Interviewing a Writer – Ke Payne

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British author Ke Payne has kindly agreed to answer some questions for this blog.

Ke Payne, can you introduce yourself in a few words/lines?

I’m a British YA lesbian author with Bold Strokes Books. I was born and grew up in Bath, in South West England, but now I live in chaotic bliss in the Cotswolds with my partner, one scruffy Jack Russell terrier and two not-so-scruffy guinea pigs.

As a child and teenager what were the books that made an impression on you?

I remember reading Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol at school, and it making quite an impression on me. While I had a sneaky feeling that I wouldn’t be visited by ghosts clad in clanking chains in the night if I was mean to someone, I was certainly struck by how important it is to treat everyone equally and with kindness. A book suggesting that one person can be shown the error of his ways, make him stop and think about which way his life is heading, then have a rethink and emerge a better person is as important today as when it was written 160 years ago.

Who are your favorite authors today and do you think their writings influence your own?

I’m a fan of Kate Morton, and love both the intricacies and Englishness of her novels. I like that her stories sway from the past to the present and back again, so that you can see how everything that happened in a character’s past influences everything about their present and, possibly, their future.

I wouldn’t say her writing influences me though. I’d love to be able to write something as complex as she does, but I can’t ever see that happening!

Who are your favorite lesbian authors?

Sarah Waters is a firm favourite. Her descriptions of London – whether Victorian or Second World War – are so evocative I can almost imagine the smog and noise. I love the way she weaves a story, with its various twists and turns too. Even though I’ve read Fingersmith lots of times, I still really enjoy the twist in it.

I also love a good Gerri Hill novel which, on a long summer afternoon lazing in the garden, can be hard to put down.

How many books have you written so far?

I’ve been lucky enough to have four novels published so far with Bold Strokes Books: 365 Days, me@you.com, Another 365 Days and The Road to Her. I’ve just had my fifth, Because of Her, accepted too. That’s scheduled for some time in 2014, I believe.

Why do you write YA fiction?

I write YA because I can remember just how much a book written specifically for a teenager/young person affected me at that age, both positively and sometimes negatively. After I wrote 365 Days, I had lots of emails and letters from teenage readers telling me just how true to life it was, and how much it had helped them personally. I also got lots of correspondence from people in their twenties, thirties and forties telling me they wished they’d been able to read a book like it when they were a teenager and going through the same anxieties that Clemmie, the main character, was going through. As a writer, it’s immensely gratifying to know that something you’ve written might have helped someone, in whatever small way, realise that they’re not alone, and that there are others out there sharing the same worries and confusion.

What other YA authors do you enjoy reading?

Michael Morpurgo who wrote, amongst others, War Horse. I think it’s important not to patronise YA readers and not to write more simply just because your target audience happens to be teenagers and young adults. Michael Morpurgo does that perfectly.

What inspired you to write your first novel?

About five years ago I found an old diary of mine on a visit home. It was one from when I was struggling to work out who I was, and every day’s entry was more anxiety-ridden than the last. Even though it made me a bit sad reading it, remembering a time when I was confused about my sexuality and in love with a girl at school who didn’t even know I existed, it still made me laugh as I’d peppered it with humour as, presumably, that was the only way I could cope with things back then.

After reading my diary I knew I wanted to write something that showed that, although being a teenager can be fraught with angst and unrequited love, it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom, and that it’s important to find the funny in the most unfunny of situations. 365 Days was borne out of that, written as a diary, about a girl who, to all intents and purposes, is probably me…

Would you say that you write lesbian fiction or novels where lesbians are the main characters?

That’s a tricky question. I classify lesbian fiction as being fiction written exclusively for lesbians, so I would say I write novels where lesbians are the main characters. The plot should be more than just the fact they are lesbians – the fact that they are is secondary (and a bonus!) The main point is that each character is just trying to go about their lives, but inevitably a girl catches their eye and confuses things.

Did you know right from the start that you wanted to write this kind of novel?

No. I started life as a short story writer for UK women’s magazines but when a friend leant me some Gerri Hill books, I immediately realised that I wanted to write the kind of books that I would rather read myself.

I still write short stories (under a pseudonym) as they help pay the bills, but it’s writing YA novels that I enjoy the most.

Does it make a difference to be a British and/or a European author?

Definitely. 365 Days and its sequel, Another 365 Days are as British as afternoon tea and biscuits. My humour, too, is very British, and not everyone gets it. As I’m published by a US publisher, they do sometimes ask me to write things that are more universally understood, especially when it comes to brand names which could be exclusively British. Of course, I’m always more than happy to do that. However, I do still read comments from reviewers who complain that they can’t understand my English “slang”, and that, for them, it ruins the book.

Whilst that’s disappointing, it’s still slightly better than the comments I receive complaining about my “English mistakes”, when what they mean is “non-American English”. I guess you can’t please all the people all the time, can you?

How did you conceive the plot for The Road to Her?

My favourite British soap recently had a lesbian storyline, which was a first for that particular soap. It got me thinking: how would the two actresses playing these characters react if their on-screen chemistry spilled over into real life?

So I wrote The Road to Her, where my two main characters are well-known soap actresses who fall in love on screen, only to start to fall for each other off screen too. I wanted to know what they would do. Would they just see it as blurring fiction with real life, and ignore it, or would they act on those feelings? Maybe their careers would be more important to them? Or maybe they’re both just confused. So many questions needing so many answers…

Do you draw your inspiration for your main characters from real life? Or do you totally invent them?

They’re mostly figments of my imagination. However, there is a lovely character in me@you.com called Joey who might just be a little bit like my partner.

Do you have a favourite character? Which one and why?

I’ll always be very fond of Clemmie Atkins from 365 Days and Another 365 Days, possibly because she was my first ever character but more probably because she’s a total klutz and I love her for it.

