Friday, July 26, 2013

Dusting Off the Ol' Blog

It has been almost exactly two years since I've posted anything on my blog. Man, did this thing get dusty! I'm hoping to find some time to clean off the cobwebs and write here again. In the meantime, I want to share that the second book in the YaYa & YoYo series, Shaking in the Shack was released in April! It's available on Amazon. I hope you'll check it out! And I hope to be back soon with a "real" blog post. Have a nice day.  :)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

D'var Torah: Parshat Re'eh

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to deliver a D'var Torah (literally, words of Torah) to the congregation at my synagogue. The way a D'var Torah usually works is that the person speaking studies the Torah portion that is to be read that week and finds something within the portion (parsha)to focus his/her talk on. Oftentimes, the speaker will use a piece of the Torah portion as a starting point and then steer the talk to a particular lesson or message that may or may not be directly related but somehow ties into the theme. I was asked to share the backstory of my book and how I became an author as part of the D'var Torah. Several friends and family members were not able to hear me speak, and have asked to read it, so I thought I'd share it here for anyone who is interested. Also, I'd like to give a huge "Thank You" to Rabbi Avi Olitzky who helped me pull it all together. 

D'var Torah for Parshat Re'eh:

Back when I was a college student, I studied Psychology, so I’d like to take a minute now to play a little psychology game with you. When I say the following three things, I want you to think of the first thing that pops into your head. (You can certainly close your eyes if you think it will help you concentrate on your answer, as long as you promise that you won’t fall asleep during my talk!)

Ready?  Passover….Shavuot….Sukkot. 

Raise your hand if the word Passover made you think of Matzah….Seder…Those Passover marshmallows covered with coconut?

Shavuot:  Receiving the Torah?  Blintzes?  Sebastian Joe’s Ice cream?
Sukkot:  Harvest?  Huts? Fall leaves? The Vikings?

We all have some shared associations that we make with the three big holidays in our Jewish calendar.  Interestingly, the three holidays are mentioned in this week’s Parsha and yet in the Torah they look nothing like what we celebrate today.  There is an entire section of the Torah portion devoted to describing the celebration of Passover and not once does it mention setting the seder table using your Bubbe’s finest china or crystal glasses. I could not find, in any of my research, whether Rashi approves or disapproves of putting sour cream on your blintzes or if hanging a garland of plastic fruits and vegetables in our sukkah is a law or a minhag/custom.

At the end of this week’s parsha, it talks about Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot--the Shalosh Regalim, —the tri-annual festivals when the Israelites made their pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship, thank and praise G-d by bringing gifts from the yield of their fields and making animal sacrifices. We have maintained the observance of these holidays over the years, but since we no longer offer sacrifices and we no longer have the Temple in Jerusalem, our observances look very different from those described in the Torah. Over the years, these holidays have evolved and taken on a new form for us, while still maintaining the rhythm of the yearly cycle. The holidays are still relevant to us, but the practices have transformed. In this case, a lot of these variations are a result of societal changes. Sure, we may enjoy a good barbecue, but this is very different from the ritual sacrifice that our ancestors took part in. It is not acceptable or desirable to slaughter our own animals as a way of giving thanks to G-d, let alone the fact that this was all to take place in the Temple, which no longer exists. Also, the laws were based on the Israelites all living in the land of Israel. We obviously do not all live there.

However, there are some things that make sense across time and across societal changes. Earlier in the parsha we read the following:
If there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman; rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.  … Give to him readily and have no regrets.
Undoubtedly, this is something very relatable to us. It states in the Torah that there will always be needy amongst us and that we are always responsible to help those in need. And as such this is easy to understand-- it is still necessary and relevant. There are other laws that might not seem so obviously applicable to us, but what keeps the Torah “alive” for us is that we can take a step back and try to interpret the rules in a way that add meaning to our lives and that work for us personally in today’s world. This week’s parsha mentions slaves. While we certainly no longer have slaves, we could glean from this guideline ways to treat people that work for us. Maybe you are a director of some sort with a staff that answers to you, or maybe you’re the chief of surgery, a master teacher, a rabbi, or the head of a project at work or at school. There are innumerable instances in which we may find ourselves in roles where we are in a position of leadership or authority and that we can try extract a meaning from the lessons in this parsha that become relevant to how we live our lives.

