Author Spotlight Mrs Esty Feinstein

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Author Spotlight: Mrs Esty Feinstein

Welcome to our Author Spotlight, featuring Mrs Esty Feinstein, the spirited and insightful author of “The Lamplighter.” In this interview, Mrs. Feinstein opens up about her inspirations drawn from her extensive experience as a Chabad emissary and rebbetzin. Delving into her profound connection to her community and the personal sacrifices made to nurture it, she shares the compelling stories and the heartfelt dedication behind her book. We explore her unique writing process, the challenges and joys she encounters, and the impactful moments that resonate deeply with her readers. Join us as we illuminate the journey of a remarkable author whose work not only tells stories but fosters a deeper appreciation of Jewish life and community.

Inspiration and Writing Process

  • What inspired you to write your book?

I used to joke with my family, “Oh, that would have been a good story to share,” or “If only people would know how much we cared, they would never worry about coming to Chabad.” It’s a safe haven for all, and each person’s growth in Yiddishkeit would be an organic evolution on their own time.

My friends and fellow shluchas, emissaries, would always mention to me how if only their congregants and others would understand the total self-sacrifice given over to their community — on so many levels — they never would worry about whether the rabbi and rebbetzin care or truly understand them. Instead, they would almost automatically grow a deeper connection, relationship, and inner respect for the shluchim.

When I first started writing, I couldn’t imagine anyone really believing that I had given up my rented three-bedroom ranch and moved into a five-hundred-square-foot apartment in the middle of the frozen tundra, just to make sure the community felt the Chabad house was theirs. The decision to do this was rewarded with many people filling up the new Chabad house. It was to embrace the community and feel that the rabbi was approachable and available for them when needed.

The loneliness of shlichus is real; it’s hard to always be on when one day slides into the next, and the rabbi and I want and need to be there for the community. I feel my place on shlichus is an outpost, not the typical place. It’s to be there for support, to be there in everyone’s hour of need. Whether it’s shiurim, book club, women’s programming, or house visitations, we’re here with love.

Our shlichus is unique because we are two hours away in every direction from an organized, healthy, observant Jewish community. Therefore, we become like an outpost, a lantern, and a beacon of hope for many people who need to make a parnassah, with nothing but our Chabad house to comfort them and nurture them with every Jewish need they find in their hearts. Many people we bump into joke, and some more seriously observe, that our “frozen tundra” city — as our makom ha’shlichus is affectionately called — is an outpost of Jewishness and nothing else, except for the brave people, for miles and miles around.

I remember feeling this need to share with my community and the greater Jewish world community about the inside workings of a Chabad House and the love a rebbetzin has for her congregants. A rebbetzin is not just the wife of the rabbi but his partner and the heart of the Chabad house. To the rebbetzin, each person is her extended family: special, cherished, and loved regardless of their level of observance.

  • What was your writing process like?

I feel very connected to my writing because each story brings with it a memory, a story of giving from my role as an emissary of Chabad and a rebbetzin to the community — and to that particular congregant, who becomes a part of our family in every sense of the word.

  • What resources did you find helpful when you were writing your book?

My book is short stories, each with its own theme and unique lesson for people to feel inspired. I didn’t map it out, so to speak, but I did have an idea of trying to make sure it was about fifty stories and have some order to the stories.

I found Mosaica highly professional in their working relationship with me. I started working with my good friend Heather, whom I’ve known for close to seventeen years, who is a great university professor of English. I was so blessed that she helped me tackle each story, without changing my unique style, and uplifted them to make them shine and stand on their own.

However, when I came to the editing and art team of Mosaica, it was an incredible process. Each person was very skilled in their position and was focused, clear, and smooth.

  • Can you describe a moment where you felt profoundly connected to your writing?

There was a great group of Reform women from the older generation, and b’hashgachah pratis, I started going to their Jewish book club. They chose to read my book and loved it. It was the first time I realized the deep and profound impact my book could have on others. When I first started writing, I struggled with sharing my stories because they were so personal, but I remembered reading the memoirs of Rebbetzin Chana — the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mother — and how her stories had created an instant connection within me toward her and many others.

I held my breath as the group came to the book club to examine my book, and as I opened the door, many of the women embraced me and felt an emotional connection toward their Judaism, with a great pull to do the right thing. One woman who had begun coming to my women’s events cried and told me that if she’d understood how much a rebbetzin cares, she might have chosen a more religious life — and who knows where she would be in her observance today.

Challenges and Enjoyment in Writing

  • What are some of the challenges you faced while writing your book?

