Nowadays, you can produce the final draft of a book faster than ever.
Once upon a time, authors needed to write out their first draft by hand.
Even after the typewriter became a common home appliance, it still wasn’t as forgiving as today’s word processing programs.
So after scripting out thousands of words by hand, authors combed through them, marking changes as they went.
And then authors either wrote out a whole new draft or they wrote out entire sections by hand, incorporating the changes as they went.
And only then did they pound out the draft through a typewriter.
Today, first drafts appear directly onto the computer. Sure, many authors create outlines by hand using good old-fashioned notebooks. But for others, plot-outlining software and even mind-mapping software take the place of the traditional pen or pencil.
In the modern world, many authors struggle to know when to stop revising because a computer allows you to tweak your manuscript without end.
Yet are today’s endlessly tweaked books better than those books of yore that only got 2 or 3 drafts before being submitted?
And is something lost in the process when the handwriting-brain connection is no longer there?
I know that I can’t go back to my elementary school days of writing out novels by hand. Even when I create an outline or a journal entry, my hand get so tired. I certainly couldn’t produce hundreds of handwritten pages.
But still, I wonder if scribbling out a book by hand makes it a better book.
On the hand, it’s comforting to know that you don’t have to revise as much as you are tempted to do. Readers have always enjoyed books without endless tweaking.
At some point, you can free yourself to look at your screen and say what those older authors said while looking at the Courier script on their freshly typed page.
“Well, I invested heart and soul in this. I just hope it’s good enough.”
If you invested heart and soul in it, then it probably is “good enough.”
And sometimes, that “good enough” even turns out to be amazing.
UPDATE: Just this week, I noticed that Fiverr made some brilliant additions to their service:
1) For cover design, Fiverr has introduced an incredibly easy system that allows you to mark the image itself and leave a comment on exactly the place that needs correction. This is unbelievably helpful, especially when using a seller whose native language is different than yours. I absolutely LOVE this addition.
2) Upon completing the gig, Fiverr now requires you to leave a rating for Fiverr's eyes only that the seller will never see. There are also optional comment boxes enabling you to explain what you liked or didn't like about dealing with the seller. This relieves some of the pressure on buyers that this posts addresses below.
Note: I'm only discussing Fiverr because I've never tried Upwork or Elance, etc.
When I first started using Fiverr, I felt like I was walking through a minefield.
But now, I’m a Fiverr addict. It has a gig for my every desire and I can't stop using it.
So far, I’ve used Fiverr for:
While there are some real gems on Fiverr, it has a learning curve like anything else.
The first lesson is the easiest and that’s the Fiverr lingo:
So let’s look at some Fiverr truths....
Nothing Actually Costs $5
Fiverr adds processing fees and VAT, so the lowest price is actually $5.85. Or $6.77, depending.
I even got the price $7.02 after processing and VAT.
I think the added fees depend where you and the seller are in the world.
If you are taking a gig that runs up to, say, $150, you can end up paying an extra, say, $40 in fees and taxes alone, pricing your gig closer to $200 than the advertised $150.
This is not the seller’s fault, nor is there anything the seller can do about it.
Furthermore, to get something decent, you usually need to pay more. Many gigs give you the barest minimum for $5. For example, a good ebook cover by an experienced and highly rated seller often costs at least $10. Many cost $20-$35. And even then, you can still end up with a formulaic book cover featuring the photo of your choice inserted into the template’s designated space. Now, this can still work if the seller uses a template that looks great both as a thumbnail and enlarged. However, a new seller desperate to for gigs and 5-star reviews might create a great cover for you for only $5. It depends.
More on getting the most out of Fiverr cover designers below….
You Get What You Pay For—Kind Of
I loved a $10 cover one seller designed for me. Yes, I needed to contribute a lot of input to get it like that, but he did a great job. However, my friend uses the same designer and orders his juiciest package (which includes interior book design) at a whopping $135.
And her books come out great--very professional and attractive.
This is how a free market works. Yes, he does a nice job at $10 (and throws in a 3-D cover to boot). But his $135 gigs are superb.
You Must Become Your Own Expert—Gulp!
Because the sellers are working for a much lower salary than their non-Fiverr colleagues, they can’t spend a lot of time and thought on your gig—unless you are willing to pay them for it.
This means that you need to have some idea of what you’re doing first.
And this is probably one of the most challenging and frustrating aspects of self-publishing.
For example, I ordered one seller's $45 package-gig, which included an ebook cover and a paperback cover. Let’s say $15 for the ebook cover and $30 for the paperback? Or $20 and $25? (BTW, this was a top seller and the examples of the seller’s previous work were most impressive.) In return, I got the seller’s standard cover with my photo inserted. On the back of the print cover, it featured just the text I sent and nothing more. I noticed something missing, but it took some research to figure out that it needed a teaser or headline. Why couldn't I figure it out right away? Because I’m not a cover designer.
Also, did you know that the cover you see on the screen is a lot lighter than your print cover will end up being? I didn’t. So with another seller, I kept telling him to darken the background image so the text would be readable and he never warned me. And guess what? When I received the actual paperback book, the back cover image was nearly black.
And good luck trying to find out online what typeface and font size your back cover should be. I tried and found nothing.
(If you know, feel free to add your information in the comments.)
