Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Female rabbi finds passion in writing


Naomi Levy


When she was 4 years old, Naomi Levy knew she wanted to be a rabbi. But in the Orthodox Jewish movement in which she was raised, only men could be rabbis.

"People would laugh. They thought it was funny. Weird. Cute," she said. "As I got older, I learned that I shouldn't mention it. But I held onto it."

During her senior year at Cornell University, the Jewish Theological Seminary announced in the New York Times that it would begin admitting female students.

"I yelled. I jumped up and down," said Rabbi Levy, who was in the first class of women students to enter the JTS's rabbinical school in 1984. "I felt really blessed. I can't even describe what that was like for me."

Rabbi Levy came to Sylvania Tuesday to present a lecture on spirituality at the Northwest Ohio Jewish Book Fair, held in the Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim.

She recently published her second book, Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration (Knopf). Her first book, To Begin Again: The Journey toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times, published by Ballantine Books in 1999, became a national best-seller.

While she always knew she wanted to be a rabbi, a second career as an author came as something of a surprise, Rabbi Levy said in an interview before the lecture.

"I never would have contemplated writing a book," she said, adding that she never did any writing or showed any inclination toward writing until she became a rabbi.

She discovered that talent through preparing sermons twice a week, she said. At first, she followed a standard outline for sermons as taught in rabbinical school. But eventually she departed from the routine and began writing sermons based on stories she learned about the people in her Southern California synagogue, Mishkon Tephilo.

They were tales of survival, triumph, heartbreak, tragedy, and joy - the full range of human emotions and major life experiences that a rabbi gets to share with his or her congregation.

"Writing became such a joy, such a passion," Rabbi Levy said. "I never expected it. But I felt this pressing need to write that book, To Begin Again. Not writing it became painful."

She tried to squeeze time to write her book in between duties as a rabbi, wife, and mother of two children, but found it nearly impossible. So she opted to resign her position as a congregational rabbi and devote herself to writing.

Rabbi Levy, 40, said she was "very fortunate" to find an agent and sign a book deal within two weeks after leaving her job as a congregational rabbi.

Furthermore, she said, "just by sheer luck," she found a mentor in William Goldman, one of the most successful writers in Hollywood whose credits include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President's Men, and The Princess Bride.

"He wanted a rabbi, and I wanted a writing mentor," Rabbi Levy said with a shy smile.

One of Mr. Goldman's most helpful recommendations, she said, was to set aside time every day to write and not to wait for inspiration.

To Begin Again, which offers progressive Jewish advice about coping with some of life's most difficult moments, something that Rabbi Levy has experienced personally. When she was 15, her father was shot and killed by a mugger in Brooklyn.

In her lecture, Rabbi Levy said the loss of her father had a profound impact on her life and those around her.

"My mother died, too," she said, speaking metaphorically. "She was not the same mother she was before."

Rabbi Levy lost her faith in the police for not catching her father's killer. She lost her faith in doctors for not saving her father's life when he was rushed to the hospital. The holidays became painful events with her father's empty chair at the end of the table.

And in her mind, "God died," she said, as she questioned how "the God of the universe, the God of miracles, the God who parted the Red Sea" could let her father be killed so senselessly.

After years of thought and reflection on these issues, she began to see God in a different light. God is not a "Superman" who rescues Lois Lane and punishes evil on a daily basis, as newspaper articles showing that evil abounds on the Earth.

With this new understanding and expectations of God, Rabbi Levy said, her faith became renewed, "more mature, deeper, and stronger than it had ever been before" and "the dream that had died when I was 15 was resurrected."

Speaking to an audience of about 50 in The Temple's chapel, Rabbi Levy said the first indication that To Begin Again would reach a broad audience came when Parade magazine, the Sunday supplement published in newspapers across the country, including The Blade, called to seek permission to publish a chapter.

She said her new book, Talking to God, is based on the belief that the process of writing prayers did not end when Jewish prayer books were edited, but should continue over time.

The book offers personal prayers for pregnant women, grandparents, for driving, for difficult days, for food, and for seeing God's hand in both ordinary and extraordinary life experiences.

Rabbi Levy's latest project is Nashuva, an outreach to Jews who are not affiliated with any congregation. Starting only a year ago, and with no advertising except word-of-mouth, the monthly Nashuva services draw 250 to 350 people, with a total of more than 700 people involved.

She has been consulting people around the country and created a Web site,, to help get the word out.

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