6 years ago I realized that as an adult I was finding relevance in modern Judaism, but I was having some trouble finding age-appropriate literature which helps children find this relevance. And so my personal journey began. Believe it or not, it all began right here in this building (The old version of this building, anyway)--in the Victor Hall to be exact.

When my youngest son was in preschool here at the Aleph School, I was volunteering at the annual book fair. I had signed up to help set up the fair and I was asked to help put together the table of Jewish books. It was a round table and on one side of the table we were to put all the younger children’s picture books. On the other side of the table were the older-kid books. There were many, many wonderful picture books for the preschoolers that were bright, exciting, shiny and fun. There were books about Chanukkah, Passover and Rosh Hashanah. In other words, there was a wonderful selection for the younger kids.  On the other side, there were a few Jewish cookbooks and a handful of chapter books for older kids. Almost all of those books were somehow related to our shared history: the shtetl, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, including Anne Frank’s Diary. There were non-fiction books about Jewish Sports stars, what it means to be Jewish or biographies about famous Jews such as Albert Einstein. It was a far cry from the shiny, colorful books on the other side of the table.  I did realize that it was a book fair at a preschool and I figured that that must be why there was such an imbalance in favor of the picture books. However, it set off a light bulb in my head and it led me to go to the library and the internet to see what sort of books there were for older kids that moved away from the non-fiction, information books and the books about our history and simply celebrated what is great about being Jewish today. What makes being Jewish relevant to today’s kids. I was looking for the bright, shiny, fun and exciting books for the post-picture book crowd. What I found was that there was a great big, cavernous void in our Jewish literary world for kids.

At the time, I was still a full-time stay at home Mom. I had been planning to resume my teaching career once my youngest son went to school full time. I realized, however, that I had a new opportunity and that I wanted to try teaching in a new way, to a larger audience. And it was then that I came up with the idea of writing a book, which then led to the idea of writing a series of books that would entertain, inform and thrill young readers. I decided to create characters that kids today could relate to, that they would want to be friends with, that shared the same issues, concerns and struggles as themselves and that would do all this through a Jewish lens. It became clear to me, as I delved into this idea more and more that if we want to perpetuate our Jewish traditions, and see them continue to be passed on l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, a phrase we use a lot around here, that we can’t just focus on our history and the tragedies that befell us. Yes, we need to remember and sanctify the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust, in the pogroms and other horrendous events in our history. But if we hope to keep our thousands-years old heritage alive, then we need to be sure that our kids feel a connection. Our kids need to foster positive identities with their Judaism so that they will want to pass down what they love to the next generations.
And so, my book series, YaYa and YoYo was born. The first book in the series is called Sliding Into the New Year and it is about fifth-grade twins, Ellie and Joel Silver, who go to public school and afternoon Hebrew school. Their Hebrew names are Yael and Yoel and when Joel was a baby he couldn’t pronounce their names and they came out as “YaYa and YoYo” and the nicknames stuck. 

In the story, Ellie is invited by her best friend, Megan to go to the brand new indoor water park in town. It’s not the sort of outing her parents would take her on, so it seems to be the perfect solution; She’d go with Megan and she wouldn’t have to bug her parents to take her somewhere that they really didn’t want to go. It’s the perfect plan until Joel points out that Megan, who is not Jewish, is going on Rosh Hashanah.
Throughout the story we watch Ellie’s growth as she first tries to finagle her parents to let her go to the water park on Rosh Hashanah. She tries begging and bargaining. I won’t give away the ending, so I won’t let you know if she gets to the water park or not, but I will tell you that she does end up spending time with her family at their Rosh Hashanah dinner and in services. Ellie grows to appreciate the traditions in her grandparents’ home, at her synagogue and even in her own kitchen. The sights, sounds, tastes and smells of the holiday pull her into it. She laughs at her family’s funny rituals and shared stories, she savors the tunes that she hears only once a year in synagogue, she feels her grandfather’s warmth as she snuggles up next to him in the cold sanctuary and wraps herself inside his tallit as they sit together in services. These are all very real experiences, positive experiences that kids can and do relate to.