Anyway, this means that you must research covers in your genre so that you can tell the Fiverr seller exactly what you need. Dave Chesson of Kindlepreneur suggests that you find a cover that you like and send it to your Fiverr designer as an example. You can even send a few to combine different elements, such as the title typeface of one and the layout of another. Go to online bestseller lists in your genre and see what they have.
Your other option is to pay the designer a lot more to include professional consultation. So even if you end up paying $80 for an ebook & paperback cover, that is still significantly cheaper than a standard designer’s price.
One thing I learned from examining different book covers is that many cover designers are not so amazing with title design.
(Note: Book covers are pushing the envelope more than ever, even in categories that never called for risque covers. The Book Designer is an amazing resource, but I offer this disclaimer out of respect for individual standards, which vary from person to person. Needless to say, this disclaimer applies to any site featuring cover art.)
Anyway, you can see some amazing cover art that features weakly designed or poorly placed titles and author names. This makes sense because cover design is one kind of art and title design is a whole different kind of art. Again, this is something you’ll need to learn yourself or find a Fiverr designer who excels at both.
You Need To Be Your Own Policeman
Some Fiverr cover designers use images without permission AND without notifying you that they've done so. Personally, all the Fiverr cover designers I’ve used either ask me to provide the images or they direct me how to legally obtain images, either for free or for pay.
But please be aware that you must stay on top of this.
Some companies and individuals are hawkish about this and will sue you (or at least demand you pay for the photo) if they discover their image used without permission in or on your book.
Eibhlin Morey MacIntosh discusses her experience in her post What Cover Designers Do…and Don’t Do. Here is an excerpt:
Before I discovered vikncharlie, another Fiverr cover designer created a cover for me. It looked great. Then, after a month of selling the book at Amazon, I learned that she’d used a Getty image without permission, and it’d cost me over $250 to purchase the rights to use it.
He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, He Loves Me….
Some Fiverr buyers complain that even when they find someone good, that person is not consistently good.
Of course, inconsistent quality doesn’t have to happen, but be prepared that it might, forcing you to intervene and possibly find yourself back at Square 1 when you didn’t expect it.
You Don’t Get ALL Your Money Back
You don’t get the tax or fees back. This can be inconsequential or major. ("Major" means the $50 in processing fees and VAT for 35-gig project you ordered.) You also can’t use your refund until you order a gig that is the same amount as the refund or less. So if your account accumulates $11.53 in refunds and you order a $20 gig, that $11.53 stays right where it is. Ultimately, you end up with an amount that you can’t do anything with, like 22 cents. When we're talking cents, it’s obviously not a big deal, it just doesn’t feel right. But that’s okay.
As you hunt for an honest and qualified seller (and they DO exist), you need to know how to weed out the ones who aren’t what they seem.
Forewarned is forearmed!
Games Sellers Play
Switcheroo—So, you’ve accepted the seller’s work and now the Fiverr process automatically takes you to giving a review.
However, you notice that the gig you’re leaving a review for is NOT the same gig you ordered.
I felt trapped the first time this happened.
You can actually skip the review because you already accepted and paid for the order, but I didn’t know that.
So I left a very specific review saying, “I love how the seller transformed my ebook cover into a wonderful paperback cover!” when the gig attached to the review was for creating an ebook cover from scratch. Why did he do that? Because this cover transformer now wanted to strike out on his own as a cover designer, but didn’t have reviews yet. So if you see reviews that don’t match the gig description, that’s probably why.
She’s Not What She Seems....—Does your young blonde seller from Canada make odd mistakes in English unrelated to American/Canadian differences? Does she always respond when it’s night time in Winnipeg? Did you need to correct the spelling on your book cover three times already? Does she not always understand what you’re saying no matter how clear and concise you are? Then maybe “she” is actually a “he” (or still a “she”) from the Asian continent. Or wherever.
Now, location isn’t such a big deal. Many non-native English-speakers achieve full English fluency. Like I said before, my book title creator is a native Serbian and creating book titles is a very language-specific task. Yet she did a great job.
Personally, I don’t care where the person is from or what their mother tongue is as long as they do the job right.
One of my favorite sellers is South American and I sometimes feel that I need to repeat myself or ask for a revision simply because something in the language wasn't clear. Yet his skill, talent, and personality make his gigs very worth it anyway.
But if you feel more comfortable with an English-specific task performed by a Canadian (or some other native English-speaker), then that is your right.
A 5-Star Review—Or Your Money Back!—Some sellers openly request that you either give a 5-star review or take a refund. If you’ve wondered how a seller managed 327 positive reviews without even one negative review, that could be the reason—although not necessarily. Some ask for feedback before you leave a review and if they see you’re not happy, they automatically refund your money—whether you wanted them to or not.
This can get really extreme as you’ll see in the following story:
I sent a proofreader a document, in which the proofreader found 2 typos. I later discovered there were 3 typos. The seller apologized profusely and got back to me to assure me that the document was reviewed again thoroughly, promising that this time, there were absolutely no other typos.
Because I tend to rate “up” on Fiverr (because destroying other people’s livelihoods is against my religion), I left her a 4.5 star review with a nice comment. But the seller was disappointed, saying, “I’d hoped for 5 stars from you” and asked me to go back and correct the review.
Now, this was not a 500-word document. It was much longer. If I send a proofreader a document with 3 typos and I get it back with 2 typos corrected, is that a good proofreading job? (Maybe I should get a percentage for finding the final typo....)
