Continuing our series of interviewing creative Jewish women to celebrate the launch of The Secret Diary of a Jewish Housewife, today we meet best-selling Jewish author, Sheyna Galyan.
1)Tell me a little bit about how you became a writer, and why specifically you wanted to write Jewish-themed fiction.
I’ve been writing stories since I was about seven. I wrote about themes that mattered to me—about the meaning of family, the power of hope, the isolation of perseverance. I’ve held two previous careers, one in mental health and one in education, but it was when I had my first child that I made the decision to stay home with him and write professionally.
As for Jewish-themed fiction, it was a combination of things. I wanted to give something back to the Jewish community that had given me so much. I wanted to demystify contemporary American Judaism, especially for the non-Jewish reader, so I suppose one could say I wanted to teach as well as entertain. And, quite honestly, these were the characters that showed up in my head and demanded that their story be told.
2) You’ve written two novels, ‘Destined to Choose’ and ‘Strength to Stand’, both of which made it through to the National Indie Excellence Award finals, which is pretty unusual for a first-time novelist. Why do you think the books received so much positive critical acclaim?
They’re a little unique. They’re a bit like Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small series (Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, etc.), but whereas Kemelman wrote traditional murder mysteries that have a puzzle to figure out, mine are suspense, with a ticking clock of one form or another.
They’re also a little like Faye Kellerman’s Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series, which is also heavy on the suspense, but mine reflect Conservative Judaism and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Reform Judaism, whereas hers feature Orthodox Jews. Many readers have told me they learned things they didn’t know, things they were able to use with Jewish coworkers and friends, including words they learned in the glossary I included in both books.
My books also have subplots that draw upon difficult themes: mental health issues, parenting challenges, the role of the non-rabbinical spouse, and the toll that being in the clergy takes on an entire family. I’ve received feedback from children of both Jewish and Christian clergy, telling me that not only did they identify with the depiction of my protagonist’s family, but it got them thinking for the first time how hard it must have been for their parents.
3) Who is David Cohen based on? (and also please tell the readers a little more about him, if they haven’t read your books!)
David really isn’t based on anyone. Or more precisely, he’s who I might have been if I’d been a rabbi. And male. And tall. He literally showed up in my writing when I was in undergraduate school, walking this balance between honoring halacha and history, but also the unique problems and personalities that show up in his life, including a teenage runaway and an increasingly violent, anonymous stalker targeting one of his female colleagues.
David has a background in psychology, just shy of a doctorate when he enrolled in rabbinical school. He uses his training from both areas to help those whom he can. He’s the son of a Shoah survivor, a kohen, married, with three kids. Unlike the stereotypical male, he feels deeply and might be a bit codependent. His social circle, to the extent that he has one, is comprised mostly of other rabbis, and one secular, Israeli-born Minneapolis cop.
4) Who is reading your books, and what sort of reaction have you had from readers?
To my surprise, I’ve heard from both Jewish and Christian readers. Destined to Choose was chosen (heh) as required reading material for a comparative religions course at a Midwest university. Both have been popular in book clubs, at synagogues and churches.
Jewish readers tell me that they appreciate the accessibility of the book to all education levels, without “dumbing down” the content. Lutheran readers have gone back to their pastors to inquire about the Theology of Recognition and its impact on Lutheran-Jewish relations.
And these books aren’t for everyone. Destined to Choose is more like literary suspense. It was first released in 2003, when I was aiming more for “scholarly fiction” for the Jewish community. I’ve grown and changed since then. But someone expecting a traditional mystery or edge-of-your-seat suspense won’t find it in that first book. It’s full of philosophy and theology and is really a thinking book. It’s not fluff, although there are light parts.
Strength to Stand is a thriller, and not everyone likes that either. Someone looking for a light, fun read, Janet Evanovich style, is not going to find that in these books.
5) What are the main message, or messages, you wanted to put across to your readers?
