Journal

Introducing Lily

by | Mar 1, 2016 | Books

Today is the official launch date of my new book, Lily of the Valley—An American Jewish Journey. I am truly thrilled to be sharing this book with everyone, and what more fitting day for me personally to introduce you to Lily?
I don’t just mean Lily, the book, but Lily the woman, the first of five generations of strong, resilient women who held tightly to dreams passed from mother to daughter for those five generations.

People ask writers all the time where their ideas come from, and there may be as many answers as there are books. Every writer has his or her own process, and every book its own path. Usually as I write a story the characters live inside of me for all the months—or even years—that it takes me to tell their story. Then they rather gracefully bow out, making way for the next group of people, the next narrative, that will fill my consciousness.

But Lily is different. From the moment she came to me she has been part of me. It’s as if she lives deep inside of me. But who is Lily?

Perhaps I ought to start at the beginning. Many years ago on my daily morning walk I began to hear snippets of a story coming in rhymed poetry. It was as if a little bird were sitting on my shoulder, whispering to me. Her name was Lily. She had barely survived a pogrom in Eastern Europe and her parents put her on a ship bound for the Goldene Medina, the Golden Land; America, the land of freedom and the promise of a better life. She came here, toiled in a sweatshop and dreamed. She dreamed of designing beautiful gowns, and of a golden valley way out West,

” …the place of palms and a mountain pass
That led to a sun- drenched valley floor
With walnut groves and golden grass—
Open space, an open door,
And unlike the valley of her birth,
Without the blood that soaked the earth.”
(Part I – Lily)

Lily knew that her dreams would not be fulfilled in her lifetime, but she held fast to them for her daughter, her granddaughter, for all those who would come. Everyday I would return from my walk and write down what she told me. But I had no idea what to do with any of it. And then I got a call from Ruchie Stillman, who was coordinating the banquet for Chabad of the Valley in Encino, California, under the direction of Rabbi Joshua Gordon, of blessed memory, and his wife Deborah. They asked if I would step in at the last minute to perform a fifteen minute poem for the banquet. I had no idea how I could pull off such a thing in just a few days. Then I remembered Lily, whispering in my ear. Lily, who so much wanted to be heard. It was Ruchie who helped me realize that her story—about pursuing the American Dream while losing the connection to observant Judaism and then coming back—was ultimately a Chabad story.

The story started pouring out of me. I wrote at home, on my morning walk, in elevators, in the car. Lily talked and I transcribed, then later pared and polished and created a poem that I could perform. When I finished my reading of “Lily of the Valley” at the banquet, people asked it they could buy a copy, but I knew it wasn’t time.

When I returned to Lily more than a decade later, she began whispering to me again, fleshing out her story beyond what could fit into a fifteen minute reading. But who is Lily to me? Who is she that even after all these years I cry every time I read or write or even talk about her and her dreams? The dreams that wouldn’t die, even when she did, even if they took generations to fulfill? Who is Lily?

I do not know.

One reviewer thought she was my grandmother. Not so. This book is not autobiographical. Lily came here a generation before my grandmothers and her story is different. There are parallels in this book with my family’s history, just as I’m sure there are parallels for many people whose ancestors came here through Ellis Island, desperate and hopeful, seeking a better life. But this is a work of fiction; it is not my story. It is Lily’s and that of the women who came after her. Yet my connection is soul-deep.

I do not know who Lily was, but I do know that in many ways this book is my love letter to America, the Golden Land that rescued Lily from a life of fear, persecution and near destitution, just as it did my grandparents. It is a land that promised—and still promises—immigrants from all over that if they work hard, their children’s lives will be better; that pursuing the American Dream does not mean having to give up worshipping G-d in the way of their ancestors, the way of their conscience.

I have published Lily’s story now in part as my way of expressing my gratitude to the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory. I thank the Rebbe for his beautiful teachings and many blessings, that have helped set the trajectory of my life. It is a sad irony for me that Rabbi Joshua Gordon, whose long-ago request helped bring Lily to life, tragically passed away just weeks before the publication of this book.

And I share this story now because I’ve known from the beginning, all those years ago, that Lily’s story is meant to touch other lives in the way she has touched mine. I am honored that she chose me to tell her story. I hope that I have done right by her, and that my readers will enjoy her story, and perhaps be inspired, all over again, by the American Dream that we all share.