Anyway, that’s a 30% fail rate on what’s apparently a very clean document. Furthermore, authors NEED the first 2000-8000 words of their manuscript to be especially error-free because those are the words that appear in the online samples people peruse before deciding to buy your book.
Potential readers who catch typos can bypass buying the book in the assumption that if the writer couldn’t get the first 10% error-free, then the rest of the book must also be sloppy. Right?
Anyway, as shown above, the seller apologized profusely, claiming that such a thing had never happened before. Fine, we all have bad days. No one’s perfect.
But on the other hand, how can I know that it never happened before? Not only is the seller a total stranger, the only reason the missed typo got caught was because I caught it—perhaps because I have some background in proofreading. Maybe it happened lots of times, but the seller's buyers just never noticed? How can the seller really know?
Anyway, the seller argued that “I already told you that it was just an oversight and has never ever happened to me before.”
Okay, but the unique thing about proofreading as a profession is that its entire purpose is to catch oversights. (Having said that, proofreaders can never be perfect and even among the best publishing companies, an 80,000-word book can still have 2 or 3 typos.)
Then the seller explained that 4.5 stars lowers the overall rating much more than people think. Okay, I didn’t realize that. Good to know. But because I ultimately refused to give 5-stars for a non-5-star job, the proofreader insisted on refunding my money. For some reason, I felt bad, as if I’d been in the wrong, and accepted the refund at her request. At the same time, I felt I was being eloquently bullied into giving a 5-star review.
Ooh, I hate situations that bring up these kinds of conflicting emotions.
What's your take on it?
Anyway, it’s up to you to decide whether you accept a refund or leave a review.
Duplicate Reviews—When I first started out on Fiverr, I’d see 124 reviews, but half of them seemed to be duplicates. Maybe this was a bug from Fiverr’s end, maybe the same buyer took the seller 5 times within the same month or week and left the exact same review each time. (For example, I’ve taken a seller 3 times within 10 days, but I left a different review each time.) Sure, it could happen that someone needs several gigs done one after the other and they just leave “Outstanding Experience!” in their review each time. For example, a college student writing a bunch of different papers during crunch time could use the same proofreader several times within a short period of time. Anyway, I’m not sure what’s behind this. But I’m seeing this far less now, so I guess Fiverr is ironing it out. I think you'll see it more with the older sellers.
Partnering Up—Some Fiverr sellers leave positive reviews for each other. Now, this could be totally legit. It’s well-known that proofreaders should not proofread their own work, so it makes sense for them to get a fellow Fiverr proofreader to do it. And I have a friend who is both a buyer and a legit seller on Fiverr. But I caught a Fiverr proofreader doing this for a Fiverr proofreader who’d done a bizarre and terrible job on my manuscript.
(By bizarre and terrible, I mean that she inserted bizarre mistakes where there were none and did not correct even one typo.)
Finding Your Dream Seller
This is difficult, depending on your own level of skill within the task you need accomplished.
For example, how you can you know if a proofreader is any good?
As a former small-time proofreader myself, I wondered how could any of those 5-star reviewers possibly know if their proofreader really did the job? What if your eyes just don't catch the mistakes?
Also, a great many people lack decent grammar and spelling skills nowadays. (It's not their fault. Some people have learning disabilities and, in general, American education has plummeted.)
So if you can’t proofread yourself, how can you catch your proofreader’s oversights?
It could be they missed a ton of errors and you'll never know.
Through trial-and-error, I ended up with several sellers who proofread the first words of my manuscript, which I needed polished for the Amazon "Look Inside!" sample. And if they did a decent job (even if they didn’t catch everything), I didn't ask for a refund. With one, I didn’t leave a review at all, but let her keep the money because she was new and I suspected that rather than being unskilled or dishonest, she simply hadn’t figured out how to use her system effectively within the Fiverr time frame. I don't think it's fair for someone to do the work and then penalize them for being a beginner or for not being perfect.
Now, it’s obvious to me that many (if not most) Fiverr proofreaders use a proofreading program. That doesn’t bother me as long as they know how to use it. A good program can improve accuracy. To get the best job done, you need to use both the program AND your own eyes. I found out by mistake that these programs don’t pick up a period missing at the end of the last sentence before a chapter break.
So any proofreader relying solely on a program will miss it, too.
Here are some more tips for finding the best match:
Some people skip all the detective work and just use the top-rated seller with the most ratings. That can work out great, but sometimes they don’t give you what you need and they aren’t bothered by the handful of negative reviews lost in the shadow of their 2k+ positive reviews. (Like my experience with a top-rated cover designer above.)
Let them know your needs in advance.
For more great advice on dealing with Fiverr, please check out the following:
Dave Chesson on How to Use Fiverr to Make Amazing Ebook Covers
Eibhlin Morey MacIntosh on What Cover Designers Do and Don’t Do
Authors always yearn for an abundance of stunning 5-star reviews.
Three-star reviews can make an author feel frustrated, misunderstood, or ready to throw in the towel.
But in actuality, 3-star reviews can provide tremendous benefit to authors.
Have you ever bought a book based on a bad review—especially a 3-star review?
For example, when I was trying to decide between an author’s earlier and later work, I came across a 3-star review of his later work:
Very interesting concepts and well-written, but basically an updated version of his previous book. It is also seems to be written for people who don’t have a firm background in science and physics.
