposed to express the core experiences and emotions of the human condition, “shouting ‘Cathy’ and banging your head against a tree,” as Helen Fielding would put it, is probably a good starting point for translating the inner turmoil of thwarted or unrequited devotion.

“It was perfect material for a song,” Bush shared in one of her earliest interviews. “It was so passionate and full of impact. And I read the book,” she is quick to add. “Yeah, I read the book before I wrote the song, because I needed to get the mood properly.”

The original inspiration for the song had come many years earlier, when Bush caught the last couple minutes of television miniseries adaptation of Brontë’s masterpiece. She couldn’t have been older than ten years old at the time, but the image of Cathy haunting the windows of Thrushcross Grange captivated Bush, swirling around her imagination for the next decade of her life until she released “Wuthering Heights” in that uncanny voice over the keys of a Grand piano.

What is significant about Kate Bush’s artistic license—and likely Stevie Nicks’s, and many others, for that matter—is not that she was inspired by a work of classic literature: it’s that she was inspired by an adaptation of classic literature, and that it led her to the original source. Like how Beyoncé discovered the work of Bob Fosse from a video mashup of Gwen Verdon and two backup dancers syncopating across ‘60s television set with a DJ Unk rap song replacing the “Mexican Breakfast” jazz, which led her down a choreography rabbit hole and now we have the iconic cultural gem that is “All the Single Ladies”—one of the best videos of all time, according to Kanye West (and pretty much everyone).

Film and tv series adaptations get a bad rap. They are almost never as good as the book, and often fall far short of readers’ expectations. Listen, the “Mexican Breakfast” dance interlude wasn’t exactly Cabaret, either. But even if the copy isn’t accurate or fully representative of the original work, it provides a crucial access point. A young girl read Wuthering Heights after glimpsing a single scene from the book, reimagined on television late one night, and ended up amplifying the story ten years later with the first self-written song by a female artist to hit number one on the British charts—at the same time as one of the biggest names in American music was watching an early film adaptation of the same book on repeat, coaxing out the beginnings of her second solo project. Who knows how many readers first picked up the book after hearing Kate Bush’s song or learning how the story had inspired Stevie Nicks, but the perpetuating exposure isn’t really the point: the point is that in finding literature adapted to a different form, one person traced it back to its source and then produced her own creative expression of that work. However they find the books that take root, we want young readers to engage with literature beyond the act of reading: books are meant to shape how we perceive and inhabit the world around us, and encountering interpretations of great works—even the ones that disappoint—exposes the endless possibilities for making a beloved or newly claimed book truly one’s own and opens up new modes, voices, and media for self-expression and discovery.

When teachers show the movie adaptation of a book in their classrooms, it’s an intentional component of their curriculum: beyond providing a clear image of scenes, concepts, and characters for students who might struggle to piece together such elements in their own imaginations, guided screenings train young viewers to not only analyze the interpretation and creative choices of the filmmaker but furthermore consider how they themselves can re-relate the story and language of the book before them to their own lives, tastes, and artistic outlets. And for those who encounter these adaptations on their own—so much the better! In that spirit, here’s a list of classic and contemporary works of Jewish literature that made it onto the silver screen, the small screen, and now even the screens of the home computer, laptop, tablet, or handheld device—and some to look forward too:

Now Playing

Coming Soon

Critically Acclaimed Classics

Find an extended reading list of books that inspired films here!

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Book Cover of the Week: Turning Inside Out

Thursday, December 01, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I was so taken with the content of Steven Shankman’s Turning Inside Out: Reading the Russian Novel in Prison I almost failed to notice the book cover, which certainly stands on its own:

Put Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vasily Grossman, and Emmanuel Levinas together in one sentence and I’m already hooked, but Shankman’s story is even more intriguing and important than a discussion of those three oeuvres: it’s an account of holding that discussion between university campuses and prison classrooms in the United States. Turning Inside Out promises to be a worthy successor to Andrew D. Kaufman’s Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Our Troubled Times and Avi Steinberg’s stunning debut memoir, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, and the artwork on this book cover is perfection: a graphic blend of literal and abstract representation of the story that strikes the appealing balance of spare clutter, painted in just the right colors.

