My Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column for April 2017: Bickering Seders and Vanity Memoirs

My Jewish Standard Talmudic Advice Column for April 2017: 
Bickering Seders and Vanity Memoirs

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I’m worried about my upcoming seders. Our extended family of three generations and our cousins and aunts and uncles all get together at our home for the Passover seder rituals and the festive meal. It should be a joyous occasion — but in recent years it has become a stressful event. There always seems to be bickering and sometimes outright fighting and arguing over past imagined sins and slights. Recently the political divides in our family also have erupted into messy debates.

What can we do to avoid the frictions of the evening and keep things more harmonious?

Petrified of a Passover Powder Keg in Paramus

Dear Petrified,

You are a wise person to assess past experiences and to anticipate future troubles. That’s a good start toward a solution.

You surely know that the potent energies that are released in the springtime season of rebirth can at times lead to great positive celebrations, and on occasion to explosive events.

I need not remind you that the central drama of Christianity, celebrated at Easter, is the springtime crucifixion of Jesus. That was one noteworthy confrontation of a Passover season of the past. And through the ages we Jews as a community have suffered blood libels and other forms of anti-Semitism that triggered pogroms and awful acts of terrorist violence against us at Passover time.

In the interior microcosms of our family meals you would think and hope that we could control our emotions and avoid unpleasantness. It is easy for me to say be cognizant and behave. But I want to offer you more granular advice for harmonious seders.

The first thing you should consider is including what I call “strangers” on your guest list. I mean by that don’t just have your close and intimate family members at the meal. Outsiders, who may in fact be friends, add a balance to the social mix of the evening. They can be your insurance that your family will comport themselves with greater dignity and propriety. It’s no guarantee, but it is human nature that with others present, the dynamics of the interactions change, hopefully for the better.

Now I’ll add some more of my suggestions, not just for avoiding confrontations, but for creating a more wholly positive evening. To seasoned seder leaders these will be familiar ideas.

Prepare in advance the roles that your guests will play in your seder. Everyone should have a part to play in the great opera that you will be performing together. Think through what their skills are and what reading or responsibility they can be assigned in your seder.

Remember too that some of your guests may be simple, some wise, and some won’t know how to ask a question. Try to meet the needs of everyone assembled. Those who don’t read Hebrew can read a passage from the Haggadah in translation (English, Spanish, Russian or otherwise) or perform another essential task.

It is true that you and your guests are on stage in a dramatic opera. Still, this is not an appropriate time to bring up old family arguments or heated political issues. If you do, your seder might become a tragedy that separates you from your kin, or even the “last supper” that you eat together.

With the right mix of guests and with enough thoughtful strategic planning, your seder at home will be a theatrical hit. So invite, prepare and fear not, and have a happy Passover.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I have assembled much personal material and I have written a book-length memoir about my life and my family. I now want to publish it. I approached several publishers. Because I am an unknown amateur writer, they want a hefty sum of money from me to support the publishing venture. I am not sure whether to do this or not.

Ambivalent Author in Alpine

Dear Ambivalent,

Yes, indeed, we are the people of the books. In the center of our synagogues there are no icons, but there stand our books — our Torah scrolls — up front of us.

We revere our main book. We kiss it when it passes in front of us in procession and we dance with it on a festival day. And one Judaic value that is out there, but not commonly observed, says that it is a mitzvah for every Jew to write a sefer Torah.

The larger literate world we live in respects books, and book making too. You should know that the way people make books is changing now rapidly from day to day. Technology is making the self-publishing of everything from Facebook posts, to blogs, essays, to full-length books, easier every passing week.

As Jews, and as Americans, we cherish our books. And you want to write one of your own and publish it. I get that. It is in our genes and in our culture.

You describe a vanity publication scenario. The book you want to release has substantial personal value but — prepare for the shock — no real commercial worth. Should you publish it? And if so, should you pay a press to do that for you?

The commercial side of your question is simple. Vanity publishing is a big business, even in our digital age. People like you are mystified by the publication process. Certain companies know that you want to see your name on a published book and that you will pay good money to see that happen.

To publish or not to publish? Here are some questions for you to answer to help you clarify this decision.

Will the publication of this book make anyone in your family or community cringe? If so, is that what you want? It might be so — but I hope that is not your intent.

Have you had a literary friend or agent review the quality of your writing? It does not have to be great literature. But you do want clean, logical, understandable copy, free of obvious mistakes and infelicities. You need to make sure that what you wrote does not sound too weird or goofy or off-the-wall (unless that is how you want it to sound).

Are you adept at word processing, to the point where you can format a book in a template provided by a self-publishing outfit? It’s a tricky process, but not as complex as it sounds.

If your answers to these questions make you inclined to publish, then allow me to describe to you two scenarios that will enable you to forego the expensive vanity press alternative and to publish your book yourself.

If what you want to produce is an eBook, I recommend you go ahead and use the service called Amazon Kindle Direct. And if you want to publish an on-demand paperback book, I suggest that you use Amazon’s CreateSpace.

The publication cost can be zero if you do all the preparations yourself. Or they can be minimal with the affordable a la carte help available from the company.

In both cases your books will be created on demand, meaning that you will not need to rent warehouse space to store your book inventory. And in both cases you will be able to order copies of your books from Amazon, the best sales platform on Earth.

Be aware that there are other self-publishing on-demand platforms that you can explore. But I’m a huge fan of Amazon products and services. And I believe you cannot go wrong if you go with them.

Many of us who write books do so chiefly because we love to write. Still, it’s natural to harbor false expectations about their success. Those anticipations motivate us to carry on through the difficult or tedious parts of the process.

But — and here is a big caveat — allow me to dispel your fantasy that others will care about your book, will buy it, and will make you much profit from your publication. That almost certainly will not be the case.

Very few authors make money on their publications. The book publishing business is hypercompetitive, and getting more so every day. That is because it is getting cheaper and easier every day and the barriers to book publishing are getting lower. And even more troubling for authors is the fear that fewer people are buying and reading books.

The bottom line is if you decide to self-publish, be glad. You will not pay out large fees to a vanity publisher. You can do most of the work yourself. And at the end of the process, you will have a presentable, professional volume to look at with pride and to show off — to give as a gift and perhaps to sell (a few copies) to others with satisfaction.

So yes, go ahead with your plan to publish. When you look finally with pride and delight at your published volume, you will know without doubt that it is number one on your own “best kveller list.”

Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is a kvelling author and has published many books through traditional academic presses, and through the newest publication platforms available. His more than 60 books about Judaism include “The Polychrome Historical Haggadah,” “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Talmudic Advice” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

I thought you might be interested in this new for 2017 reprint of a classic haggadah with a foreword that I added - available from Amazon. - Tzvee

The Polychrome Historical Haggadah                            

The Polychrome Historical Haggadah 
by Jacob Freedman et al.
  Learn more                      

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