Perfect! I wanted an updated version of his previous book (which I hadn’t read), yet my right-brained grasp of science in general and physics especially was pretty weak.
So I bought that book. And I loved it.
Another time, I wanted to learn about the pre-existing factors that influenced the German people toward Nazism.
I came across a book which featured the following 3-star review:
Great content and thoroughly researched, but shows no appreciation for the Nazi movement. In fact, the author even seems to disapprove of Hitler and Nazism.
Just what I was looking for.
Different Types of Helpful 3-Star Reviews
The following type of 3-star review is actually excellent praise in disguise:
I really hate science fiction, but I decided to give this book a try based on all the rave reviews.
It was okay. Better than any other science fiction I’ve read, I guess.
Other times, the 3-star reviewer complains that the book is “really directed at people who think there’s a God” or “an amazing book that everyone I know has found so helpful, but the author doesn’t have a Ph.d, so how can she be qualified to write this?” or “Book arrived in terrible condition!”
These are all non-criticisms. So if that’s are all critics have to say about the book, then it must be pretty darn good.
Furthermore, I noticed that people don’t take the 5-star and 4-star reviews so seriously. How many times have you gone straight to the “Top Critical Review” to know the truth about a book?
Many readers especially suspect the initial 5-star reviews because they often come from fans, friends, and family members—whether they say so or not.
(Although fans don't always rave. Some are open regarding their feelings toward their beloved author's disappointing new work.)
Others have clearly noted this dynamic, which is why I think you sometimes find what is actually a 5-star review written under a 3-star heading:
BEST book I’ve ever read! The plot was amazing, the characters were absorbing, and the theme made my heart soar!!!
Fortunately, these reviews usually garner comments from alert browsers, such as:
Why did you rate this book only 3 stars?
You seem wild about the book. What didn’t you like that made you take two stars off what was otherwise the “BEST book” you’ve ever read?
If you liked it so much, why did you give it only 3 stars?
Why? Probably because the author’s friends realized what we’ve all realized:
Three-star reviews are taken more seriously and are often read first—or second, depending.
(Except that the 5-star reviews masquerading as 3-star reviews are obviously fake. Or mistakes.)
So yes, a large number of positive reviews is important to the marketing of your book.
But the next time you get hit with a 3-star review, just remember:
Every author needs those perfect 3-star reviews.
How to Self-Publish Large-Print Books
[Disclaimer: I’m just starting out in this. I will update this as I learn more. It could be that I’m mistaken in some of the following guidelines. Feel free to do your own research and draw your own conclusions. If your personal experience with large-print books contradicts anything written here, I hope you’ll feel free leave your recommendations in the comments.]
Ever since Eibhlin MacIntosh posted an article about her experiences with publishing her books as large-print editions (in addition to paperback and digital editions), I’d been waiting for the opportunity to do the same.
So now I am experimenting with publishing large-print books.
I did some research and, as usual, there is contradictory information regarding the best way to format your large-print edition, so I’m giving it my best shot.
I’ll post some links at the end if you want to start your own research.
But anyway, here is how I’m doing it and what I’ve learned:
Who Reads Large-Print Books?
Why Publish Large-Print Editions?
Large-Print Edition Requirements
This is where the contradictory information comes in.
For example, some experts say to use a sans-serif font (sans-serif fonts don’t have the little “legs” that serif fonts do).
Examples of sans-serif: Arial, Open Sans, Verdana
Yet others say to use only serif fonts (like Times New Roman or Georgia or Garamond). Yet others say that studies are inconclusive regarding which type of font (serif vs. sans serif) is preferable for the vision-impaired. Furthermore, this group even created a typeface called Tiresias based on their research into needs of vision-impaired readers. (As you can see, the font is bolder than average and is sort of between serif and sans serif.) In addition, most say the font size should be 16 pt. (and no lower), but Eibhlin successfully sells her large-print editions using Georgia 18 pt.
But this is what my research turned up about large-print formatting:
And my shorter book, Jews: Stuff You Always Wanted to Know But Didn’t Know Who to Ask, went from 120 pages to around 163 pages at 6x9 with Garamond 16 pt. and 177 pages with Georgia 18 pt. With Jews, I only needed to raise the price by a dollar or two, but with Yaelle, I needed to raise the price by several dollars.
But again, Eibhlin uses this size and feels it sells well.
So I guess this depends on the needs of your large-print readership.
Eibhlin successfully uses Georgia 18 pt., while other booksellers use Times New Roman 16 pt., and still others use the specially designed font mentioned above Tiresias (click on LPfont for Large Print books).
I contacted the UK-based Large Print Bookshop, which bills itself as the leading large-print bookshop and Mr. Guy Garfit was kind enough to reply clearly and promptly to my questions.
He states the following:
Interior Formatting for Large-Print Editions
This is where it gets fun. People with impaired vision can sometimes only see two words at a time, whether they are holding up a large-print page close to their face or using magnifier or OCR software. Any formatting that reduces clarity needs to go. Many self-publishers despise interior formatting, so this is a big relief. Basically, you only need to worry about page numbers and hyphens.
In other words, off with your headers!
Regular Print Example: He looks like a drunken rhinoceros, she thought.
Large-Print Example #1: “He looks like a drunken rhinoceros,” she thought.