Along the way, Ellie also learns about the concept of t’shuvah, which is all about reflecting on our behavior, turning ourselves around and trying to improve ourselves. It’s a central theme of the High Holidays and, I believe, an important one for kids to understand to help make Rosh Hashanah even more meaningful.  
Since the book has been released this spring, I have had the pleasure of sharing my story with children in many different day schools and afternoon Hebrew schools around the country. What I had hoped for has proven to be true—kids are hungering for books like this. I have received incredibly warm welcomes from kids as young as kindergarten and as old as 8th grade. Even though the books are written for grades 3-6, something seems to resonate with these kids. It’s like they’ve been waiting for someone to write about them, and finally they are finding themselves in this book and hopefully, will continue to find themselves in subsequent books. Shaking in the Shack, the second book in the series, about Sukkot, is due to be released this spring.

Writing and editing the book, finding a publisher, watching it go into production and finally seeing it released has been an incredible journey. I’ve been eating, sleeping and breathing Ellie, Joel and Rosh Hashanah for almost 6 years now.  And I think in writing chapter after chapter, I finally understand why the Torah is compelled to bring up the holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot now-- Because right now, we are on the brink of welcoming another Rosh Hashanah. This coming Tuesday, we will be ushering in the month of Elul, the last month in the Hebrew calendar before the new year of 5772. We are heading into the Sukkot season, which begins with the Yamim Nora’im, namely, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And just as Ellie learns – or, rather, as Ellie experiences -- in the book, we too blend where we’ve been with where we’re going. We blend what was old and make it new again. We find new relevance. And it is at this season that we take some time to reflect on all we have accomplished this past year, and we look back at what we are pleased with and what we are not so happy about. We think about the things that we would like to do better in the upcoming year.
During this period of reflection, we are supposed to give ourselves a bit of a progress report of sorts. We check to see if we have “missed the mark” in any way and need to work on improving our behavior. We think about what isn’t relevant and how we can make it that much sweeter, shinier and new.

My wish for you as we embark on this new year, 5772, is that you continue to realize and create the relevance that our tradition offers us in your own life.

L’shanah tova and Shabbat shalom.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Guy in the Field

I have a new favorite TV show. How I Met Your Mother has been on TV for a few years now, but I only discovered it recently in the reruns. In case you’re not familiar with the show, it is the story of Ted Mosby in the year 2030, speaking to his teenage children about how, you guessed it, he met their mother. The entire show is one big flashback to current times. There are a lot of things I love about it including the snarky humor, the constant, creative use of flashbacks and the fantastic characters which somehow get us even liking and rooting for the over-the-top, womanizing playboy named Barney (played brilliantly by Neil Patrick Harris). But aside from the great writing and hysterical story lines, an ongoing formula within the show is this: Had I not done X, I wouldn’t have gone to Y, which led me to Z, which is where I met your mother. In other words, X had to happen because it ultimately led me to meeting your mother.