Are you currently working on a new book? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

As I mentioned earlier, I recently found out that I’ve had another novel accepted for publication in 2014, so I’m really excited about that. It’s called Because of Her and features a main character called Tabby Morton whose life is turned upside down when she has to move to London when her father is headhunted by a major finance company. She’s enrolled in an exclusive school in the hope that it’ll finally make a lady of her, but she hates it. It’s only when the kind and lovely Eden Palmer walks into her classroom one day and catches her eye, that Tabby begins to think that life in London’s not so bad after all.

I’m also currently halfway through writing a sixth novel, provisionally titled Once The Clouds Have Gone, about a girl who has to return home after many years when father dies and she inherits his business. It’s another YA romance, so of course there’s a stunning girl waiting in the wings to stir things up a bit…

Thank you Ke for your availability and your time!

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Interviewing a Writer – Cari Hunter

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Cari Hunter, author of Snowbound, has kindly agreed to answer some questions for this blog.

Cari Hunter, can you introduce yourself in a few words/lines?

I live near Manchester in north-west England with my partner and two cats. I’ve been a paramedic for eleven years and, more recently, an author with Bold Strokes Books. I like hiking, baking, running, writing, catching up on sleep, and frogs – though not necessarily in that order and certainly not at the same time.

As a child and teenager what were the books that made an impression on you?

Growing up, I read voraciously. Sending me to my room as a punishment never worked, as that was where all my books were. Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword shaped a lot of my summer holiday playtime, then later I developed a big crush on Nancy Drew. And if anyone knows the twist at the end of The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler you’ll understand why that was another one of my favourites.

Who are your favorite authors today and do you think their writings influence your own?

I’m a fan of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, the first three of which are my regular comfort rereads. More recently, I’ve raced my way through all of Karin Slaughter’s novels. Occasionally her plots are a little shaky, but her character development and story arcs just keep you coming back. She’s also very funny, which is unexpected given the gruesome nature of her themes. Last year, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein stopped me in my tracks and then broke my heart. It’s a long time since a book has done that to me and I’ll recommend it to anyone and everyone till I’m blue in the face. I’m not sure about these authors influencing me, but I’d love to be half as good as them.

Who are your favorite lesbian authors?

I’ve only recently got back into reading ‘LesFic’ – the local lesbian book shop closed its doors a few years ago and I fell out of the habit of keeping up with new releases. Sarah Dreher was my first LesFic experience and remains one of my favourite authors. I love her snappy dialogue, her sense of humour and her supporting characters. There’s a real nostalgia to picking up her books these days, which also adds to their charm.

How many books have you written so far? Have you written anything else?

I’ve had two novels published with BSB – Snowbound and Desolation Point – and my third, Tumbledown, is due out in 2014. I’m currently working on a new story; it’s not contracted at the moment, but I live in hope.

I wrote a whole series of fan fiction for the Terminator TV show (Sarah Connor and I have a long-abiding love affair) plus some shorter pieces for Rizzoli & Isles, which is a crappy show but very fun to fic. I haven’t written any fanfic for a while, but it makes for a nice change of pace so I’ll almost certainly get back to it at some point.

What inspired you to write your first novel?

It’s more “who” than “what”: my partner. She wanted a story for Christmas, so I set about writing Snowbound for her. I never imagined it would turn out to be a novel; it was certainly never conceived as such, which explains its rather unconventional structure. Unfortunately for my partner, once I got the writing bug I went off on a tangent and ended up writing a couple of novels’ worth of Sarah Connor fic while she waited for her Christmas present. I did buy her something in the meantime though – I’m not a total cheapskate.

Would you say that you write lesbian fiction or novels where lesbians are the main characters?

I would say I write lesbian fiction. There are tropes and conventions in the genre that I think Snowbound and Desolation Point make use of. Even though Snowbound wasn’t written for publication, I knew of BSB and LesFic in general and I’d read a lot of online fic, so their influence was there in the background.

Did you know right from the start that you wanted to write this kind of novel?

With Snowbound, I knew what kind of story I wanted to write, but I genuinely wrote it for an audience of one, hence setting it close to home (no research necessary!) and focussing on a medical scenario (not much research necessary). It was only after BSB contracted it that I thought, “Bugger, better go and check some of this stuff out.”

Does it make a difference to be a British and/or a European author?

It definitely makes a difference. Snowbound wears its Englishness on its sleeve. It’s set just down the road from me and it’s chockfull of northern colloquialisms, cups of tea and local foodstuffs. Its police are armed with nothing but batons and a sense of humour, and the plot revolves around that good old-fashioned British obsession: a spell of terrible weather. When I sent it to an American publisher, I was sure it would be rejected for being too damn English, but they wanted it and they kept it exactly as it was, and I love them very much for that.

Desolation Point is a different kettle of fish in that it takes place in the USA, but I knew I wanted to play with the UK/US cultural divide and I had already chosen a mixed pairing for my central characters. While Alex is from Boston, Sarah’s from up here near Manchester, so I could still write a story where someone got to say “bloody hell-fire” and “bollocks”, which suits me just fine.

How did you conceive the plot for Desolation Point?

To be honest, I pinched its main premise from one of my own fics. In my fic, someone runs the lead characters off the road and then spends the night hunting them down. At its most basic level, Desolation Point grew out of that. I had the initial parallel scenes – Alex’s assault and Sarah’s car crash – buzzing around in my head when I was finishing the edits on Snowbound, so I had a good idea of what was going to shape the characters. At first I thought about having a flood trap Sarah and Alex in the park, but I couldn’t make that work, so I sent Sarah up a mountain instead, set the storm against her and then had her stumbling across the main villain, which established the chase element. I had the main beats of the plot sketched out from the beginning, but I’m useless at sticking to a plan, so things remained very fluid throughout.

Did you draw your inspiration for the main characters in Desolation Point from real life? Or did you totally invent them?

I invented them from scratch, but there are odds and sods in the dialogue or descriptions that have come from walks my partner and I have done. We play the “I love my love with an A…” game when we’re knackered and trying to get back home. Sarah talks a lot like me and I too have to drink my tea while it’s hot enough to burn my throat, but otherwise she’s her own character.