Large-Print Example #2 (completely unformatted): He looks like a drunken rhinoceros, she thought.
I’ve seen all three used in regular-size print books, although italics are certainly the most acceptable option for regular books.
And what are the chances of any of my books being used in a classroom, anyway?
But just in case you need it, I included it here anyway.
See the Clear Print Guidelines for some instructions and good examples.
Note: However you format the large-print interior, you will need to go through it or hire someone to go through it to double-check that the hyphens and page-breaks, etc., work out according to large-print specifications. That is the pain-in-the-neck part of formatting for large-print.
Publishing with Createspace
Okay, this is where things get complicated again, but not impossibly so.
First of all, your large-print book is considered a whole new and different book in need of its own ISBN number. So you have to go through the Createspace process again, which isn’t so horrible, but there are other annoyances ahead.
Black text on white paper or cream paper?
Some large-print readers prefer black text on white paper while others find that contrast too strong and prefer black text on cream paper. At the larger sizes, Createspace does not allow you to use cream paper, so if you’re using the larger sizes, feel free to just use white.
I am sorry to say it, but you need to redo your cover for large print.
It depends on the size difference between your original book and the large-print edition.
You can have something on the cover that labels it as a large-print edition. Many publishers use a white disc or medallion for this while others use a semi-transparent banner spanning the top or bottom of the book. You can do this in Word, Open Office, Photoshop, Canva, Fiverr, or through your original cover designer (if you have one).
While most professional publishers seem to use a white disc, it seems that some use no front-cover large-print label at all.
But whatever symbol you use should read Large-Print Edition.
I hope you found this information helpful.
Summary of Handy Resources for Large-Print Publishing
Large Print Bookshop
(This is a helpful guide put together by experienced professionals in the business of large print and where I encountered the courteous and helpful Mr. Garfit. You can also browse their selection and see how it’s done with regard to covers, pricing, weight, thickness, and length.)
Round Table Guidelines for Producing Clear Print
(This was especially thorough and helpful.)
Eibhlin’s Personal Experience with Large-Print Publishing
Go Large Print! | eibhlin, writing
I always love her.
Tiresias :: Fonts :: Free downloads
They also have several articles on their site about vision impairment and research.
This is where you can get a book cover template any size you want. For a reasonable price, you can also have your book auto-formatted in the typeface and font size you need along with other nice bells and whistles. However, at the time I used it, the auto-formatting was more liberal with hyphens than a large-print book should be. But maybe that has been resolved by now. Anyway, its Australian owner, Steve, is extremely courteous and helpful if you run into any bugs. (And you can also hire his personal formatting services.)
Have you self-published large-print books? How did you do it and how did it work out for you? Based on your experiences either as a reader or a self-publisher of large-print books, do you agree or disagree with the above guidelines?
Please feel free to leave your recommendations and experiences in the comments.
One traditional Jewish stricture I forgot to include in Jews—Stuff You Always Wanted to Know, But Didn’t Know Who to Ask is the custom of maintaining no physical contact with the opposite gender—including no shaking hands.
Note: Judaism allows and even obligates physical contact between genders in order to save a life. For example, a male must rescue a drowning female (if he can) and a female paramedic must treat a male heart-attack victim.
While refraining from any physical contact sounds extreme and unnecessary in today’s modern egalitarian society—after all, what is the big deal about a casual handshake?—Judaism is actually quite firm about this.
Here are just some of the issues with shaking hands:
It is merely a religious stricture mandated for the Orthodox Jew’s personal standards and out of respect for the Orthodox Jew’s marital relationship (or potential marital relationship, as the case may be).
Of course, because Orthodox Jews are the only Jews who still observe this law, this presents awkward situations for both Orthodox Jews and for the unsuspecting secular Jews or non-Jews they encounter,
So how do Orthodox Jews handle a situation in which shaking hands is expected?
For the vast majority of Orthodox Jews, it is paramount to avoid offending the innocent hand-shaker in any way. (Jewish Law strictly prohibits embarrassing or insulting others.) However, if despite apologies, explanations, reassurances, and candy-offerings, the potential hand-shaker still remains offended, most Orthodox Jews will feel that they have done their best and will not violate this religious stricture, despite the other's negative feelings.
Of course, this kind of thing can lead to some amusing situations like the following:
Funny Story #1
Upon meeting her male boss for the first time, a European Orthodox Jewish woman responded to his extended hand by saying, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry and mean no offense, but I’m very religious and don’t shake hands.”
Later, the boss brought his wife to the office and introduced her to this same Orthodox Jewish employee. When his wife extended her hand in greeting to the Orthodox woman, the boss said to his wife, “What are you doing? I told you that she doesn’t shake hands!”
Upon which the Orthodox Jewish woman explained that the prohibition was not against handshakes in general, but only against shaking hands with the opposite gender—at which point, she warmly shook the hand of her boss’s wife.
Funny Story #2
A young Hassidic woman found herself in a reception line to shake hands with Nixon’s vice-president in honor of some amazing community work she’d conducted.
Surrounded by cameras and faced with a very important person whom she did not want to offend, she needed to come up with the right response. Yet having been raised by a family who’d survived Auschwitz and then later maintained a quiet life infused with strong Hassidic values on American soil, compromising on her religious values was not an option for her.