In a completely different context, I heard another example of the aforementioned X, Y, Z formula. A few weeks ago I had the immense pleasure of listening to Rabbi Harold Kushner speak at my synagogue. You may have heard of Rabbi Kushner, or at the very least, you may have heard of one of his best-selling books. His most famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is one that is known to people all over the world. I sat riveted in my seat, hanging onto every word that Rabbi Kushner uttered.
The title of his talk was the same as one of his book titles: “Living a Life that Matters.” One of his points is that we can each do good and create change in other people’s lives. And sometimes the smallest of gestures that we offer to someone can make a life-altering difference. Often, we don’t even know about the end results of our deeds. The example he gave was from the Torah, when Jacob sent Joseph out to find his brothers. A man standing in the field approached Joseph and asked him what he was looking for. Joseph replied that he was looking for his brothers. The man said that he had seen them and pointed Joseph in the direction of the town of Dotan (which Rabbi Kushner likened to the Vegas of the time. What happens in Dotan…). This interaction is covered by a mere three sentences in the Torah. It is a little, nothing event, one that you may have read hundreds of times and that didn’t merit even a moment’s thought.

However, Rabbi Kushner explained, that there are no unnecessary details in the Torah. If it is there, it’s there for a reason. He postulated that this man’s presence was pivotal in the history of the Jewish people, and the world for that matter—back to that X, Y, Z formula. Had the man not given Joseph directions (or, had he pointed him in the wrong direction), he might not have found his brothers, which led to them throwing him in a pit and then ultimately selling him off as a slave, where he was taken in shackles down to Egypt (Come on, sing along: “Then the Ishmaelites galloped off with the slave in tow, Off to Egypt where Joseph was not keen to go. It wouldn't be a picnic he could tell [Joseph] ‘And I don't speak Egyptian very well’ ”) Fast forward a bit…the Israelites ended up as slaves in Egypt, were freed, went to Sinai, got the Torah, which ultimately led to an entire people as we know it today.
At the end of the evening, Rabbi Kushner was signing books. Before taking my turn to get my copy of his book Living a Life That Matters signed, I ran home to get two other books. One was the copy of When Bad Things Happen to Good People that I had purchased in 1989 right after my mother passed away at the young age of fifty. The other one that I grabbed was a copy of my own book, Sliding Into the New Year. I inscribed it to Rabbi Kushner and thanked him for being “the guy in the field” for me. Of course he didn’t know it, but his book was a great comfort to me and did help me find some direction. And his talk was a huge inspiration to me as well.

When we write, or speak or even innocently respond to a stranger's question, we never know how our words or actions will touch others. We can only hope that what we do has a positive effect out there. (And that we don’t give bad directions.)

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Story Behind My Stories

You may have noticed that on the book flap of that novel that you're reading, there is a very small bio about the author. I found it to be quite a challenge to sum up the past *ahem* 29+ years in just a few short sentences. It was an interesting exercise, and I did in fact, come up with the following blurb: 

Dori Weinstein grew up in Queens, New York. She is a graduate of Binghamton University and Teachers College, Columbia University. Dori taught in public schools in New York City as well as the Talmud Torah Jewish Day School in St. Paul, Minnesota. She currently teaches Hebrew to preschoolers. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband Gary, and their three children.

Short and to the point. Well, of course, given the space I could share so much more. And hey, what do you know? I have a blog! I've got nothing but space! So here, dear readers, is my much longer story. It's the story of the path that led me to my new life as the writer of a children's book series called YaYa & YoYo:

After graduating from what was then called SUNY-B (State University of New York at Binghamton, now known as Binghamton University), I decided to become a teacher. I moved to Manhattan, went to graduate school (Columbia University, Teachers College), did a year of student teaching (Columbus Academy and PS 87 on the Upper West Side), and taught in my own classroom (PS 11 in Chelsea) for a total of four years. I enjoyed teaching math and writing but my absolute favorite time of the day in my classroom was “Read Aloud” time. I loved sharing great books with my students.

