When Bad things Happen to Good People. As a Driven Leaf. The Lonely Man of Faith. God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know. The Jewish Catalog. The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev. Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide.
Flummoxed by the commonality between these titles? All were written by rabbis.
As someone who learned much from these books, as well as others, I want to know: Is there a way to create more of them? Who is the Harold Kushner or the Chaim Potok or the Milton Steinberg of today? Is there another Joseph Soloveitchik or Lawrence Kushner trying to write, but not quite sure if she can?
In an effort to begin to answer this question, the Jewish Book Council put together a program to encourage more rabbis to write. Well Published Rabbi, part of JBC’s Jewish Writers’ Seminar, was a chance for rabbis of varied backgrounds and interests to come together and discuss strategies for writing and getting published.
For a few hours, rabbis of myriad backgrounds listened to presentations on self-publishing and mainstream publishing, how to write a query letter and how to promote their own expertise.
A Lubavitch rabbi who wants to write a novel dramatizing the ethical issues around slaughter sat with a Reform rabbi who is working on a book about how to choose a synagogue. A rabbi writing a commentary for his denomination sat with one writing her own Haggadah for people with disabilities. A Modern Orthodox and a Reform rabbi presented their perspectives to the group.
As the organizer of this session, I felt a profound sense of holiness. The word for holiness in Hebrew, kadosh, literally means to set aside. In this context, the setting aside was both setting aside time to consider the work of writing and publication, and setting aside the many differences between the rabbis in the room.
I don’t think I’ve ever been in a forum where people with such different ideologies and worldviews set their differences aside to focus on what brought them together, and how they might learn from each other. All of those present in the room were engaged in the same struggles — how to value one’s ideas and work enough to dedicate their time to the enterprise of publishing a book; how to best convey the Jewish wisdom accumulated both over years of counseling others and from study of Jewish texts; how to write with a style and passion that is both compelling and consequential.
It was a pleasure to present a session with Rabbi Barry Schwartz of the Jewish Publication Society, the author of a number of books himself, most recently Path of the Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life. Schwartz inspired the group by sharing that the Jewish Publication Society counted 26 congregational rabbis among its current roster of authors, as well as by sharing some of his own experiences as a playwright and author of books for children and adults.
The “wizarding rabbi,” Moshe Rosenberg, shared the work that went into the self-publishing success he achieved with his Unofficial Hogwarts Haggadah. In a humorous PowerPoint, he illustrated that even when publishers don’t like taking risks, it is possible to write and publicize your work. How? In the words of Rosenberg, by “dressing your sermons in wizarding robes.” Magic is not something everyone can do, but it was enchanting to have a true sorcerer conjure up a bit of it for the group.
As the organizer, the main takeaway that I hope participants grasped is that as rabbis and writers, they have a particular expertise and wisdom that can and should be shared with an audience larger than those in their own congregations. The books I opened with have had — and continue to have — a lingering impact on the minds and hearts of readers. I’m hoping this is the first of many Well Published Rabbi sessions that will help create new titles that have the same intense impact on readers as their predecessors.
Beth Kissileff is in the process of fundraising and writing grants to develop a program to assist rabbis of all denominations with writing and publishing books. Kissileff is a rabbinic spouse and author of the novel Questioning Return as well as editor of the anthology Reading Genesis: Beginings.