So when she found herself face to face with the Vice-President, she gave him a nice head-shoulders bow and a big smile, and in her charming Southern accent, she said, “I am so sorry, Mr. Vice-President, but my religion simply doesn’t allow me to touch men.”
In response, he gave her a smile, a nod, and some friendly small talk and then just continued on to the next person in line.
So what should you do when faced with an Orthodox Jew of the opposite gender in a situation in which a handshake is the perfectly acceptable norm?
As far as the Orthodox Jew is concerned, it’s usually preferable not to offer your hand in the first place, and to make do with a verbal greeting instead. But if you do extend your hand in greeting, I hope this article will help minimize any feelings of offense or discomfort if the Orthodox Jew reacts with any of the non-physical responses listed above.
When I used to read Mishpacha magazine, Libi Astaire was one of the writers whom I would always read no matter what topic she addressed, and even whether it was fiction or non-fiction (though I no longer read fiction, although I write it, funnily enough). Being a history buff – especially women’s and Jewish history – I’ve had my eye on Day Trips to Jewish History for a long time.
So I finally bought it and was not disappointed.
Libi covers all sorts of stuff that isn’t widely known, but is very intriguing. For example, I’d always wondered about the following:
And for some reason, I’m always very interested in what people ate at different times and in different cultures.
Libi covers this, too.
The book also addresses a wide variety of periods, topics, and cultures in Jewish history:
This book is a real gem in the Jewish history genre.
I first discovered Rivka Levy when she was writing for Breslev Israel Magazine and I finally realized that the majority of articles that resonated with me the most were written by her. When she announced she was creating her own blog, I surfed over there to check it out, liked it, and decided to stay. Ditto for all her other blogs as she opened them.
In conjunction, I read Garden of Emuna and had an epiphany which finally propelled me to sporadically talk to God until my conversations with Him settled into a regular thing.
Then a lot of other stuff happened (one of which was my dad died with no warning whatsoever) and I lost my spiritual equilibrium. No, losing my father didn’t call my faith into question, but a lot of strange things happened in connection with that, which opened my eyes to realities that I’d been ignoring or whitewashing (which is easy to do when you are thousands of miles away from those "realities").
Because Rivka Levy’s writings continued to deeply resonate with me, I reached out to her for – well, I wasn’t sure what. She didn’t and still doesn’t have much spare time outside her work and family, but she still managed to send me short messages bursting with meaning and emuna. In just one or two sentences, she would manage to say exactly what I needed to hear even though I was a complete stranger to her. It also meant a tremendous amount to me that she was speaking on my behalf during her daily conversations with God.
I could feel the difference.
And with some bumbling and fumbling of my own, I managed to get back on track, more or less.
Since getting to know her a bit more, I pay closer attention to almost anything she publishes. When she came out with The How, What, and Why of Talking to God, I knew I had to read it.
And even though I’ve read Outpouring of the Soul and In Forest Fields, I still discovered helpful guidance in Rivka’s book for certain struggles I’ve been having.
For example, I never have the problem of not having what to say to God – a problem that is common in other people who talk to God. I have the opposite problem: too much to say, too many thoughts at a time, and getting distracted, unfocused, or streaming into daydreaming – which I hadn’t seen covered in other writings on hitbodedut (talking privately to God in one’s own words).
This little book helped wallow out of other areas in which I’d gotten mired down and couldn’t see my way out. There is a lot of problem-solving, which is very helpful.
As a pre-teen and teenager, I wanted to talk or write in a journal to God, but I didn’t really know where to start. Sometimes I kind of tried, but immediately felt overwhelmed or lost. I could’ve really used something so short and so easily digestible, yet so thorough, to help me get started.
Another plus is that this book uses not only the personal experience of the author and others, but also scientific studies.
Personally, I've seen how talking to God in a meaningful way changes everything - literally. Things I just couldn't get to work out or situations that "experts" insist can't be changed or improved without intense and complex intervention, actually did improve or even got resolved once I started talking to God regularly. Many things either improved or resolved on their own or else I suddenly received a new insight for a method that actually worked. But even the things that are still hard are at the same time, not as grueling as they were before.
I highly recommend this book for beginners, for the religious and spiritual seekers, and for the doubters.
Now I bet you think I’m doing this as a favor to the author because I know her.
Well, I’m not.
I know other journalists and authors, and I don’t necessarily plug their books or articles. Rivka Levy has never asked me or even hinted at me to do so, and I could just ignore her stuff if I wanted.
Except that I don’t.
This book really, really helped me now as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, and it would have really, really helped me when I was a completely secular teenager.
Having said that, when it’s a book about God and spirituality, it’s important to know whether the person behind the book practices what she preaches.
And in this case, I've really seen that she does.
I was brought up in a traditional-secular home. Though proud of my Jewish identity, I wasn’t interested in keeping the parts that either seemed inconvenient or meaningless. At one point, I even believed that it didn’t matter if I married a Jew because my kids would be Jews and I’d raise them with the Jewish stuff I found personally meaningful, so who cared who the father was?
I came to Eretz Yisrael for the first time with a traditional-secular summer program and absolutely fell in love with the Land. Though I never considered myself spiritual, I felt a beautiful tranquility at the Kotel (the last remaining Wall of the original Jewish Temple) and kept coming back for more. The program also made us keep some semblance of Shabbat. That, combined with the Israeli Shabbat atmosphere, sparked within me the need to seek out a more Sabbath-observant lifestyle, which led me to the Orthodox community.