Jews (and rabbis) are people like everyone else. Judaism isn’t something one does. It’s not like, “Okay, now I’m going to go do Jewish, and then I’ll come back and do the rest of my life.” It’s holism in action. There’s no one “right” way to be Jewish. And the issues that challenge America challenge the Jewish community too: mental illness, intolerance, hate, honoring history while living in the present, domestic violence, financial insufficiency, bullying, parenting, work-life balance, self-care.
6) On your blog, you write a lot about the need for a greater acceptance of the other, particularly in the Jewish world. How do you try to do this in your own life? Why is this such an important theme for you?
We each see the world through the lens of our own experience, and when that experience doesn’t include much education about how those different from us live, it breeds distrust and fear. That is, in my opinion, a profound contributor to our tendency as a society to lash out, to attack and belittle, rather than to approach with compassion and a desire to understand a different perspective. When we dehumanize “the other,” whether that’s someone with a different religion, a different skin color, a different socio-economic status, a different brain chemistry, we lose a little part of our humanity.
For reasons that I’m not entirely sure of, ever since I was very young—at least three—I’ve always thought about how my actions and words affect someone else. Maybe it’s because I was extremely sensitive to how others’ words and actions affected me. Most recently, I wrote a short piece asking that even as many of us are celebrating Father’s Day, that we take a moment to acknowledge those for whom this is a day of pain. For those whose relationships with their fathers were difficult, or for those whose fathers have died. Despite all of our connections through social media, we’re extremely disconnected, so busy with our own lives that we forget that we’re part of a community.
7)Tell me a little bit about ‘Sheyna Galyan, the Jewish housewife’ - how do you spend your time, how do you connect to Judaism, How does God come into / affect your creative picture etc?
I try to write every day except Shabbat. I’m not an outliner—I don’t outline my stories. I sit down in front of a blank screen and trust that what needs to be written will show up. I’m home when my kids (now teens) get home from school, and I take time to connect with them.
I’ve been blessed with kids who like to share with me, who talk to me about both the good and the bad, the things that made them happy and the things that made them cry. I used to be neurotic about housework, but now I figure, guests are coming to see my family and me, not my house.
I meditate daily, and I find that a form of mindfulness meditation with a Jewish twist helps me stay centered and grounded. I imagine the inhalation/exhalation of my breath, the giving and receiving in daily life as the balance and harmony of tiferet. I’m learning Mussar, which dovetails nicely with the meditation. I’m learning to trust—that I will have or God will provide—what I most need in any given moment.
It’s hard to really point to things that I do because it’s not in specific Jewish rituals that I most express my Jewishness. It’s in how I treat others, the topics I write and talk about, in the subjects I choose to learn, in how I sometimes think in Hebrew before I think in English, in how I can make connections between just about anything and Jewish thought and tradition.
8) What 'secret of a Jewish housewife' are you willing to share?
When I took on keeping a fully kosher home in my early twenties, as a newly married woman living in a new state, I threw myself into it 110%. And I learned some really important lessons. First, stressing about whether or not I’d be struck down from the heavens if a piece of lint from my dairy dishcloth might somehow touch a piece of lint from my meat dishcloth in the mechanism of the dryer was not helping anyone, least of all me.
Second, if I was putting so much energy into preparing for Shabbat that I was too exhausted to enjoy it and slept through shul the next morning, I wasn’t really doing anyone any favors. And third, trying to bake challah, cook chicken, and make tcholent—all for the first time on the same day while overly fatigued—can sometimes result in an early-morning wakeup call from the local fire department when the tcholent, burnt beyond recognition, ignited a fire in my oven.
Thankfully, I learned balance.
9) What’s your next project?
I’m working on the third book in the Rabbi David Cohen series, titled No One to Fear. I’m also playing with a new paranormal suspense series, a Jewish-but-not-religious brother and sister as protagonists. He’s a police cadet. She’s been in and out of mental hospitals because she hears a disembodied voice that tells her what to do. He has resigned himself to caring for his sister, possibly for the rest of her life, until the source of his sister’s disembodied voice shows up to help him solve a case.