I don’t just mean Lily, the book, but Lily the woman, the first of five generations of strong, resilient women who held tightly to dreams passed from mother to daughter for those five generations.

People ask writers all the time where their ideas come from, and there may be as many answers as there are books. Every writer has his or her own process, and every book its own path. Usually as I write a story the characters live inside of me for all the months—or even years—that it takes me to tell their story. Then they rather gracefully bow out, making way for the next group of people, the next narrative, that will fill my consciousness.

But Lily is different. From the moment she came to me she has been part of me. It’s as if she lives deep inside of me. But who is Lily?

Perhaps I ought to start at the beginning. Many years ago on my daily morning walk I began to hear snippets of a story coming in rhymed poetry. It was as if a little bird were sitting on my shoulder, whispering to me. Her name was Lily. She had barely survived a pogrom in Eastern Europe and her parents put her on a ship bound for the Goldene Medina, the Golden Land; America, the land of freedom and the promise of a better life. She came here, toiled in a sweatshop and dreamed. She dreamed of designing beautiful gowns, and of a golden valley way out West,

” …the place of palms and a mountain pass
That led to a sun- drenched valley floor
With walnut groves and golden grass—
Open space, an open door,
And unlike the valley of her birth,
Without the blood that soaked the earth.”
(Part I – Lily)

Lily knew that her dreams would not be fulfilled in her lifetime, but she held fast to them for her daughter, her granddaughter, for all those who would come. Everyday I would return from my walk and write down what she told me. But I had no idea what to do with any of it. And then I got a call from Ruchie Stillman, who was coordinating the banquet for Chabad of the Valley in Encino, California, under the direction of Rabbi Joshua Gordon, of blessed memory, and his wife Deborah. They asked if I would step in at the last minute to perform a fifteen minute poem for the banquet. I had no idea how I could pull off such a thing in just a few days. Then I remembered Lily, whispering in my ear. Lily, who so much wanted to be heard. It was Ruchie who helped me realize that her story—about pursuing the American Dream while losing the connection to observant Judaism and then coming back—was ultimately a Chabad story.

The story started pouring out of me. I wrote at home, on my morning walk, in elevators, in the car. Lily talked and I transcribed, then later pared and polished and created a poem that I could perform. When I finished my reading of “Lily of the Valley” at the banquet, people asked it they could buy a copy, but I knew it wasn’t time.

When I returned to Lily more than a decade later, she began whispering to me again, fleshing out her story beyond what could fit into a fifteen minute reading. But who is Lily to me? Who is she that even after all these years I cry every time I read or write or even talk about her and her dreams? The dreams that wouldn’t die, even when she did, even if they took generations to fulfill? Who is Lily?

I do not know.

One reviewer thought she was my grandmother. Not so. This book is not autobiographical. Lily came here a generation before my grandmothers and her story is different. There are parallels in this book with my family’s history, just as I’m sure there are parallels for many people whose ancestors came here through Ellis Island, desperate and hopeful, seeking a better life. But this is a work of fiction; it is not my story. It is Lily’s and that of the women who came after her. Yet my connection is soul-deep.

I do not know who Lily was, but I do know that in many ways this book is my love letter to America, the Golden Land that rescued Lily from a life of fear, persecution and near destitution, just as it did my grandparents. It is a land that promised—and still promises—immigrants from all over that if they work hard, their children’s lives will be better; that pursuing the American Dream does not mean having to give up worshipping G-d in the way of their ancestors, the way of their conscience.

I have published Lily’s story now in part as my way of expressing my gratitude to the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory. I thank the Rebbe for his beautiful teachings and many blessings, that have helped set the trajectory of my life. It is a sad irony for me that Rabbi Joshua Gordon, whose long-ago request helped bring Lily to life, tragically passed away just weeks before the publication of this book.

And I share this story now because I’ve known from the beginning, all those years ago, that Lily’s story is meant to touch other lives in the way she has touched mine. I am honored that she chose me to tell her story. I hope that I have done right by her, and that my readers will enjoy her story, and perhaps be inspired, all over again, by the American Dream that we all share.

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