I have four completed novels not yet published and I'm struggling to decide which one to focus on. When I try to focus on all of them, it's overwhelming.
I've decided to publish an excerpt from all four and ask for feedback. I wrote this one back in 2014 and can't seem to let it go.
This novel was accepted by Black Heron Press back in 2020. Unfortunately, I found the back and forth about the contract disturbing. After working with four small traditional presses and three agents, I have some knowledge of red flags and I pulled out of the contract. While this is always painful, it's not a good idea to ignore red flags. What is the point of having publishing and contract experience and disregarding your own intuition?
Then the novel was taken on by the Anna Olswanger Agency (thank you), but my agent found her dream job (yes, I was happy for her, but not for me) and left within in a few months of taking it on. Now I'm back to the drawing board with it and so much time has passed that it's considered historical fiction at this point (though I wrote it in real time, at the time of the 2014 Gaza War, while in my bomb shelter). I'm now at a crossroads: another agent? another small press? self publish it on my site?
Happy to hear your thoughts if you'd care to comment below.
"Excellent writing here," The Capra Review. This is what they sent me after reading this excerpt in a P.S. Always an encouraging sign.
YA military, coming of age fiction
This novel is about a Jerusalem teenager, Yehudah Geffen, who runs away from a juvenile rehabilitation school during the 2014 war with Hamas and finds himself no freer than he was when he was locked up.
Yehudah rejects his parents' orthodox lifestyle, preferring to live in the moment and enjoy life 24 hours a day. He's in with the wrong crowd and admires all the wrong kids, which lands him in increasingly more trouble and he's busted for drug possession in the beginning of the novel.
To his horror, this arrest lands him right back in the school he escaped from, but under more severe restrictions. On top of this, his crazy roommate tries to kill himself, three Israeli teenagers who could just as easily have been him, are kidnapped by a terrorist group while waiting for a bus, and later found dead, and his social worker—the one person he likes on campus—is drafted into the front lines of the War.
Will Yehudah run away again? His old friends haven't let him go, not even in lockdown and they're planning his next escape every minute. Will he figure out a way to be true to himself without bowing to his father and ending up in real juvenile jail? A Prayer Apart explores the heavy burden Israeli teenagers carry knowing they are next in line for the front line, complex family relationships, and what it means to be a true friend.
A Prayer Apart Excerpt
Gabriel has come through for me again. He has arranged a whole twenty-four hours off to go to Julia Mitteldorf's wedding. Never mind that it's a consolation prize of sorts—partly a reward for good behavior and partly a way to ease my disappointment about not getting into the fast-track high school program. But now that the day has arrived—freedom, maybe a chance to live a little—heavy haze from a sandstorm has it looking like post nuclear war out here on the highway.
I wish the bus would arrive. I feel as though I'm at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere rather than on a main highway close to a major tourist center. I've hardly had time to change my socks let alone look at a weather report and visibility is dimming by the minute. But I should be at my sister Sarah's place in a couple of hours and I'm dying to grab my cash card out of her hands before she has time to say hello. I received a text message from the bank but I deleted it by mistake before I had a chance to read it. .
So I text Sarah about the weather delay, though I'm certain she's looked out the window and has noticed that she can't see a thing.It's likely sent her into a tailspin, a dust storm on the day of her best friend Julia's wedding. She must feel as though she's in a bad dream. I text her that it might only be a small disaster, that the weather is bound to clear up by this evening.
These Sahara Desert sandstorms sink into every pore of your body, always worse in the desert than they are in the city. There's a layer of dust in my hair and on my clothes. When I pop a piece of gum in my mouth, all I taste is sugary dust. I could live with that if the bus would just come.
Instead, a dusty white Kia screeches to a halt in front of me and the passenger window rolls down. I squint through the haze and recognize Gabriel. I didn't expect to see him out here so early in the morning. He has counselor office hours for an hour before breakfast.
"Yehudah? You leaving so early?"
"The bus will be here any minute, thanks." I tell him, keeping my voice neutral. I rest my head on the back wall of the bus shelter and close my eyes. I love the guy like a brother, but I want a real break from school and that includes a break from my counselor planning my tutors and timetables and listening to Gabriel apologize for the hundredth time that the fast track program is full. I'm the one who sat on the deal until it went stale, not him.
"Hey, brother what's up? Do you think if you ignore me, I'll go away? Next thing you'll stick your fingers in your ears and whistle."
He laughs, but I don't. "Come on, get in. There's something I need to tell you and man you were great this week. Perfect attendance, aced tests. Time will whizz by, you'll see."
Yeah, two years will whizz by like a tsunami. My heart shrinks. I don't deserve a counselor like Gabriel. Still, two hours of his help right now sounds like a recipe for a whopping headache. His focus will be on how to put the next two years in the right perspective. He beeps his horn and guilt pokes me. I owe him on all sides. He's trying hard to be my guardian angel and fairy godmother wrapped into one. It's impossible to explain to him that he's always planning, focused, and ambitious—not me. If that description summed me up, I wouldn't be here in the first place.
Gabriel says that's not true and it's a question of redirecting those qualities. This makes me feel as if I'm walking on quicksand around him, my real self sinking lower than the self he sees until the tension hurts and I want to fall back on default mode: running away.
"Unbelievably stubborn. I don't want to startle you, but there's a sandstorm from here to Libya. You missed the last bus. If the next one does come it'll be an hour wait and visibility will be worse," he says. He makes a big deal out of cleaning the inside of his window with a cloth. "You might get to Jerusalem on Tuesday. Now get in, you're making my interior all sandy."
I open my mouth to talk back, but it just brings more dust into my lungs.
He's already opened my passenger door.
I get in and roll up the passenger window.
For a few minutes we drive in silence. It's a relief that he has to concentrate on the steep windy road.
"You're lucky I spotted you there," he says, finally. "I thought I'd slow down to offer a ride to the unlucky soul stuck at a bus stop in this weather. I'm happy it was you."
I close my eyes feeling lousy. He's not lecturing me about my classes. I judged him unfairly.
"Are you not speaking to me? Did I do something wrong?" he asks.
"It's not you. I'm just tired. It's brutal to learn in the summer."
I take out my phone and read my latest text from Yoni: It's payday for every Sudanese worker in Tel Aviv and they only get paid in cash. That means it's payday for us. I got a taser for you too, from our shuk friend.
I quickly press delete. Yoni puts too many details in writing and I wish he'd give up. He's crazy if he thinks I'm about to taser anyone for their pay. Maybe he is safer in jail. The thought startles me. I'm not sure who I am anymore and I need to work on being at ease with that.
Outside the atmosphere looks yellow and otherworldly.
Gabriel fiddles with some buttons. "There we go," he says. "Fog lights. I never use them."
Normally, we'd see Palestinians selling clay statues and pottery at the turn off to Jericho, but I can hardly make out the silhouettes of their huts and stalls. I doubt anyone's stopping to shop in this weather. Every so often Gabriel turns on his windshield wipers to move the dust. His phone doesn't stop ringing and he doesn't stop answering. So far so good.
"It's not ideal visibility, but it'll improve at the turn off to Jerusalem."
"Thanks for picking me up."
"You're welcome. Did you think the school had decided to send a chaperone?"
"Very funny. Rehab school's not up to private escorts yet. Why don't you put on some music?" I ask.
"I'd rather talk to you and stop taking these calls. It's normally an hour; at this rate it might be closer to two."
He clears his throat and offers me some gum from his glove compartment.
"Grape. My favorite," he says.
He chews with such relish I can't help but laugh. The guy seeks out people to offer them rides. He's truly a good man; no doubt Rav Motti spotted that spark at the Chabad stand in Jerusalem.
"Is Sarah meeting you in town? I assume you're not heading to your parents' house?"
"Maybe," I answer.
He raises his eyebrows. "Yehudah, you're going to this wedding and Rav Motti will see you back in class tomorrow morning? Evening latest?"
I look straight ahead and tap my foot on the floor of the car. I stare out the window, but there's nothing to see.
"Everybody has problems, challenges. That's part of why God put us here. Our difficulties help us grow and become better people if we face them. They don't define you or any of us, they don't have to."
My shoulders relax for the first time since I saw his car pull up at the bus stop. He has no idea what I'm thinking, it's obvious.
"Rav Motti's really starting to get on your side. He's harsh at times, but he feels it's important to make a strong first impression. Ultimately, he's a good judge of character."
I make the appropriate hmms and haws.
"You're not saying much."
"I have to solve a problem before anything else," I say.
"Could I help you with it?"
"It's better that you don't."
As we come into the entrance of northern Jerusalem Arab villages appear on both sides. On the right the village is filled with tall apartment buildings built from Jerusalem stone. The closest one is surrounded by a thick concrete wall. It looks brand new and uninhabited and contrasts with the one on the left, which looks half a century old.There's Arabic graffiti on many of the walls and the original white color has dimmed to washed-out concrete grey.
By the time we pass the university on Mount Scopus, it's still dusty outside, but less so.
"Can you drop me as close as you can to Ben Yehudah Street?"
Gabriel pulls into a gas station in French Hill, about five kilometers through heavy traffic from where I want to be. Instead of pulling up to a pump, he pulls over to the side.
"I'll just get out here." I gather my phone and my knapsack.
"I want to talk to you for a minute about something important."
"You don't have to."
"Please. I know I took a big chance letting you out free for a whole day like this. I'm not as naïve as you think. I was your age not so long ago."
His gaze is piercing. I must resist it.
"You sure nothing's going on? I want to help, but you have to trust me and I need to trust you. I've been holding back on you about something the whole ride."
A note in his voice slows me down and scares me at the same time. My entire life I've trained my body to resist outside intervention and Gabriel's the first friend I've really let in all the way or more than anyone else. I handle things my way, ruled by my appetites, my homegrown, knee jerk long-rooted instincts. For the first time, I'm moving to someone else's rhythm, and it's not natural yet, not my own.
Outside, the insufferable wind howls against the window pane.
"Please," he says again.
In Gabriel's voice I hear more than concern, I hear caring, so I settle back into my seat.
"What do you want to say?"I watch his mouth alter. It takes a minute for the strain to relax out of it.
"First, ditch anything other than our plan." He inclines his head towards me and I smell his grape breath.
My heart pounds under my shirt. I'm so close to freedom. I'm feeling lightheaded with the anticipation of dancing all night with a bottle of Redwood and a cute girl, somebody normal, but not too nice.
His deep set eyes don't leave my face as he says, "I'm going to Jerusalem to say goodbye to my parents and my sisters. I'm heading to Gaza. Tonight I'll be in."
In twenty seconds you can transform from an ordinary guy sitting in a car at a gas station to a cog in a war machine.
"I'm more help with my unit than watching from the sidelines," says Gabriel, fumbling with the windshield wipers. He cleans the layer of sand off the windshield in broad deliberate strokes and I can see his mind working, calculating what he needs to pack, how long it will take him, the best route.
My eyes don't leave his face. I'm afraid to speak.
Finally he says, "I'd better make tracks. Thanks for coming with me to get gas. I'll leave my car with my parents. There's a bus in a couple of hours."
He touches the scar on my cheek. "You'll be all right? You'll stick with the plan? You can totally do this. You're one of the brightest kids in the school, you know. Hands down."
I turn away for a moment, until we're assaulted by a news update from the radio: A man driving a digger used his vehicle to flip over a bus, killing one, a gunman on a motorcycle opened fire Monday on a hitchhiking station on Mt. Scopus in East Jerusalem. Several people were wounded in both attacks.
"Hey! You've gone so quiet," Gabriel says as he turns the radio off. "I'll be back soon. The fighting can't go on much longer. I can take care of myself."
I have no doubt he can take care of himself, but the internet news headlines are filled with dead soldiers who texted the same lines to their family and friends before they were killed. Still, this negativity is poisonous. Of course, he'll be fine.
But can I make it through this rigorous program at Horizons without Gabriel? He's been holding my hand every step of the way. I feel like a two year old who has lost his father at the Wailing Wall.
"My parents don't live too far away. They're in the German Colony," he says.
"You could let me off there," I squeak. "It's not far from where I'm headed." I clear my throat, but words are trapped somewhere inside me.I excuse myself and run to the bathroom, where I throw water on my face. I lean against the wall until I can breathe normally again, and then I return to the car.
He doesn't immediately drive away. Instead, perhaps to give me more time, he asks, "Did you know the German Colony is a name given by a German Protestant break-off group called the Templars?"
I want to say something funny about him switching back into tour guide mode while I was gone, but nothing comes.
"They founded this neighborhood in anticipation of the imminent return of Jesus."
"Weren't they disappointed when he didn't show up?" I force a smile and wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans.
"If they were, you wouldn't know it. They built this place up, left their mark on its architecture and thrived right up until the 1930s. You'd find plenty of German and Arabic inscribed in the architecture around here if you really studied it. I think you'd find it interesting."
"So, what happened to them? I don't see too many Christians around here today."
"They fell on the wrong side of history by supporting Hitler during the War. This was British Occupied Jerusalem in the thirties and the British didn't like that so much."
"No shit," I answer, hoping he'll continue. It's far preferable to thinking of him in a dark terror tunnel only twelve hours from now, waiting for an enemy to pop out of the dark, armed to the teeth with nothing to lose and only virgins to gain.
"The Brits sent the Templars packing back to Germany and the wealthy Arabs they'd attracted ran away in 1948 during the War of Independence. Now it's mostly Americans flocking here. I can give you a tour sometime. How about we say it's a date?"
"Throw in cold beer and spicy shawarma?"
"You got it."
We shake on the deal, and then he says, "Hey, your sister called while you were in the bathroom. Your phone must be dead. I told her you'll be there soon. I met her when I was still working as a tour guide. Eli's girlfriend, right?"
"That's her mystery man."
"His father was my boss, before the war closed him down."
Eli's family is bankrupt? A flare goes off in my memory. Sarah had mentioned that the night she asked me for my bank account code. What was I thinking when I gave her my card?
"Everything comes from heaven," he adds when I don't respond. "That's one good thing about working in education. It might not be the best pay, but schools don't close down. There's always kids and they'll always need schools. Still, I feel bad for them. The mother quit her job to start that company as a family business. Sarah's probably told you this."
"Sort of," I answer. It occurs to me that I should stop in at the bank before I hit Sarah's place. How long has it been since I gave her my bank card? A week? More? My head hurts trying to calculate. I have a maximum withdrawal of $250 a day on that card, and Sarah knows it too.
"Are they still together?" Gabriel asks.
"Eli and my sister? Yeah."
"I didn't realize she was so much older than you."
"She's not. He's your age. She's nineteen."
"That bothers you, eh?"
"I hear, you, but I can tell she really cares about you. She phones to check in on you all the time. There are a lot of people rooting for you."
I can think of one person who's not rooting for me to stay in school. The thought shakes me.
"The school's understaffed with the war and won't have a replacement for me. Consider reaching out to your parents. Sarah can help."
Sarah's lying through her teeth to my parents, nothing new there, but did she lie to me? It wouldn't take more than a few minutes to check at the bank, but do I want anything to ruin my only day off? Besides, Sarah wouldn't lie to me. She said $1,000. Even if she needed $2000, I won't miss it.
Gabriel checks his text messages, flips to WhatsApp and then the news. "I know the temptations that are out there once you're free on Ben Yehudah Street, so I have something to help you."
"Something for me?"
"I notice you like jewelry."
I nod and my hand automatically flies to my neck where a white eagle dangles on the end of a silver chain.
"Eagles are out of style." He grins and takes a small bag out of the glove compartment and drops it into my hand. "For both of us," he says.
I open the bag and take out the small blue box inside. Under the lid are two necklaces with gold puzzle pieces. Both charms have a white crystal in the center.
"You wear your half and I'll wear mine," he says.
"I love it. I don't know what to say."
I pass him one and we both put our necklaces on at the same time.
"You watch over me and I'll watch over you, OK?"
We shake hands again. I don't want him to see me get emotional and I don't want to unhinge his determination.
"Magnificent. It's the nicest gift," I tell him. "Thanks brother. When did you have time to buy this?"
"I find time. You didn't tell Yoni you were coming in did you?"
I've taken one or two of Yoni's phone calls in the last week, both of them uneasy stumbling encounters where I make a fuss about bad reception and hang up quickly. Guilt and blame sandbagged me both times.
"He'll get the message eventually," Gabriel says. Then an SMS beeps on his phone. He reads it and his lips form a thin hard line. He's still talking to me, but his mind is already with his unit. This morning there were reports of casualties from mortar fire and everyone knows the hospitals down south are overflowing.
I stare at his profile as he at last backs up, and then turns right on Agron Street and passes the U.S. consulate towards Rambam Road. He's not movie star handsome. I can't see the girls going wild from a distance over him, but he's got a kindness about him that makes it easy to be around him, talk to him.
Gabriel catches my eye and I realize when he looks at me he doesn't see a castaway or a bad boy, but a version of his younger self he can touch and feel and guide in much the same way as Rav Motti must have held out his hand to him. I finger my new necklace. I don't want to disappoint him, but two years at Horizons. Who am I kidding? The weight of the rejection from the fast track program doubles me over inside.
Too soon, he pulls over on Hillel Street and we hug.
"Take care of yourself, big brother." The words blurt out, but it's as though someone else is speaking. I can't possibly be saying goodbye to Gabriel before he drives off to fight a horrible war. An image of one of the dead young soldiers floats to mind, followed by another, then another. The media broadcasts the names, then the photographs. Third in line are the funerals, complete with the wailing, heart broken families and interviews with relatives, best friends and neighbors. Wives or girlfriends left behind, many of them pregnant, get a lot of coverage. "God should watch over you."
"Thanks, little brother. I have perfect faith. Everyone does what they need to do and that includes you," he says. "I'm waiting to hear only good things about you and I know I will. Pray for me."
"You got it." I've started going to synagogue again. Not three times a day, but at least once, not that I'm spreading that news around.
"God bless. Peace should fall on all of us like manna before I even arrive," he says.
I get out of the car and close the door. I bend down to wave and offer a smile and then he's gone.
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