Home / Feature / Hearing-the-music


Hearing the Music 

An Interview with Author Sarah Shapiro 

 Rayle Rubenstein 


Lead In: 

In 2012, I wrote an article for Hamodia titled The Elephant in the Room that called for renewed emphasis on reading and writing in today’s generation. Today, as the editor of this small publication, I can say that based on the feedback we receive, there is appreciation for good writing, and that there are lots of thoughtful and insightful readers out there.  

The correlation among reading, writing, and thinking is irrefutable, I wrote in my article. In fact, it’s a cyclic process: read, think, write, think. An experienced teacher will tell you that the level of thinking that is fostered by reading and writing is the key to understanding and internalizing information. Reading, by virtue of the literary elements present, helps develop thinking skills. Writing, by virtue of the ideas and skills involved in the creative process, puts those skills to use.

The frum world has come a long way when it comes to the arts, and literature is no exception. Our Judaica stores are filled with new releases in all genres, and the list of authors keeps growing. Many of them are incredibly talented. 

The proliferation of written works is in no small part thanks to the writers, the trailblazers, who set their works free for frum consumption several decades ago, submitting them for publication to what were then somewhat fledgling publishers. 

Among those writers is whom I consider a queen of Jewish writing: Sarah Shapiro. 

Sarah is a wife, mother, grandmother, journalist, editor, and writing instructor. Her first book, Growing with My Children: A Jewish Mother’s Diary was published in 1990, followed through the years by four others, of which the most recent is entitled An Audience of One, and other stories, published in 2021.   She compiled and edited the four-volume Our Lives Anthology series, which features the work of other Orthodox writers, and edits a once-a-month literary section for Ami Magazine entitled All of Our Lives. 

  Her writing has inspired me to become a better writer and a better person, and I hope this interview with her will similarly inspire you, our readers. 


I’m not sure if Sarah can sense my eagerness through the screen of our Zoom session, especially since the lighting in my room makes me appear somewhat like a ghost in a sheitel. So, I begin our conversation by telling her, “You have no idea how excited I am to speak with you.” 

Sarah smiles warmly. “Thank you.” 

Growing with My Children resonated with me as a mother on many levels. I believe that when it comes to our own parenting, we mothers are very critical of ourselves, and that comes out in the book, which is excerpted from a journal Sarah kept in the late 1980s.  But Sarah’s great love for her children comes across in every interaction with them, and even fraught situations are followed by her own introspection and expression of her love.  

As Sarah begins speaking, I catch a glimpse of the walls behind her. They are covered with artwork and framed prints. Her gaze through the screen is serious.  “What we say to our children creates the way they see themselves. The way we treat them forms their self-image. Some mothers take a sort of cavalier attitude toward their children. One thing that I’ve heard mothers say, especially about a little girl, ‘Oh, she’s a drama queen.’ The child’s strong feelings are being put down. If the child’s feelings are not given weight in a parent’s eyes, you can be sure that the child will indeed express them in an exaggerated manner to get attention, or alternatively, or will perhaps go the other way, and become more silent, or more secretive. When I was 18, I attended a self-study group run by Dr. Ned Adleson, a secular Jewish psychologist who had been brought up in a religiously observant home.  He wrote a book entitled How We Are. One of his basic guidelines for attainment of what he referred to as ‘consciousness’ was this line: ‘Don’t let a put-down cross your lips.’” 

“That’s a little scary, isn’t it, Sarah?” I ask her, “because as parents we get frustrated and say things we don’t mean. How do we backpedal from that?”  

Sarah thinks a few moments, then says, “Well, while for human beings, perfection is unattainable, it is not beyond our reach to strive for it. And getting out of the habit of expressing putdowns is possible.” 

Ned Adleson observed that almost everybody he encountered in life had a deeply implanted feeling of being “the worst in the world.” He didn’t know why people feel this way and called his self-study group, which Sarah joined, “The Foundation.”

“It was a wonderful group of people,” Sarah recalls. “I’m still in touch with many of the people I met there, most of whom are Jews. Ned Adleson taught the importance of becoming aware of one’s feelings without acting out on them. One of the lines in his book that opened my eyes was, ‘Not until a person recognizes the totality of his selfishness does he have an iota of a chance of giving.’ If Ned Adleson were alive today, I would point out how many of his ideas would seem to have their origin in what the Torah teaches us. Hashem gives us the yetzer hara to overcome it. Rav Shimson Pincus zt” l once said, ‘The most beautiful thing in all Creation is the yetzer hara, because without it, life would have no meaning.’ I believe that the essential bad feeling about oneself that Ned Adleson observed in his fellow human beings, and which he saw as a universal phenomenon, is an aspect of the yetzer hara.” 