In both Snowbound and Desolation Point the setting seems to be an integral part of the story. Could they have been set in another environment? Why did you choose the US as the setting for your second novel?

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I regularly walk in the Peak District, which meant I could describe it with confidence in Snowbound. Also, I doubt there are many LesFics set there, so the story has the advantage of novelty in its location as well as in its vernacular dialogue and general Englishness. It was staunchly northern English as well – I’m a proud northerner – and setting it elsewhere would necessarily have diminished that, which would have been a shame.

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I have no personal attachment to the North Cascades but, having spent a year working on Desolation Point, I couldn’t envision that being relocated either. The title would have to be changed, for a start, and I’m rubbish with titles. I’ve never been to that particular part of the States, but I did so much research trying to get everything right that I think I could find my way up Desolation Peak blindfolded!

I agonised about Desolation Point’s location before starting it. I didn’t want people to assume I’d chosen America just to broaden my audience (BSB’s readership is primarily American); in fact, I wondered whether I was shooting myself in the foot by not sticking to the English setting from which a lot of Snowbound’s appeal stemmed. Ultimately, though, I needed a couple of things to make the plot in Desolation Point work: one of my lead characters had to be proficient with a gun, and the location had to be expansive enough to get my central pair well and truly lost. I considered the Scottish Highlands and the Peak and Lake Districts over here but they just weren’t remote enough, so I decided to move things across the pond. That also solved the gun problem – as an American ex-police officer, Alex would know her way around a firearm.

Some readers might be a bit put off by the violence displayed in both books. Why did you think it was necessary to include details and descriptions?

Both stories have involved some genuinely nasty characters and I really do believe that if you’re going to have violence in your plot then it should hurt and it should have consequences. I suspect a lot of that stems from my day job, where I see the effects of brutality and trauma on an all-too regular basis. I’ve always tried to write realistically; the women in my novels are not super-humans, just normal people who get caught up in horrific circumstances, and they do things to survive that they’d never imagined themselves doing. If they get hurt, it takes them a while to get up again; and – because I don’t want to write cartoonish, toothless villains either – they do tend to get hurt. I never want to make the violence gratuitous, but nor do I want to shy away from the details or the after-effects. I hate books where a character gets assaulted in one scene and shows no sign of it in the next; anyone who writes like that has never sat opposite an assault victim and listened to them cry or tried to stop them bleeding.

I hope there’s enough humour and lighter moments scattered through the books to counteract their more brutal aspects, though I appreciate that the violence may be too strong for some people’s taste.

Between Snowbound and Desolation Point do you have a favourite character? Which one and why?

Oh, that’s a difficult one! I do have a bit of a soft spot for Sarah. She comes into her own in the latter stages of Desolation Point and she was a real darling to write. Having said that, most of the fun came from having her bounce off Alex, so they sort of come in a pair. Can I have them both? I’m having them both.

How has Desolation Point been welcomed so far?

So far, so good. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback and a fair few people telling me they’re looking forward to the sequel, which is a relief! It’s still early days and I know it’s inevitable that there are folks who won’t like it, possibly for some of the reasons I’ve already mentioned, but the majority of people I’ve heard from seem to have enjoyed the heck out of it.

Are you currently working on a new book? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

I finished Tumbledown, the follow-up to Desolation Point, in the year between Snowbound and Desolation Point’s publication dates. It’s my first shot at an all-out twisty thriller and is earmarked for release in 2014. Until the edits for that come back, I’m working on a new story set in England (in the Peak District, again) which is a sort of thriller-mystery in which the two main characters are long-time friends and occasional lovers. I thought it’d be interesting to explore an established friendship rather than the stereotypical two strangers falling rapidly in love. At the moment, its working title (courtesy of my partner) is Aye Up: It’s a New Story! and I have no idea whether it’ll ever reach publication. I’ve got about another 60,000 words before I start worrying about that!

Thank you Cari for your availability and your time!

NB: Both novels have e-book Kindle editions

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Interviewing a Writer – Clare Ashton

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I had never heard about Clare Ashton until I read the following review of her novel After Mrs Hamilton at C-Spot Reviews. I added the book to my Amazon wishlist and downloaded it to my iPad a few weeks later. I was hooked right from the beginning and couldn’t put it down.

Because I had really enjoyed it, I thought I’d contact Clare Ashton about an interview for my blog. She accepted immediately and emailed her answers back within a couple of days. She was also most patient with me when I asked further questions. I hope you will enjoy the interview and that it will encourage you to read her books.

Clare Ashton, can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I’m a UK writer who writes stories with suspense, romance, intrigue and humour and an awful lot of lesbians. I also add (not always intentionally) a dash of something darker that can make readers feel uncomfortable. I grew up in mid-Wales where sheep outnumber humans, so a significant countryside setting is never far away in my writing.

As a child and teenager what were the books that made an impression on you?

I read very widely as a kid from The Hobbit and Lord of Rings, Dune and other sci-fi to (later in my teens) Jane Austen classics and Anna Karenina. I think I had a higher standard of reading back then than I do now! Nothing better than curling up with a good trashy romance these days. I also stole books from my parents’ bookshelves by Tennessee Williams (The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone) and Françoise Sagan (Bonjour Tristesse) – wonderfully different tales of love that have stayed with me over the years.

Who are your favorite authors today and do you think their writings influence your own?

As an adult, I think the books that made their greatest impression were The Secret History (Donna Tartt), Fingersmith (Sarah Waters), The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood) and the Tales of the City series (Armistead Maupin) – all books with a great twisting story and that has definitely influenced the kind of story I like to write.

I always seem to add a surprise or two and sometimes have a little bit of an edge and darkness too. On the other hand I still re-read Jane Austen. A review of After Mrs Hamilton has some very un-Austen like elements), I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

Who are your favorite lesbian authors?

