As a modest, wig-wearing observant woman, I am not supposed to desire fame. “The glory of the King’s daughter is on the inside,” the biblical saying goes, but my heart disagreed. I wanted visibility.
Not the kind of glaring lights that surround Jojo Siwa, the 15-year-old YouTube diva with more than 6 million subscribers and her own line of accessories. What I craved was more subtle, sunshiny glow, like the kind of halo that envelops popular kosher foodie Jamie Geller (19,000 YouTube subscribers). Famous but friendly; accomplished but accessible.
I’ve been a food writer for more than three decades. I even won a prize once — OK, it was second place but it was a prestigious competition. I thought writing a cookbook would take me to the next level; I honestly believed that the uber success that would come from writing a bestseller would at least convince me that I was more than the greying, under-earning flake I saw in the mirror.
When I first conceived of my book, Jewish Soul Food, I was sure it was a winner. A book about the inner meaning of Jewish cuisine? News, food, and a heaping teaspoon of mysticism — it had to work. “Who would buy it?” I asked rhetorically in the proposal. “Everyone.” And I really believed my own hype. I anticipated honors and accolades, perhaps not a Nobel or Pulitzer, but certainly a National Jewish Book Award or James Beard prize.
Unlike most first-time authors, I found my publisher easily. My manuscript was purchased by a small but prestigious university press. When the acceptance email appeared in my inbox, my eyes welled up with tears. I had arrived. My proverbial ship had come in at last.
As thrilled as I was, though, I was also frightened. Late at night, I lay awake, worrying about angry readers complaining about burned challah or flopped potato kugel. But I was also excited. I imagined hosting cooking workshops, making TV and radio appearances — the whole nine yards. I looked forward to my glamorous future.
My first inkling that my rising star would implode came at a conference for kosher food bloggers.
“You’re doing a good job,” said an attendee. “I looked you up: Your book is number one on Amazon.”
For a second, I blushed. It was really happening! Or was it? How could my book be number one if the publication date was still six months away? The answer was: It couldn’t. It turned out that the Israeli foodie superstar Janna Gur had released a volume with the same title.
“Tell your publisher to change the name,” my would-be admirer advised.
I did, but my request was unheeded. “It won’t matter,” I was told. “We already designed the title page. We can’t change it now.”
So, with no other viable choice, I decided to embrace the problem. In preparing my audition for the Jewish Book Council’s authors on tour program — which gives writers a chance to present their books at JCCs across the country — I built a pitch around the mishap.
“This is Janna Gur’s book, and this is mine,” I’d say, waving both books in the air. My book council advisor, however, nixed it. “Focus on your own book,” she said. So I crafted an alternative: “Did anyone ever tell you that kreplach aren’t just Jewish wontons — they are actually kabbalistic?” I wrote and rewrote my speech; I rehearsed until I knew it forwards, backward, and sideways.
“You’ll be great, Ima,” my daughter assured me. I believed her, and when I presented the book at the conference, I thought I had charmed my audience.
At the reception that followed, several JCC directors complimented me. They wanted me! I could feel it. Immediately I began to stress about the tour. What would I eat? How would I keep up my yoga practice? How would my family survive without me for a whole month?
But the days turned into weeks, and no one contacted me. Not a single JCC director. There would be no book tour.
Meanwhile, my publication day came and went. I got some decent press but no prizes. (That year, the National Jewish book award went to Shulem Deen for his memoir about leaving his Hasidic sect, All Who Go Do Not Return). But I got past that — not every successful book wins prizes, I told myself.
What I couldn’t get past, however, were the sales. There weren’t any. No one wanted the book. In its single print run, Jewish Soul Food sold 638 copies, many of which I purchased myself and sent to influencers in an attempt to drive sales.
Now it’s over and I am back in the wings. I am moving on, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that my book’s lack of success got me down — very down. What helped was getting busy with a new writing project that was out of my comfort zone — a novel — and thus not charged with the same kinds of expectations that soured my cookbook. I no longer imagine winning a prize.
My work keeps me going. As a freelance writer, I continue to experience a good deal of rejection and, of course, inner doubts about putting in so much effort for so little reward. I had hoped that fame would solve that — I assumed that famous authors attract better and better paying work.
Despite the lackluster sales, I enjoyed working on my book. It was fun, and I learned a tremendous amount. That counts for something, doesn’t it? Fame isn’t the end-all, be-all. As we’ve been reminded recently with the high-profile suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, fame and success don’t necessarily translate into happiness.
For centuries, the great rabbis published anonymously. The idea was it was the work that mattered, not the person who wrote it. Now, I am trying to emulate that model. I do what I love — writing — and I put out the best work that I can. I am trying to be grateful for the many gifts in my life — my family, my marriage, my supportive community — and remind myself that these things, too, are measures of success.