1. Why did you write this book?
I wrote this book because I firmly believe that the Cain and Abel story has indispensable moral messages for our violence and hatred plagued planet. It is a foundational story of the human experience, and I wanted to convey its power to a modern audience.
2. How is the Biblical story of Cain & Abel story relevant in 2021?
As I write in the book, we humans with our big brains have never been able to do more damage to each other and to the planet than we can do currently. For all our technological sophistication, morally we still too often miss the mark when it comes to being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Rather than lecture us about the imperative to do good, the story of Cain and Abel draws us into its moral message with an intriguing narrative that inspires us to ask each other new questions and seek new answers about being decent human beings.
3. Why should a modern reader read this book?
My book uses the dynamic framework of modern courtroom drama and crime stories to look at the world’s first great crime against humanity. I take a wide variety of explanations and comments from Jewish tradition on the story to make the story – and our application of it – come to life in entirely new ways.
4. What will a modern reader gain from the book?
At the very least, a modern reader will find an entertaining and invigorating new way to study and argue about one of the world’s oldest and most famous stories. At the very most, a modern reader will read my book and be able to act more justly and courageously upon that greatest of lessons found in this story: we must act as each other’s’ keepers.
Finally, a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a novel.
The cover is coming this week!
What led you to write a book?
Around nine years ago, I devised a six-week relationship enrichment program geared towards individuals and couples. With permission from the participants, I recorded our discussions. I walked other practitioners and rabbis through it as well. I also taught the program as a series of classes to students in our local yeshiva. Along with the earlier recordings, I recorded and transcribed the classes. Although I faced a small setback when losing some recordings from a damaged USB flash drive, I found the entire experience to be fruitful and insightful. When Mosaica Press reached out to me and expressed interest in doing a joint project, I was excited to already have a Google Doc with sixty-four pages to devote to writing a book.
Many people encouraged me to “get my message out there.” Like everyone, I needed some encouragement to get started. If it weren’t for certain rabbis’ encouragement to write the book, I’d still be second guessing myself. Since the guiding principles and tools in my relationship program (and book) are sourced in Hashem’s Torah, I didn’t feel like I could take any credit for them. And to boot, the voice in my head constantly reminded me, “You’re not worthy.” Had the rabbis not told me that I must certainly take credit for the ideas, I’d still be stuck. There probably wouldn’t be a book. One rabbi in particular said to me, “I’ve seen some of these Torah sources before. I didn’t see what you see, but now I do. You’ve really got something here. You’re not just allowed to take credit for it. I think you should take credit for it.” I suppose, since I’ve written the book, I may now say that I truly own the ideas.
This led to a burning desire to write down many of the Torah-driven tools and principles that I use in my practice. I brainstormed for a year and typed out more than 500,000 words.I chose to start with this particular book because it focuses on the main thing that we all suffer from, the main ailment that negatively affects our soul, the very thing that always gets us stuck. We easily get lost in the negative labels that we’ve adopted over the years. I’m referring to the old stories which hold us back from moving forward and from having productive and fulfilling lives. I zeroed in on how this affects our relationships and the relationship we truly want to be having with ourselves.
I also wrote the book as a wake-up call. I’m a huge advocate for redefining how we think about and treat people’s problems, especially the most common ones of anxiety and depression. There’s a better way to get unstuck, to grow, and to better one’s relationships than what traditional psychotherapy has had to offer. We have to roll with the times. There is very little point to analysis. How many practitioners claim to no longer embrace the medical model but are still telling their clients: “You may be feeling anxious but it’s more important to find the underlying cause.” The Jewish approach is very different. Both the symptoms and the root of the cause are treated as the same. Psychological analysis can really backfire. Therapists mean well, but are ritually throwing their clients deeper into their most painful struggles. Without Torah guidance, psychotherapy can be very misleading. Like all fields of study, psychology may be one of the wisdoms of the world, but it does not stand on its own. The Maharal begins his Nesiv HaTeshuvah with a quote from Mishlei: חָכְמוֹת בַּח֣וּץ תָּרֹ֑נָּה בָּ֜רְחֹב֗וֹת תִּתֵּ֥ן קוֹלָֽהּ, “Wisdom shouts out into the public fair; in the streets she gives forth her voice.” We know based on a Tanchuma that chochmah is Torah. Why does King Shlomo pluralize the word? It should be chochmah, but instead, he writes chochmos. The Maharal explains that King Shlomo is referring to the different wisdoms that exist in the world. He likens the philosophies and sciences to the limbs of the body. Hashem’s Torah he calls the rosh, the head of the body. Torah is the true brains behind the field of psychology. Psychotherapy should not be practiced on its own.
What did you learn during the process of writing this book? Were there any surprises for you?