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If It Didn't Exactly Happen, Can It Be True?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Andrea Simon’s wrote about transforming her family memoir into a novel, which was published earlier this month: Esfir Is Alive. Andrea is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

As a writer, I’m drawn to autobiographical events for inspiration. I use old photos as reference material, I conduct interviews and record conversations, I comb through letters and official documents. I’m a stickler for getting things right. I once drove a hundred miles to check out the road sign that appeared in a story to see if it read “Fallen Rock Zone” or “Falling Rock Zone”—and when I found both signs in similar locations, I flipped a coin and convinced myself that no sane person would ever check such a detail.

Non-evidentiary materials, especially remembrances, are harder to verify. When I once gave a coming-of-age novel to my childhood friend Joanie to read for accuracy, she wrote several times in the margins, “Oh, I remember that.” In those instances she was wrong: they had been manufactured. What Joanie recalled was more of a truthful impression of our childhood rather than a factual representation. From her reaction, I knew I was onto something.

In that book, I wrote about a girl named Amanda who overhears adults talking about a disturbing incident. In my memory, I had gone to hide in the woods; in the novel, Amanda turns in the other direction, heading to the drugstore to order an egg cream. This Amanda, I soon discovered, was not me; she would lead her own life. And the older I get, nonfiction and fiction are so intertwined in my stories that I often forget what really happened.

In writing historical fiction, the author has even more pressing obligations. I longed to tell the story about my uncle Abraham, a World War II navigator killed in 1943 with eleven crew members aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress on a training mission in Florida. A reverential family figure, he seemed “too good to be true.” I set out to animate him into someone I could call my own. But history beckoned. I read manuals on the B-17, poured over personal narratives of service people, downloaded photos of Florida in the 1940s, and even attended a World War II aviation exhibition, crawling into the body of a Flying Fortress. I imagined the thrill of directing one’s course through the sky and the loneliness of being away from home.

Before long, my fictional Abraham spent a day off from flying at a local plantation where local black community members were reenacting slavery. A Jew in the South, Abraham became a man immersed in racism and prejudice. I gave the story to an aviation expert who found no technical mistakes, and was impressed by the personality of the protagonist. To him, Abraham was a real man. To me, he was alive for the first time.

My latest novel, Esfir Is Alive, was inspired by the true story of a twelve-year-old survivor of a Holocaust massacre and my ancestral family in a Belorussian village. In tackling such an immense tragedy, I had two guiding principles: whatever Esfir did, it had to be within the realm of her personality, and whatever happened in the novel had to accurately reflect the events of the time. If my fictional characters were to be viable, they had to make their own decisions. If I could accomplish these lofty goals, the reader would feel “the truth” as my friend Joanie had years before.

Although my mother did not live to read my novel about Esfir, I think that she would have approved. She may have said that she did not remember my family’s village, which she visited as a child, to be exactly as I describe. But I think she would have agreed that even though Esfir hadn’t been a real member of our family, she was a true Jewish girl of her time.

Andrea Simon is the author of the memoir Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, the new novel Esfir Is Alive, and several stories and essays. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York and lives in New York City.

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Jewish Book Council Staff Picks for November 2016

Tuesday, November 29, 2016 | Permalink


Last week, in the wake of Donald Trump's victory and Leonard Cohen's death, I reached for Liel Leibovitz's thoughtful and illuminating 2013 meditation on the great poet/songwriter, entitled A Broken Hallelujah. Reading it actually made me feel a little better.

I'm also reading The Empire of the Senses, Alexis Landau's sweeping historical novel set in Berlin between the two world wars and filled with Jewish and gentile characters who are at once united and divided by family ties, national loyalties, and romantic passions.


