Why I’m angry and ashamed to be Jewish

Posted on November 16, 2006

When I started this blog, I thought I ought to present a kind of public face. Positive, informative, engaging. Maybe that’s worked for me and maybe it hasn’t. But it also means that there’s another side (at least one) that I never show.

Until now.

Because while I’ve been neck-deep in work, promoting Like a Maccabee and doing lots of publishing-y things, I’ve been getting increasingly pissed off at certain parts of the Jewish community, including parts of my local community.

I’ve been holding a lot of these feelings back for a long time, since Destined to Choose came out, and I’m really good at rationalizing it. Maybe it’s PMS or maybe I misunderstood or maybe my expectations were too high.

Now I’m convinced that I’m not the one to blame.

Some of my recent experiences even leave me ashamed to be Jewish.

Case 1: A small Jewish wholesaler contacted publisher-me to order copies of Like a Maccabee to distribute to her customers, which include Jewish bookstores, Jewish book fairs, Jewish schools, synagogues, JCCs and the like. We tried to negotiate a mutually acceptable discount. She was unwilling to accept the best I could offer. She (we’ll call her CJ – not her real initials) did not care that she would be supporting Jewish publishing and Jewish authors and Jewish books. I finally offered to send five copies at cost with free shipping (which translates into my losing money on this deal), and CJ agreed to see what the response would be.

I later found out that her terms for some of CJ’s customers – including Jewish book fairs – were exactly what I had originally offered her, the offer she turned down as “not enough of a discount.” Then I felt used. I felt like she took advantage of me.

I sent the books I’d agreed to sell CJ at cost, and I coughed up shipping costs. I sent an invoice, payable upon receipt. It is now a month later and CJ still has not paid. When I had my assistant call to find out what was going on and when we could expect payment, CJ was rude and then she hung up on him.

Case 2: A local synagogue where the editor of Like a Maccabee is actively involved has a huge Chanukah fair each year. I contacted the woman who organizes the fair and makes all the buying decisions, and asked her about carrying Like a Maccabee. It’s locally illustrated, locally edited, locally published, was just released, and takes place during Chanukah. Perfect fit, wouldn’t you think? She grumbled about it being too expensive from her wholesaler. (Guess who her wholesaler is? See Case 1 above.) So I offered to give her the quantity synagogue discount for 5 or more copies, eliminating the wholesaler’s cut out of her profits, and since she’s local, I offered to personally bring the copies to her, also eliminating shipping costs. She was unenthused. She was anything but supportive of this book. And then I found out later, she bought one copy. This Chanukah fair is HUGE. She has multiples of nearly everything she sells. And she bought one #%@& copy. Way to go to show support of the local Jewish community.

Case 3: Another local synagogue, with significant ties to several people involved in the production of Like a Maccabee, hasn’t even bothered to return my e-mails and phone calls. Ordinarily, I’d let this one go, because I know they’re busy and I’m really gifted at making excuses for them. But – okay, truth time – this is MY synagogue. I’d hoped for at least some response, but I was half-expecting to be disappointed again.

Again? Yes. Because I got the same sort of non-response when my book, Destined to Choose, came out. My shul has a history of publicly, within the shul community, supporting its members. I thought this was awesome. When one member had his excellent memoir-ish book about his career as a physician published, the shul encouraged the congregation to go to his book signings. He gave a d’var Torah and read from his book. The shul had copies for sale in its tiny gift shop. When another member had his Holocaust memoir published, he received a similar, if not more supportive, response. When yet another member publishes her research in academic journals most of us don’t read, she is lauded from the bima and is asked to teach classes for the congregation.

When my book was published, there was a “Yishar koach” notation in the monthly newsletter. I got a “Kiddush today is sponsored by Sheyna Galyan in honor of the publication of her book, Destined to Choose” but only because I donated money toward Kiddush. That was it. I donated a copy to the shul, where it sat in the program director’s office for a YEAR before the shul finally decided they’d come up with a plan to be supportive.

Their answer was an author’s panel, because quite frankly, they didn’t think anyone would come if I did a reading and Q&A after services on Shabbat or a signing and book sale on a Sunday morning after minyan. The panel was scheduled for Halloween day, a Sunday morning that year. It was not heavily promoted as many other shul programs are. There were precious few announcements. There were no mailings. I did my own promotions for it, but there’s only so much one person can do without support.

The shul said they wanted to do the panel because they were trying to protect me from being hurt by no one showing. With very little promotion by the shul for the panel, guess how many people came? About a dozen. Most were family members of other authors on the panel. I sold one book – to one of the other authors.

