Gidon Rothstein

My Two-Shalom Problem and Reliving the Exodus

I write books. I don’t sell books, which is an important distinction. But I write them, and enough people make enough complimentary noises about them that I convince myself it’s worth writing the next one, to start the cycle again.

Part of the cycle, which I’d like to think is true of many people like me, is spending a few weeks checking the book’s Amazon sales rank once, twice, or several times a day. See, in the first flush of publication, when the book might sell five copies in a day, I can get a somewhat respectable Amazon rank. Not in the overall rank; there, I’ve never gotten high enough to write home or Times of Israel about.

The Lure of the Small-Slice Amazon Ranks

But Amazon is craftier than that. In addition to overall rank (as of this writing, 73,763), they rank your book compared to similar ones. As If We Were There: Readings for a Transformative Passover Experience, my recent book on how to approach the Pesach Seder and the Passover story with renewed eyes, currently is #8 in Books>Religion & Spirituality> Judaism> Movements> Orthodox. 8! Not bad.

The highest I’ve gotten is three, and it’s the book that’s stopping me from ever getting to one that reminded me of the last book I wrote.

That one, We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It (as of this writing, 1,960,051 overall, but 288 in Books>Religion & Spirituality> …Orthodox). Back in 2012 when it was published, it also flirted with the top of the Orthodox books in Amazon world.

The barrier back then? Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir by Shalom Auslander.

For all that the book isn’t actually about Orthodoxy—the 2008 memoir is by a formerly observant Jew, and his struggles with whether to give his son a berit milah, circumcise him according to Jewish belief and practice; if anything, it’s more about his tortured relationship with his Orthodox past than it is about Orthodox Judaism—Amazon put it there, and his book, despite being four years older, easily outsold mine, the new kid on the block.

My Two-Shalom Problem

I thought of it because this time around, as I try to find people willing to rethink their approach to Passover, ready to consider how they would have handled the Exodus had they been there, As If We Were There, too, cannot get into the top spot even in my small corner of the world.

Because of a book called All Who Go Do Not Return, Shulem Deen’s bestselling memoir of leaving Hasidism, Orthodoxy, and observance. Yet again, I’m being way outsold by a formerly observant Jew named Shalom (Shulem is a Hasidic pronunciation of Shalom).

With all due respect to the two Shaloms, I think my books had more to offer those looking for information on the Orthodox version of Religion and Spirituality. As If We Were There takes up ways to bring the Passover story alive, to put ourselves in the shoes of the Jews of that time.

The Exodus You Didn’t Know About

What does it mean, for example, that Rashi, whose Bible commentary became standard as the first that Jewish children encountered and that adults turned to when trying to understand the Torah, was of the opinion that four-fifths of the Jewish people did not make it out of Egypt? And that for the seemingly minor crime of not wanting to leave! As we sit at our Seders, descendants of those who did agree to leave, how confident are we that we would have done so, that we would have known to respond to Moshe by saying yes, we’ll go?

Or take Ramban’s view that there had been plagues of hail and the locusts as bad as the ones during the Exodus, just never before in Egypt. What would that do to our willingness to bet everything that these were in fact supernatural, brought by God, and to act accordingly? When the leader of the most powerful nation on earth was still standing strong (helped along by God, but we wouldn’t have known that), refusing to bow before Moses and his God?

The Kinds of Memoir We Read

It’s not that I don’t get why those books sell more than mine, I more than get it. Reading a memoir lets us hear from another human being about the struggles of his life. It has pathos, and connection, and does not ask anything of us more than to enjoy the entertaining retelling of someone’s life passage. It’s partially for that reason that As If We Were There has a second part, My Father’s Seder, Foundation of My Faith, a memoir of a Seder I still believe is a model of how to be textual and personal, intellectual and emotional, to read and discuss a book while also creating lasting and loving connections with family members around the table.

Amazon doesn’t tell me how many more books Shulem Deen is selling than I am. I bet it’s a lot, because he is making a living off his book. Whereas I was once speaking with a doctor who heard that I wrote books and said, “You make a living off of that? I have five books out, and they barely make $25,000 a year!” Leaving me thinking, “You can make $25,000 off writing books? Are you kidding me?”

What Amazon also can’t tell me, and what I wonder about more, is whether the people who read the Shaloms’ books got more out of the experience than those who read mine. I’d like to think not; I’d like to think those who chose the actually Orthodox book instead of just the Amazon-defined Orthodox book found themselves a little bit better informed, offered a few new ideas, for how to achieve a real Religion & Spirituality>Movements>Judaism>Orthodox moment, a Pesach Seder when each of us can say and feel, as our Haggadah tells us to, that God took me out of Egypt.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.