Written in three-parts, Noemi Jaffe's What are the Blind Men Dreaming? brings together the experiences and reflections of three generations of women: Lili Stern—the author’s mother—a Holocaust survivor whose diary entries open the book; Noemi Jaffe herself, reflecting on her mother's experiences upon reading her diary and visiting Auschwitz in 2009; and Noemi's daughter Leda Cartum​, as a response to "the power of memory and survival." Translated from Brazilian Portuguese and Serbian (Lili moved to Brazil from the Balkans following the war), What are the Blind Men Dreaming?is a thoughtful and moving addition to the canon of Holocaust literature.


Mischling by Affinity Konar is a debut novel of the horrific times in Dr. Menngele's Auschwitz laboratory. The story alternates between 13-year-old identical twins Pearl and Stasha and the horrific acts of medical experiments that were done to them and thousands of other children. Throughout this novel, there is awful despair but also acts of survival and hope.

I’m also reading The Imperial Wife by Irina Reyn, in which the past and the present collide over a priceless artifact. This is an interesting look at the ambition of two different but similar women.


I thought Helen Maryles Shankman’s In the Land of Armadillos it was strikingly emotive, a glimpse into one small Polish town during World War II. The short stories are electric and heartbreaking, showcasing a the many different sides to one larger story—the regular lives of a people that are thrust into history. The writer has the uncanny ability to craft each story as if it was its own world, yet fit neatly within the others like a puzzle. Each character is finely wrought and complex, often struggling with the mundane details of their everyday lives while under the immense pressure of death hovering over them daily. They are beautiful stories flowing with magic and poetry, as the author inserted a little piece of magic into each one.


Perfect for this time of reflection, Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World by journalist and award-winning writer Megan Feldman Bettencourt is an emotional journey exploring everything from a mundane slight to crimes that are unthinkable, with teachers from all walks of life who show the way to learning to forgive.


The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain is about two young boys—one Jewish and one not—growing upon Switzerland after World War II. I love the author's beautiful but spare writing—the narrative seems so direct that it takes a while to realize how much is left unspoken. I'm also particularly struck by one boy's concept of Swiss neutrality and self-reliance, which affects his relationships throughout the novel.


On recommendation from Naomi, this week I read David Samuel Levinson’s forthcoming novel Tell Me How This Ends Well, in which three adult siblings are forced to contend with their mother’s rapidly declining health in a rabidly antisemitic world six years into the future. I’m also revisiting David Peace’s GB84, a hefty crime novel set against the British coal miner’s strike in of 1984, and yesterday I picked up a copy of The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism by Kristin Bombeck. It’s one of the most illuminating and all-too-real works of nonfiction I have read this year—it’s all I can do to stop myself from tearing pages directly out of the book and anonymously delivering them to certain mailboxes...

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Why Do Talented People Do Bad Things?

Monday, November 28, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Drs. Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda wrote about the Thanksgiving concerns all rabbis must address with their congregants and the backstory behind the book they wrote, The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths. Rachel and Michelle have been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council together as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Recently, prominent Israeli journalist, Ari Shavit, was suspended from his Hillel International speaking tour and then resigned from Ha’artez following accusations of sexual harassment of fellow journalists.

A few years ago, Rabbi Barry Freundel, a noted scholar and Washington, D.C. community leader, was found to have violated the trust of female congregants by abusing potential converts and indulging his voyeuristic inclinations by placing cameras in the changing area of the ritual bathhouse.

A few decades ago, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, an internationally famous composer of religious music, was surrounded by stories of inappropriate groping and sexual misconduct with adoring congregants.

There is no shortage of such accounts. They each touch the same raw nerve and evoke the same questions: Why do people who have earned our respect and admiration, to whom we look for inspiration and guidance, show such poor judgement, and worse, exploit their power in morally repugnant ways? How much does this type of unacceptable behavior on the part of leaders invalidate their artistic, academic, and spiritual productions? Should we be reading My Promised Land, studying Freundel’s religious insights, or praying to Carlebach tunes? How should we think about these issues?

