Author, Sheyna Galyan, talks to us about writing Jewish crime novels, making the perfect challah and why she’s a rebel.
You are a novelist penning crime fiction featuring a rabbi, not two things you’d normally put together. Where did the idea come from?
I do owe some inspiration to Harry Kemelman who wrote the Rabbi Small series back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Although, I like them a lot, I wanted more depth. I knew I wanted to write about big questions. It was really important to me to have the Jewish piece in the story, so I thought, what if I have a character who’s a congregational rabbi and his best friend is a cop? That’s how Rabbi Cohen was invented.
When did you start writing?
I’ve been writing stories for a very long time, since I was seven. Stories are my way of, if not answering questions, then at least playing with them and looking at different sides of complicated issues.
You are just releasing your newest novel, Strength to Stand. What’s the big question behind this story?
The big question is, how much intolerance should we tolerate? And if the answer is none, then aren’t we also being intolerant? On the surface, it’s an easy question to answer, but if you drill down deeper it gets very complex.
In this book, a female Reform rabbi in Minneapolis is being stalked by an increasingly violent, anonymous stalker. Her husband is an Israeli-born Minneapolis cop, but because he’s so close to it, he’s not allowed to do much. On top of that, a lot of what the stalker is doing is under the protection of the First Amendment. It falls to David to find and stop the stalker.
Does your main character, Rabbi David Cohen, speak for you?
I used to say David is who I would be if I were a rabbi…and male…and tall. As the character has grown, as I have grown, I’ve found that I see myself in several of the characters, not just him. The thing he and I have in common is a really strong inner compass of needing to do the right thing even if that’s the hardest choice. But I’m more of a rebel than he is.
Give me an example of when you rebelled.
When I was a kid, my parents were not comfortable at all with my doing anything religious with Judaism. So, without my parents’ knowledge, I walked into a synagogue when I was 16 and had a conversation with a rabbi; I wanted to learn and study more. When my parents found out, they freaked out, “We’re not bringing organized religion into this house!” My friends had joined a bowling league that met on Friday nights. I told my parents that I had joined their bowling league and they went bowling and dropped me off at shul. Fifteen years later, I happened to meet the same rabbi, who remembered me. When I told him how I managed to attend services every week, he said, “We have the exact opposite program. Kids are saying they’re attending services but really hanging out with their friends.”
That’s so funny! Was writing a rebellion for you, too?
I don’t listen very well when people tell me I can’t do something that I know is right and important. All my life, everyone from parents to professionals in the industry have told me, you can’t do that; You’re not allowed to do that; You’ll never succeed. I proved them wrong.
Your books are set in Minneapolis. What locations are in the latest book?
The building I use as David’s synagogue is the old Adath Jeshurun, which is a Unitarian church on 34th and Dupont. I make references to parks in the area, local restaurants, and the homicide department downtown, too.
What’s your favorite holiday?
Chanukah, but not for the reason most people would think. We don’t do gifts in our family. We use the holiday as a family to talk about current events and how the themes of Chanukah apply, themes of standing up to bullies—and for your beliefs—the idea that the little guy can prevail.
What’s your favorite Jewish food?
I have perfected a recipe for challah over the past 20 years. (And I could probably happily live off of homemade challah and Kedem grape juice). I started with a basic recipe and have been tinkering with it to make the perfect loaf.
What makes you folkin’ awesome?
I run Yotzeret Publishing, an award-winning company that publishes books written from a Jewish perspective featuring authors from the U.S., Israel and Canada. We have two books coming out early next spring, one from an Israeli author and one from a Canadian.
Sheyna Galyan will be signing books at the Strength to Stand release party Thursday, September 10.
6:00 pm Author Reception; 7:00 pm Reading / Q&A. SubText Books, 6 W 5th Street, St. Paul MN