Following the Torah Road
I went along my newly religious path, mostly loving it and wanting more of it. The only thing I was not able to resolve was the issue of emuna (faith in God's loving kindness and grace) and trust in God. I was able to mouth the words in order to fit in, hoping to "fake it 'til I make it," but though I’d always believed very deeply in God and often felt Him guiding me, I still possessed some inner resistance to the idea of total emuna.
It wasn’t anybody’s fault as many people possess emuna on only the most superficial level without even realizing it, making it impossible to pass it on to others.
So when it came to emuna, I was basically presented with two role models.
Role model #1:
The simple Jews who believed that God runs everything and who are quite generous, giving freely to Jewish charities, the poor, the sick, Jewish schools, and the like.
They truly believe that charity and acts of kindness, like visiting the sick, bring them blessing. And they certainly did talk to God whenever they had a problem – though with many of them, their God-directed conversations often seemed to consist exclusively of complaints and embittered requests. But that was still far above what I and most of the people I knew were doing. The problem was that many of these simple people (but not all!) seemed pretty unhappy. They also frequently transgressed some very serious and fairly obvious prohibitions. Spreading rumors, slandering, hating others, inciting petty controversies between others, a certain immaturity, and the like were standard by many of these people. To confuse things even more, I kept hearing about how much we should admire the emuna of these simple people. (I realized later that it was their deceased parents and ancestors who were the truly God-intimate and self-sacrificing simple Jews I’d heard so much about.) Of course, their religious beliefs and their willingness to speak directly to God were spot-on and far more elevated than those of the oh-so educated traditional-secular Jews with whom I’d grown up, but outside of their basic belief in God and their dedication to certain commandments, many of these simple Jews were simply not people to emulate.
Role Model #2
Then there were the Jews who constantly chirped, "Just have emuna!" or "Just pray!"
If they ever saw someone struggling with an issue, they tried to cut them off as soon as they could with one or both of the above phrases, often accompanied by a smile and chuckle that implied the sufferer was a bit of a nitwit. They never lent a listening ear nor a shoulder to cry on (so to speak), and rarely offered any meaningful help; they just chirped their comfy platitudes. I couldn’t help noticing that they often had some pretty serious problems in their own lives which they handled by pasting on a beatific smile, relegating even the most pressing problems to the status of spilled milk, playfully mocking anyone who took the issues more seriously. They recited Psalms and some even spoke to God, while keeping everything very superficial. I couldn’t help getting the impression that they more interested in finding a philosophy that justified their chosen state of denial - and a declaration of emuna simply fit the bill. A very few gave lip service to searching for God’s message in it all, but gave no sign of actually doing so. They reminded me of little girls who enjoy playing house and stumbling around in a pair of Mommy’s old pumps and costume jewelry – except the emuna-chirpers sincerely didn’t seem to know they were pretending.
So I got the impression that emuna meant either that I’d be generous but kind of depressed with a bad character OR that I’d be lazy, superficial, and delusional.
But I didn't want to be either one.
Going through the Motions of Gratitude and Emuna
Furthermore, the other reassuring concepts were actually not so reassuring in my ignorant state. Every time I heard how everything is from God, even the bad stuff, I didn’t find that comforting – in fact, I found it frightening. Some pretty nasty stuff happens. If Hashem is actively making that happen, well, then...?
Plus, I would hear a lot about seeing the good in everything and feeling grateful, but every time I felt inspired to get all appreciative ("Changing diapers is a huge kindness! Think of all the childless women who yearn to perform this tedious and yucky chore!"), I’d always come crashing down shortly after, leaving me with a kind of spiritual PTSD that meant I couldn’t pick myself back up again because I so dreaded the inevitable smash and burn.
Furthermore, the benefits of gratitude and appreciation were rarely explained, just that it was something you were supposed to do. I was getting lengthy and profound explanations about the benefits and truths inherent in Shabbat, keeping kosher, and listening to the shofar-blowing on Rosh Hashanah, and the Creation of the Universe as written in Genesis...but when it came to the Jewish fundamentals of emuna and gratitude to Hashem, it seemed like there was no deeper understanding or compelling reason for them – except to quip that internalizing such concepts would make me a happier person. (And as I described, it did for a very short while...until the smash and burn, making me feel even worse than before.)
Emuna – It’s the Real Thing
So I did what many others seemed to be doing and I pushed it to the back of my mind, living a life of spiritual dissonance – which was still a million times better than my former life of secular dissonance.
At one point, I read Gate of Trust in Duties of the Heart, and that helped a lot. But I was too stuck to really internalize the concepts.
Finally, after a lot of resistance, I forced myself to read Garden of Emuna.
"Only a paragraph a day," I promised myself so I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed.
But to my surprise, I couldn’t stick to just a paragraph. The book was answering every single one of my reservations! All the things I never wanted to admit to anyone or felt to overwhelmed to discuss were addressed – and resolved – in this one little book.
Now I understood why so many of the romanticized simple people seemed so miserable: Connecting with Hashem consists of three parts:
I also finally understood why the second group was such a turn-off:
Needless to say, pushing buttons and turning dials on a radio does nothing if it's not plugged in.
Now that I finally had the whole truth whomped in my face, I realized what I ultimately needed to do.