The first question requires a brief discussion of narcissism. While a robust sense of personal esteem is important to self-worth, narcissism can hypertrophy in highly successful people. People who achieve positions of power and leadership may succumb to poor judgment that leads to crass behavior as a result of inflated self-esteem. Pathological narcissists have an hyper-exaggerated belief in their own self-importance, as well as a bottomless need for admiration. Such people feel that they have unlimited power, wisdom, and entitlement, and are prone to boundary-crossing, particularly in the arena of sexual exploitation. Pathological narcissists resort to serial sexual conquest to pump up their fragile egos and prevent themselves from facing their own deep insecurities. The narcissist is not concerned with damage caused by these seductions, and may feel that their talent or elevated status places them above conventions designed for ordinary people. The narcissist may feel that bestowing a sexual touch is a gift to admiring fans.

An attendant issue is the devastating impact that revelation of inappropriate behavior has on the public. Some members of the affected community feel shock, outrage and disgust while others rise to defend their inspirational leader, either minimizing, excuse or just plain denying his offenses.

Mental health has a good model for describing personality disorders, such as pathological narcissism, but does not always have the moral answers to help us understand what our reaction to their legitimate contributions should be. Ethicists have debated whether science should utilize findings gleaned from horrific Nazi experiments. But does this extreme comparison help answer the question of whether people should allow themselves to enjoy, learn from, and even be inspired by the creativity of charismatic figures who also exploited their power in demeaning and hurtful but not lethal ways? Can we throw out the bathwater and keep the baby?

Here is where communities encounter some of their strongest divisions. Some people feel that the sins of the artist carry over and besmirch the product; they will no longer read Shavit’s works or listen to Carlebach songs. Others feel that the artistic merits of the work stand separate from the flaws of their creators. Perhaps such folks will include a disclaimer at a conference on Carlebach’s life, but they unabashedly dance at weddings to his tunes.

Jewish spiritual leaders such as rabbis and educators confront both of these questions on a regular basis. Congregants, students, and colleagues turn to them for guidance with this dilemma. At best, the guidance should acknowledge that this moral struggle is a positive one. Our rabbis, teachers, and lay leaders need to encourage and facilitate respectful dialogue on such matters. They must institute checks and balances and set up policies and procedures to address allegations of corruption, abuses of power, and misconduct. While resolution of each case will differ depending on community culture and individual needs, the fact that we struggle with these issues enlarges our moral sensitivities and makes us capable of the right choice.

Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths and professors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Along with their independent positions and distinctions, both authors teach pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) in Riverdale, New York.

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Rewriting My Family Memoir as a Work of Fiction

Monday, November 28, 2016 | Permalink

Andrea Simon’s novel Esfir Is Alive was published earlier this month. She will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

During the research for my memoir, Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, my cousin Barbara sent me an envelope affixed with a Post-It, writing, “Hope these help toward closure.” Inside were six postcard-sized, sepia-toned photos, most with names or other identifiers in Yiddish, one stamped with the photographer’s place of business: Visoke, the nearest town to my ancestral village of Volchin in present-day Belarus. My heart sank. These were the photos of the Midler family, my lost relatives killed in the Holocaust. Finally, I could put faces to the people I had been writing about.

As I assembled the photos across my desk, it struck me that these people were well-dressed, stylish even, so like my relatives spread across the United States; I had expected characters out of Fiddler on the Roof in raggedy clothes, lugging overloaded bundles. In my research I not only discovered more about life in the nearby towns and villages, but living people who actually knew the Midlers. These Jews read multiple daily newspapers, joined Zionist and socialist movements, acted in Shakespearean productions, studied Yiddish and Hebrew literature, and argued about the latest psychological and educational theories. They were modern people, not stereotypical facsimiles.