Sarah Waters must come top. I usually find books that revel in their descriptive passages a bore, but she just does it sublimely and her writing makes me drool. She also has real, vivid and compelling characters and my favourite novels of hers have a brilliant twisting tale too. It’s wonderful that someone of her calibre writes lesbian novels.

I’m a sucker for a good romance too. And of the books I’ve read recently Chris Paynter’s Survived by Her Longtime Companion definitely had that kick to the gut, choke-you-up element in the Eleanor and Daphne storyline. I also love Diana Simmonds’ light romances written in her expert and witty style. She makes writing look like it’s the easiest thing in the world.

Is After Mrs Hamilton your first novel?

It’s the first novel for which I completed a first draft. It’s a complex tale and that draft had several problems with it that I didn’t know how to fix back then.

I moved on to a shorter tale (Pennance) to improve my writing skills. Pennance has a much simpler plot although still with a twist and turn. It’s more dominated by the atmosphere of its wintery setting in Cornwall and it’s been described as a modern gothic romance.

After I’d published Pennance I went back to rewrite After Mrs Hamilton. I was also very lucky to work with an editor (Diana Simmonds) and that was crucial for me sorting out that early draft and making it the story that I always wanted it to be.

What inspired you to write your first book?

After Mrs Hamilton was the kind of book that I wanted to read: a page-tuner, with twists and turns, fascinating lesbian characters and a great dollop of romance and sex. All tastefully done of course!

Would you say that you write lesbian fiction or novels where lesbians are the main characters?

After Mrs Hamilton is unapologetically a lesbian book, just by the sheer number of lesbian characters in there. Pennance I think is more a mainstream book, set in a remote rural setting with a broad range of heterosexual as well as lesbian characters.

Did you know right from the start that you wanted to write this sort of novels?

No, I didn’t. It’s only been recently that someone told me that I was writing intrigue-romances. I only set out to write an interesting story.

Does it make a difference to be a British and/or a European author?

I love the fantastic differences in regional flavour that you get between continents and indeed between regions in a country. One thing I think UK writers are particularly good at is literary works which appeal to the mainstream and have lesbian main characters (novels by Sarah Waters, Jeannette Winterson, Charlotte Mendelson, etc.).

It’s a pity that there is less lesbian genre publishing in the UK though. Most lesbian writers that I know of tend to be published by US publishers, and although I love their work (Cari Hunter’s excellent and gripping – Snowbound for example), I wonder if there would be more esoteric works available if there were more lesbian publishers here. It’s great to see other indie writers doing well in the UK, such as Kiki Archer and Rachel Dax, and I hope that indie writers extend the range of work available.

(I edit the uklesfic blog with Cari Hunter and you can find a list of all current UK lesbian authors here)

How did you conceive the plot for After Mrs Hamilton?

It started with a character, Clo, who works as a highly paid and sympathetic escort for older women. She was a character who had been kicking around my head for a while, and I’m very fond of her, and I wanted to give her the greatest romance and love.

She had an interesting background, but then I weaved in her best friend Laura’s background too. Laura was adopted and doesn’t know who her parents are and she is also on the cusp of a life-changing relationship. Combining those really made the story very interesting. It evolved from there over several weeks of outlining and living through scenes in my imagination – my favourite part of writing (daydreaming I suppose!)

Did you draw your inspiration for the main characters (i.e.Clo, Fran, Susan) from real life? Or did you totally invent them?

Clo was initially based on a couple of people I know very well, but as with all characters, the more I outlined and wrote the more she changed into a distinct character with her own voice, mannerisms and personality, so much so that I hope the original inspirations do not recognise her.

Fran, a fantasy older love interest, was based on gorgeous French actresses like Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant with a bit of Kristin Scott-Thomas thrown in. But again, to me, she is unrecognisable now and is just Fran

Do you have a favourite character in this novel? Which one?

One of Clo or Fran. They are both real, damaged, attractive and fascinating. I love those two and they have the most deeply romantic history and relationship (albeit a little unconventional).

How has the novel been welcomed so far?

People have really liked the twisting tale, and like me, have found the complex characters of Clo and Fran intriguing. Some loved Fran, as an attractive but real older (mid-fifties) heroine, others liked the damaged, quirky and loving Clo.

Readers have also found the tale of Laura very thought-provoking and made them react very emotionally to her and Susan. After Mrs Hamilton is a very charged tale. It’s a collision of several people who didn’t know they were previously connected and the outcome is emotionally explosive and dramatic.

Most importantly someone said it was just “a bloody good read”. So I’m pretty pleased with that!

I noticed that food is mentioned in both novels and plays an important role in the bonding process between the characters. Is this how you see food?

Yes, I do see food, its preparation and eating together as important for bonding in various social situations. In the books I meant it to reflect the low emotional state of the characters when they eat poorly and then to show the support and love that is introduced into their lives by the character preparing the more nourishing food. Clo in After Mrs Hamilton is a giving and loving character and her expertise with patisserie and other cuisine reflects this. Her ability to choose perfect food for people reflects her versatility as an escort – she satisfies people’s very basic needs in a rich way.

Are you currently working on a new book? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

When I was writing After Mrs Hamilton, I kept having ideas for short stories, which was very distracting. There are a couple of those ideas that are still demanding to be written. No doubt I’ll start having ideas for novels as soon as I try to write them!

Thank you Clare for your availability and your time.

NB: Both novels have Kindle editions

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Interviewing a Rabbi – Part 3

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Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Netivot Shalom readily agreed to participate in this short series of interviews. Thank you Rabbi for your availibility and your time.

Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

My name is Menachem Creditor, and I’ve been a rabbi for almost 10 years. I currently serve as the Rabbi at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California, and also lead an effort called Bay Area Masorti. I blog at menachemcreditor.org, and write music and poetry.

Can you tell us about your congregation and/or job?

My congregation is an amazing place, full of ritual participation and creative energy. Netivot Shalom was founded 22 years ago by a group of Jews interested in serious adult learning and davening, and has grown into a community of 415 households, including many intermarried families, multi-generation families, single people, and many of the founders. My job is to be the public face of our community, as well as nurture the caring (chesed) committees, so that we can be there for each other in happy and sad times.