I loved writing The Lamplighter! As an emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, my time is not my own. Involvement in other things has to be during hours that are not part of my already long day. I homeschool my kids and have night classes teaching Jewish women, and I plan a Sunday program each week — with our Shabbos community experience taking place right before. When we first came out on shlichus, I knew I wanted to make community Shabbos meals. This means cooking everything I would for my own family without knowing how many extra to cook for, as all newcomers are welcome too.

Therefore, I woke up before 6:00 — often around 4:30 or 5:00 — to enjoy the sunrise as I wrote a story. It took time, and many times I would need to let the story sit or brew like a good cup of tea, or let it simmer to really absorb the good flavors!

  • What are some of the things you enjoyed most about writing your book?

I loved sharing my stories and experiences and what I’ve learned from them, and I hoped the audience could experience it with me as they also grew and learned valuable lessons.

  • Does writing energize or exhaust you?

I love writing and find it very relaxing, uplifting, and freeing.

  • Have you ever had writer’s block?

I feel that there are two parts to the writing mind: When I’m in story mode, it’s a great feeling. The story takes its twists and turns in a very fulfilling way, with the lesson as a treat to the reader. When I’m not in the mindset of a story, I write other things, but to be honest, it feels like a different part of the mind. With creative writing, one needs to be in the mood.

Personal Reflections and Experiences

  • Which three character traits have played a key role in your success?

The mentality of Chabad is helpful in kiruv, outreach. My husband and I agreed to go out on shlichus with the idea of making each moment a kiruv moment for the rest of our lives. Our shlichus position is not a regular placement like the thousands of kiruv couples who go out to help many beautiful Jewish communities. Rather, it is part of a special group of shluchim affectionately called the “Ufaratzta Circle” by the shlichus network, because our families are willing to go to the remotest of places to help a fellow Jew in need and to build up communities that are on the verge of collapsing. Our goal is to gently, with great ahavas Yisrael, uplift people and slowly bring them closer to Hashem.

The desire to be a true chassid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and imbue the world with tikkun olam enables us each day as we embrace the mesirus nefesh of our task. Our focus becomes to do whatever we can in all areas of Jewish life to serve our communities — two hours in every direction — that we are fortunate to lead. The fact that we are the only Lubavitchers in town makes it hard, and our home of Crown Heights, like a mini-Israel, feels very far away.

It is a known fact that emissaries in our position don’t have the luxury of having many friends, and we manage without the support and amenities of more established Jewish communities. This is also in how we raise our kids. Sometimes the kids would come back with me to our makom hashlichus after being away, and they would complain that they have no friends their age. Some years they do, but many times don’t. Kosher food is hard to get without traveling, so everything has to be calculated and distributed in a way to save up, and that means my children don’t have the luxury of everything at their fingertips like many children do.

  • What was a failure you experienced? What did you take away from that experience?

I grew up as a young Chabad emissary. As far back as I can remember, the door of my parents’ house was never closed, and many in need even slept in bedrooms in our house. For who could turn a Yid away? This mentality of giving helped to pave the way for my approach in wanting to build up a community that was on the verge of collapse.

Sometimes, there are congregants we become close to. For me it was a woman I learned one-on-one with, and I helped her to get off her meds by embracing Tanya’s practical approach to living life in a fully Torah way. Tanya takes the approach of using one’s thought, speech, and action and places that in a Torah-embraced life. Her best friend wrote to me, “How were you able to do what her own doctors couldn’t? You were so young, what was your secret?”

One day, her son told her, “Why should you go to a shul that is frum, observant, when you could remain loyal to a shul that is more our speed?” She then chose not to come to the Chabad house anymore, only for picnics. She chose to stop our learning of Tanya because she became “busy,” and then sadly went back on meds. She didn’t even step foot in her own synagogue ever again because she found its Judaism too watered down.

However, it was tough for me to move on from this experience. I realized that when we as emissaries invest our hearts, souls, and lives into our communities, many times we have to deal with the hurt when a congregant chooses to walk away for what seems like not positive reason. But we remain ready to embrace them again when they are ready.

  • What is the most inspiring feedback you’ve ever received? Did that impact what you did next?

I remember when I started sharing some of my stories from the Times of Israel, and people from our community who would usually come for Yom Tov at the beginning of the year, or who just needed matzah or a particular holiday item, started being very much in touch with me. It was this understanding that the community enjoyed my very real and raw feelings toward different circumstances with them that helped many to dig deeper into what it really means to be Jewish and finding their identity.

  • How has your background influenced your writing style or themes?

