Bookmark These for Summer Reading

Summer is here, and the time is right for touring authors. Here are the highlights of the season for poolside and airplane reading, including some local appearances by the authors themselves.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at and can be reached at

Psychic Channels Her Gift Into Novel

"Miriam the Medium" by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro (Simon & Schuster, $23).

I don’t know how many Jewish psychics there are in Great Neck, N.Y., but Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is easy to spot in the lunchtime crowd at Bruce’s, a restaurant and bakery in the heart of the Long Island town.

On a bright day last week, Shapiro, who has just written a first novel about a Jewish psychic in Great Neck, "Miriam the Medium," is carrying a colorful parasol. She’s dressed in a suit of flowing blue silk, with a pink top, and a tie-dyed scarf that pulls together the colors and adds purple; her jewelry is in the same color scheme. As much as her clothing, her very clear and pale aqua blue eyes stand out.

Shapiro has lived in Great Neck for the past 27 years, but it is only recently, with the publication of this novel, that her psychic powers are becoming widely known locally. A couple of articles have appeared in a Great Neck newspaper, and she penned a "My Turn" column in Newsweek about the psychic gift she inherited from her Russian-born grandmother, who called herself a healer. And, at her synagogue, the Reform congregation Temple Beth El, she recently "came out" to her fellow congregants and rabbi.

At the back of Bruce’s, where a significant scene in the novel takes place, a framed cover of the book jacket is hanging along with the page that mentions the popular eatery. We meet the eponymous Bruce.

A woman approaches the table and introduces herself and clearly wants to ask Shapiro’s opinion on something that doesn’t seem to have to do with the Danish she is eating, and Shapiro reminds the woman that she doesn’t do impromptu readings. This scene occurs again and again for Shapiro, as she explains, whether she’s at a party or at the supermarket and, even when she’s speaking casually, people can attach purpose to her words.

Shapiro is a phone psychic. She used to run ads for her services, but now her business is word of mouth or she’s recommended by therapists. In fact, she has never met most of the people she works with, as she looks ahead — at their urging — at the intimate details of their lives.

She explains that when she would do readings in person, she was always having visions.

"I was breaking for accidents that would happen the next day," she said. "I was losing things."

In working over the phone, she finds that she can "channel" her gift.

"Otherwise my life was distressing with the gift," she said. "It wasn’t a gift to me when I didn’t know how to control it."

Her self-description mirrors her character, Miriam’s, lament. She writes,

"For most of my life, I’d walked around like a big antenna, picking up private hopes and future secrets from passersby, indiscriminately. I suffered from sensory overload."

Shapiro seems to have much in common with Miriam, but the author denies that the novel is autobiographical. She explains that although the setting might be real, the plot is entirely fictional.

"In order for my imagination to run, I need concrete and specific things I know," she said.

So not only is the main character a telephone psychic, but her husband is a handsome pharmacist, just like her own.

The fictional Miriam has always kept her career — helping others in their romantic, business and other pursuits — secretive in the Great Neck community. Her husband, who is having financial problems at his pharmacy, is not interested in her advice and their teenage daughter is embarrassed about her mother’s occupation, and unmindful of her mother’s intuitions about her new boyfriend. Miriam asks, "I could help strangers put their lives together, but how could I keep mine from falling apart?"

Her beloved dead grandmother — who taught her to use her gift for the general good, not for her own gain — rejoins her at moments, even in a bagel store, where Miriam is moved to add a braided challah roll to her order: "Even though she had come only for a moment, she was to my mood what yeast is to dough."

The novel is peppered with references to Great Neck, along with Yiddish and Yiddishkayt. Although she now speaks only a little Yiddish, she has a deep feeling for it, as it was her first language. Shapiro has written a first novel that’s humorous, and also takes on themes of forgiveness and self-understanding in a thoughtful way.

I wonder if Shapiro will know my questions before I ask them. She says that she doesn’t channel her writing.

"What I love best is storytelling," Shapiro commented, discussing the process of creating a novel.