What is your religious background (if any)? Is there a rabbinical tradition in your family?

I grew up in a religious home, with Shabbat and singing, learning and teaching. My mother is a powerful Jewish educator and my father is a rabbi.

When and why did you decide to become a rabbi?

I knew for 20 years that I did NOT want to be a rabbi. This was, I believe, mostly my way of differentiating myself from my father. When the Jewish a cappella group Pizmon, from List College, visited my shul for a Shabbat during my high school years, something woke up inside of me, allowing me to dream of being the kind of rabbi I was inside, which resembles but is not the same as the (wonderful) rabbi my father is. I sang my heart out that Shabbat, and haven’t stopped since. Once that was unleashed, many moments conspired to bring me to this moment. I’ve never looked back once.

Where did you study? Any particular reason you chose this rabbinical school?

I attended the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. I chose this school because it was (and remains) the heart of a Jewish vision that combines incredible intellectual rigor and a long, rich history of Jewish yearning. There are many other places to grow Jewishly, to learn to be a religious leader, but JTS brought me to a place of clarity and historical appreciation, to a level of textual fluency and spiritual awareness I don’t believe I’d have discovered anywhere else.

Is being a rabbi very different from what you expected?

Being a rabbi is different, on a daily basis, from anything I could even expect today. Yes, I had an inkling of the world of a rabbi. But every day is something brand new, and unpredictable. Perhaps the one thing I simply could not have understood before being a rabbi is the grandeur of being trusted with people’s life-stories, being an emulsifier of the Divine in the world. I could have used those words, but the experience defies communicating.

What do you like best about your job?

I am humbled to be trusted. The ways in which relationships unfold within community are all based on being worthy of trust. When I remember that all people expect me to be is myself, then the relationships can be maintained and deepened.

What do you like least about it?

I like least that there is only one of me. I wouldn’t change a thing about my job, but will never place it above my family. More of me would, I hope, accomplish more sacred work.

What sort of misconceptions do people have about your job?

People think that I am sad when they share their hard moments with me, that I feel put upon to visit them in the hospital or conduct a loved one’s funeral. I am largely inspired by these experiences and the gift of simply being present.


Do you have some sort of contact with rabbis from other Jewish denominations or other religious leaders? Why or why not?

Yes! My Reform, Orthodox, Renewal, and Reconstructionist colleagues and I meet all the time. Sometimes at communal events, sometimes at shul, sometimes socially. So too do I meet with other religious leaders. Why do I? Because I love them. Because we need each other. Because I believe that the only way to experience God is by encountering another of God’s “masks”, human beings who shine with the Divine Image.

What are your plans for the future concerning your job and/or congregation?

My congregation is growing faster than anyone could have predicted, from 280 households four years ago, to 415 (and counting) today. My job will need to shift, and the staff will need to grow. But this is the “simpler” part of future-planning. The hardest part of my “job” and the congregation’s future is the work of evolving culture and sacred memory. Those founders of the shul who remain active have devoted their souls to the birth of a community that is reaching adolescence. That’s never easy. My role is to allow the adolescent to continue self-differentiating, to make manifest the love this precious evolving community contains as it continues to become itself, and to help the founders of the community feel their hearts connected to a naturally shifting organism. All of this is purposeful. All of this is worthy. And it is a sacred task that will require more skills tomorrow than I possess today. I will do my best to grow with the holy burden, and will look to my community to learn with me how to guide our shul well.

Do you use the Internet in your job? How?

All the time. I blog, tweet, FB, and email incessantly. The world we live in calls anyone who thinks their message is worthwhile, or important, to engage in viral communication.

Interviewing a Rabbi – part 2

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Phyllis who blogs at ImaBima kindly agreed to take part in this new series where I interview rabbis. Thank you Phyllis for your great contribution.

Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

My name is Phyllis Sommer, I’m a mom of four kids and a Reform rabbi.

Can you tell us about your congregation and/or job?

I am the associate rabbi of a congregation of approximately 950 families in the north suburbs of Chicago.

What is your religious background (if any)? Is there a rabbinical tradition in your family?

I was raised in an active Reform Jewish family. We were very involved and
observant as a family. One of my maternal uncles is an Orthodox rabbi, but I
wouldn’t call that a family tradition.

When and why did you decide to become a rabbi?

My father is a teacher, and I always wanted to be a teacher…he spent a lot of
time trying to talk me out of it! So…I made a little end-run around the idea
and I spend much of my time teaching! I had a lot of incredible rabbinic role
models when I was at Jewish summer camp and in youth group, and I saw the path very clearly for me. At 16, I was voted “most likely to be a rabbi” amongst my summer camp peers, but it wasn’t until my first trip to Israel at age 19 that I solidified my decision.

Where did you study? Any particular reason you chose this rabbinical school?

I received my ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of
Religion. I never considered going anywhere else, since I’ve always been such an active part of the Reform movement. I chose to go to the Cincinnati campus primarily because I am so connected to the Midwest. In retrospect, Cincinnati was a great place to live and learn, but I would have loved to experience the “coastal” Judaism that I hear so much about…

Is being a rabbi very different from what you expected?

There are a lot more administrative details than I ever expected, but overall,
I’m living the dream!

What do you like best about your job?

I love being with people when they need me, at liminal moments in their lives. It is such an incredible honor to share important moments like births, deaths and other milestones.

What do you like least about it?

While I love leading others and sharing holidays and Shabbat with them, I do
wish that I could spend many quiet Shabbats with my family at home. (Oh, and I don’t like people who are mean…which sometimes they are.)

What sort of misconceptions do people have about your job?

The funniest is when people swear in front of me and then say something like, “oh, sorry, rabbi…” as though I have particularly sensitive ears because I am a clergy member.

Do you have some sort of contact with rabbis from other Jewish denominations or other religious leaders? Why or why not?

