Leah Kaminsky, Author of The Waiting Room, on the Past and Future

leah-kaminskyI’m delighted to welcome Leah Kaminsky, author of the debut novel THE WAITING ROOM (Harper Perennial 2016). Although this story is set in Haifa, Israel, during 2001, the story straddles three continents and a time span of seventy years. It took Kaminsky ten years to write the novel and she told me, “every word and sentence has been a labour of love, rewritten countless times” until she was satisfied she could do no better. For Kaminsky, “the craft of writing is of the utmost importance.”

Here is Leah Kaminsky’s guest post on stumbling onto the past, and what we take into the future:

“Recently, while visiting Berkeley for the first time as part of my North American book tour, I passed an old stamp shop. A handwritten note told potential customers to knock loudly, so I did. After a minute or so, a tall man with a shock of grey hair shuffled towards the door, which creaked as it opened. He gruffly told me he was busy dispatching some orders and left me alone to wonder around the store. I was instantly transported back to my childhood, dizzy with the thousands of stamps from around the globe staring down at me, pinned to the walls like zoological specimens in a museum. I watched the owner as he lovingly affixed a collage of stamps to the front of a package he was preparing to ship. We started chatted about my old passion for stamp collecting, a hobby that is rapidly becoming part of a lost world. I became quite teary, as if I had entered a lush forest on the verge of extinction.

I feel the same whenever I wonder around antique shops, or stumble across old haberdashery stores that are still lovingly kept open by their elderly owners after several decades in business. In THE WAITING ROOM, I have written an entire chapter set inside an old shoemaker’s cave in downtown Haifa:

‘The shoemaker’s workshop lies hidden at the edge of the shuk, down a crooked laneway that reeks of cat piss. The metal door rests slightly ajar and a bell tinkles as Dina pushes it open. She enters a dimly lit cave in the wall, its interior redolent of a tiny shtetl in Europe, pungent with leather and blacking.’

The old shoemaker fascinates her, and she is drawn into his workshop like Alice into Wonderland:

Dina could stare at the shoemaker all day. With his knobbly white knuckles and brown leather apron that hugs his rotund belly, he looks like a character that stepped straight out of a fairytale.’

But he also carries wisdom along with his expertise:

‘He is busy gluing the sole of an old boot. On a shelf behind him, a small fan pivots to-and-fro, blowing wafts of glue into Dina’s face. She places her broken shoe onto the workbench.

“One shoe does not walk alone,” he says in a quiet steady, voice, without looking up at her.’

These elderly craftsmen, whose lives have been dedicated to refining their ancient skills, are on the verge of disappearing – and along with them the magical world of my own childhood will vanish. Their stories are a portal to another time and place, where good craftsmanship and integrity were deeply valued and respected, so different to the disposable consumer culture of today, with its emphasis on cheap mass-manufacturing. My father was a tailor and I vividly remember the care he took in fussing over each client’s measurement, jotting down secret numbers in a sacred notebook he kept hidden in his shirt pocket. He drafted bespoke patterns, which he laid out on the finest material, carefully cutting pieces he would later sew together by hand.

The stamp collector I met in Berkeley, the shoemaker in THE WAITING ROOM and my diminutive father in his tailor’s workshop, are my connection to both the beauty and the hardships of the past. THE WAITING ROOM warns us that if we don’t bear witness to history and what we have inherited from the past, we are more likely to hurtle blindly into a tenuous and shaky future.”

Thank you, Leah Kaminsky.

THE WAITING ROOM is available wherever books are sold, including this link:


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Shimon Peres: Never Give Up Hope.

peres-2I wrote to the Former Israeli President Shimon Peres–who died Wednesday at the age of 93 and whose funeral was attended by seventy world leaders on Friday morning–when he was a member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliment, in 2004. I told him how I still hoped for peace despite everything  going on around us in Israel. Peres wrote me the above letter. A while later, I wrote him again, asking how he was able to hold onto his hope and optimism when the future of the world seemed so bleak. He replied:

peres-1In the book, The Start-Up Nation by Saul Singer, Peres is quoted more than anyone else.

“They called me a dreamer,” Peres said in July as he laid the cornerstone for the Israeli Innovation Center, which will be part of the Peres Peace House in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. “But today, when I look at Israel, we all can see clearly that the greater the dream, the more spectacular the results.”