“Yes, it is,” I say to Sarah. “And it affects our parenting as well. A big question you raise in Growing with My Children is if the sum total of a child’s experience is positive and loving, how damaging are those occasional interactions when he’s being shouted at or put down? Do you have the answer to that question, all these years later?” 

“First of all,” she answers, “it varies from child to child, and parent to parent. A casual remark said to a child can have a lasting, even lifelong, effect – or not. It depends. There’s no single rule, but I do believe that children are far more impressionable about our opinion of them than we realize. A child will see himself as he thinks his mother sees him. If he thinks that his mother thinks he’s good, he’ll see himself as good, and to a large extent his actions will follow that self-image.” 

“That’s why it’s so important not to label our children,” I add. 

Sarah nods. “Yes, absolutely. Labels are limiting. What might seem to an adult like an innocent remark – such as ‘What a rascal!’ can bring a child to behave accordingly.”  

“Is that the advice you would give yourself if you could go back 35 years to when you were the mother of young children?” I want to know. “What would you say to yourself if you were able to do that?” 

Sarah closes her eyes and sits in thought for a few moments. “Actually, I feel good about the way I was as a mother. It was always a struggle to be a good mother, and a good part of that struggle was to control my temper and to behave lovingly despite tiredness. Tiredness was a big deal. I can say now that the struggle was more than worth it.” 

Sarah recently wrote an article for Ami Magazine entitled “Oy Va Voy La,” about an experience she had as the mother of four children under the age of four.  She was concerned about her interactions with her eldest child.  “I took it seriously enough to go talk to someone about it, a rebbetzin in Meah Shearim. But I didn’t really take it seriously enough.  I was sort of excusing myself, saying that I was so tired, having recently given birth, even as I was relating the problem to her, when all of a sudden, the Rebbetzin went like this.” Sarah wags her finger menacingly at me. “The Rebbetzin said, ’Oy va voy la! Oy va voy if you don’t give that child the love she needs! When she comes home from gan you say, ‘Shaina maidela! I’m so happy you’re home! How was gan today!’” Sarah imitates how the Rebbetzin smiled ear to ear and threw her arms wide open in greeting. “That encounter with the Rebbetzin was one of the turning points in my life as a mother.”  

“I read somewhere that when your child comes home from school you should treat him as an abused child,” I tell Sarah.  

“How interesting. Wow.” says Sarah. “That’s beautiful.” 

“Because you don’t know what a child has been though in school,” I explain. “When they come home in a bad mood or throw their knapsack on the floor, it’s easier to welcome them in a warm way if you think like that.” 

“Yes, so true. Yesterday I was in a coffee shop with my computer,” Sarah shares, “and a very sweet- looking father, a Haredi father, came with two sweet little girls and sat down opposite me. As soon as he sat down, he took out his phone. He had an earplug in. The two little daughters would say things to each other, and they would say things to him, but he was absorbed in his phone. I was thinking to myself, should I say something to him or not?” 

“Did you?” I ask. 

Sarah smiles. “I decided to, yes.  I went over to him when I was leaving, and said, ‘If you’re sitting here with them, then kedai lecha, it’s worthwhile, to put away the phone.’ He said, ‘Thank you.’ and put away the phone.” 

I laugh. “Only in Israel!” 

“Well,” Sarah says. “The reason I decided to go ahead, and do it was because I had recently seen something very sad. One of my daughters recently moved to Beit Shemesh. I was taking my grandchildren to the park – they have wonderful parks there – and as we were there I noticed a mother who was also going along basically the same path. She had two children with her, one in her arms and the other a little girl around four years old. The mother did not smile.  I was in the park for around two hours that Shabbos’s morning, and the mother was there, too. Not one smile that I could see. The little girl was crying and whining a lot, in an annoying way. They were leaving the park before we were, and at the end, the mother was walking off and the little girl was shrieking that she wanted to stay, stamping her foot and going like this-” Sarah imitates the child’s irritating whine. “The mother ignored the whining and continued walking, The little girl then ran behind a pole, imagining that she couldn’t be seen. She was hiding and she was peeking around the pole, waiting for her mother to notice her absence and turn around to find her. But no, her mother didn’t look back, and finally the little girl ran forward to catch up. The mother, even if she was tired or unhappy for whatever reason, could open her arms and call out, with a smile, ‘Where are you? Ah! I see you! Come!’ It was sad, and I thought, can I say something? Should I? I felt that I shouldn’t. Later, I regretted my silence. You never know when saying something to somebody might have an effect. In a case like that, when a child hides from you and wants you to find him, you have to play along and say, ‘Where are you? Where are you? I want to find you!’ Even if a mother exhausted –and I remember those days well– a big smile is the best and easiest food we can give.  We have the power.” 