We have a local clergy association that consists of the faith leaders of all the
houses of worship in our small suburb (amazing how many there are in one small town!), and we have regular meetings. A few years ago, we did a “pulpit swap” and I spoke at Mass at the Catholic church. I am also a member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, which consists of rabbis of all denominations. This group takes an annual rabbinic mission and five years ago I traveled to Russia with a group of about 25 Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis. It was a great experience and gave me some wonderful connections with many rabbis all over Chicago. We’re so lucky here to have a great community of many rabbis.

What are your plans for the future concerning your job and/or congregation?

I am currently in my 8th year as the associate rabbi, and I’ve recently signed a five year extension.

Do you use the Internet in your job? How?

I love the Internet, and I am always looking for new ways to use it in my work. Much of my online life connects me to my colleagues and friends, and I feel like that has a great impact on the kind of rabbi that I am. It helps me to learn and to grow as a person and rabbi.

Interviewing a Rabbi

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Interviewing rabbis is not easy; we all know how busy they are so when Rabbi Josh Yuter agreed to take part in this new series and replied to my questions, I felt honored. I hope that you will all enjoy this interview as much as I did. Thank you Rabbi for your participation.

Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

My name is Josh Yuter and I have been the Rabbi of The Stanton St. Shul in New York’s historic Lower East Side since 2008. I’ve also worked professionally as a computer programmer primarily with web application development.

I’ve been blogging since 2003, now at www.JoshYuter.com, and I created and currently manage www.JewishGuitarChords.com archive. I have diverse interests, many of which I incorporate into a Jewish context, and I make horrible and often esoteric puns.

Can you tell us about your congregation and/or job?

The community of The Stanton St. Shul is one of the most diverse I have ever encountered, which is quite remarkable due to its relatively small size and being an Orthodox congregation.

Our membership ranges from recent college graduates to seniors who have spent most of their lives in the Lower East Side. We have members who have grown up observant and attended yeshivot and others with virtually no background and who might not be observant in their private lives. On a typical Shabbat you can find someone in a suit and tie sitting next to someone in jeans and a t-shirt, and no one is particularly bothered.

The motto of the synagogue is “all are welcome; all will feel welcome” and the true uniqueness of the community is its ability to live up to this standard.

What is your religious background (if any)? Is there a rabbinical tradition in your family? When and why did you decide to become a rabbi?

My father has been a pulpit Rabbi for most of my life, though I would not categorize him as a “typical” Orthodox affiliated rabbi. For the purposes of this interview I would best describe his approach as “academic” in that religious texts must be understood critically and their interpretations must fit within the rules the grammar and philology. Perhaps more controversial is the formalistic approach to Jewish law which often challenges the accepted status quo and encourages others to do the same.

Being raised in this environment, my initial interests in going to rabbinical school was not professional, but practical. Most of the subjects learned in rabbinical school such as kashrut, Shabbat, niddah, etc. are laws which are relevant to any observant Jew. My intent was to learn the primary sources with the guidance of experts and the accountability of examinations such that at the end of my program I’d feel confident that I’d either know the halakha or I’d be able to find the answer with relative ease.

Where did you study? Any particular reason you chose this rabbinical school? Is being a rabbi very different from what you expected?

For rabbinical school I studied at Yeshiva University, primarily because there were no other options at that time for a “modern orthodox” rabbinical school. YU’s main competition today is Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, but YCT only came into existence in my second year of rabbinical school and there was absolutely no reason to switch. Not only was YCT still in the process of figuring out its full curriculum, but in terms of complete rabbinic training, YU provided a better overall program for future rabbis.

The most significant and underutilized advantage of Yeshiva University is that it is in my opinion the most pluralistic institution of Orthodox Judaism in the world, defining “pluralistic” as the number of different ideologies and approaches to Judaism under one roof. I had the pleasure of studying Talmud in different styles – including “academic Talmud” in YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School for Judaic Studies and learning halakha from different perspectives. Even if I did not agree with an approach or a conclusion, being exposed to contradictory ideas is crucial for religious development. On a personal level I could be proven wrong in which case I’d correct a mistake or at the very least I’d have a better understanding as to why I would reject one idea over another. Furthermore, such exposure is crucial for anyone to be an effective Orthodox Rabbi since at some point, any Rabbi will have to confront people whose opinions and perspectives differ from his own, and the more one understands how another side operates, the better a rabbi can respond.

What do you like best about your job? / What do you like least about it?

Like any job, being a pulpit rabbi can alternate between the frustrating and the gratifying depending on the day. The most gratifying aspects about being a pulpit rabbi for me are times when I can engage with members Jewishly either through teaching classes or simply by being a part of their lives. Obviously this is much more pleasant in better times. I cannot imagine anyone enjoying grief counseling or officiating a funeral, even though to be the religious representative in such a time is less a responsibility than it is an honor.

What sort of misconceptions do people have about your job?

In terms of The Rabbinate in general, people often assume that my synagogue operates like theirs. Meaning, many people assume that the mutual relationship between a congregation and its rabbi are uniform when in truth every community is unique and what might be “normal” for some could be harmful elsewhere.

In my own shul I’ve worked hard to “lift the veil” so to speak about being a Rabbi, or at least how I operate. Part of this is that I think transparency is beneficial and hopefully will preempt misconceptions in the future.

Do you have some sort of contact with rabbis from other Jewish denominations or other religious leaders? Why or why not?

In 2000-2001 I participated in a fellowship program run by Clal which brought together rabbinical students from other denominations, though my exposure since then has been limited to individual colleagues. This is not so much an ideological decision but a practical one. Above all else, my primary focus is, and I think must be, the development of my own synagogue. Even with my Orthodox colleagues on the Lower East Side, we are all preoccupied with our synagogues that we do not have the time to dialogue regularly. However, I have found my local colleagues to be phenomenal professional resources, and I try to provide whatever assistance I can be to anyone regardless of their denomination.

Do you use the Internet in your job? How?