I have his words in my head whenever I’m faced with a difficult goal. “If hope and optimism were to be replaced by despair and pessimism, the goals would never be attained.”

May the memory of Shimon Peres’ energy and enthusiasm for life continue to inspire us.

“Let us adopt the road to peace and innovation, which will always be better than war and terror,” he said. “…I have one small request – Israel is a dream that came true. Permit me to continue to dream.”




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Five Things to Do While Waiting to Hear from a Literary Agent about Your Book

So, the new novel is done! I sent it to my literary agent, Steven Chudney, who has sent it on to different editors at various publishing houses. Now comes the waiting, waiting, waiting time. From the high excitement (and a few tears) after finishing the book to the very anti-climactic time waiting to hear if it will be accepted. It’s like sitting in the waiting room at Port Authority Bus Terminal waiting for a bus that might never show up. It’s that much fun.

So here are some things we can do while waiting to hear from literary agents.

1. Ignore what editors say about your unpublished novel. Ignore the reasons they give for rejecting your book. I got an email from a friend who also has her first novel making the rounds at publishing houses. She already got a rejection letter from one editor who told her it was too sad. Er…um…Romeo and Juliet? I would not touch the manuscript to please an editor until one of them says she wants to work with me, and then I would change it.

2.  Find something else to write. I know it’s hard for me to concentrate right now (or “write now”) while I’m waiting but the work is…the work. I got to the point before I dug in and rewrote A Remarkable Kindness for the eighteenth time that I had to make a decision. I was going to write whether it got published or not. I would write for the joy of writing—the other stuff is nice but it’s the fluff. The substance is the actual work. I had to decide to write because I love writing and keep doing it. I thought of Emily Dickinson who wrote poems that nobody ever liked when she was alive—but she did her art.

3. Remember all those stories about writers who got rejected a hundred times. Chicken Soup for the Soul and The Help come to mind. Everyone knows those stories.

4. Remind yourself what matters. I always had ideas of what would happen once I published my novel. I thought there would be a dramatic change. Then my novel was published and nothing really happened. I went on several book tours (nothing glamorous or exciting about sitting on those shiny bedspread covers in a motel room in a strange city), I met some great people (hello to you and you and you!), had several people say they loved my book (thank you!) and then I went home and went back to my desk to work.

5. Ask, what’s the goal? The goal of life isn’t to be a best-selling author. Look at Hemingway who shot himself. (Well, alcoholism does lead to a depressing death or suicide eventually, anyway.) The goal is to be at peace with ourselves. Nothing outside myself can give me that inner happiness. I might get a temporary boost by work successes but it is only temporary. I might get a temporary letdown from rejections or bad reviews but that, too, passes.

We have to keep doing the inner work. Nothing else can fill us up. Not glittery prizes, not TV appearances, not sparkly reviews.

To my friend waiting to hear about her book, and to everyone else who is waiting for an answer, remember this: the goal is to accept and love ourselves as we are, right here, right now. And that’s an inside job. We have to keep telling ourselves that we are wonderful. Don’t say, “Well, we’re not really such-and-such,” or, “This isn’t a big deal.” It is a gigantic deal.

We don’t have to do anything spectacular to feel like a hero. All we have to do is live our lives as best as we can. We can stand somewhere and think about where we’ve been and where we are now and the journey we’ve traveled to get here. Then we can try to live our best chapter today.

Post-script, Emily Dickinson agreed with Thomas Higginson, “If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her — if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase.”

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Tools for Tuesday: Terrific Tools for Your Toolbox

In a funk? Remember the story of the baby chick. (Read on.)

No matter what we face today, there’s always a solution. We might not get the answer immediately but it will come.

“Whatever God has blessed you with, take it with a grateful hand.” – Horace

Circumstances don’t make us who we are: they reveal who we can be.

Sometimes we blame other people, hoping they’ll change, but if we stop looking at them (what we think is the problem) and focus on ourselves, we will move toward what we want (the solution).

Speaking of which, we don’t have to fall into the pattern of explaining ourselves. Keep this wisdom to ourselves. We can make a decision and do what we need to do without apologizing, justifying or trying to explain our position.

Be happy with what we’ve done and not unhappy with what we haven’t done yet (How’s that for piling on all those negatives to make a positive?!?)

You grew up. Sometimes it was hard. And painful. You sometimes want to slip back into being a quivering lump in the corner. But now you know what you are doing and you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get out of the corner.

