Updated: Sep 13
As the Jewish holiday season arrives, thus ushering in the new year, I wanted to reflect on the special power of story in all of our lives. I was inspired to write this piece thanks to a pamphlet published by the Vaad Harabanim (The Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington) that I recently picked up in my family’s synagogue. The article that caught my interest in particular was titled “Never Stop Speaking” by Rabbi Moshe Hauer, the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, about his thoughts on transmitting the stories of the dead as a means of sharing essential value systems with the living.
Following the yahrzeit (the anniversary of a death) of an old friend, Rabbi Hauer reflected on an ancient teaching in the Talmud about how after a person is gone from this world, the walls of his house tell the story of his life. In Judaism, when a person passes away, his family sits in mourning for him inside their home. They invite the community to grieve with them, but when community members enter the mourning house, they don’t speak first—they wait for the mourners to speak. The mourners sit on the floor, bringing others close to them to share (hopefully) inspiring stories about the deceased.
As Rabbi Hauer points out, the enduring messages of our loved one are embedded in their environment. This is why the home is an appropriate place to share stories and communicate the values that were held dear by the deceased during his lifetime, so that other members of the community can benefit from this person’s life experience.
One of the greatest gifts God gave mankind was the power of speech. When we live our lives with integrity, true to our cherished value system, we grant ourselves the power of speech beyond our lifetime. We continue to speak, as Rabbi Hauer puts it, so that our life’s message continues to be heard long after we are gone.
“How can we craft a message,” he asks, “that we will continue to communicate after we have left this world?”
For many writers, this is the reason we write. We write to document our unique views of the world, to share, to convince, to inspire, to leave something behind when we are no longer able to write. When you speak from the heart, your voice enters the hearts of others.
As I read Rabbi Hauer’s article in the synagogue this Rosh Hashana, I couldn’t help thinking about the memoir I completed earlier this year. The story covers seven years of my life—in the tumult of my twenties—and took me another seven years to write.
On the surface, the memoir is about my experience as an American trying to find her place in the Israeli security community. But it’s really more than that. It’s about the distorted view I had of the world and my place in the world starting out in my career. It’s about all the ways I screwed up, while trying to convince the security community that I was perfect. It’s also about the essential need of individuals to find acceptance in a community, along with the pitfalls if an individual doesn’t find self-acceptance first.
There’s a lot of humor in these adventures, but there’s also material that makes my skin crawl because it shows a side of me that I’d rather not share. So, after seven years of writing this story, here’s the rub: I didn’t want to publish the story as a memoir at all. I was going to publish it as fiction. I would have the satisfaction of being a published novelist, and no one would be the wiser to the idiocy of my twenties.
My friends in the film industry were appalled by this decision. “People are affected more deeply when they know it’s a true story,” they insisted. “You’re practically robbing the audience!”
Another friend advised, “Fast forward to when you’re an old lady. Who cares? Like, who cares if a few people judge your story? The embarrassment will fade, but you’re going to regret not publishing that story for the truth that it is.”
So, as the new year begins, I’m pitching my manuscript now to literary agents. As memoir.
Going back to Rabbi Hauser’s question: how can we craft the right message that we will continue to communicate after we have left this world? This is the exact question I had to ask myself several times while writing my memoir. Unlike autobiography, which covers the entirety of someone’s life in chronological order, memoirs tend to focus on a particular theme or event of one’s life. This means a memoir can take many shapes.
Basically, the storyteller has many choices in how they choose to tell their story.
With this in mind, I want to share some of the questions I asked myself during my own writing process that helped shape my story. Maybe these questions will help you shape your story, too:
1. Where do I start and end this story?
2. What does this character want and what is she willing to do to get it?
3. Who is this character at the beginning of the story and how does she change by the end?
4. What flaws does this character have and how do they wind up tripping her up?
5. What is the overall lesson I want readers to take away by the end of the story? (Hint: it’s the critical lesson that YOU need to learn by the end of the story.)
To learn more about how to edit your own memoir, click here.
Rosh Hashana is a perfect time to think about our own creativity. On Rosh Hashana, we are celebrating the anniversary of our creation. It is the day on which God said, “Let us make man.” Who is this ‘us’? Judaism is a monotheistic religion, so it can’t mean other gods. The Zohar, a mystical Jewish commentator from the 13th century, explained that “us” was actually an invitation to man—the very man God created—to join in the act of creation. Essentially, God was telling humanity, “I will create the raw materials, but you must finish the job.”
Deciding how you want to tell your own story is an act of creation. The act of storytelling is a gift that is accessible to all of us.
“All of us need to find that eternal voice within ourselves,” concluded Rabbi Hauer. “We must consider how we will perpetuate the lasting messages of those who brought us into this world and formulate our own lasting messages. We should find that voice and those messages and carry them forward, loud and clear.”
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.