The internet has been instrumental for my synagogue. Given our limited resources, the internet has been the most efficient cost effective method to engage our membership. Between our email newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, we can readily communicate with our membership and our website allows us to reach out to others. The reality is that people, especially those under 35, use the internet as their primary source of information and we have had numerous people who have found our shul simply by searching Google. Getting people in the door is the hardest part, especially if people don’t know you exist.

What are your plans for the future concerning your job and/or congregation?

In terms of the future of the shul, my goal is to continue our sustained growth. As tempting as it can be to simply fill seats, without a sense of community people can leave just as easily. The biggest challenge I see myself facing is being able to reevaluate where we are in the present and to adjust accordingly. We’ve made extraordinary strides in the past two years to the point where it would not be a stretch to say we are a different shul entirely. While it’s a challenge to see the synagogue anew, all things considered, it’s a wonderful problem to have.

From Paris to Antwerp

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I recently interviewed a friend who was born and bred in France and has moved to the Jewish community of Antwerp. The interview was conducted in French and translated by the owner of this blog. Thanks to SuperRaizy for proofreading it.

– Can you introduce yourself briefly?
I am 32 years old, have been married for almost 3 years and have a one-year old daughter.

– Where do you live and why did you choose to live there?
We live in Antwerp, right in the heart of the Jewish district. Leaving Paris for Antwerp seemed quite obvious for two reasons. First, my then future wife had been living there for three years and I was dissatisfied with the level of observance in Paris. Besides, I could not imagine asking my wife to move to Paris where life is so different from anything she had known in either Antwerp or in Amsterdam where she had grown up.

– What do you like best about living in Antwerp?
When you go to Antwerp for the first time you are struck by a number of things. First, the omnipresence of Jewish life; here every day life and Jewish life are synonymous. There is no place for religion as a hobby. Being religious is as natural and as vital as breathing.
Another striking element is the convenience. Hechsherim (religious certifications) are serious and one needn’t question their validity. It is not necessary to check them out. You can buy practically all Kosher certified products.
In addition, there is a wide variety of Jewish communities. Almost all Jewish movements exist here, with a strong emphasis on Orthodoxy – from Modern Orthodox to the strictest of Chassidim.
Finally, Antwerp has a vibrant Jewish community. Unlike other communities in Europe (Paris or Amsterdam for instance), the trauma of the Second World War did not shake the foundations of the “edifice”. Here there is no memorial to a lost world; life is steeped in the present.
In my opinion the strongest proof of the everlasting quality of the Jewish people is to hear children speaking Yiddish as a mother tongue right here in Europe, as if nothing had happened 60 years ago.

– Do you identify yourself as a Chassid?
I studied at a yeshiva in Paris (Yeshivat Yad Mordechai) whose Rosh Yeshiva was a strict Litvak, so I was rather prejudiced against Chassidism. Yet even before I was married I decided to wear a lange rekel (a long coat) and since my daughter’s birth I have been wearing a shtreimel. Then I discovered traditional Chassidic writers and what this movement had meant for the Jews of Eastern Europe. My overall vision of life gradually evolved as I witnessed how Chassidim live their faith in a festive atmosphere, which is joyous without ever being “light”.

– What Chasidic group do you associate with?
Last December I officially became a Makhnovka Chassid. It is a tiny group that has members in Antwerp, New York, London and Bnei Brak where the present rebbe lives. It is an old dynasty which originated in the village of Makhnovka (the former Komsomolske) in Southern Ukraine. Progressively it established ties with other Chassidic groups, particularly Belz, to which the present rebbe is linked via his mother. We have shared the same minhagim as Belz for quite a while now.

– Why did you choose this particular group?
I had been attending the Makhnovka shul in Antwerp for two years when I decided to go and visit the rebbe. I had the time to see if their minhagim and their point of view were for me. The visit to the rebbe in December confirmed what I had been feeling for two years.
Becoming a rebbe-chassid implies accepting him as a guide in all the momentous decisions of one’s life. You consider him to be the person who is able, through his insights into the “secrets” of the Torah and his knowledge of the sacred texts to perceive more truths than the rest of us. At the birth of our next child, im yirtsa Hashem, we’ll ask for his advice on what to name the baby.

Haveil Haveilim and Weekly Interview Roundup

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This week’s edition of Haveil Havalim – the almost Elul edition – is up at Ima Bima. Thank you Phyllis for hosting my post. For those who may have missed an interview or two, here is a list of all the interviews who have appeared on this blog in the past 14 weeks. Thanks again to all who took part and to the people who took the time to comment so as to show their appreciation.

Treppenwitz, Shimshonit, Mimi, Mrs.S., Mother in Israel, Rabbi Barry Leff, QuietusLeo, Robin, William Kolbrener, Baila, Ruti, Tamar, Michael, Risa

Weekly Interview: Risa

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This series of interviews is drawing to a close and I am honored to end it with Risa who has lived in Israel for so long. Please read the moving posts she has selected from her blog. Thank you Risa for your wonderful contribution and your kindness in the emails we exchanged prior to this post.

Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I’m Risa, I was born in New York and have lived in Israel since 1967. I am married to David, we have six children and a whole bunch of grandchildren.

What is your religious background (if any)?

I grew up in a warm Jewish home and received a modern orthodox elementary school education. My family’s religious experience was a journey of learning and incorporating Tora and observance into a middle-class Jewish life.

When and why did you decide to make aliyah?

Almost as long as I can remember I knew I wanted to live in Israel. I guess children don’t like being different. I wanted to be somewhere where there were people like me and I thought a Jewish country would be just the thing for me. In high school I joined a Zionist youth movement (Betar) where I found other kids who identified with the idea. The Six Day War broke out just after I turned 18. I arrived in Israel the week after the war ended intending to stay for a year but that stretched into forever.

Where in Israel do you live and is there a special reason you live there?

