It is Erev Rosh Hashana, and within an hour we will have 15 people at dinner. My wife, Deborah, is assured and organised, so there’s no frenzy in our household. Until, that is, just before logging off for the evening I received an email any writer would love.
It had been nine months of gestation for the results of Moment Magazine’s Jewish short story competition to emerge, and I’d been impatient to hear how I’d done. I didn't think my tale, Lecha Dodi, was going to win the competition. Though my great friend Rabbi Lewis Warshauer, who lives in New York, said that my story was “perfect” for Moment, which is a long-established journal of Jewish culture, politics and lifestyle.
Lewis had been right: my story had fitted and I was the first place winner of the 2014 Short Story Contest.
One of the books I cherish is James A Michener’s The Source, with a favourite chapter being 'The Saintly Men of Safed'. Michener brilliantly evokes the Kabbalists in that northern, hilltop city who went out in the fields to greet the Sabbath Queen. One of their number was Alkabetz, who penned the transcendent Lecha Dodi Friday night song. I had always wanted to do something with the notion of worshippers walking into the fields, and began writing my contest entry in the middle of December 2013 with this in mind. The deadline was the last day of the year.
I had been to Safed as a teenager. I remember its ancient streets; I can still picture the duck egg blue of synagogue walls – that colour being one to ward off evil.
As I wrote, I also researched the city online, looking at mikvahs (ritual baths), and came up with a central character, Rabbi Mordechai David, who used one particular mikvah before Shabbat, as some pious men do.
Unbidden, the image of a young woman, running across the male worshippers’ line of vision, inserted itself into my creative consciousness. My story coalesced: it would be about the vision of Miriam Levi, running heedlessly, ecstatically, in the fields. The men would wonder: "is that truly Miriam, and if so, why is she disturbing men at prayer?" Rabbi Davide tries to find out.
I arrived to a snowy New York and headed out with Lewis. New York’s 5th Avenue was ablaze with festive lights, throngs of shoppers, and ice skaters at the Rockefeller Center.
I was invigorated by the prospect of meeting the novelists scheduled for the awards ceremony the following evening. Sadly, Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic and The Museum of Extraordinary Things, who had been the contest judge and had written thrilling words of praise for my story, was forced to cancel her appearance. Anita Diamant, of The Red Tent fame, would be appearing alongside novelist and academic Dara Horn.
At a dinner before the ceremony I was pleased to meet Danielle Leshaw, a rabbi and writer who had been placed second in the contest, and Courtney Sender, the third place winner. The conversation was all books and being Jewish.
At the ceremony, held at the Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side I read an extract from Lecha Dodi. The stage was then given over to a conversation between Anita and Dara. Their discourse was engaging and humorous.
I left New York on Saturday night, following a Shabbat morning at Habonim, a welcoming Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side. During my final New York hours, we enjoyed a bracing stroll in Central Park.
Back in England, my life has resumed, but I continue to write and submit short stories. I hope that in a future issue of Jewish Renaissance, you’ll be able to read about Tales of Freedom, my novel of storytelling and resistance, set in Prague and Poland in World War II, and ending up in the land of Israel.
By Paul B Cohen
Paul’s story Lecha Dodi can be read online at Moment Magazine.