What am I doing with what I have? Instead of focusing on what we think others have, instead of bemoaning all we can’t do, we can try to do the best we can with the talents we’ve been given.

Today I can be grateful all I’ve been given. My life is probably not perfect and I probably haven’t achieved every goal I hoped I would have by now, but I can try to be at peace with myself, which is the most important task in my life.

I read a great story about a woman who had baby chicks. She thought she would help some of the baby chicks with their hatching so she peeled back some of the egg shell to get the chicks out. But she soon realized that the chicks she “helped” were the very ones that didn’t survive. They need to peck and pull and struggle: that was part of the lesson. We can’t forget that the struggle is part of the lesson.


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Who is Rich?

My friend, Lily, just got engaged. Mazel tov, mazel tov, the sound of breaking glass is not far behind. (For those who don’t know, under the chuppah, or wedding canopy, the groom steps on a glass at the end of the ceremony to recall the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.)

Lily, who should have been happy, instead was disappointed. Her fiancé had dressed up in a tuxedo and got down on one knee and bought her cards expressing his love. But it just wasn’t what she had imagined would happen and it was all sort of anti-climactic.

When I worked at National Lampoon, I once wrote an article called, “Fantasy vs. Reality Sex.” In one column was what I thought would happen; in the other column was what actually happened. Fantasy: “He has a well-trimmed mustache.” Reality: “He has long hairs sticking out of his nostrils.”

Isn’t it often like this? I often think how I’m going to feel if only this or that happens. And then the thing happens but it’s not what I wanted.

After I wrote The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle, I went up to meet my ex-literary agent in her fancy office in New York City. I thought it would be so exciting to meet her and have her tell me what a fabulous book I wrote. I got there and her assistant spoke to me for a while and then the agent walked in and said, “Oh, so you’re the one who wrote the motorcycle book.” She spoke to me for a few minutes, and then returned to her inner office.

And that was it.

I still need to remind myself that those very things that I think will make me happy, that will fill me up, that will bring me peace and joy won’t do the job.It’s the other things, the daily things. Taking care of myself each day. Taking care of myself physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. The other things are important, of course, but I find that sometimes if I set myself up with huge expectations, disappointments can’t be far behind.

This is what it is. This is what I’ve got. I want to try to appreciate what I have right here, right now. So now I come to the answer to the headline, Who is rich? That’s what a rabbi who called himself Ben Zoma asks in the Talmud. The one who is happy with what he has. So congratulations to Lily and may her days be filled with joy!

PS. For those of you who were wondering why I disappeared…I’m in the midst of finishing my next novel and I have to get back to work…



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Frances Dinkelspiel: Do A Lot of Writing. Practice, Practice, Practice.

In my series of interviews with writers, I have been fortunate to talk to a wide variety of writers, including Molly Antopol, Anita Diamant, Dara Horn, Tatiana de Rosnay and many others.

Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel

Today’s interview is with Frances Dinkelspiel, author of Towers of GoldHow One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California and Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California. Welcome, Frances!

Diana Bletter: Towers of Gold is not only a personal history about your great-great-grandfather but also a book that covers so many fascinating topics from banking to Zionism, including information about finances, anti-Semitism and even the San Francisco earthquake. One of my editors once said that being a journalist means becoming an instant expert on a wide variety of subjects in a short amount of time.” Can you talk about that? Since you wrote the book, have you learned new information? With Americans’ interest in genealogy and family history, it is interesting that you hadn’t heard that much about Isaias Hellman. Can you talk a bit about stumbling onto this story, and how the work might have changed your view of your family and your own identity?

Frances Dinkelspiel: Your editor was correct in suggesting that being a journalist means becoming an instant expert in a wide variety of subjects. But writing a nonfiction book means becoming an expert on one subject or digging deeply into just a few topics. In Towers of Gold, I had to learn a tremendous amount about a few things, including Jewish life in Bavaria before 1860, how the frontier of California was transformed into a modern economy, the role Jews played in the development of California, banking, and details about my great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman.  The latter was the hardest since I had to piece together the chronology of his life and business dealings through letters, bills, business papers, photographs, and newspaper articles. The process took about eight years. I had a lot to learn and I also had to teach myself to write narrative, not journalism in the inverted pyramid style.