Over the next ten years following the publication of my memoir, I thought about the issues that I was not able to fully cover—particularly the daily life of Jews during the interwar years, a time of great intellectual flux. I wanted to write more about the Midlers. And there was also the story that did not seem to go away: the massacres of 50,000 Jews at the forest site of Brona Gora, culminating in the incredible testimony of the only recorded survivor, a twelve-year-old girl, Esfir Manevich. How could such a young person survive this ordeal?

The more pressing question for me as an author was how I could integrate these topics into a single volume. Would it be another memoir or a work of fiction? How could I include Esfir in the story when I didn’t know if she was still alive to offer corroboration? How could I introduce Esfir to my relatives when they were from different places?

I pondered these challenges over a long time, though I was not aware that various pathways had been germinating in my unconscious. Then it came to me: what if I began a fictional story in 1936, when the real Esfir would have been seven years old? My cousin Ida Midler would have been around fourteen. What if I send Esfir to Brest, the city where Ida attended the Tarbut Hebrew Gymnasium? I thought of my grandmother, who had run a boardinghouse in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Before I knew it, my grandmother morphed into Esfir’s fictional Aunt Perl, proprietor of a boardinghouse in Brest. Because of grave antisemitism at Esfir’s school in her hometown, I would send Esfir to live at Perl’s boardinghouse where she would become roommates with Ida, the counterpart of my real-life cousin. And thus the novel was born.

From the original photos and eyewitness testimony I had collected for my memoir, plus my subsequent research, I reconstructed the village of Volchin. Then I constructed Brest and the area around the boardinghouse. My childhood friends, twin girls, became Ida’s classmates. Now I had the setting and the characters. For a while they were on their own.

As I changed genres, my focus tightened from revelatory wide angle to exploratory close-up. I switched the point of view from the memoir’s first-person observer to the novel’s first-person actor. I tried to avoid the danger of telling a story by showing Esfir living through trauma, keeping in mind that she was also a witness plodding her way through history. At this point, I decided to pretend that Esfir would be recalling her life as an adult. I was gratified by the reaction of early readers who thought that the novel was nonfiction, an actual memoir written by the real Esfir. So my original memoir found new life in a fictional one.

Now when I look at the Midler photos, I no longer see a pleasant middle-class family. I see the eldest daughter, Ida, as an idealistic young woman who loved literature; I see my uncle Iser, a handsome man of prominence in his village who also yanked his slacks over his belly. I often wonder what they would think of me, their long-lost relative, poking around in their lives, making up conversations, creating scenarios out of slight resemblances. I like to think they would be proud of me, happy that they were transformed into fully developed lives, to be cherished on the page.

Andrea Simon is the author of the memoir Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, the new novel Esfir Is Alive, and several stories and essays. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York and lives in New York City.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Elizabeth Poliner

Friday, November 25, 2016 | Permalink

Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit every day for the next 30 days. Watch, enjoy, and discover new books to read!


Elizabeth Poliner is the author of the recently published novel, As Close to Us as Breathing (Lee Boudreaux Books / Little Brown), which is an Amazon “Best Books of 2016 So Far” for fiction/literature. She has also published a novel-in-stories, Mutual Life & Casualty, and a poetry collection, What You Know in Your Hands. Her stories and poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including the Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Colorado Review. A recipient of seven individual artist grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, she has also received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Wurlitzer Foundation. She teaches in the MFA program at Hollins University.



30 Days, 30 Authors: Adam Kirsch

Thursday, November 24, 2016 | Permalink

Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit every day for the next 30 days. Watch, enjoy, and discover new books to read!


Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. He is the author of nine books, including Benjamin Disraeli, Why Trilling Matters, and most recently The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature. He is director of the master's program in Jewish Studies at Columbia University and a regular contributor to Tablet, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books.



Writing a Guide to Jewish Pastoral Counseling

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 | Permalink

Drs. Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths. With the holiday season approaching, they will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council together as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

How did a nice psychiatrist/psychoanalyst, not to mention a neuroscientist, get mixed up with the world of rabbis and wind up writing a book on pastoral counseling? Aren’t mental health professionals and clergy like oil and water—do they not embody the gulf between science and faith, between non-judgmental exploration and directed guidance?