Oh, yes, I had many surprises along the way. What I didn’t realize was how much the writing process itself mirrors the struggles of normal everyday life. And for an author, writing is their life. It’s what consumes most of their thoughts and time. There are many stages to the writing process, and just like in real life, it’s not unusual for an author to begin feeling uneasy somewhere along the way.
For example, as I indicated earlier, I had the opportunity to brainstorm for a year. I typed out over 500,000 words. And then came the reckoning. I knew it was coming. I took a creative writing class in middle school. At the time, I submitted a twenty-page paper. I had such a thoughtful teacher. Instead of criticizing my work, she said, “I see that you’ve written many stories here. Just choose one and write that one for me.” So when my writing coach told me that I had to choose one of the books to start with, it was painful. I remember holding on to that pain for about five minutes, and like every uncomfortably muddy feeling along the way, I let it go.
I’ve been watching your videos and really like them. One concept you shared stuck out for me. You said that if someone is insulted or offended in a relationship it is because they are insecure in that relationship—they aren’t confident in the relationship. So, if I am challenged in a relationship, it is really about how I perceive the relationship. Am I understanding that correctly?
Yes, perception is key. When a person is feeling emotionally negative it’s an indicator that they are lacking confidence. When a person feels insulted by another person, the first place to check is the nature of one’s relationship. When our relationship is shaky, it means we lack confidence in the relationship. If we always find ourselves getting offended in the relationship, it might be in our best interests to take a break from this particular relationship.
Another way to gain confidence in the relationship is by pinpointing and strengthening the glue that’s been holding the relationship together all along. This effort to label and define what binds two people together is what changes our perception of the relationship for the better. There’s nothing more powerful for a relationship than bringing to light the very elements that hold it together.
You also mentioned that I might not be confident in knowledge of something and that could also be part of insecurity in a relationship. Did I get that right?
Not quite. If we are discussing a topic with someone and we feel insulted, it may be due to our lack of confidence about the subject matter. Although it’s easier to put the blame on the other person, educating ourselves about the topic is a better way to go. It allows us to gain confidence about the subject matter, and as a result, be less prone to feeling offended.
Are there some immediate steps you can suggest to someone to become more comfortable in a current relationship?
The best way to grow comfortable in one’s relationship is by focusing on the basics. When one’s relationship is feeling shaky, it behooves him or her to go back and focus on reinforcing the emotional baseline of the relationship. The following two fundamental steps help a person to begin feeling more comfortable in his or her relationship:
1) Create Undivided Moments
Giving someone undivided and focused attention tells him that he is important as an individual. This top-priority individual time builds connection and trust. This time does not necessarily need to be hours — even ten minutes is effective. In times of trouble, people turn to a person who made them feel important. Everyone needs to feel important to someone. Denying a person individual time forces him or her to seek it elsewhere. Whether it be spontaneous or fixed time, we must make sure our moments together are mutually enjoyable. It’s important to listen to the other person. A person wants nothing more but to feel understood. The point is to be a person’s confidant and pillar of strength, providing him or her with emotional security.
2) Focus on Appreciation
Appreciation is crucial to any healthy relationship. Spend five minutes a day appreciating all the good this person adds to my life. (This doesn’t have to be one chunk of time.) Appreciation is something we do for ourselves. Focusing our attention on a person’s best qualities helps combat the anger, frustration, worry, negativity, and overwhelming feelings of daily life. Bringing to mind his or her unique qualities helps us focus on what a gift this person truly is. We don’t want to get to the point at which we have to lose something to appreciate it. Find joy in what you have NOW.
Just to go back to your book. What can a reader expect to take away from your book?
There are times in our lives when we feel anxious, down in the dumps, or lack impulse control; we feel unsure and disconnected from ourselves. How we perceive these moments of instability in our lives directly affects how we define ourselves and our relationships, and how we engage the world as we walk our own path.
We may not always be conscious of it, but much of life takes place smack dab in the muddy middle.
It’s reassuring to learn that none of us are alone when it comes to stumbling into the muck. We all know what it’s like to lose direction in life. Whatever path we’re taking, we’re all bound to get stuck at some point along the way. It’s not always clear how to move from point A to point B. Yet, there’s hope. Every time we pull ourselves out of the muddy middle, the wiser and more confident we become.
Once we are fully aware of our whereabouts, we can always ask ourselves this most poignant question: “Where do I go from here?”
Fertik may not be the author we’d expect. He is a serial entrepreneur and venture capital investor and a strong supporter of Israel. Maybe it is this unusual background (for a mystery writer) that enables Fertik to offer up a fast moving thriller in a city he visits often as a business destination.