I had known about my great-great grandfather, mostly that he had come from Germany and had something to do with Wells Fargo Bank. I actually stumbled upon his amazing story. I was writing personal essays and decided I should weave some family history into them. I knew Hellman’s papers were at the California Historical Society. I thought I would spend an afternoon there and get some good tidbits for my personal pieces. Then the archivist told me there were 40 boxes of Hellman papers. I opened the first folder in the first to find his report card from the 1840s! And then a letter from his brother. I didn’t even know he had a brother. Other boxes held letters signed by people I had learned about in school, such as Collis Huntington, one of the builders of the transcontinental railroad, Mayer Lehman, the founder of Lehman Brothers, and Levi Strauss, whose jeans are still famous today. I was immediately hooked.

The best part about writing Towers of Gold was discovering how many Hellman connections there are in the U.S. and meeting many of them. The Hellmanns (the name had two nns in Germany) were a big clan in Reckendorf and most of them emigrated to the U.S. or England. They had to since Germany classified them as less than citizens and opportunities were limited. It was fun to connect with descendants of all those people. I now feel part of a large tribe.

I was also amazed to discover how successful Hellman became. He was the head of Wells Fargo Bank at the time of his death and in the early part of the 20th century he sat on the board of or served as president of 17 banks. He controlled $100 million. Yet he arrived in the U.S. in 1859 with practically nothing. That success is a testament to his business smarts and incredible luck as California was in midst of a great economic transformation.

Diana Bletter: Moving on to your newest book, Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California. (I love your titles.) After writing Towers of Gold, how long did it take you to find this subject? Some writers say their second book is more of a struggle than the first; what do you think?

Frances Dinkelspiel: Towers of Gold was published in October 2008. In the fall of 2009, I wrote a story for the New York Times about an upcoming trial of a man accused of setting an fire that destroyed 4.5 million bottles of fine California wine worth about $250 million. While writing the story I remembered that my cousin had sent some port made by Hellman in 1875 to the wine warehouse that burned. It was at that point that I thought I might have another book idea, one that explored this heinous crime and also looked at the growth of the California wine industry, which is huge.

Diana Bletter: Tell us a bit about you managed to write two best-selling, award-winning books while managing Berkeleyside, a news site that you co-founded. How does your work at Berkeleyside influence your book writing?

Frances Dinkelspiel: I wrote Towers of Gold before I co-founded Berkeleyside. The difficulty in writing that book was combining work with raising two young children. Tangled Vines was different. It was hard to juggle what were essentially two full-time jobs. But my Berkeleyside partners were great. They never grumbled when I said I had to take off a few weeks to dedicate to writing. And since I was writing so many daily news articles for Berkeleyside, my writing wasn’t “rusty,” so I was efficient.

Diana Bletter: What are you working on now?

Frances Dinkelspiel: Not sure. One idea involves oil and power and another family connection. But it will be a non-fiction book. 

Diana Bletter: You went to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. In the age of blogging, would you still encourage new writers to go to graduate school? You also worked on a small newspaper after graduating. Do you still encourage new writers to do this? Is there any suggestion about writing that you’d like to share with new writers?

Frances Dinkelspiel: In many ways this is a fabulous time to be a journalist and go to journalism school. Blogging, in my opinion, is on the wane, but there are hundreds of news and lifestyle websites looking for good stories and articles. Nowadays, journalists need to know how to shoot and edit video, do podcasts, take photos and crunch data. Journalism schools are teaching reporters those skills and graduates are getting jobs. To hone those skills it’s great to go to a place that lets you do a lot of writing so you practice, practice, practice. If you start as a clerk for the New York Times the chances of getting that practice are smaller than if you start at a smaller newspaper or a website.

Journalism is different than narrative or essay writing, however. The best thing I did to become a better writer was join a writers’ group. North 24th, our group, has been meeting for about 12 years. We critique one another’s work and help make it better. I trust those women completely.

Diana Bletter: Finally, my blog deals with how we can make each day part of the best chapter of our life. What do you do to take care of yourself each day, not only as a writer but as a person?

Frances Dinkelspiel: I like to spend part of each day reading as I find it rejuvenates me. I am the kind of person who carries a book everywhere she goes so I can dip into it while waiting in line. Of course, I can also use my iPhone now for that. I also like to hike in the hills around my Berkeley home. And eat well. Living in the Bay Area, it’s easy to eat well.

