In May 2010 Leah Kotkes, an Israel Bookshop author, celebrated the one year release of her first book, The Map Seeker: One Woman’s Quest, an extraordinary memoir for women. Over the last year, here at the Israel Bookshop head office in Lakewood, we have enjoyed a flow of abundant reviews from readers enthralled by The Map Seeker. We spoke to Leah about her writer’s life and the book’s promotion which has taken her from her home in Jerusalem to the USA, Canada, and England to meet readers.
Hi, Leah: When did you start writing for the reader?
I began my writing career in London, where I was born; my first freelance job was as an Arts Editor of a local newspaper, writing reviews of arts events in London—theater, ballet, opera, music, art galleries. I was in my early twenties at the time, and passionate about the Arts; it is easy to write about something that you love. In my mid-twenties I had a fortunate opportunity and was able to switch career paths; I began my work life at eighteen as a fashion publicist, but I’d always wanted to work full-time as a journalist. At 25, I started out as an assistant to a News Editor in a television news company and within six months I was promoted to trainee news journalist. Working in current affairs—non-fiction—was a new genre for me, but one that interested me very much; I had always been fascinated with world affairs and world history in the making.
After a turn of events, I left London and traveled the world on a spiritual quest. In October 1992, in London, I met my first Orthodox rabbi and soon after became shomer Shabbos. August 1993 saw me flying off to Israel to study in seminary; I was twenty-nine years old. During my year in seminary in Jerusalem it was a challenge for me to stop thinking about my professional life; the goal of the one year I had allocated to Jerusalem was to explore what it meant to be a Jewish woman and what my role would be as a wife and mother. It was not an easy task. Until then I hadn’t contemplated these roles, I had been too busy working and enjoying my single girl life, which included traveling—another great love of mine—and basically only thinking about my professional goals in life, I am sorry to say. It was not until five years later, when I was, in fact, a wife and mother, that I took up my pen again, in the form of diary-writing. And it was only after my second child was born in April 2000 that I returned to any sort of writing life; I began writing for the reader. I started my first book in the winter of the year 2000.
What gave you the idea to write a book about your life?
It was my rav, HaRav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg shlit”a, who inspired me to do this, even though at the time, ironically, my rav had no idea that I had been a writer before he met me in the winter of 1993 and that being a writer—and a journalist and novelist—had been a childhood dream since I was about eight years of age. Rav Scheinberg was my spiritual mentor; the rav asked me to start writing for Klal Yisrael; to use my gift of language to inspire and give to others. But first, the Rav said, I must write my “story”—of how I came to this place and point in time—and to start it that very day.
“Call me tonight to let me know that you’ve completed chapter one,” Rav Scheinberg said.
It was three-thirty in the afternoon when I left the Rav’s Mattersdorf apartment after this particular discussion; it was the third night of Chanukah, 2000. At nine o’clock that night, I started writing, and at midnight I was ready with the so-called first chapter. I was apprehensive to call Rav Scheinberg at such a time, but, encouraged by my husband, who stood near the phone, I did just that.
As soon as the Rav answered the phone and heard who the caller was, he said: “Did you finish the first chapter yet?”
I said yes.
He said, “Well done! Carry on and have hatzlachah. If you need my advice about the book at any stage, come at any time to talk about it.”
This conversation brought me to tears; it was a very moving moment for me. Here was a holy man, my spiritual mentor, who had taken me under his wing, and now, in addition to being my rav, surrogate father, and even zaidy, he was also offering to be my first “writing coach”. It was both an honor and a pleasure to do as he asked and to write every day, and in a very short time I had covered much ground in the memoir. I worked in isolation, and I davened to Hashem for chizuk every day, and I recalled the Rav’s words every time I sat down to write.
So you completed the book a short period after this conversation?
Not at all! I got waylaid along the way; it took me eight years to finish the task. There were many reasons why.
At one point, I asked myself: who was I to write a memoir? It would seem appropriate to mention the work of Glückel of Hameln here, as it was my discovery of her and the reading of her writings at that time that propelled me to continue writing. Glückel was a Jewish businesswoman and diarist, whose account of her life provides scholars with an intimate picture of Jewish life in Germany in the late seventeenth-early eighteenth century. Written in Yiddish, her diaries were originally intended for her descendants. She began her memors after the death of her first husband. After I read much of her memoir, I began thinking: I am much younger than this woman. What have I got to say that will help others or make a difference in another woman’s life? I discussed my concerns with the Rav; he laughed and said: “You have every reason to continue; you are also a Jewish woman with something to say. I give you my brachah.”
Often I stopped because there were things I felt I must say, but didn’t know how to do so without hurting someone in my life. The Rav had a solution to every hurdle – he said: “Write the truth but change the names. Your story will help women; you must tell the truth as much as you are able.”
Then there were times when I felt that my memoir was not honest enough and, being a women who had always wanted to live by the truth, I was frustrated that the words I’d written so far were not as close to the truth of my story and my feelings as I would have liked.
