One Rabbi’s Book Tour

I am watching my wife with Matt Lauer. She is on “The Today Show,” sitting across from the handsome host, both of them locked on each other’s eyes the way beautiful people lock eyes on, well, television.

It’s a strange thing, sitting on our couch alone watching Matt Lauer with my wife. I am rooting for him to become visibly awestruck by her. I want him to express his awe on air, to tell the world how wonderful she is.

Why? Mostly because it’s true. And also because it sells books.

My wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy, was in the first leg of a 14-city national book tour that took her from home for most of last November and, intermittently, many other days during the year. Even as I write this, she has embarked on Book Tour II, a 12-city, 22-day tour to promote the just-released soft back edition of her non-fiction book, “To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength and Faith in Difficult Times” (Ballantine). Not surprisingly, most of the touring takes place in November. That’s Jewish Book Month, when communities across the country hold book festivals (see page 12), and Jewish authors race from one reading to another.

Most authors, especially first-timers, need to go on the road to give their book a chance to break out of the pack. From the start, Naomi’s publisher believed her message would touch not just Jews, but everyone. Fortunately, Random House is one of the few publishers that still has a first class touring apparatus in place: publicists in major cities set up interviews and signings, media escorts cart the author around. There’s even a media consultant who spent a day on the other side of a video camera, coaching Naomi to answer all questions with a moving personal anecdote (The Hook), a positive suggestion (The Advice), and the title of her book. All in the space of 30-seconds. And don’t forget to smile.

One of the first appearances of her book tour career would be on “The Today Show.” Seventeen million viewers, and she had a week to prepare. And remember, said the media consultant, “Nobody wants heavy at 7 a.m.”

From the start, it seemed that Naomi, her book, and the nineties media blitz would be a strange fit. Naomi’s father was murdered when she was 15. Her subsequent journey toward healing and understanding culminated in her becoming a Conservative rabbi, and helping others face pain in their own lives. The book tells Naomi’s story and those of her congregants at Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, where she served for seven years. But how do you turn tragedy into a sound bite? How do you tell the most painful story of your life over and over without cheapening it? Moreover, the advice in her book is powerful precisely because it isn’t snappy and self-helpy. It is rooted in her deep beliefs about the power of faith and community. If people wanted advice without context, there were always fortune cookies. Or, of course, talk shows.

Along with that, my wife, who spent a year in sweat pants and T-shirts writing the book while raising our two children, bucked at the smart suits and fancy makeup that would become her attire on and off for a year.

Balance all these downsides against this fact: She poured her heart and soul into this book, and she felt its message would bring great comfort to a broad audience. If she wanted to reach people, she had to hit the road.

So off she went — from Boca Raton to Seattle, from San Diego to Boston. You’d have to run for president to rack up more frequent flier miles. I was back in L.A., sometimes finding myself interviewing other authors on their leg of the Great Book Circuit, staring into their sleepless eyes and wondering if my wife, somewhere in America, looked even half as bad.

Every weekend, or every other weekend, she came back bearing small gifts for the children, and more and more remarkable stories for me. In Dayton or Cleveland– she no longer remembered which– a black cab driver was thrilled to find out his passenger was a rabbi. As they approached the airport, he looked up in the rear view mirror. “On behalf of all black people,” the cabby said. “I want to apologize for Louis Farrakhan.” He explained that his father was one of the liberators of a concentration camp. “He taught me to fight hate wherever I see it, because he saw what happens if you don’t.” As the cab pulled away from the white zone, Naomi stood stunned, overwhelmed by the sudden exchange.

Another cab driver beseached her for the reason why bad things happen to good people. Her book maintains that we will never know why, but we can learn how to heal and experience joy again after sorrow strikes. When Naomi asked what provoked his questions, he said his sister, a good woman, lost their mother and her daughter on the very same day.

Nor was that story unusual. As Naomi traveled, cabbies, audience members, book store owners, media escorts, even interviewers took her message as an opportunity to open up. At a time when so many people feel alienated by religion and cut off from their faith, here was a listening ear and honest, thoughtful advice for dealing with life’s tragedies. One media escort broke down on the way to a book signing. Why, she asked Naomi, had her brother had to die so painfully and at such a young age from pancreatic cancer?” A car ride became a counseling session.

But along with the moments of intimacy and depth came the shallow frustrations. Media escorts who got lost on the way to appearances. Reading to a standing-room-only crowd at a bookstore, whose manager had forgotten to order books to sell. Interviewers who hadn’t a clue what she had written. One Jewish journalist admitted as much to her, then switched on his tape recorder and said, “I know, why don’t you ask yourself the questions I should ask you, then answer them?” (I apologized to Naomi on behalf of all Jewish journalists).

The touring brought Naomi within reach of book promotion’s brass ring: a date with Oprah, the Book Goddess herself. Oprah’s people were impressed that Parade magazine had excerpted a chapter of “To Begin Again.” And that Naomi had gone six minutes solid with Matt Lauer, and he liked her, and she looked beautiful. And though her book touches on death and heartache, she knew to focus on its powerful message of hope and healing.

Oprah’s people pre-interviewed her. They re-pre-interviewed her. She flew to Chicago. She kept her expectations low. Her first date with Matt Lauer had been delayed when home-run king Mark McGuire strutted into the studio and bumped her appearance back a week. She was upset, but only because she didn’t have a baseball for him to sign.

Then, before she knew it, there she was, face to face with Oprah, talking about the healing ritual of Shabbat. Naomi stressed that one way to find the time for introspection that recovery demands is to turn off the television. A stage scowl from Oprah. A burst of laughter from the crowd. “Sorry, Oprah,” Naomi smiled.

It’s a strange thing, Naomi told me. When you’re a pulpit rabbi, people tend to judge your success by how big your congregation is. And when you’re an author, they all want to know how many books you’ve sold. “To Begin Again” did become a national bestseller. But there’s no New York Times’ tally for how many lives you’ve touched. A Catholic priest told Naomi he copied the prayers she had written in her book and said them with his novenas. A woman in Minneapolis told Naomi she taped the prayers to her bedroom mirror.

Not long ago, Naomi flew off to Boston to be the keynote speaker at a conference on healing at the Harvard School of Public Health. Among the hundreds who came to hear her were parents of children killed in the massacre at Columbine High School. As Naomi spoke of healing, of facing grief, they broke down and cried. They came up to her afterwards and thanked her. They told her she had brought them a level of comfort that no one else had. They embraced.

It was better than Matt, better than Oprah, and worth it all.