I asked if the book I’d donated to the shul could be placed in the shul library and I was told “Absolutely!” It never showed. I still have no idea what happened to it.

So what gives with the lack of response – even just a quick e-mail – with the publication of Like a Maccabee? Maybe the shul discriminates against fiction. Maybe Minnesota’s Jewish community has issues. Maybe it’s me (but I don’t think so). I don’t know what it is, but it’s been stuck in my craw since what I’d referred to in a conversation at the shul as a “tepid response, at best” to my book in 2003. Shul leadership didn’t agree, but I’m not sure what they would call it. It ain’t supportive in my book, especially given the support shown to others.

And that’s why this latest hurts so much more.

I’ll confess that it’s been bothering me so much that I’ve recently been uninterested in going to Shabbat services. How can I go and be grateful and social and full of blessing when so much around me seems to be screaming “You/your book/your work is not worth our attention”?

I live my life acutely aware of Jewish values. I treasure justice. I abhor seeing others marginalized, victimized, or otherwise treated unfairly. I believe that morals should outweigh greed, that supporting each other and helping each other to survive in a very non-Jewish world is more important than getting that extra 5% discount.

And there is one more factor, one that my rabbi and some others in the shul and community know details about. I have a disability, the specifics of which are not necessary to share with the world. What is important is that I cannot survive for long in the corporate environment. Working from home and combining my talents and skills in this field allow me to work around my disability and remain a productive member of society.

I am trying to supplement my family’s income, in part so we can continue to pay the high costs of living a Jewish life and having our child (perhaps next year, children) in a Jewish school. Yet, without the support of my community, support for me as an author and as a publisher, I’m fighting an uphill battle to do any of this.

I’m not asking for support in the form of everyone buying a book. I’m asking for support in the form of people publicly showing their enthusiasm and confidence in what I do, enthusiasm and confidence that can have a ripple effect around the community, the country, the world, so that those who do want to buy books have the opportunity to do so. All of which seems to me to be fully in synch with Jewish values.

I don’t know what it will take to heal the hurt. I do know that the perfunctory “I apologize for anything I might have done this year to offend you” often offered at Yom Kippur is just not good enough.

Especially when it happens again.

As for Case 1 and Case 2, I don’t know what to think. Case 1 isn’t even in Minnesota. I’m disappointed in certain parts of the Jewish community, and I’m angry that some few seem to be living up to what I’d hoped to G-d was an antisemitic stereotype of greedy, rude, spiteful, and self-serving.

The author of Like a Maccabee, Barbara Bietz, has had exactly the opposite reaction. Her (Jewish) community, friends, family, schools, bookstores, newspapers are all excited and thrilled with the book and its publication. She’s done book signings where she’s talked about how it takes a village to write a book, how so many have given their support from inception to publication and beyond.

I want my village. I’m not seeing it. And that makes me very sad.


  1. Sheyna

    Elster – thanks for the smile! My shul has a rather surprising number of published folks: rabbis, professors, researchers and the like. Most write academic sorts of things and are regarded as scholars in their field.

    What I can’t seem to get folks to understand is that when you write the kind of fiction I do – especially with a rabbi protagonist and from that perspective – you HAVE to do the research and learning. It’s scholarship of a slightly different kind, but it’s still scholarship.

  2. Anonymous

    Disgraqceful is the correct word. It’s sad that people don’t see how great it is that you do something so DIFFERENT than everyone else (Dr lawyer Accountant etc). They should be proud that a PUBLISHED Author lives in their community, davens at their shul, etc. They should buy your books even if they never plan on reading them.

    Sadly, people are insensitive and obtuse – they lose sight of important things.

  3. Sheyna

    Thanks, EK. I don’t want to mope around and whine about this, and at the same time, it seems to be a symptom of a larger community problem.

    If it’s something to do with me personally, I wish someone would have the courage to tell me (nicely) so I can change it. And if it’s not, then we as a (local, anyway) community have some hard questions to answer.

    I’m not yet sure if I hope that someone from my community actually reads this post… 🙂

  4. Anonymous

    OY. So sorry you have had such a disappointing and negative experience 🙁

  5. Sheyna

    Shira – this may sound weird, but “disgraceful” in this context actually makes me feel better. 🙂 Thank you. I hope for a better response, but I’m not holding my breath.

    I love how you support local musicians in your area. I think that’s something really special.

  6. Shira Salamone

    It’s disgraceful that you’ve had so little support from your own community. I hope you have better luck in the future.

  7. Sheyna

    Thanks, Pattie. I appreciate that.

  8. Anonymous

    Sheyna, this just makes me so very sad. I am sorry you have had this response from your community and the “cases.”

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