Along the way I met the wonderful man who is now my husband, got married and moved out of New York. And not only that, but I left the Big Apple to go to (as I believed at the time) live amongst the cows, cornfields and snow banks of Minnesota. (As it turns out, they don’t actually grow corn in the suburbs of Minneapolis, and I have yet to see a cow grazing on our street.) Exactly one day after we moved here, I began setting up my classroom at the Talmud Torah Day School in St. Paul. I had the immense pleasure of teaching there for four years. I would have kept going, but I started popping out babies and it became too hard for me to balance my two lives as a teacher and a new mom. I took the role of teacher to my much more intimate class of three Weinstein children and once again had the opportunity to enjoy “Read Aloud” time with my kids as we snuggled up at bedtime and dove into great books together.

When my first two kids were in the 1st and 4th grades, I set out to find some good, older-kid Jewish books for them. I found lots of wonderful picture books about holidays for preschoolers as well as many middle-grade books in the genres of historical fiction and non-fiction books. I was looking for contemporary fiction that my kids would love, that also celebrated all that is wonderful about being Jewish, but I was unable to find just what I was seeking. Inspired by my childhood author-hero, Judy Blume, as well as All of a Kind Family, my favorite book series when I was growing up, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I planned, drafted and started writing, setting aside my plans to someday return to having my own classroom. I came up with the model of doing a book series; twelve books, each taking place in a different calendar month, focusing on either a Jewish holiday, life cycle event or other Jewish experience, while intertwining one or more Jewish values into the story. And so, YaYa and YoYo were “born.”


My kids loved it (which was really my original goal) and once I started sharing my story with other kids, Jewish educators and rabbis, it turned out that they gave YaYa and YoYo a big thumbs-up as well!  The series follows tweens Ellie and Joel Silver as they grapple with real issues faced by modern Jewish families. The first book, Sliding Into the New Year, is set against the backdrop of Rosh Hashanah and is on its way to bookshelves everywhere! I am almost finished with the first draft of the second book in the series, Shaking in the Shack, which takes place during the holiday of Sukkot.

So there you have it, the story behind my stories. I hope you enjoy reading the YaYa & YoYo books as much as I am enjoying writing them. And by the way, they make great “Read Aloud” books!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Am I Talking Too Much?

Have you ever been with someone who seems to be talking non-stop, but you’re so tuned out that you don’t even notice that they’re speaking, let alone actually hearing what they’re saying? I hate to say it but at times I am guilty of this. My kids sometimes blabber on and on from the seats behind me in the car as I focus on sharing the highways with other drivers and navigating the roads. Of course I don’t always tune them out. I actually relish the fact that they are willing to tell me stuff! I am certain that as they get older and enter their teen years and beyond, I will need to use a metaphorical pair of pliers to pry information out of them. But yes, I have to admit sometimes I am either so focused on the road or on my own thoughts in my head that I don’t hear a single word that they say.

A favorite Weinstein family story revolves around my brother-in-law when he was a young boy many years ago. It seems that quite often, when the family was riding in the car, he would talk and talk incessantly. It got to the point that in all honesty, no one was actually listening. One such time, he stopped himself mid-sentence to ask, “Am I talking too much?”

Living a life as a writer and in particular one who has her first book coming out, I seem to eat, breathe and sleep “YaYa and YoYo.” Not a day goes by that I’m not, at the very least, thinking about my book. Beyond that, I’m writing, updating my Facebook author page, working on my website, Tweeting about the book and things related and so on. I am often afraid that people are going to think that that is all that I am capable of talking about.

Last night I was helping out at a shiva meal (meal of consolation) for my friend and her family because her father passed away. As is often the case in a shiva home, after the evening service, people stayed to congregate and to schmooze. I had the chance to chat with many friends and acquaintances in the community. Over the course of the evening, several different people came up to me and said such things as, “Hey, I just heard that you’re writing a book!” Or “You’re an author? I had no idea.”

Seriously? On one hand, I thought to myself, “Where have you been? Haven’t you been listening to me all this time?” On the other hand, I was thrilled to know that while it feels to me that I am constantly talking about my stuff to the point of being an annoyance, other people aren’t really bothered by my sharing. Or maybe they just aren’t paying attention and now it's me blathering on from the back seat.