10) Where can readers learn more about you and your books?
You can read excerpts from both books, find out more about writing in general and my books specifically, and learn where to stalk me on the internet at my website: sheynagalyan.com.
Fellow-blogger Myrtle Rising reviews 'The Princess of Dan', by Nechama Sarah Gila Nadborny Burgeman
Even though I drifted off novels (yes, including frum ones) a while ago, a friend handed me a frum novel with a non-fiction twist that offered quite a lot of information from solid Torah sources on the Tribe of Dan.
So I read The Princess of Dan and here’s what I think:
First of all, the non-fiction element woven throughout the book is brilliant.
I learned so much about the deeper qualities of the Tribe of Dan and it was also so inspiring. Though the concepts are profound, the author manages to present them in a highly readable and clear manner.
For example, she described dysfunctional people as “expressing the unconscious, unrectified parts of their character”—what a wonderful way of viewing dysfunctional behavior!
It’s an inspiring viewpoint because it’s the Truth. The author goes on to emphasize that this heightened understanding goes hand-in-hand with protecting oneself from abuse.
When the book first started discussing male-female relationships, I braced myself for a pretentious sermon based on Seventies feminism and prepared to put the book down.
Refreshingly, the author actually utilized Torah sources to discuss authentic masculinity and authentic femininity, once again bequeathing the reader with genuine insight and inspiration. And once again, I learned a lot.
The final and most powerful realization for me was that of the Tribes, their qualities, and how today’s Jews drift toward their ancestral portion—meaning that those unknowingly descended from Dan drift toward the areas encompassed by Dan’s Tribal boundaries, and so on. Also, the author mentions actually feeling the difference when crossing over from Dan territory to Yehudah territory.
I think it also sheds a lot of light on what’s going on among a minority of Jewish communities in Eretz Yisrael. While you have large, vibrant Orthodox communities all over the country, those in the areas of Dan (and also Binyamin, for that matter) contain an element that sometimes lashes out. “Dan” means “judging” or “deliberating” and the book explains that Dan’s strength is from the liver (spiritually speaking) and the liver is associated with anger. Ideally, Dan’s contribution to the Jewish people is rectified anger. The book details how Dan’s qualities can be used for the good.
But if you look at the current populations within Eretz Yisrael today with an understanding of how each Tribal territory influences its population or is expressed by those with an ancient soul-connection to that specific Tribal portion, you gain sudden clarity on some of what is going in Eretz Yisrael among the Jewish population today.
Regarding the fiction element:
The author combines 2 genres: literary and experimental.
(“Experimental” isn’t quite science-fiction, nor does it totally fit the fantasy genre.)
Neither has ever been my personal taste, so it’s hard for me to judge the fiction element objectively.
Basically, the book’s innovative experimental style combines the story of a young Jewish woman named Sarah trying to find her real self in the Seventies with the story of a young woman named Danya, who lives in the future of the Third Temple. If I understand it properly, Danya is the future incarnation of Sarah. Pretty cool, eh?
I must say that it was very intriguing to read about what Jewish society might be like in the future with a Rebuilt Yerushalayim.
Also, while I found myself getting drawn into the characters and their stories and experiences, the fiction element was never as compelling for me as the brilliantly researched and rendered non-fiction element.
Happily, the author compiled the vast majority of the non-fiction element into its own chapter at the end of the book, making it easier to re-read my favorite parts.
All in all, I gained a tremendous amount from reading this book and passionately recommend it.
(Note: Upon completing this book, I discovered that the author published an earlier book describing the qualities of and insights into all the Tribes. Based on The Princess of Dan, I’m eager to get a hold of The Twelve Dimensions of Israel by the same author.)
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