"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."