Often, she would call a friend and spin an episode of her narrative, writing it down as she told it. "I don’t think in a linear way," she says, noting that she kept track of the unfolding story on a large roll of freezer paper.

The author, who grew up in Rockaway, N.Y., said she first showed signs of her psychic power when she was a young girl. At age 4, she told her father that one of the customers in his grocery store was going to die. Her father responded by saying impossible, that the man was healthy as two horses. Four days later, the man died of a heart attack.

When she was around 9, she began to be asked to leave friends’ homes when she would make comments about things like impending divorces.

"It wasn’t that I was trying," she said. "It was as if I had already been told, as though someone had a conversation with me."

Her grandmother was able to look into a woman’s eyes, and tell if she was pregnant. And she could look at the whorls on someone’s fingertips and tell if that person were prone to certain diseases.

Shapiro says that she feels an affinity with biblical figures who had visionary powers, like Joseph, in his interpretation of dreams.

"What people like about me is that I’m the thinking person’s psychic. I’m educated," she said. "I won’t be telling them hokey stuff and curses."

As she begins her work, Shapiro prays.

"I ask to be a channel for miracles for other people," she said, "to please serve them," so that through her, whatever it is that they need to hear to heal their hearts and bodies, they do hear — "something to help them live better."

"Sometimes when I’m getting dressed in front of a mirror, I’ll see someone standing next to me," she said. "It can be someone who belongs to one of my clients."

Before beginning to write the novel, which took seven years, Shapiro, the mother of two, studied poetry writing in a Great Neck adult education program. She found that her poems kept getting longer and longer, and that she "has a need to write more."

About 30 years ago, a famous clairvoyant told her that she would publish a story with Simon & Schuster. When she heard that the publisher was looking at the novel, she says that she knew that they would buy it.

"I think it’s so great to be putting out a novel at age 57. It’s such a hopeful thing, that life can always hold out the most wonderful surprises."

Now Shapiro divides her time between writing and working with her telephone clients, and has almost completed a sequel. She said, "I have a lot more Miriam in me."

Personal Liberation

How does one prepare for freedom?

One Jewish answer is found in the reading of the four special portions read along with the regular Torah portions in the weeks before Passover. This coming Shabbat, for example, not only do we read Torah portion Tetzaveh, but we also read three verses from Deuteronomy (25:17-19).

Each of these four special portions is known by a unique name. The four special readings are:

Shekalim, which means "shekels" or "weights," is where we read about the census of the Israelites conducted through each one giving a half shekel to the sanctuary (Exodus 30:11-16). We read Shekalim along with Torah portion Mishpatim on Feb. 21.

In Zachor, meaning "remember," we are bidden to remember what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). We read Zachor on the Shabbat before Purim.

Parah, meaning "cow," is where we read of the purification ritual of the parah adumah, the red heifer, from Numbers 19:1-22. This year we read Parashat Parah on March 13 with Torah portion Ki Tissa.

In HaChodesh, meaning "the month" or "this month," we read of the actual Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:1-20) on March 20.

I have used these parshiyot as a guide to one aspect of a Jewish view of liberation. This Jewish idea of liberation starts with the notion that we do not seek individual salvation but communal redemption. It is often times in those relations with others, family, friends, community, that we find ourselves in the shackles of anger and disappointment, and it is in the realm of our connections to each other, and not only with God, that we ought seek redemptive lives.

On Shabbat Shekalim, we are counted in the community by giving one half shekel. Several notions are significant here. First, if we want to find liberation, we must connect with a community. Second, the act of connecting with a community is an act of generosity. Synagogues and other spiritual communities are often commodities that people consume; once a Hebrew school education has been consumed, for example, people often leave. From the perspective of Shekalim, we join by giving, not by taking, and the primary thing we give is generosity of spirit. We try to bless each other with our presence, not just meet our own needs. And when we slip, we bless each other through forgiveness and working through. We recall that we do not arrive whole; we give a half shekel to recall that we seek to complete ourselves in relation to others.