“You have a terrible story in Growing with My Children about a little boy, a neighbor of yours, whose mother you observed boxing him in the ears for missing cheder,” I say. “I think we all want to go over to mothers like that and say something.”  

“Yes, I remember that. I can still picture it,” Sarah says. “You never know when your words might have an effect.  The rebbetzin who shook her finger at me was brave.” 

“You did a brave thing in your book, putting yourself out there at your most vulnerable moments as a mother. Did you get any criticism for that?” I ask. 

“Well, probably the readers who were critical just didn’t get in touch with me.” Sarah laughs. “Recently, a reader reached out to me about something she had an issue within my book An Audience of One She said, ‘Aren’t you worried about your dignity?’ and I said, ‘No.’  I feel that the dignity of our lives is in the struggle.” 

Sarah began writing Growing with My Children as a participant in a parenting workshop given by Miriam Levi. Her struggles and triumphs are shared in real time, with raw emotion. “The only way to really benefit from this workshop was to tell myself the truth about what was happening in my life,” Sarah says. “Writing made me aware of what I was doing wrong. I recently read the beginning of the book again – I haven’t looked at it for quite a few years – and I was shocked. There was something I did before the first workshop, before the class began. I got mad at my little boy and then blamed him for my loss of self-control.  I put the book away on the shelf. I couldn’t stand to read it.  

“When I first joined Miriam Levi’s workshop and began keeping a journal, at her suggestion, I didn’t think I was actually doing anything so bad as a mother. I just wanted to be better. I see that I initially adopted a tone of cheerful, cute self-deprecation, a sort of jokey tone when I’d describe losing my temper. In fact, anger is not cute. We have to take seriously what we do and say to our children.  Time goes by very quickly, and before you know it, they will be adults. I’m so glad that I wrote that book because writing it stopped me in my tracks. My children, thank G-d, are without exception wonderful parents to their own children, which gives me enormous joy.” 

“You’ve mentioned in this interview one incident at the beginning of the book,” I say, “but really, the underlying message of your book is the love you have for your children and your desire to do right by each of them. It took me a long time to reach out to you for this interview, by the way. I’m getting to all my favorite people! I interviewed Bracha Goetz last month – I know she’s a friend of yours.” 

“We were partners in crime.” Sarah smiles. “We lived in the Judean Desert settlement founded by Aish Ha Torah in the 1980s. We used to laughingly say that the prefabricated metal caravans we lived in were like Shabbos plattas because when anything went wrong with our air conditioners, it felt as if we were being baked. Bracha’s caravan was a few houses up the hill from mine. We used to write together every afternoon.” 

“Were those happy years for you?” I ask.  

“Yes. Very happy,” Sarah says. 

Sarah grew up in an upper-class non-Jewish Connecticut suburb, and I’ve read many of her essays about her awareness of herself as a Jew in those years. She’s written that the spelling of her name, Sarah, (with an ‘h’) was a rarity in those days and made it obvious that she was Jewish. She has written about a dream she once had as a young child, in which she herself was a big black spider scurrying around the schoolyard. “Where did all those feelings come from?” I ask. “I know that you came from a loving family.” 

