Penning a memoir allows you to capture stories and memories, and preserve them for those who follow
"I have more freedom when I write fiction, but my memoirs have had a much stronger impact on my readers. Somehow the ‘message,’ even if I am not even aware that there is one, is conveyed better in this form.”
Nechamie Margolis, owner of Writing the Soul, specializes in recording family histories and creating heirloom books. With her vast experience in writing family histories and memoirs, she says that “why” is never really a question.
“I belonged to a personal historian association that included members of many cultures and faiths, and they’d often discuss the reasons we should promote our services as memoirists — the sense of closure it gives people to review their life, the passing on of the legacy of family history, the sense of confidence it gives the younger generation to know where they came from,” she explains.
“But when it came to my clients, these discussions were simply unnecessary. They knew exactly why it was important to save the stories of their parents or their grandparents before it was too late. They knew the older generation was the keeper of the family.”
While Nechamie creates family heirlooms through documenting memories, other writers have written their own memoirs about particular experiences. Risa Rotman, author of Terror and Emunah in Har Nof (ArtScroll / Mesorah 2017), explains that she wrote the memoir for many reasons.
“I felt the message of emunah would be applicable to so many people going through different nisyonos — and I was correct,” she says. “Also, in my eyes, the Har Nof attack was so cataclysmic that I wanted the whole world to remember it. I was worried that if an attack could happen in a shul in Har Nof, it could happen anywhere. I didn’t want Klal Yisrael to become complacent.” Sadly, Risa was correct about that, as well.
Lastly, she says, it was “an act of thanking Klal Yisrael for all the chesed and care I received during that difficult time.”
Bracha Goetz published her own memoir, Searching for G-d in the Garbage, in 2017. It’s the only book that the noted children’s author has written for adults, and she tells me how this came to be.
“When I returned to my parents’ home a few years after I became observant, I discovered my diaries and journals, which had been saved, along with the letters I’d sent my parents from Eretz Yisrael while I was still single and becoming observant,” she says.
“Rereading them as a young mother, I was able to see a thread tying them all together, and I was suddenly able to understand how becoming observant helped me to heal from eating-disordered behavior. I was able to finally fill my hungry soul with the nourishment it was desperately craving.” The goal of her memoir was to share a candid case study based on actual documentation, demonstrating that starving souls need spiritual nourishment to overcome addictions.
“When there’s a message I feel the need to share, I write,” Bracha says simply.
Some memoirs are published as messages for the world at large, others are simply distributed to family. But family memoirs are no less important, and indeed, they often become treasured possessions. I still mourn the loss of a taped interview featuring my grandfather a”h and great-grandmother a”h, as they shared many memories and experiences.
Unique Challenges; Unique Rewards
As a writer, I’m curious: Does the fact that a memoir is bound by events that happened make the writing process easier or harder? On the one hand, solid fact gives a base to the story, but on the other, there isn’t much wiggle room to make things turn out neatly tied in a bow.
It can pose a challenge to a writer who enjoys creating worlds solely through imagination, yet the limitations can also be freeing in a sense — you’re furnishing a room instead of building a house, foundations up.
There are other challenges: how to select details that bring out the essence of the story? How to deal with controversial events or characters? How to fill gaps in memory? Is it ethical to emphasize certain points while glossing over others?
“It was a challenge to share embarrassing incidents from my past,” Bracha shares. “There were editors from several publishing companies who advised me to remove the most painful parts, but I got permission from a rav to include them. I believe that if I left out those parts, people would not see how painful addictions can become. In addition, the contrast with the joyful life I’ve been blessed with now wouldn’t be as evident.”
After overcoming these hurdles, though, Bracha found the rewards of writing her story innumerable. “The greatest reward is being able to help the many people who were inspired by the memoir,” she says.
Risa found the question of audience most difficult. “When I first started writing, I was encouraged to gear the memoir toward those who didn’t know the frum world, in order to open them up to it,” she explains. “But it then became apparent that there is no way to easily market the book to the unaffiliated, so I overhauled part of the book to make it reader-friendly for the frum world.”