On Shabbat Zachor, we remember Amalek, the nemesis of Israel. In traditional literature, Amalek is usually figured as the enemy without — the haters of Israel. From the spiritual perspective, however, Amalek can be "the enemy within." (See Rabbi Elijah Schochet’s book by that name.) On this Shabbat we recall those many things that can destroy those spiritual communities, from the family on up, that we do join and create. We often find that anger, resentment, grudges, hurts and slights that we do not deal with in mature ways can fester and cause us to act destructively. We cannot find our way to liberation if we do not combat our own Amalek-like behaviors.

On Shabbat Parah we learn of the purification rituals regarding one who has come into contact with the dead. From the point of view of liberation, we learn that we cannot find true spiritual liberation if we do not allow certain parts of us to die. In the Chasidic tradition, this "death of ego" is sometimes referred as bitual ha-anochi, the effacement of the self. It is ego-self that can stand between us and the experience of the divine. It is usually the ego- self that often stands in the way of forgiveness, empathy, understanding, patience and mindfulness. If we want liberation, we must be willing to let go of destructive aspects of the ego, and be purified of aspects of the self that enslave us.

On Shabbat HaChodesh, we find that the time to move is now. We often move ever so slowly in our work with ourselves and others. The night of the Exodus tells that the time to move is now — the freedom train is leaving the station and baggage limit is strict. We hold on to our excess baggage from inertia, from laziness. Those less-than-noble thoughts, emotions and behaviors do not become us. We can let them go, and lovingly encourage others to let theirs go as well.

Liberation and redemption have many forms. I’ve touched on only one scheme here. I know from my work and work with others that sometimes the greatest redemption we can achieve is with other people. And the time to work is now.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is rabbi of Ohr HaTorah congregation and provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California campus.

Spinning a Jewish Web

When preschool teacher Sylvia Rouss noticed a lack of children’s literature about Judaism, she did something about it: she wrote the books herself. Rouss, who teaches at Stephen S. Wise Temple, is the author of the popular "Sammy Spider" series, which are widely used in Jewish schools around the country.

"I use the spider as a vehicle to teach young children about Jewish holidays and Israel," said the Tarzana resident. In her latest book, "Sammy Spider’s First Trip to Israel" ($6.95, Kar-Ben Publishing), which was released in July, Sammy tags along when the family he lives with makes a special trip to the Holy Land. "It is very hard to find any books for young children on topic of Israel," Rouss said. "We try to teach [children about Israel] every year because it is so important at a Jewish school."

Earlier, when Rouss completed "Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah" (Kar-Ben Publishing, 1993) she was asked to create a series around her crawling character. It wasn’t long before the young spider experienced Passover (1995), Rosh Hashana (1996), Shabbat (1998), Tu B’Shevat (2000) and Purim (2000). While "Sammy Spider’s First Trip to Israel," is the arachnid’s seventh adventure, Rouss has written numerous other books as well as two anthologies and two activity books.

Having traveled to the Jewish homeland every year for the last 27 years, Rouss has developed a strong connection to the country. As such, she just wrote a new book for older children called "Tali’s Jerusalem Scrapbook," which is about a young girl living in Israel. The story deals with terrorism through the eyes of a child. Rouss is quick to point out the importance of going to Israel during times like these. "When someone’s sick, you make a point of visiting them," she noted.

In addition to the "Sammy" books, Rouss recently released a preschool rhyming book called "The Littlest Candlesticks" ($14.95, Pitspopany Press).

Meet Sylvia Rouss as she gives public readings of her three most recent works on Sunday, Oct. 27 at 10 a.m. at Temple Beth Israel, 3033 N. Towne Ave., Pomona, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel & Pomona Valleys, (626) 967-3656; and Sunday, Nov. 24, 11:30 a.m. at Pages Books for Children, 18399 Ventura Blvd., No. 15, Tarzana, (818) 342-6657.