We believe that the two fields can coexist and even nourish each other. Perhaps blending the rigorous methodology and principals of mental health treatment with the wisdom of religion can create a healing experience that combines the best of both worlds—the yin and yang of a spiritually and psychologically satisfying response. Our odyssey started two decades ago when Michelle had the opportunity to bridge her professional and personal passions by organizing a conference on Jewish responses to anxiety and depression. This led to an invitation to be the pastoral counseling expert at four-day rabbinic conference. She was in for a big surprise.

Perhaps the serene wooded setting of the retreat center encouraged trust and openness. As the days passed, participants increasingly shared painful and sometimes shocking vignettes that congregants disclosed to them on a regular basis. While these well-meaning, good rabbis did the best they could, they were often overwhelmed by their own anxiety and simply did not know what to do. Whether early on in their careers or many years out, these clergy felt alone and unsupported out there in the field. Their seminary years had prepared them to answer questions about Jewish ritual but not on how to listen and respond to stories of loss, betrayal, and confusion. Unlike mental health professionals, whose training includes supervision and encourages personal therapy, rabbis rarely share pastoral challenges with their peers.

Michelle left that retreat chastened. Clergy are first responders to the messy needs of their congregants. She started doing one-off programs here and there for rabbinic alumni groups and other organizations. When Rabbi Avi Weiss called her out of the blue in 1999 and asked if she was interested in heading up pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the rabbinical seminary he was starting for Orthodox rabbis, it sounded like an intriguing adventure. Michelle had no idea of what a pastoral counseling program was, so she borrowed from her own psychiatric and psychoanalytic training programs and brainstormed with the few people she could find who were engaged in similar work.

One of the people she called was Rachel. Rachel is a psychologist and neuroscient who had by then developed several successful clinical treatment programs for trauma-related illness like posttraumatic stress disorder at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, which included modules for training young residents and interns. These programs included the Specialized Clinic for Holocaust Survivors and their families. Rachel was by then serving on the Board of Directors of YCT. Michelle asked Rachel to teach rabbinical students how to deal with congregants in the aftermath of trauma and disaster.

The years rolled by, and the pastoral counseling program at YCT flourished. One of the major teaching techniques to emerge was role-playing, in which rabbinical students are given scenarios to play-act: one student would act the part of the congregant while the other played the part of the rabbi. Another was process group, where students met every week with a mental health facilitator and, in a confidential setting, talk through feelings and issues that emerge in their training. Other seminaries strengthened their own programs, and mental health awareness grew across the denominations. Both Michelle and Rachel were invited to speak at Jewish community programs across the denominational spectrum on postpartum depression, psychiatric medications, sexual abuse, and how to respond to individual and communal trauma. Emails and calls came from around the country from rabbis who sought consultation on tough pastoral situations.

It was time to write a book. The goal was not to create yet another informative but dry, academic piece with a formulaic review of the literature, data charts, and copious footnotes, not another compilation of chapters about topics pertaining to mental illness that do not exactly provide guidance about how to navigate specific situations. There were enough of those. It felt important to write a book that explored the feeling experience of the person who sat in the pastoral counselor’s seat and confronted human drama and raw need. To write for the rabbi who listens to people dealing with loneliness or marginalization, parents struggling to connect to their children, spouses whose marriages are falling apart, elders confronting frailty, and for the school principal or camp director who sees the boy or girl struggling with a difficult family, with sexuality, with Jewish identity. The goal was to share what had been gleaned over these decades of delivering mental health services on the one hand, and teaching rabbis at YCT.

So that’s what we did. We created four fictional characters who go through almost 70 different scenarios culled from our combined logs of practice and supervision. We crafted expositions on each scenario that explain basic principles of pastoral counseling from a Jewish perspective. Toward the end of the process, we read the book out loud to each other to pick up on awkward or confusing sentences. It feels great to offer this book that can help people in positions of spiritual authority listen wisely and well.

Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths and professors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Along with their independent positions and distinctions, both authors teach pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) in Riverdale, New York.

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The Active Listening Skills Every Rabbi Should Prepare for Thanksgiving

Monday, November 21, 2016 | Permalink

Drs. Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths. With the holiday season approaching, they will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council together as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

“Rabbi, Thanksgiving is coming up, and after the way my brother behaved last time I can’t bring myself to ever spend the holiday with him like we have always done. What should I do?”

Rabbis get questions like this all the time and especially before holidays.

People turn to clergy and other Jewish professionals for pastoral counseling because they hope to glean wisdom and support that connects them to Jewish tradition. But how are rabbis supposed to get that wisdom and how do rabbis learn how to provide the kind of support warranted by the specific situation?

The wisdom and experience comes from learning how to listen in a specific way. This is harder than it sounds. It is the kind of listening where the rabbi resists the impulse to jump in with a similar vignette from their own life, refrains from giving quick advice, and hears out the story. While listening, the rabbi quietly stays in touch with the anxiety, anger, or sadness stirred up within themself while listening to a painful, deeply human story.

Sometimes, a rabbi may worry that non-judgmental listening implies tacit acceptance of actions that contradict Jewish tradition. But when a caring listener finds a sliver of alliance with the teller of an offensive story, they generate trust; not necessarily approval. In fact, a Jewish pastoral counselor must find some point of connection in order to point out where behavior runs into conflict with Jewish and other values or might even lead to danger.

One way for the rabbi to listen is to ask questions. In the opening vignette, it is not clear whether the sibling got drunk, was missing in action during a family member’s critical illness, questioned Mom about the will, or suggested conversion therapy for a gay family member. The simple direction, “Tell me more,” coupled with quiet attention encourages the most turbulent souls to open up. As the rabbi listens, they can think of questions and generate hypotheses as to what is going on. The congregant fills in the story: “We needed financial help and my sister wouldn’t help;” “My brother was staying with us during his separation and made a pass at the nanny;” “I was going through a rough time and they didn’t bother to check in on how I was doing.”

The rabbi listening might wonder if these slights started long ago or whether they result from something that the congregant did that provoked alienation. They may recall similar painful situations in their own family. Sometimes there was resolution, other times not. Getting in touch with one’s own emotional pulse allows one to empathize with the congregant’s distress while also being clear that their life experiences and reactions are different. The rabbi might ask a few questions to clarify the picture and formulate a hierarchy of goals.

Sometimes people ask for a specifically religious answer: “Rabbi, what does Jewish tradition say about families?” or “Isn’t it against the Torah to embarrass someone?” Jewish tradition has much to say about family relationships and family conflict, about rupture and repair. The rabbi’s sense of tact and timing will determine whether offering a text feels formulaic or supportive. Often the congregant’s question is rhetorical, in the sense that they are not seeking a true Torah ruling but instead trying to get some heavy-duty support for their own feelings and opinions.

There is no one right answer to any of the above questions. A guiding principle for rabbis and pastoral figures might be to try and circumscribe the problem to the present moment and give the congregant permission to make a decision just for the immediate situation at hand. “I understand your relationship with your brother has been difficult for quite a while. I find it’s more helpful to avoid words like ‘never’ and ‘ever’—at this time you need to make a decision about this one Thanksgiving. After that, you can think about how that felt and what you want to do next.” This kind of response allows for a kind of pause after Thanksgiving, time in which to metabolize whatever behaviors and feelings come up over the holiday.

Few people listen well. The goal of pastoral counseling is to help those going through regular life events as well as crises. The enduring legacy of such support connects Jews to the richness of tradition over the longer arc of time.

Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda are the co-authors of The Art of Jewish Pastoral Counseling: A Guide for All Faiths and professors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Along with their independent positions and distinctions, both authors teach pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) in Riverdale, New York.

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