Growing up in Chabad always meant that when it came to personal comfort, we had to do less with some things. Still, it also meant we stuck together as the few Chabad families, and as a child, I was able to see the inner workings — the sacrifice, sweat, blood, and tears — invested to just love one’s fellow as oneself.

We had this great university teacher who taught in the little Chabad-style school that we had. I remember my teacher used to do plays with us and taught excellent grammar and the breakdown of sentence structure. I loved the plays but never appreciated her help with writing a short story. It wasn’t until high school that my English teacher in Beis Rivka pulled me aside and told me to go to writing school because she felt I would make a great writer. I declined because I knew that I lived and breathed shlichus and couldn’t imagine another way to live life.

When things got busy, and many powerful stories of our experiences just lay in my mind, I naturally returned to working on the stories I loved to write. I was able to work with my friend and university professor. She made it fun to edit, and each punctuation mark started to “speak to me,” as she always reminded me. I began to realize through my writing that “one does not exclude another” — a phrase I’d heard a hundred times — and that I could do shlichus in every way. Writing does not detract from the shlichus experience; it only enhances it and helps reach many more people, adding more of a deeper connection and dimension to the shlichus itself. The lesson I’ve learned is that sometimes it’s better not to put valuable tools on the back burner but to have them front and center to make every aspect of shlichus life thrive.

Lifestyle and Hobbies

  • What do you do to relax, recharge, or simply have fun? How do you make time for that, and how often?

I try to fit some writing in a few times a week, which is fun for me. I love listening to shiurim when I’m cooking or cleaning; it helps shape my day into a more focused one. I have at least six classes a week with a big program each Sunday, and sometimes two programs in a day. I recharge with my family; just spending time reading with them or hearing a story they want to share with me.

  • What book (or books) are you currently reading?

I currently love reading Chassidic stories, but I also enjoy other books as well.

  • What is your favorite mitzvah?

I love teaching people of all ages. Just bringing a smile to others and making people feel more at ease makes me feel much better.

Writing Community and Influence

  • Do you read your book reviews? How do you handle positive or negative feedback?

I love hearing feedback either way. I send my stories to many friends and congregants and love hearing their feedback — if they enjoyed the story and what they think needs fixing.

  • Which book (or books) have you given as a gift, and why?

I feel books that are gifted depend on the person. What do they need? What will impact them? Many times, I prefer to give them my own book, because I know how much of an impact it has had on all kinds of people.

  • What is your favorite sefer?

I love offering one-on-one learning of Tanya. The Tanya is a book the Alter Rebbe authored, but he calls himself merely the compiler, quoting the Talmud, Kabbalah, and halachah, and bringing them down as beautiful advice for the average person. I love to listen to and learn Tanya each day. The Lubavitcher Rebbe broke the Tanya down to fit into daily learning, and it helps to uplift me and inspire me in that particular day.

Current and Future Projects

  • If you were granted an extra three hours per day or a spare million dollars, what would you do with them?

About ten years ago, I started working on a down-to-earth Tanya book based on Rabbi Gordon’s classes. I also work on writing more stories when I feel inspired to share.

After going back to school and becoming a kallah teacher, endorsed by a rav, I started writing another book based on Tanya’s method of being careful with one’s thought, speech, and action. It’s meant to help couples with their shalom bayis by influencing them to choose the right tools to create the right home environment. I also have a few novels I’m currently working, which I go to once in a while and add a chapter, including a true story based on history. However, whenever I can, I still write my creative true stories, so I’m currently working on many short stories.

Writing Practices and Routines

  • How did you celebrate when your book(s) reached completion?

I like to celebrate with my family and community on Shabbos, perhaps making extra dessert.

  • What do you need in your writing space to help you stay focused?

I like to write early in the morning with a quiet space and coffee.

  • Do you write alone or in a public space?

I usually write alone, but if a story comes into my head, since my stories are true events, and I think I might not remember it, I try to write it down or record it as soon as possible, whether in a public or a private space.

Miscellaneous

  • What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

I would tell an aspiring author to take your time. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

  • Is there anything else you would like to share?

From the first public address of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he sought to make ahavas Yisrael, love for one’s fellow, the cornerstone of his efforts to heal and revitalize the Jewish people in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The Rebbe set into motion a radical new approach to emphasize joy over judgment, compassion over condemning, and togetherness and unity over exclusion. I feel being raised with such a vision really helped to shape my mindset of going out on shlichus to be there for each and every Jew, and care for each one of them.

Get your copy of The Lamplighter here 

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