Again, I talked through my concerns with Rav Scheinberg, who encouraged me to write as truthfully as possible, by changing names and identifying circumstances. He also told me to daven to Hashem for siyata d’Shmaya, which I did. This quiet time with Hashem gave me reflective time to think about my past; it helped me relax, which in turn helped me to remember and recall so many details, which I then wove into the story.
Each time I went to the Rav with a query about the writing process or my concerns, he had a good solution. But he always ended our dialogues in the following way: “But get the book done!” he’d say. “This book will change your life and help inspire the lives of hundreds.” Still, I struggled, as my self-assurance was low and my fears many.
That is why it took me another eight years to complete the memoir. In the interim, of course, I lived more of life—and had many more challenges, which propelled me into a deeper understanding about G-d, others, and myself. That, I feel, brought more depth and breadth to my storytelling skills, which allowed the book to become as I truly hoped it would become—a raw and honest tale of a woman with a quest.
Who is The Map Seeker intended for?
When you write a memoir, you make choices, and the choices I made, I believe, best presented what I felt an Orthodox woman could and should hear from me. There is a huge void between what a secular Jewish woman might write in her memoir and what an Orthodox Jewish woman, who observes the laws of modesty and shmiras halashon, can write in her memoir. The Map Seeker is close to what I feel is best for the Orthodox Jewish woman, without closing the gate to all Jewish women readers, who would find themselves and me in the pages of the book.
During the years in which you were writing your book, what other forms of writing did you do?
During those eight years, I took on the role and responsibilities of a weekly columnist, then features writer, then editor, then writing mentor, and then all of this at the same time. I worked respectively and exclusively for Hamodia Magazine, Mishpacha, and Binah Magazine. These years of writing daily augmented my skills as a writer. I also read, read, and READ books of all genres, which enhanced my abilities as a writer and editor.
I feel these years of working night and day as a writer and then as an editor enabled me to refine my first manuscript to a higher level for the reader. Then, when I felt I was ready, I completed the process every writer needs to go through to achieve a more mature standard of a story for herself and the reader: revising, rewriting, and editing.
What type of feedback did you receive from your readers for The Map Seeker?
The reader reviews for The Map Seeker have been one of the greatest gifts Hashem could have given me, a first-time book writer who started out with a request from her rav and a hope and prayer for her first book. Every month since the book release in May 2009, I have received letters, phone calls, emails, and reviews while I have been out and about, from women—and men—who have read the book and wanted to say thank you and a good word about how the book touched their lives; they thanked me for the inspiration, as well as the wealth of insight and practical tools that my story offered them.
The positive and encouraging comments about my literary style and my choice to write from a place of truth, which in turn gave the reader a ruthlessly honest book, were comments that meant the most to me.
My main goal as a writer is to write a great story that comes to life on the page, a story that will touch deeply the heart, mind, and soul of the reader. This is my kavanah when I write my features; this is how I wanted to write my first book. I would like to think I achieved that goal; it seems from the reviews that I did. I thank Hashem and my Rav for helping me get this far with my writing; my desire is that I go much further as a writer. I know I can only do this with much effort, perseverance, and prayer. Knowing that I have a loyal readership is another aspect to my desire to write, to share, and to touch the lives of others; without the reader I am not a writer.
As you look back upon your book’s first anniversary release, do you feel the book accomplished the goals you had in mind?
From my perspective, the number one goal for the book was to give Jewish women readers my story, as my Rav requested. I honored my Rav’s words and, in turn, I believe I was blessed to write a book that honored Jewish women’s courage and trust in Hashem, because the book is not only my story but the story of many Jewish women.
I am happy to share with you some of the feedback I received from readers:
Dear Mrs. Kotkes,
I have read your memoir – some parts of it many times over – it really is a magnificent piece that left me deeply impressed with your honesty with yourself and the reader, your purity of soul, and your ability to put into words the avodah of perfecting ourselves to serve Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Reading it gave me a deep feeling that here is a very dear friend whom I just haven’t met yet – and so I would love to meet you in person. Who knows, you may even inspire me to do some writing myself – after filling many notebooks with stories as a child and many diaries as a teenager and an article here and there, I unofficially gave it up… I would love a reply, but in any case, I want to thank you for writing your book which continues to give me much and which I am sure gives much to many in many ways.
I was fascinated by The Map Seeker, and my Manchester daughter and 14 year old granddaughter enjoyed it also. When I was a child… I so much wished that my family were “like all the other kids’ parents”. Reading your book helped me to understand that had I had my wish, I would still have found things not to my liking in my family’s behavior, hashkafah, and middot. Only as I’ve dealt with life’s challenges and interacted with my own grown-up children have I come to appreciate the wonderful qualities of my parents; I doubt that I could have done half as well had I been given their backgrounds and circumstances…
I just finished reading your book The Map Seeker, and I must say, I was very inspired! Your story of your trials and tribulations, and how you overcame them was just amazing! In some ways I could commiserate with your situation. One example is your saga with miscarriages. I also have children baruch Hashem, but in my later years I had several miscarriages. It was – and still is – hard to face the end of fertility! (I think I am just a year older than you).