Thank you, Frances. Readers, check out Tangled Vines and Towers of Gold at your favorite indie bookshop or online. And keep reading — and writing.


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Rachel Levy Lesser: Writing a Good Personal Essay Should Make You Feel Uncomfortable


I’m happy to welcome Rachel Levy Lesser to The Best Chapter. Rachel is the author of several books, including a memoir, Shopping for Love

Diana Bletter: Your memoir, Shopping for Love, manages to combine the deep sorrow dealing with your mother’s battle with cancer, balanced by your lighthearted approach to shopping. I especially enjoyed your mother reminding you that what is important is that you were “rich in happiness.” When did you decide to write the memoir and can you talk about some of the challenges you faced while writing it?
Rachel Levy Lesser: There was never really a point when I decided to write a “memoir.” After my mother lost her long battle with cancer when she was 57, I was really struggling. I was dealing with the pain of her loss and I was having trouble functioning. I saw a therapist and she suggested I write down my thoughts and feelings about my mom and also my memories of her. I was having trouble expressing my grief and the therapist thought that writing these thoughts down would help. I took her suggestion and ran with it. I started to write down memories of my mom, and I soon realized that I had so many wonderful memories of us shopping together along with my grandmother and my aunt. I began to realize that shopping was more than just shopping for us. It was time spent together (which was so important when my mother became sick); we shared a lot of love shopping together and shopping sort of became a metaphor for the way we lived our lives – with all that love, hope, warmth and generosity.

I began to understand that there was a life lesson in each shopping trip we had together. It was then when I realized these memories could perhaps come together in a memoir. So I began to frame my writing as a memoir – laying it out chapter by chapter – combining the light heartedness of the shopping trips with the sadness in dealing with my mother’s illness and eventually her death. I liked the juxtaposition of the two, but I knew that I had to be careful. It got tricky sometimes trying to explain to my “readers of the future” how shopping really did bond us and how I learned so many valuable life lessons in the dressing room or while trying on shoes. I hoped they would understand it.

I also wanted to hold true to my story and not make it into something it was not. There has to be conflict and an arc to every story, and I completely understand that. Many agents and publishers that I spoke to wanted me shift the story to focus on another conflict i.e. something to do with my dating life way back when or conflict among my mother and me. But that wasn’t the real story. The conflict was within me. It was my struggle to come to terms with my mother’s all too young death. I knew that’s where the story was and I stuck to that.

Diana Bletter: Your children’ book, My Name is Rebecca Romm Named after My Mother’s Mom, tells the story of a girl and the significance of her name. What’s harder—writing children’s fiction or non-fiction? And can you talk about Who’s Going To Watch My Kids? and what you made you write it?

Rachel Levy Lesser: I would say that for me writing the children’s book was easier than writing my memoir and the other nonfiction book I wrote. Having said that though, I should also mention that for me at least the hardest part of the children’s book was coming up with a story that would translate into a children’s picture book. I had a lot of ideas floating around in my head (and I wanted to write one while my children were still young enough to appreciate it.) Once I outlined the story, writing it was not as difficult as it was for the other two nonfiction books that I wrote. I was also very lucky in that I worked with an extremely talented illustrator.

Who’s Going To Watch My Kids? was actually a book that was about a decade in the making. During that time, I employed several nannies for my children so that I could go to work in my office (for the first 5 years working for a marketing firm and then after that as a freelance writer and PR professional.) I had a lot of friends and colleagues were in the same situation as me: they had hired nannies to care for their children so that they could go to work. Whenever I got together with my friends, the topic of the nannies always came up. We were amazed at the relationships that developed between us (the working moms) and our nannies and the relationships between the kids, the rest of our families and our nannies. We were also amazed at the “stuff” we put up with so that our nannies wouldn’t leave us so that we could continue to work. It was almost like our nannies became our bosses. We used to joke that the title of the book would be “you can’t make this stuff up.”

I went to a writer’s conference and pitched my concept of a nanny/working mom relationship book to some of the talented people I met. They thought there was something to it and helped me develop a framework for how I could tell the stories. I interviewed working moms across the country and their stories and mine came together in the book. It reads in part like a memoir and also gives tips on how to successfully hire and employ a nanny.

Diana Bletter: You moved from marketing to freelance writing. What are some tips you can share with new writers about breaking into the writer’s market? Can you talk about your experiences in publishing your books? Did you use your marketing expertise to help market your own books? Are there any mistakes you learned that you can help other writers avoid?

