Welcome to our latest edition of Author Spotlight, where we delve into the fascinating world of writers who have made a significant impact through their work. In this feature, we’re honored to introduce Rebbetzin Shoshana Tugendhaft, the esteemed author of Exploring Perek Shirah. Known for her meticulous research and profound understanding of historical contexts, Rebbetzin Tugendhaft has brought to life an ancient text in a way that resonates deeply with contemporary readers.
In this exclusive interview, Rebbetzin Tugendhaft shares her journey behind the creation of Exploring Perek Shirah. From her unique inspiration to the intricate writing process, she offers an enlightening glimpse into the world of a writer who combines her passion for history, spirituality, and education. Her insights not only shed light on her own creative process but also provide inspiration for readers and aspiring authors alike. Join us as we explore the mind and motivations of one of the most thoughtful voices in modern religious and historical literature.
INSPIRATION AND WRITING PROCESS
- What inspired you to write your book?
My training in the field of history combined with my natural yekkishness means I’m always interested in the source, in the backstory. I want to engage with an ancient text, with an understanding of its context and its own frame of reference. So, when I started saying Perek Shirah at a time when we needed rachamei Shamayim, when the lives of a child and a grandchild were hanging in the balance, I was naturally curious. Who wrote this? When? Why? What was the meaning of these pesukim on a level of p’shat, d’rash, remez, and sod? What was the hidden but potent power of Perek Shirah that we felt in our lives? My search for answers led to this book, and all the work invested in publishing it was intended as a zechus for that child and grandchild — who, baruch Hashem, had a complete recovery!
- What was your writing process like?
A book on Perek Shirah has its own internal structure, with each shirah getting a chapter. I realized, however, that if those ninety chapters would get too long, you’d need a crane to get that book off your coffee table! So my job was to pack a lot of content into as few words as possible. I did a lot of research for each chapter and then: delete, delete, delete. Less is more, I told myself. You can’t write a PhD thesis on each shirah!
- Do you map an outline of your books beforehand? Why or why not?
I got some good advice from a family friend who is a professor, himself an author, who guides students in their doctoral theses. He recommended I write an introduction in which I lay out my objectives and methodology. And then, after I finish writing, to go back to that introduction and rewrite it in view of what I had learned on the way. It was the best piece of advice. As my Saba used to say: You always need to have a plan, but also the flexibility to change that plan if different things come up. I must have rewritten that introduction ten times over. Of the entire book, that introduction is the piece I am most proud of. It is my own analysis of the profound ideas found in the book, categorizing them and weaving them together into an object of beauty. In the preface, I outline my methodology.
- Which character traits have played a key role in your success? What resources did you find helpful when you were writing your book?
I love puzzles. I could patiently do a 1000-piece puzzle and get much satisfaction from it. This middah was exactly what I needed for the Exploring Perek Shirah project. Each pasuk and each animal was researched in a Chazal search engine: Where does it come up in the Midrash, in the Gemara, and of course, in its own context in Tanach? Once I had a lot of associations, I tried to put them together. For example, why does the camel sing a shirah about the churban habayis? The Midrash associates Nevuchadnetzar with a camel. Bingo! I also had four different mefarshim on Perek Shirah in front of me, one Rishon and three Acharonim. Even though I was going back to Chazal on this and I knew I couldn’t go too far from the bona fide Torah, I still wanted to check that I was on track with my themes, to speak.
CHALLENGES AND ENJOYMENT IN WRITING
- What are some of the things you enjoyed most about writing your book? Can you describe a moment where you felt profoundly connected to your writing?
As a busy mommy, baruch Hashem, I had to carve out precious time where there was none. I’d wake up early before the children were up, or I’d scuttle off to my computer while they were busy. Those early morning sessions when it was still dark outside and I’d leave the world behind to immerse myself in a world of Torah ideas — wrapped in a blanket and nursing a cup of coffee — were among my happiest. For me, the process was as important as the end game, as holding a published book in my hand. I wanted it to last forever! (It almost did; it took two years of snatched hours to complete the manuscript!)
- What are some of the challenges you faced while writing your book?
My lack of background in learning really held me back. I did have a Bais Yaakov education plus two years in seminary, but you can’t really fill in for ten years in yeshiva/kollel and for those who are maavir sedra each week. I keenly felt that I was no talmid chacham, but I tried to make up for it by closely studying each reference that came up and researching around that source. I tried to approach it with humility, and I guess it’s better to know how little you know than to think you know when you don’t know! I davened that I should not misunderstand or misrepresent anything, chas v’shalom. I am grateful to Mosaica Press for the thorough editing of content, as well as grammar and punctuation.
PERSONAL REFLECTION AND EXPERIENCE
- Have you ever considered writing under a pseudonym, and why or why not?
From the word go I had fully intended to write under a pseudonym. My reasoning was that (a) I did not want any kavod for the book; I was writing the book as a zechus for the baby, and it had to remain altruistic; (b) I was far too shy of my own townsfolk, who meet me in my snood with bags under my eyes; and (c) I was hoping it would be read by a male readership if it was not clear that a woman had written it.