Another issue she struggled with was to maintain the privacy of other people involved in her experience. “ArtScroll / Mesorah wanted me to write more about the other families who suffered tragic losses during the Har Nof attack,” she says. “But they weren’t comfortable with that.”
As a memoirist who has written up many family histories, Nechamie shares another perspective. “I use all the tools at my disposal to create a readable, authentic book,” she says. “It’s a form of ghostwriting, trying to inhabit the world of the interviewee and infuse their soul on paper. To do that, I’ve gone into worlds that were often frightening, that forced me to face my worst fears: The saga of two parents watching the slow decline of their son’s battle against Duchenne muscular dystrophy. A child growing up behind the Iron Wall as her father disappeared in Stalin’s gulag and was never seen again. A young girl wrenched away from her mother and left to survive in Auschwitz.”
She often gets physically ill during these interviews, and the emotional toll can be huge. “I remember after one interview about the Kindertransport, I’d sit at my daughter’s bedside for nights afterward imagining it being my child I was sending away.”
But then there are the rewards. “It struck me one day that it’s not just the hard parts of the stories that have an impact. Through my job, I absorb the strength of these valiant people whose stories I write. Their stories whisper to me in times of challenge, giving me strength and hope to move on.”
Indeed, the first ones to be inspired by a subject’s story is the writer they share it with. In my own experience creating the Teen Pages diary serial Moonwalk, a memoir collectively built from the stories of a few brave and wonderful girls suffering from chronic conditions, one of the goals was promoting awareness of the struggles and triumphs of a teen battling medical unknowns. I hope by the time the serial ended, many readers were inspired by the sheer willpower of these silent heroes — but I was the first to feel it.
Feelings and Feedback
Nechamie wrote her first memoir 11 years ago for her grandfather who was dying of liver cancer. “He started our interviews with telling me how he’d often jokingly ask his mother-in-law, ‘Do you think I’ll ever amount to anything?’ She never responded; she’d simply smile.”
“I hope this memoir will answer that question,” Nechamie’s grandfather told her. She thought he was joking — he was an acclaimed psychiatrist, had raised a beautiful family, and was generous beyond measure.
But then she realized that there was a hint of truth to that question. “I think it’s the underlying question that thrums beneath the surface of all our lives; do we matter? Did our life make a difference in this world?” Nechamie says. “I handed the finished book to my grandfather five days before he died. He inscribed it for me, writing: You found more in me than I knew was there. His question had been answered.”
Risa experienced the writing of her memoir as almost a reliving of the experience. “It was amazing that while I was writing the memoir, I had total recall of every little detail,” she says. “I also distinctly remember writing the ending. I wrote it in tears, and every time I did an edit, I would tear up all over again. My editor, Mimi Zakon, mentioned to me that while the entire manuscript was very clean from proofreading errors, the ending was not.”
Bracha compares writing her memoir like going to a therapist. “As I was compiling it, I was able to see things about myself so much more clearly, and I had one realization after another. It was exciting and transformative to put together.”
“I once interviewed a 90-year-old woman who lived through the Holocaust,” Nechamie tells me. “She was reluctant to start the process, having kept her memories of that time locked in the vault of her mind for over 70 years. But when the book was finally complete, she expressed how glad she was to have gone through the process. ‘I was sad for so many years,’ she said. ‘But now, I find myself happy.’ ”
Afterward, this woman’s son called Nechamie and told her that for the first time, the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren understood what the matriarch of their family had lived through. “She’s handing out the 500 books we printed to all her friends and family,” he said. “She’s a changed person. You’d never believe the difference.”
Creating a memoir can be incredibly therapeutic for the subject, as well as give their loved ones a deeper understanding of them and their stories. In the case of a widespread published memoir like Terror and Emunah in Har Nof, there’s also the effect on hundreds of unknown readers.