Rachel Levy Lesser: People ask me all the time about breaking into the writer’s market and I always tell them that there is not one magic formula. For me it took a lot of time, hard work and persistence. I bought all the guide books or literary and publishing marketplaces and I spent hours, days, weeks, months on end going through them and highlighting potential agents and publishers. My office floor often looked like the stacks of a research library. For each of my projects, I reached out to agents and publishers that I thought would be a good fit and I was rejected so many times. But eventually I got nicer rejections, then some interest, and eventually some deals.

I would also say that networking is key. I love to chat with people – anywhere and everywhere (my family and friends will tell you that!) and that’s what I did. Whenever I meet someone in—or related to—the publishing industry I talk to them and ask for advice or if they have any leads. I also attended and still attend industry conferences. I’ve met some of my most valuable contacts at these conferences. I still think there is real value in face to face contact. Along those lines though, I did make some mistakes in following some leads that went nowhere. I thought I had to jump at everything and I probably wasted a lot of time jumping at too many things.

As far as marketing the books, I definitely used my experience to help me. I reached out to any contacts that I had in the media from past stints to get press for the books. I also contacted book stores, book clubs and organizations that had some connection to the book i.e. I did a book signing at Saks Fifth Avenue in NYC for Shopping for Love since I wrote about the store in the book. I also held events at Gilda’s Club (a cancer support community) because that book dealt with battling cancer and grief. I found that you have to be creative and come up with lots of ideas on your own to market your books. The media and the stores are inundated with requests so you (as an author) have to do the work to make their jobs easier (and not the other way around.)

Diana Bletter: What are you working on now? How do you structure your contributions to The Huffington Post?

Rachel Levy Lesser: I’m currently working on a lot of freelance articles for a variety of publications. There are some pieces that have been swirling around in my head (and on my computer) for years; other ideas come to me and sometimes seem to write themselves. Often times, I’ll have an idea for an article and I think it will be one thing and it turns out to be another thing, which I love. I just went to a seminar on writing personal essays and one of the best things that I took away from it was that a really good essay will make you (the writer) feel uncomfortable. I need to remember that!

For The Huffington Post, I don’t really have a set in stone way that I structure my pieces. I guess you can say that I have a certain style of writing which I’ve developed over the years. People often tell me that it’s a conversational type style, which I understand to be true. It’s funny though because that took me a long time to develop. When I started writing for certain publications and I would be assigned a story to cover on a certain topic, I was so stiff and serious in my writing. I’ve let a lot of that go.

I also have another idea for a book. I started to outline it last year and couldn’t get anywhere with it. Recently someone suggested something to me based on an article I wrote: the conversation we had about that article clicked something in me which made me realize I was doing the outline all wrong. I think I now know in which direction I need to take this next project/book but I need to completely redo the outline and also make myself feel more uncomfortable, which is hard for me to do. I’ve also been collaborating with other people one a few articles which has been a lot for me. It gets me out of my own head and my own headphones sitting by myself in my office or at Starbucks. And I am still doing freelance PR work. I still love writing press releases and reaching out to the media. That never gets old for me – ever.

Diana Bletter: Finally, this blog deals with how we can make each day part of the best chapter of our life. What do you do to take care of yourself each day, not only as a writer but as a person?

Rachel Levy Lesser: Writing for me is a way to take care of myself. I feel best on those days when I manage to get my thoughts on paper in a way that I didn’t quite know how to when I first started out. After all, it was getting those thoughts down on paper that helped me when I wrote my first book, Shopping for Love. My family can usually tell when I’ve had a good writing day by my mood and energy level at night – which is always higher when my writing went well.

Practicing yoga for me is also a big part of taking care of myself. Yoga helps me think more clearly, it helps me feel so good – body, mind and soul. I know that sounds so cliche but it is so true. I’m addicted to yoga which I remind myself is a good thing!

Thank you, Rachel.I had the opportunity to meet with her and members of her book club in April. I agree with Rachel’s suggestion to keep talking to people because I had met Rachel’s cousin at a conference in Israel and he suggested I contact her, saying “She’s high energy and knows everybody.” She then invited me to her book club where members joined me in a discussion of my novel.

You can find Rachel’s books via your favorite independent book shop or online. And look for Rachel’s pieces on parenting and life and things in between on The Huffington Post.