After some time, it became clear to me that if the author was unknown and there were no personal haskamos, no one would buy this book. Then there was the debate about putting my first name on the cover (I was against this as I am a private person, and this felt too personal) and about putting the word “Rebbetzin” in front of it. I was very against this; to my mind, if you are called Rebbetzin in this world then in the Olam Ha’emes they will want to see your real credentials for rebbetzinhood. In the end I lost the debate. Mosaica Press said that if it is written by a rebbetzin it would have more authority, more reason for someone to buy it. I will have to explain in the Olam Ha’emes that my husband is a real rav. And my first name also went in: that was at my family’s insistence, who may or may not feel that I am too understated as a female.
LIFESTYLE AND HOBBIES
- What are some of your hobbies or interests outside of writing?
Outside of my writing I teach Tanach and am a tour guide for TenachTours.com in the British Museum in London. I really love both of these jobs: Tanach with mefarshim engages my mind and heart and connects me with the very source of our nation and with the holy words of our Neviim. My work in the museum aims to bring Tanach and our chagim to life through engagement with the historical events at their core.
PERSONAL REFLECTIONS AND EXPERIENCE
- Which opportunities or personalities played a key role in your career path?
In my family, almost every one of my grandparents, parents, and siblings are public speakers. They give shiurim, they teach, they run camps, and they build schools. We often have people who are authors gifting us their books. My parental home as well as my own home is heaving with books, and books lie open in every room! Book culture is all around. However, I tend to read parts of books, as and when they are relevant to my teaching. To read a whole book seems a luxury. In terms of influence, it’s hard to say. You absorb some of this and some of that from each book, but ultimately, you find your own voice. Much of my influence comes from auditory input rather than reading.
The conversation around the table is high level, in terms of philosophy and idealism. There are lots of articulate, educated people all around me. None of these people thought I’d be the first in my family to publish, least of all myself! Since then, my brother has published, and my sister is well on the way.
- Who are some authors or thinkers you admire or draw inspiration from? Which other authors are you acquainted with, and how do they help you become a better writer? Which three books have greatly influenced your life?
There are two unique features in my book that I derived from special books or sefarim I had learned in the past.
As this was going to be an English sefer, I had to decide how much Hebrew to insert and how to do so. Of the myriad books we have at home, I get greatest pleasure from the English sefarim that bring each source in Hebrew. Specifically, Imah Shel Malchut by Rav Bachrach, and the tradition that Nechama Leibowitz bequeathed us. When you engage with the lashon hakodesh of the Torah, of Chazal, or even the Rishonim, you get so much more than from a translation. Every translation reduces the depth and precise meaning of a word. It’s like gazing at it through frosted glass and seeing a shadow but not a precise form. I decided to bring each source in Hebrew at the bottom of the page (not indexed at the back) and to keep the main text in English. This would satisfy my aesthetic sensibility as well as my ideological preference. In the preface, I urge my readers to read the source in Hebrew, wherever possible.
The second unique feature is the witty subtitles I gave to each chapter. I got the idea for this from Mosaica’s own very popular series of books by Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein. Rabbi Bernstein often includes subtitles that draw on puns and wordplay to add a playful/joyful element to the Torah ideas. My book lent itself well to this, as animal-themed puns abound. Some would make me laugh out loud each time I saw them. Like the chapter about the ant who teaches us that this world is just an antichamber for the World to Come. Or the frog who teaches us about a leap of faith.
- Do you read your book reviews? How do you handle positive or negative feedback?
Yes, I eagerly look at book reviews! I am aware that this book is niche. We printed a small run and everyone who is interested in this niche subject seems to share my enthusiasm for it. I’m my own biggest critic, like an artist who looks at his own painting and only sees the mistakes. They irritate him. I’m glad no one is asking me to honestly critique my own book.
CURRENT AND FUTURE PROJECTS
- What are you working on next?
- If you were granted an extra three hours per day, or a spare million dollars, what would you do with them?
Even before this book was dreamed up, I had approached Mosaica about another project I would love to do, and which I feel uniquely placed to do. However, as your question suggests, I would need an extra three hours each day and a million dollars (well, a quarter of a million would probably suffice) in order to do it. The book, which already has a few chapters and much research done toward it, is called Jewish History through 100 Objects. It is a book about Biblical archaeology and also about artifacts from the Middle Ages or from the Cairo Geniza, each of which shed light on an entire epoch in our long and glorious history. It would have a photo of each artifact, a map, and a timeline, of course. It would be big and glossy and need two volumes of fifty artifacts each. It would trace the provenance of the artifacts, describe the background for that era, and interrogate the object to discover what it can teach us about that era. Any sponsors please?!
- What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
My dear aspiring author: It will take twice as long as you imagine, it will be edited beyond recognition, you will always think later in your life that it could do with much improvement…but it is well worth it! Don’t give up on it. You have something to give to the world, something that even after you are no longer here will keep speaking in your voice and making positive waves in this world. It will be something your grandchildren will show their friends with pride.
Also, when Mosaica Press asks you to give up your rights to designing the cover…trust them! They design the most beautiful front covers. As Rabbi Doron Kornbluth told me: Anyone who says, “You don’t judge a book by its cover” never tried to sell one! Authors should stick to what they are good at, which is writing. Mosaica’s graphic designers are second to none. Thank you, Mosaica!