I live in Rehovot which is a medium sized city south of Tel Aviv. Our main claim to fame is the Weizzmann Institute of Science. We’ve been here fourteen years. For twenty years before that we were members of a moshav in Ramat Hagolan where my children were born and mostly grew up. Farming was not working out well for us financially and we moved. Wherever I live in Israel is special and I feel privileged to be alive in a generation that can live here.

When and why did you start blogging?

I started blogging in the summer of 2006 when Batya of me-ander and Shiloh Musings asked me to post while she was on a trip to the US and wouldn’t have access to a computer. I’ve known Batya and her husband Winkie (actually I met him first) from my Betar days, so I couldn’t say no.

Have you been surprised by the way your blogging activity has evolved over the years?

I must admit that I didn’t think I would write as often as I do. It’s nice to have a place that is about me and the things that are important to me. I was never really into keeping a diary mainly because I never saw the point of writing to myself. But this is like having a memory box and letting others peek. I hope someday some of my descendants might look at some of this and understand a bit about my life. I wish I could read how my my grandmother felt when she arrived at Ellis Island.

To what extent do you feel your blogging activity reflects on the global perception of Israel?

None at all, not that many people read my blog and those who do mostly are pro-Israel anyway.

What post(s) are you most proud of?

My favorite posts are about my family and our history:
About my granddaughter’s birth
About my discovery on the cemetery on the Mount of Olives
About my grandfather
About my mother and her Shabbat candles

Would you care to share a blog or two you enjoy?

I like the feeling of an on-line community that has evolved among the many jblogs especially the ones by women like your own and Leora’s, In the Pink, Call Me Chaviva, Beneath the Wings, Coffee and Chemo, One Tired Ema, I”ll Call Baila, A Mother in Israel and many more. I read some blogs devoted to Torah subjects like The Rebbetzin’s Husband and Hirhurim-Musings and try to keep up with what’s going on in Israel.

Weekly Interview: Ruti

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I first “met” Ruti as, like QuietusLeo, she has been a fellow walker in Treppenwitz’s competitons. Like all interviewees before her, she keeps a blog, Ki Yachol Nuchal, where I particularly like her personal tone and photographs. Thank you Ruti for your kind participation in this series.

Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

When my now-23-year-old son was in elementary school, he had to write about what his parents did for a living. “My father drives and drives, and my mother raises crops of boys.” I always liked that job description.

What is your religious background (if any)?

My father was Jewish. My mother was raised Catholic. When I finally decided not to be a split personality any longer, Hashem made it possible for me to convert. Then He gave me remarkable teachers.

When and why did you decide to make aliyah?

My dear husband brought me to Israel for the first time in 1991. It was the first place I had ever felt at home in my life. I told him, “Go and get the kids. I’ll wait here for you.” It didn’t quite work out that way: it took us 16 years to get here. One day, as we sat on our comfortable porch in Baltimore, yet another ambulance drove up, sirens blaring, to the assisted living home across the street. He said: “I can’t just sit here and wait for my ambulance to come. I’ve still got a little more adventure in me.” We were on our way after that.

Where in Israel do you live and is there a special reason you live there?

We are blessed to live in Neve Daniel, in Gush Etzion. Our community is at the highest elevation above sea level of any community in Israel. There is a Chasidic concept that if you truly feel at home in a place in Israel, it is because Avraham Avinu met your neshama there when he walked the Land. This is how we feel on our mountain.

It doesn’t hurt that the community is warm and accepting, full of interesting and creative Jews.

When and why did you start blogging?

I wanted to be a writer since I was a small child. Then, to my horror, I discovered that I had nothing to say. When I finally met the “I love Israel” community, my writing seemed to have some small purpose. Like you, I am a talmida of Treppenwitz. When my family and I made aliyah in 2007, following in the blogging tradition seemed an enjoyable way to keep the friends we left behind updated, and to act as a diary of our adventures.

Have you been surprised by the way your blogging activity has evolved over the years?

I have seen that there is real grassroots “hasbara” power here, to share other viewpoints than are available in the mainstream media with our friends who are far away from the action. From a simple level – that living in Israel is much more wonderful than the news might suggest – to a deeper level, such as sharing with friends that there is more than one side to the flotilla debate or the Emanuel school debacle – we bloggers can (and perhaps should) add fresh opinions to the discussion.

To what extent do you feel your blogging activity reflects on the global perception of Israel?

I am not a political expert. I have a tiny (but loyal) readership. So I don’t know that I change that many opinions about Israel. But each Jew is a universe, right? So if I say something that positively enhances one friend’s view of this benighted but beloved country… and she tells her friend… and she tells her husband, who shares it at the office… little by little, we improve the perception of Israel, at least by offering readers the chance to weigh the value of an “on the ground” viewpoint.

What post(s) are you most proud of?

The Nes of the Nachash, in which my son did NOT die, baruch Hashem!
My Devorah Day, which found me covered by bees in the Golan
“I could never live in Israel. Israelis are so…” – These are my people, and I am so proud of them!
Post-Gaza: A New-Immigrant Mom’s Perspective, about what it takes for one mother’s heart to survive her son’s war-time experience

Would you care to share a blog or two you enjoy?

There are many I enjoy, for different reasons – and some of their writers have become my friends. (This could be the longest part of the post!)

Coffee and Chemo inspires me, as does A Soldier’s Mother. What War Zone??? makes me laugh. Remember Jerusalem and Bat Aliyah share my love of Israel, and my memories of Baltimore. If I had daughters, they would be al tishali oti and My Daughter, My Princess. Balashon and How to be Israeli educate me. Where would I be politically without The Muqata and Caroline Glick? And I am very proud of the writing of two of my sons, Through Josh-Colored Glasses, and Through My Eyes. West Bank Mama, Treppenwitz, of course, and The Sandman, Baka Diary, I’ll Call Baila, Sussmans b’Aretz… Ilana-Davita is really lovely. Have you read that one? There are several others that I love, and mostly because I have come to know and love the bloggers themselves, so what they have to say matters to me. I can’t wait to see many of them at the Third Annual J-Bloggers’ Convention!

Last week’s interview