“It was, indeed. A very loving family,” Sarah says. “I miss my mother and father, and dream about them. They valued truthfulness, generosity, and compassion. On his last visit to us in Jerusalem before he died, we were searching without success for a kosher restaurant late on Motzoei Shabbos, and my father unexpectedly turned to me and said, ‘I’m glad you’re living a religious life. It’s consistent with my values.’ His values were Jewish. My father’s grandfather was a rabbi in a Minsk shtetl before the Holocaust, but my parents — like many in that generation – were Jewish intellectuals who moved away from religious observance, and so as a child, all my unarticulated questions unsettled me. In spite of my parents’ great goodness, there was a void beneath my feet, a void over my head. It frightened me. It was the Jewish child’s primal need for G-d.  Art and literature expressed that spiritual need. Other things didn’t interest me. I edited the literary magazine in high school. This is what I loved. Art was my focus, and my parents encouraged that love My parents were not atheists. They made mention of G-d. And my father wrote a book entitled In God We Trust. That must have had an impact on me, on some level. But to know in theory that there’s such a thing as G-d is not enough.  A Jewish child needs the structure of Judaism that makes an actual relationship between him and G-d possible.  To be a Jewish child in the secular world is to be lost in the forest. That’s probably why children’s stories such as Hansel and Gretel, about a motherless brother and sister lost in the woods, or A Little Princess, the story by Frances Hodgens Burnett about an orphan, so resonated with me, and so fascinated me. I never got tired of reading and rereading them. What ultimately happened is that Hashem could only give me an awareness of His Presence when I got to the point of asking for it.”

When Sarah was 22, she was in a phone booth near Grand Central Station, trying to reach her sister on the phone. When she couldn’t get through, she crossed the street to walk in the beautiful botanical gardens surrounding the New York Public Library. “On that very hot September day,” Sarah shares, “I was walking through the gardens when I found myself confronted suddenly on the path by a shaven-headed Hare Krishna boy. He was dancing barefoot with a tambourine. He looked as if he was high on drugs, an American teenager in an Indian saffron-colored robe with little bells attached to the hem. He looked so crazy that it frightened me. His lostness frightened me. But then, simultaneously, I got another feeling, of jealousy, because that lost boy appeared to me to believe in something, and I realized suddenly that I didn’t. And I thought a thought that I’d never had before in my life: I wish I believed in something.  It was a clear, distinct, but silently expressed thought. Then I went back across the street to the phone booth. I was still trying to reach my sister when all of a sudden there was a sharp tapping on the phone booth’s glass door and standing there was a little man with a black hat and a black suit and a white beard. He had dark skin and sharp black eyes– he turned out to be Yemenite rabbi from Israel—and he was gesturing to me to hurry up, he needed the phone. I opened the booth, looked at him with curiosity, and said, ‘You’re Jewish, aren’t you?’  He looked no less surprised as I, and said, ‘What? You Jewish?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’

The little man started asking me many questions.  He said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to art school in California.’ He said, ‘No, don’t do that. You go here to classes at the Art Students League You should live with your mother and father.’ I thought to myself, how ridiculous, I’m an adult already. He said, ‘What does your father do?’  I said, ‘He’s a writer. He’s the editor of a magazine.’ The rabbi said emphatically, dictatorially, ‘You have to honor your parents! You should work for your father in his office.’ 

“The rabbi, said, ‘Come!” He waved to me to follow and walked ahead of me up 6th Avenue to 47th Street, and entered the Diamond Exchange, with its kosher luncheonette that overlooked the store. He said, ‘What do you want to eat?’ and I said I just wanted coffee. As always, I was on a diet, but he said, ‘No, no, you eat.’ He ordered coffee and a poppyseed pastry but gestured to me to wait before eating, He took out a ballpoint pen and wrote down on a piece of notepaper the Hebrew brachah in poorly transliterated English letters. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever said a brachah. That was the beginning.  I was inwardly dismissive, yet it rang a bell with me, and that day, I told my parents that I was going to come back home and asked if I could work for my father in his office.’’  

“That’s a pretty wild story,” I say. “What made you listen to a stranger?” 

“I know,” Sarah agrees. “It’s very strange. I had just had that distinct thought about wanting to believe in something. I had not an inkling what that thing might be, but something inside me was ready.”

“How did you go from there to becoming frum? Did you go to classes?” 

Sarah nods. “Many, many classes.”  

“What did your parents say?”  

“My parents were concerned, but thrilled. I took it to heart when the rabbi said to honor my parents. And it was a turning point in my life. Are your parents still in this world?” 

It takes me a moment to realize that Sarah is asking me a question. “Yes, Baruch Hashem, they are.” 

“Thank G-d,” she replies. “Honor your parents. It’s a key to happiness.”  

I‘m familiar with the basic timeline of Sarah’s journey because I’ve read a lot of her writing.  “So, fast forward a few years from the day you met the rabbi. You went to Israel, met your husband, and settled there.” 