Posted in publishing, rejections, Writers, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

My Astonishing Discovery on Mother’s Day

IMG_0773Last year, soon after my step-son had just been diagnosed with Stage Four non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, I went with him for one of his treatments at the hospital near Tel Aviv. Nadav has lived me with me on and off since he was eight years old; he’s thirty-one now. As we were waiting for his medicine, my unofficially adopted daughter from Ethiopia, came into the room.

The nurse, preparing Nadav’s medications, looked up. She’d already witnessed a parade of visitors: Nadav’s mother, father, friends, along with five siblings from our blended family. “And who’s this?” the nurse asked.

“She’s my sister,” Nadav announced, before going back to dozing on his thin hospital pillow. “But it’s a long story.”

Growing up with only one sister next to the McCarthy clan of eight on Long Island, I’d always dreamed of having a large family. Although I counted myself among the first generation of young feminists (I took one of the first women’s studies courses at Cornell, when our only textbook was a battered paperback copy of Sisterhood is Powerful) I still wanted to get married, have children. Some of my friends preferred to concentrate on their careers and gasped in wide-eyed astonishment as I popped out four kids in six years. Naively, over-optimistically, unrealistically, I assumed I could do it all: juggle my writing career and kids while still making my own granola and baking bread.

After my first marriage crumbled, I married Jonny who had two of his own kids, upping my maternal responsibilities to six children, all under the age of eleven. Then, a friend told us about a young Ethiopian woman working in his office. He said that Degetu came in to work wearing the same shirt and pants day after day after day. He asked Jonny and me if we could help her. We agreed; but we didn’t want to only help her financially: we wanted to be part of her life and to have her be part of ours. After all, once you’re dealing with six, what’s one more kid? I’ve always tried to practice what I preached at my bat mitzvah, which was the idea of tikkun olam, repairing the world. There’s a Jewish saying, If you save one life, you save the world, and I believed that to be true.


Degetu was born in a birthing hut somewhere in Gondar Province, Ethiopia. She isn’t exactly sure of her birthday; her passport still reads 00/00/0000, but her mother remembers it was during Ethiopian President Mengistu Mariam’s Red Terror Campaign in the early 1980s. In the middle of one dark night, she, her parents, and her eight brothers and sisters were airlifted to Israel along with about six thousand other Jews during Operation Moses.

Her father was the religious chief of their village and her mother had a royal, regal posture and tattoos decorating her jawline, but once they got to Israel, they were faced with modernity, baffling and fast-paced and alarming. They took it as an honor that Jonny and I, complete strangers, would be willing to take in Degetu and help her.

When she was growing up in Ethiopia, she knew when to leave for school by the way the shadows fell off the trees. She didn’t make it past third grade because she was sent to live with an aunt in another village, carrying water from a distant stream and tending her aunt’s herd of goats, a barefoot shepherd. Then she got to Israel, where she had to make up a decade of’ worth of education at lightning speed.


She has stayed with us often, including one summer when she did an intensive English course, all the while asking me questions. How do garage doors automatically open? How can you freeze food for weeks? How can a man say he loves you and wants to marry you, but then dumps you, and continues on his merry way without community reprisal? Ah, welcome to the western world.

In 2000, soon after Nadav met Degetu, he flew with her from Israel to New York to meet the rest of the family. Degetu said she felt like she’d won a lottery, and kept pinching herself to make sure it wasn’t a dream. Since it was her first commercial flight, Nadav showed her how to buckle in her seat belt and watch a movie and bought her first bottle of perfume at the Duty Free Shop.


Since then, she has learned computer programming, got a job working in computer security at a bank, married, and had two children of her own.


And now Degetu was looking at Nadav lying in the hospital bed, his head shaved, his face gaunt, his dark brown eyes closed to the world. She and I spoke in whispers while Nadav underwent his treatment. I thought about how, when Nadav was little, he was never quiet, never still. With ADHD, a total hearing loss in one ear and partial hearing loss in the other, he was hyper-alert, hyper-sensitive, and just plain hyper. I never had to over-think how to be a mother to my own kids, but I was challenged as a step-mom with him. How could I set limits and still show love? How could I call out my biological kids on their misbehavior while letting him slide? How many times could I hear my kids proclaim, “Why don’t you punish him, too? He’s been with you long enough to be punished!”