Hip Set will introduce many to an unfamiliar side of Israel. Something that makes this book exciting is that Hip Set is a reflection of what Israel is really like today. There is crime, unsavory criminals, and gritty detectives trying to stop them. At the same time, it paints an alluring portrait of the White City’s cafes and beaches that makes you want to hop on a plane and spend your summer with your feet in the sand, gazing at the beautiful people meandering down the boardwalk.
I have to admit it was really cool to have bestselling author Faye Kellerman say that Fertik’s book is “…fast paced with an original, exotic setting, HIP SET is an unstoppable read from first page to last.” I am not traditionally a mystery or thriller reader but I have to agree with Ms. Kellerman, Hip Set grabbed me.
Check out this recent online event which Michael as a guest of the Jewish Book Council and the JCC of Metro Detroit.
I’m delighted that Prepare My Prayer by Rabbi Dov Singer is a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award. I was privileged to be the publicist for this important book which is the English translation of the Hebrew bestseller “Tikon Tefilati“. Both books are published by Koren Publishers.
An invitation to fundamentally reconsider prayer and make it more personally relevant, this book speaks to so many. Just as Corona was beginning to hit, Rav Dov visited the US and the positive reactions of audiences proved how the messages and challenges of his approach to prayer fit perfectly with the needs of many Jews today.
Watching Rav Dov interact and share with an audience is something to behold and the ability to distill many of his ideas into a book was an important step helpful to Hebrew and English speakers alike. It’s worth investing time in watching Rav Dov teach online (see You Tube). Follow the Makor Chaim Facebook page here to keep up to date with online courses with Rav Dov and more.
This morning, under the news radar, Jonathan Pollard arrived in Israel. Accompanied by his wife Esther, he flew in a private jet (obviously donated for the cause) to Israel. Landing in early morning darkness, he was greeted by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
For anyone who has followed and sympathized with Pollard’s long journey, watching him walk down the steps of the plane, kiss the ground and receive his Israeli identity card from the Prime Minister, it was poignant. Despite the crime he committed, it seems to be common wisdom that he was singled out for extraordinary punishment far exceeding that of others convicted of similar crimes.
After serving close to 3 decades in American prisons, Pollard was then required under the terms of his parole to live an extremely limited life for five years in New York City.
But this is all past and he and his wife are now taking part in the uniquely 2020 ritual in which all arrivals to Israel must participate: quarantine.
Once this is all over and Jonathan settles into a more normal life, I hope that he will write a book where he shares his experiences. It will be interesting to read about his being arrested at the entrance to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC or his plea bargain which was not honored. However, I think it will be most interesting to read about how Jonathan dealt with his long prison sentence. How did he get through the daily grind in jail (what was the daily grind?)? Did he have relationships with other prisoners or the prison staff? How did he observe Shabbat and holidays? What kept him going? What was it like to walk of the prison gates a free man? What were his first observations from being in the open world for the first time in decades? There must be scores of small and great dramas, victories and defeats which Pollard experienced.
I think many await hearing from Mr. Pollard. Let’s hope he shares his experiences in writing.
Conversion is constantly in the Jewish news cycle. Does your book address the various controversies surrounding conversion to Judaism?
The current controversies are always about how people convert. My book is about what happens after people convert and become Jewish, which is an incredibly important issue.
The reason conversion is such a “hot button” topic today is because there is a huge sociological [and halachic] change taking place in our community where so many people are seeking to and actually converting to Judaism.
Modern Judaism is changing through conversion, just like 30 years ago the ba’al teshuva movement changed our community in very basic ways as so many Jews began practicing Orthodox Judaism.
We are being changed by righteous converts who are choosing to join our people. And many times we are not treating them correctly.
What is the key message of your book?
Although the focus on how to convert and the standards for conversion seems important, actually how we treat people who have already converted to Judaism in our community is much more important a measure of us as a Jewish community.
Why did you write this book?
For a few reasons. I was astonished to discover no one else had written this book in either English or Hebrew. Due to the increase in the number of sincere converts to Judaism, both in the US and Israel, this book is needed. Conversion is much more common now than ever before.
Another reason is because converts are the most admirable segment of our community. These are people who have a choice and they choose to be Jews.
Did anything surprise you as you wrote the book?
Yes. Besides the fact that no one else had done this, I saw the large variety of issues and the need for categorization. So I focused the book on what I found to be six basic underlying questions which exist when approaching the topic of conversions and converts. These are things like how a convert relates to their family of origin, the obligation all Jews have to love converts, issues that arise when dealing with marriage or converts holding positions of authority and more.
Do you think this book could have been published 150 years ago? 50 years ago?
In pre-modern times conversion was very rare and this book would not have been needed as much as now. It would still provide material to learn as interesting theory, but it would have been less practical.
