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.
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