“And then you ended up in the desert!”

She smiles. 

“Of everything you’ve written through the years, do you have a favorite?”  

“When I was finished writing A Gift Passed Along, the head of ArtScroll, Rabbi Nosson Scherman, said to me, ‘Maybe you should round it off with something from the present.’ My mother had just died, and his remark triggered me to start writing and writing about my mother. It was a very long chapter, the last one in the book, and is entitled ‘Orphans at Any Age,’ meaning that no matter how old you are when your mother or father dies, you’re an orphan.  I like that chapter. I also like many of the things in my most recent book.”  

“Do you every get frustrated with the quality of writing in the frum world?”  I ask carefully. 

“I would say this: Something that has both advantages and disadvantages is that increasingly, frum writers keep an eye on the Orthodox magazines.  Sometimes someone in one of my writing groups will write something and say, ‘You think they’ll accept it?’ People are increasingly styling their writing for acceptance by this or that commercial weekly publication, cutting and trimming their thoughts and self-expression to fit what they think the magazines will publish. It can be detrimental to the literature that our community gives the world, and to our growth as writers.”

I consider this. “Is that something you try to teach in your writing classes?”   

“No… not directly. But I try to encourage writing for its own sake. For a person to believe in the value of his or her own unique experience in life, one’s true perceptions, and unique voice. To resist writing what you think people want to hear. Generally speaking, I don’t think being taught how to write is a good idea. I’m grateful that I wasn’t ever taught, so to speak, how to write. The best thing to do is to write and write and write. That’s the good use of a writing workshop, simply because it gets you to write and write and write.  

“My father was the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature. He was a prolific, wonderful writer. When Mishpacha magazine once asked me to write about my mentor, I realized that it was he, my father. He taught me not about writing per se, but by being what and who he was, and by the purposes to which he put his love of words.  Toward his later years, he wrote a book entitled Anatomy of an Illness, an account of his use of laughter in recovery from illness.”

“Part of your story is my story, too,” I share. “I was not formally trained as a writer, but I’ve always written. I’m not sure I can write like you, though.” 

“But that’s true, sweetie,” Sarah answers. “You can’t write like anyone else. You have to write like yourself…to tune in to the way you speak to yourself, and to what you perceive in the world. Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt” l once said that people have a responsibility to remember their own journey through the Midbar. The stations of our lives, what has happened at each stage is min haShamayim. Try to use your writing to find out the truth of what you’re living for. The more that people write from their own voice, the better the writing.” 

Sarah tries to turn her screen toward the wall behind her. “I wish I could turn my computer around to show you this. My first-grade teacher would write a poem on the blackboard every morning and when we’d arrive at school, we were supposed to copy it. That was how every day in school would begin. I want to show you-“She tries again to turn her screen. “I can’t.  I’ll read it to you instead. ‘And our mothers always know/ By the footprints in the snow/ Where the children always go.’ It’s a beautiful excerpt from a poem, and it — and all the other poems Mrs. Helene Sleight had us copy – implanted in my mind the sound of poetry and a love for poetry. My favorite poem of all time is by Robert Frost. It goes, ‘Tree at my window, window tree/ My sash is lowered when night comes on/ But let there never be curtain drawn/ Between you and me.’ It’s music – writing has to be music You have to listen to it as music.” 

“Not many people are writing poetry today,” I point out.  

“Well actually, I receive a lot of poetry. But the poetry that I get – that people send me – it’s very hard to get it published in the section that I do for Ami Magazine. The editor tells me that her readers aren’t interested in poetry. I consider that a great loss to our People.”  

I think of the poetry that I’ve read over the years, how sometimes the spaces between the words tell a story that could not be told in standard prose. 

I want Sarah to leave me with some encouragement, and she does. “If a person wants very intensely to write, then in my opinion that person is a writer. Because not everybody feels like writing. It’s something that… it’s a feeling inside of wanting to pin life down, to not just let it fly by, to catch it as it flies.  It’s about leaving a trace of yourself, that you were here in this world. But not so much about leaving your mark as it is about grasping the moment and wanting to share it.”  

And just like that, our session is over, and Sarah Shapiro disappears back into her Jerusalem life, leaving me with words, so many words, that to me sound like music. 



Other author's posts
Leave a Reply
Stay With Us