A Spiritual Awakening - Take 2
Gritting my teeth (so to speak), I forced myself to ram against certain attitudes I’d clung to my whole life (including in my adopted Orthodox life) – attitudes that were essentially against the Torah and actually harming me and keeping me from having any chance of breaking out of the klippah (a type of obstructing spiritual "shell" or "peel") I’d always sensed had ensnared me. So I went against my nature and did what the book said. And I had a momentary breakdown that was painful yet liberating – sort of like shattering out of a glass prison: You break free, but gosh, all those little shards hurt like the dickens while you're doing it.
But only for a few moments.
Getting a Glimpse
Okay, this next part gets a bit weird, but that's how life is sometimes.
In His great Kindness, God then sent me a few dreams which were clearly glimpses of past lives. And even though I didn’t (and still don’t) have the whole picture, I finally understood a smidgen of why I’d had to go through certain painful events and why other things had never (and still haven’t and may never) worked out, no matter how hard I’d tried. And I got a taste of God's tremendous Loving Grace in allowing a one-time good deed in an otherwise barren former incarnation to be the window into getting yet another chance in this lifetime to get it all right. Or realizing that in His great Generosity, God had previously given me all the things I lacked and craved so badly in this life – but I’d wasted those gifts or used them wrongly in past lives.
Those wonderful gifts had ended up becoming stumbling blocks.
Depriving me of them now wasn’t punishment, but merely a removal of stumbling blocks in order to facilitate my way to the victory I’d missed several times before. God gives us LOTS of chances, but eventually, you end up on your last. So this lifetime was now more grueling, but also less likely to end in failure.
And at this point, I divide my life between before I read Garden of Emuna and after I read Garden of Emuna.
Tending the Garden
With newly discovered emuna, it was like becoming religious all over again. The excitement and passion was back (along with the normal newly religious ups-and-downs and the newly Orthodox state of "I'm Not Always Sure What the Heck I'm Doing, But At Least I Know The Right Direction, So I'll Just Give It My Best Shot!"). And I wanted to share my new-found knowledge with everyone and engage in lots of exploratory discussions, but couldn’t because other people weren't always on the same page. (Just like when I become Orthodox while still in the secular world.) This was jarring at first, but it taught me some valuable lessons and paved the way toward meeting like-minded people from whom I could learn.
After reading Garden of Education and applying the principles, I saw how even the most unsolvable child-rearing problems were either now solved or at least improved, and I got rid of all my other child-rearing books. The emuna method both demanded more effort yet was simpler than any other method I’d ever tried. Although I was told that I was burying my head in the sand, it was obvious that facing head-on the ugliest parts of myself only because I know that’s best for my child demands more courage and grit then all the running around to different experts, lectures, and schools (which I’d been doing before – with hardly any result, except feeling exhausted and beaten).
Now that I've gone through Garden of Gratitude, I understand more that true gratitude is not a superficial or lazy. Real gratitude is work!
And presently, I’m grateful for all those role models of false emuna because they were such a turn-off (especially the well-meaning chirpers) that they kept me from taking the easy way out and forced me to hold out for the real thing. If I hadn’t kept searching, I never would have found it.
Obviously, I am not a pillar of trust and faith in God and may never be. And I still fall on my face (even though it’s not the smash and burn of yore).
But words can’t express the tremendous joy and relief of at least knowing the path that can lead me there if I try.
When I was six, I slept in the room I shared with my 4-year-old sister, who slept in the bed against the opposite wall.
One morning, I opened my eyes to a mass of matted tawny hair.
What could it be?
The color and fullness reminded me of a lion’s mane.
I froze and stared at the tawny mass, racking my brains to think if it could be anything other than a lion.
To my increasing fear, I couldn’t think of anything else that possessed such a thick tawniness.
But how could a lion have gotten into my bed?
Very gingerly, I leaned back and sat up, then I carefully leaned forward to see what was on the other side of that tawny mane.
It was the face of my honey-blonde sister!
The relief that came whooshing through me on the heels of the intense fear and tension overwhelmed me and I started yelling, “What are you doing in my bed?! Get out of my bed!”
She woke up, blinking disorientedly. “What are you doing here?” she mumbled.
“I’m supposed to be here!” I said. “This is my bed!”
“No, it’s not,” she said. “This is my bed. You get out.”
The injustice of it all infuriated me. “NO! This is my bed! Look – ” I pointed across the room “– your bed is over there! See?”
Her brow wrinkled in sleepy confusion. She crossed her arms and glared at me.
Then our parents came in to see what all the ruckus was about. When they saw us, they burst out laughing.
I tried to plead my case regarding the terrible scare I had at waking up to find my lion-haired sister in my bed, but they just laughed and explained that she must have sleep-walked in the middle of the night, and that it wasn’t her fault.
“She probably just missed you,” explained my mom.
Alas, I was out for justice. “But I thought she was a lion!” I was almost crying. “Do you know what it’s like to wake up and think that there’s a lion in your bed?!” As far as I was concerned, such a fright must never happen again.
My parents cocked their heads and stared at me with bemused frowns while my sister looked disgruntled.
As all writers know, it’s not easy living with a wildly careening imagination (and I regret the indignation with which I woke my sleep-walking sister), but when that kind of imagination and emotion is channeled properly, it can make for some mighty good storytelling.