Somehow, it all sorted out as the kids grew up, and grew to love one another. I kept telling myself that the people who came into my life were there for an important reason. I was always ready to learn new spiritual lessons. Life kept taking us on new and unexpected twists and turns; and once again, I was faced with teaching our kids how to bend, not break. Especially now. Now that Nadav was fighting this cancer that threatened his life. All the tough moments of the past automatically forgotten, to be replaced by more important memories.


After Nadav’s treatment, Degetu and I walked him slowly out of the hospital and then we all went to eat gelato at a nearby ice cream shop. Sitting there, I realized that we were an odd trio, these two young adults and me, brought together by luck or fate or something grand, mysterious, inexplicable. I was thankful we’d made it this far. Grateful we were doing this thing called life, together. I felt proud of them right then, fiercely protective and ultimately powerless. In other words, maternal. And that was when I had this startling discovery. Sometimes, the kids who make us feel the most like mothers are the ones who aren’t even our own.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.


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When You’re Lost, Do You Stress or Stay Serene? And What’s the Message?

I was on my way to give a talk about A Remarkable Kindness in the town of Carmiel in northern Israel with my son, Ari, a few weeks ago. We got lost. We ended up pulling into the bus station—I had no idea it was even there until that moment.

I always tell Ari that there’s a reason things happen. This time, he said to me, “So what’s the reason we’re lost?”

“I don’t know,” I told him. “But when I find out, I will let you know.”

Then, last week, I had to pick up my daughter, Libby, who was taking the bus to Carmiel. She said, “Mom, do you even know where the bus station is?” (My kids and Jonny know my absolutely guaranteed ability to get lost no matter which continent. Jonny always jokes that if I had navigated our motorcycle trip to Alaska, we would have wound up in Argentina.)

“As a matter of fact,” I told Libby, “I do know where it is because I got lost there a few weeks ago!”

We don’t always know why something happens. Sometimes we find out the reason weeks or months or years later. We might never know. Maybe there are mysteries meant to remain mysteries. And that’s where faith comes in. Believing when it’s so difficult to believe. Besides, as my sister, Cynthia, always tells me, “We are never lost. We know where we are.” That is why when I’m lost, I no longer stress but stay serene. Maybe I’ll see something new. Maybe I’ll learn something unexpected.

And sometimes we get lost and stay lost. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been wandering far longer than Moses in the desert. Forty years! Everyone jokes that it’s only because Moses was a man and refused to ask for directions. But maybe those Jewish slaves needed to wander to lose some of their old habits—and their negativity. After all, they got their freedom and still complained about the manna. Maybe they had to learn to be grateful.

I’m posting this photo of Grandma Jamila. Jamila Hir, also known as “Grandma Jamila,” from the Druze village of Peki’in, northern Israel, who creates natural soaps from olive oil and medical herbs. She employs hundreds of Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze workers and her small business brings in $50 million in profits and exports to 40 countries. She is also a widow, a mother to five children, a grandmother to 15 grandchildren, and five great grandchildren. (Interesting sidebar: Dr. Ruth Westheimer featured Jamila in her book, The Olive and the Tree, about the Druze of Israel.) Jamila, as well as Dr. Ruth, are fabulous role models who remind us to give time…time.

Today’s tool: We do not always know why we make the wrong turn in life. And we do not always know why things take longer than we think they should, but eventually we get to where we are supposed to be.

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Foraging for Words and Weeds

foraging 4.jpgInspired by my friend, Abbie Rosner, author of Breaking Bread in Galilee, I went foraging for wild spinach down the road from my house.

I was also foraging for words while writing. Stuck. Even though I’ve written one novel (and drafts for five more) it never gets any easier. (Jenny, are you paying attention?)

So here are photos of the enchanted spinach forest. foraging 3The spinach leaves are the ones that look a bit shinier than the others, sort of diamond-shaped.

I cleaned the spinach (last time Abbie found four snails in the leaves!) and steamed it. Then I sprinkled it with olive oil, lemon juice and salt. Now back to writing…

foraging 2 Here’s what the dish looked like:

which I eventually ate with brown rice. Boosting up my brain cells! Abbie also said that wild plants have more vitamins and minerals than cultivated vegetables because they have to work harder to survive and pull up more nutrients from the soil. Leaving my desk for even a few minutes gave me time just to think about what I was writing. It’s all inspiring!foraging 5


Posted in how to write, inspiration, living simply, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments