Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Rabbi Ilene Schneider is one of the first women rabbis ordained in the U.S. and also the author of the award-winning Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries. Now she’s finally decided what she wants to be when she grows up, recently retiring from her day job to devote herself to writing. Learn more about Ilene and her books at her website. Today Ilene joins us to talk about failure.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who thought she could sing, despite all evidence to the contrary. Instead, she was the student whom the music teacher told to “mouth the words” in school assemblies.

She also thought she could play a musical instrument. After all, her grandfather had been a professional saxophone player in Paul Whiteman’s society dance band in the early 1920s, and her father had been in the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, as was her cousin. Then she was introduced to the recorder in fourth grade. All she could produce were squeaks.

Fast-forward about forty-five years. The little girl’s sons turned out to have some musical talent. The older played guitar and did ear-splitting renditions of punk rock. The younger one played violin at age five, switched to piano, and then switched again to guitar. He could play by ear, had perfect pitch, and composed as well as played. His singer/songwriter type songs are similar to Leonard Cohen’s: wonderful melodies combined with incomprehensible, metaphysical lyrics.

When the younger boy was still taking piano lessons, he never practiced. “Just imagine,” his teacher would sigh, “how accomplished he could be if he practiced.”

“I have a great idea,” said the little girl, now a woman who should have known better. “I’ll teach by example. I’ll take piano lessons, and when my son sees me practice, he’ll do the same.”

Big mistake. Yes, I was that little girl who was supposedly a mature, intelligent woman who had rid herself of self-delusional behaviors. I somehow managed to forget that I cannot translate the sounds in my head to my vocal cords or an instrument. I have no sense of rhythm. I have no idea if a note is too high or too low, too sharp or too flat. My fine motor skills aren’t great – I stopped trying to make my own clothes when I realized I couldn’t follow the lines when cutting a pattern – and I can’t coordinate my two hands to do different things simultaneously. My small hands can barely stretch to an octave, and I had to hit the notes using my long nails.

I think the first song we learned was “Jingle Bells.” It sounded like a dirge.

And my son was right: practicing, especially scales, is BORING.

Scheduling time for lessons became difficult, so I stopped taking lessons. The teacher, an older European woman who was classically trained, celebrated by retiring.

Maybe it’s not my most humiliating failure, or my most serious, but it haunts me still.

Unleavened Dead
Two members of Rabbi Aviva Cohen’s congregation are found dead, victims, they say, of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. But Aviva has info that leads her to doubt it was an accident. Then, police suspect Aviva’s niece’s partner in a hit-and-run death. Aviva is sure the woman is innocent, even though her SUV has a body-sized dent on the hood. As she looks into the two disparate cases, Aviva discovers they may be connected, and her amateur sleuthing takes a sinister turn that involves sexual abuse of teenage girls, money laundering, stolen identities, and an FBI investigation. Once again, her curiosity has put her life in jeopardy.

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  1. I, too, have minimal musical talent. It stops me from taking g lessons. But it doesn't stop me from singing when I feel like it. Thanks for your story.

  2. My music teacher also told me to "mouth the words and not sing" and I was devastated. Everyone in my family sang, although no one had any musical training. And they sang well. I think I did, too, but my teacher thought farm kids were stupid, dirty and had no talent. It was an early lesson in stereotyping. But, as you've indicated and is true of most writers, overcoming failure when young gives us practice doing it later in life. Being mulish is a virtue, I guess.

  3. Your article reminded me of the urban legend of Albert Einstein's "failures" before "inventing the lightbulb." I prefer to think he succeeded 1000 times to prove what didn't work.
    One of my prose poems, The Next Mistake, begins:
    Why must every
    wrong action
    be labeled a mistake when
    Lessons are learned?