To quote Hillel, the ancient Jewish sage, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Putting that in my own personal context, if I don’t tell people about my work, and share my excitement and joy and let them know about it, then who will? However, if I only think about my own things and remain wrapped up in my personal little bubble, what does that say about me? And of course, if not now, when? takes us back to the old adage, never put off to tomorrow that which you can do today (which is why I’m writing this blog piece right now despite the fact that I have several other things that I’m working on. I had these thoughts and I know that if I don’t do it now, I never will. Just look at my blogging track-record!)
It’s a fine line maintaining the right balance between tooting your own horn and sharing your happy news with the world; marketing your book and not focusing on yourself too much.

So, the big question remains: Am I talking too much?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Here's a peek at the cover of the Advance Reading Copies of YaYa and YoYo: Sliding Into the New Year!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Are We There Yet? The Journey to Publication

When I decided to write children’s books, I had no idea what went on in the background in terms of getting a book onto a shelf, but I knew that I was eager to find out! One reason for my creating this blog was to be able to share the mysterious, behind-the-scenes workings of getting published. People have been asking me about how one goes about becoming an author and/or what’s happening with my book. I can’t speak for all authors, because I’m sure that no one’s experience is exactly the same, but here is a short timeline and update on my journey.

This whole adventure began over five years ago. I got the idea to write a book in the fall of 2005. I researched how to write children’s books and then how to get them published. I started brainstorming ideas, organizing them and about three months later I actually got busy with the fun part--writing!

I worked diligently on the story for four months. I did almost nothing else. The laundry piled up, I served lots of leftovers for dinner and I forgot to floss (Just kidding, I would never forget to floss!) Once I felt that my first draft was finished, I asked other writers, teachers and kids if they would be willing to read my work and give me feedback. That was probably one of the most exciting steps of the process. I loved hearing what people had to say about my writing, good, bad and everything in between. Of course it was nice to get positive feedback, but I also really appreciated the critical comments because those helped me to tighten up my writing, confirm factual information and strengthen the story.

Once I was satisfied with what I had, I began to submit my manuscript to different publishing houses. There was a lot of waiting involved in this step. Since “simultaneous” or “multiple” submissions are either not allowed or at the very least frowned upon, I could only send my manuscript to one publisher at a time and then had to wait to hear back from them. One place held on to it for six months! That was a really good test of my patience. In the end, I landed in the perfect place; exactly the right home for me and my books.

One year ago, I signed a contract with Yaldah Publishing. Over the course of the past twelve months, my manuscript was handed over to Leslie Martin, my editor, who not only helped me with my many, many “comma issues” (amongst others!) but who also helped fine-tune my story and make it even better.

So that brings us to where we are now. Currently, my manuscript is being sent to various “Advance Readers” who have agreed to read it and write a “blurb” or a review about it if they liked it. (And so far they all have liked it! I’ve received three wonderful blurbs already!) It’s going out to rabbis, educators, librarians and other authors. Soon the cover art will be done and a large number of Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) of the book will go out to even more readers and reviewers. (Ever wondered how those quotes get on the back of the book? Now you know!)

In the meantime, I’m working on Book #2 of the series, and I’m busy making connections, sharing, promoting, marketing and getting the word out about my book which should be making its debut in March. I even joined Twitter yesterday. (I’m not really sure what it’s all about, but I’m going with my publisher’s advice.) If you are a Twitter-er (?!), I would love it if you’d “follow” me (@DoriWeinstein). If you’re on Facebook, please join me by clicking the “like” button on my author page (Dori Weinstein) for more progress updates and reviews. And of course, every now and then, I’m here writing on my blog. You can “follow” me here as well, or at least say “hi” and let me know you've visited.

So there you have it; the road to publication from the starting point until now. There have been many pit-stops, off-road distractions and requests for directions along the way. We aren't there yet, but I am completely enjoying the trip as I head toward my final destination. Thanks for sharing the ride with me!