Who did you write this book for?
There are a number of audiences for this book; intellectuals and academics. People who are considering conversion to Judaism as well as people who have already undergone conversion. An additional audience are the Rabbis and Rabbinic courts which carry out conversions.
Do you think the phenomenon of conversions to Judaism today is unique? How so? How does it differ from other countries?
I think that the total lack of secular stigma is the unique feature of our generation. Someone who converts to Judaism in the US can tell people at work about their conversion without losing their job or damaging their career.
How does conversion today differ from those of, say, 25 years ago? Or 50 years ago?
The growth of serious, observant Judaism has given rise to more serious converts and conversion. Conversion to Judaism is common and normal today and this is good.
Telling the life story of Rabbi Dov Cohen, To Rise Above begins in Seattle, WA in the early 1900’s and via train and ship takes readers to pre-state Palestine. As a young boy Dov lived in the idyllic (and rare) circumstances of a wealthy Orthodox Jewish family in Seattle. Fully dedicated to observance of Jewish law, the family was also able to take part fully in local life due to their financial success and broadmindedness.
But all was not well in paradise. Dov’s brother went off to NY to study in yeshiva and came back unmotivated and uninterested in continuing his Torah education. His observance level was not one of a young man excited about being an Orthodox Jew. Dov’s mother realized that the US offered nothing like the Torah education she wished for her sons. She then took the dramatic step of traveling with 13 year old Dov across the world to seek out a place in Palestine that would provide the education she wanted for Dov.
And this is when the journey through the history and Jewish life of pre-state Israel begins. It wasn’t easy to find a yeshiva for Dov. After false starts in Tel Aviv, Dov ends up learning in the Jewish holy city of Hevron (Hebron) at the Slabodka Yeshiva. Dov’s mother returns to the US and they meet again only after 10 years.
Slabodka was a flagship of the mussar movement dedicated to living at the highest standards of Jewish ethical behavior. It is fascinating to read about the experiences of a young American Jew living within the Jewish community of Hevron and pre-independence Israel of the 1920’s. Daily life is described showing the intensity of the yeshiva students and their everyday idealism as well as the difficulty of being a teenager so far from his family. The author doesn’t whitewash over various tensions which exist within the yeshiva. Readers will be hardpressed to find other books in English which offer such detailed insight into this flourishing Jewish community.
In painful detail, Dov describes the experiences of living through the Hevron massacre of 1929. The violent rioting by Arabs and murder of over 60 Jews could easily have been stopped by British police on the scene. Dov describes the incredible scenes of suffering as the British authorities do nothing to stop the Arab pogrom. This is a must read for anyone interested in Hevron and the events of 1929.
Dov relocates with his yeshiva (post-riot referred to as the Hevron Yeshiva) to Jerusalem in the wake of the riots. The dislocation and confusion Dov experiences would today be quickly labeled as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The book eventually reaches 1948 and Israeli independence. Dov serves as the first Rabbi of the Israeli Air Force which is fascinating because although he was part of the Haredi community, he saw his work as a mission to ensure that the new institutions of the nascent Jewish state were set up taking into account Jewish tradition to whatever extent possible.
We follow Dov Cohen through the development of Israel and his life. The end of the book contains a fascinating copy of notes that he kept on a daily basis documenting his efforts at self-improvement proving that he was truly a student of Slabodka who tried to live according to the ideals of mussar until the end of his life.
This book is a must-read for those interested in the history of the Jewish community of Hevron and pre-independence Israel as well as those stirred by mussar.
It is always exciting to read about the Shalem College (in articles such as this one in The Weekly Standard). I was brought on as the head of media relations at the Shalem Center (the precursor to the college) in the 90’s as it came onto the educational and intellectual scene. The dream was to start a university dedicated to the highest standards of intellectual inquiry while providing a real liberal arts education. The atmosphere was super dynamic and job descriptions changed or expanded as needed. I was eventually put in charge of setting up the recruitment of students for the new Shalem Fellowship program. Many of the fellows are now top academics and journalists in Israel today. Shalem gave me my start in book publicity when I worked with an amazing Tel Aviv book publicist on the Hebrew translation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Disobedience, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and other classics published by Shalem. The next mission was setting up distribution for Shalem books in Israel as well as growing the subscriber base to the Shalem journal (Azure in English and Tchelet in Hebrew). At one point I was told “go to NY and figure out how to distribute our journal so we don’t have to give it out for free”.
The rest is history as I learned all about the book industry in the US and Israel and have never looked back. The dream of the Shalem College has come to fruition and articles like the one mentioned above are evidence of how successful it already is. Shalem has done much to bring quality books to Hebrew readers and by setting up a liberal arts, “great books” college, it ensures these books are actually being read.