“People have called, wrote, and emailed me from across the world to tell me how much the book impacted on them,” Risa shares. “One heartbroken man from London whose beautiful son died suddenly asked me if I would make a short video for an event he was planning in memory of his son. A few people called to share with me their tzaros. It isn’t always easy, but I try to listen to each one and give them the empathy they deserve.”
Bracha’s most thrilling feedback came from non-Jewish or irreligious readers who gained an appreciation for the Orthodox Jewish community through reading her memoir. Her most gratifying feedback, though, is when frum readers share how they relate to things she wrote and how the book has enhanced their lives.
Making Your Memoir
So you’re geared up to set to work writing your own memoir or your family history… Where to begin? Nechamie shares some tips for those who want to document their family history.
“Just record it!” she says. Many people don’t have time to tape, transcribe, write, edit, and produce a full-length book for their parents and / or grandparents. But there are numerous resources online that give ideas for questions to ask, and you can use any recording device or app to collect the memories and store them safely. (Be sure to back it up in more than one place!)
“Perhaps somewhere down the line a grandchild will become fascinated with history and take on the job, or the finances will become available to hire someone,” she says. “This way, you’ll have the material available. I know too many people who came to me when their parents’ memories were already declining or after they’d passed away.”
For a couple whose book she wrote, this tip proved invaluable. “Mrs. Stein’s* memory was completely intact, and her interviews produced a 200-page manuscript,” she says. “Rabbi Stein, however, had lost much of his memory and his speech was slurred. We only managed about 20 pages before he passed away. Several months later, his daughter found a treasure. Ten years earlier, she’d taped both her parents but then misplaced the recordings. These tapes contained hours of her father telling the most amazing stories. It was a precious find that made its way into a complete manuscript of both parent’s lives.”
In Risa’s case, she was writing from her own memories. There was no issue of how to interview and record the information, but still, creating a book takes guidance. “I was lucky in that I had a professional memoir writer guide me for free,” Risa says. “Esther Chanah Stromberg of Life Stories Unlimited offered to meet me each week and encouraged me to keep going. I wrote a fairly linear story of the events as they happened the year that my husband lay in the coma, although I did add in a chapter or two of personal information.”
Even if you don’t have a professional, Risa advises having a friend go over your manuscript piece by piece. “After you have the basic manuscript written comes the real hard work,” she explains. “I must have read over my manuscript more than 10 times before the publisher started working on it. You want to make it as clean as possible and take out any unnecessary details that don’t add to or improve the story for the reader.”
“Enjoy the discovery process that is possible from writing a memoir!” Bracha adds. “I share in my book how Reb Aryeh Levin (A Tzaddik in Our Times) expressed how great it is to write a memoir because when you do, you get to more clearly see the Hand of Hashem throughout your life. That is definitely what happened to me. And it is a pleasure I continue to experience each time I’m blessed to share its joyful message.”
What, exactly, is a memoir?
Essentially, it’s a collection of memories. Generally written in first-person, often in a diary-like style, the memoir recounts a person’s experience through a specific ordeal, time period, or journey. Memoirs tend to be highly personal, with an emphasis on emotionally charged memories and events.
“A memoir is more focused than a biography,” defines the Celadon Books website. “It’s an intimate look at a moment in time.” A moment — or a few months, a year, even a decade.
A memoir isn’t an autobiography or a biography. While the latter aims to give over an entire life history in logical, sequenced steps, a memoir documents specific, focused memories about an important part of someone’s life. And where a biography is an extensive, exhaustive project characterized by intense research, data, and timelines, a memoir can be as simple as a selection of diary-format scenes, straight from the heart.
Typical memoirs in the frum world include Holocaust stories (which focus on describing experiences over a specific time period), a journey toward discovery of Judaism (which may seem autobiographical, but specifically highlight memories and experiences that contributed to the outcome), or the overcoming of a difficult challenge.
The genre is highly popular, and many memoirs serve as wellsprings of chizuk and inspiration to others struggling with similar challenges. Additionally, truth is often stranger than fiction — and many memoirs make a fascinating read.
Everyone has a story to tell. Anyone can write a memoir. And many people have.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 761)
Oops! We could not locate your form.