In many ways I am actually envious of your background! I am frum from birth, but I have never attached myself to any mentors and certainly not to the great tzaddikim and tzidkaniyos that you have become close to as a result of your search for truth. You have realized your dreams and you share them with others, while I feel so small next to you! I am missing something in life! Baruch Hashem I am busy with my children, but now that they are all in school all day, I wish I could do something special…
Just finished reading your book; all I can say is WOW! So inspiring, so uplifting; couldn’t put it down. A must-read for everyone regarding emunah and bitachon. Thanks loads. Keep on writing.
I enjoyed the book enormously. I was inspired and uplifted by it – and awed at the level of honesty and self reflection it took to make your choices – and then to share them.
What were some of the “high points” you experienced from writing your book?
The sense that a dream, a vision, a prayer was becoming a reality. If I could have one wish outside of being a wise, healthy, loving, and kind mother, it would be to be a well-respected, successful, and prolific writer—an author of excellent magazine articles and best-selling, respected and well-loved books.
The whole process of writing my first book, through to the meet-the-author book tours I initiated, was a thrilling but daunting experience. But now that I have done it, I can say it was a fantastic journey, one that I hope I am zoche to do successfully time and time again.
Since writing The Map Seeker, what other writing assignments have you undertaken?
After the release of my first book in May 09, I traveled for three weeks to promote the book; I gave talks and workshops every day, which was a wonderfully uplifting experience and opportunity. On my return home to Israel, I focused on mentoring women whom I’d met on my travels and designing tailor-made on-line writing courses for them.
In August 09 I returned to the USA for personal reasons, and while there, I mentored many writers one-on-one and traveled to honor invitations I was given, to talk and meet with women. Since my return to Israel in October 09, I have been preoccupied with family matters and have therefore not been writing but, as I always tell women and writers I meet: life inspires writing and writing inspires life—so you could say I have been living life and soon I will be writing about life. My phase of “life inspires writing” has included enjoying my four children, thinking, and reading, three important acts that augment my writer’s life and give me time and space to plan and visualize the next step in my life.
Since April this year, I have not worked for Binah Magazine – which I joined in June 2006 as features editor and features writer. Although I loved my work for the Binah reader, I felt it was time to close this chapter as I had more pressing goals in mind for my writing. As we mature in life, our priorities change and our needs change. My need right now is to be a more attentive mother to my four boys, aged 5, 7, 10, and 11; traveling so much the last three years—for the sake of parnassah, as my husband was in full-time learning at the time—took a strain on me and my feelings for my family. Often I would go away every three months for two or three weeks at a time, to support the writing of my features, to conduct interviews, to do research for articles, as well as to host writing workshops and talks. While all this was fantastic for my professional career and great for the reader, and while it did bring in parnassah for my family, it did not allow me to give 100% of my time to my precious children. Now I feel it is their time.
When circumstances will allow you to get back to writing, what are your writing goals for the future?
A period of non-writing can be a very productive time for a serious writer. When a person has time to think and read and plan, it is a great gift. In fact, I think the last seven months has been the first time since I was eighteen when I have not been working full-time. It was wonderful not to think about work and earning parnassah. I worked a little, but not strenuously; I wrote about eight published articles, hosted my annual writer’s seminar, mentored about fifteen women on-line, and saw a few writers in person. Every act was fantastic because it was not full time; it was freelance, which gave me time in between to be with my boys and to read and think about the future with more peace of mind and intelligence.
I will never give up writing. During these past few months I was just taking time out to breathe, enjoy life, and think about what I want to do next. I aim to write novels and experiment with screenwriting, as I love film. I have been a photographer since a young age and tend to write in a visual way also.
But as I mentioned earlier, being a committed mother is an equally important goal for me. A happy writer makes a happy mother; a happy mother makes a happy writer. I am a mother first and a writer equally – and a homemaker and a person who loves her sons more than the world, as they are my world. And one thing I know for sure: if I don’t write, if I don’t read, if I don’t create stories for my reader – and for my boys who love a good story – then I am nothing to myself, nothing to my boys, and nothing to Hashem. I feel I was created to give – to give to my four children and to give to others through my abilities as a communicator, a writer, a storyteller.
I believe that any writer worth her salt needs to take time out to think, read, plan, and research before she puts pen to paper. This is that time for me. I hope to offer my readers something special with my second book. I don’t know when that will be, as I have started two novels and they are progressing well, without a thought to the finish date, but when the manuscripts are ready and a publisher has made a commitment and there is a release date, I will be very happy, and I pray that my readers, too, will be satisfied and will appreciate why they had to wait so long to read my writing once again.