The Invisible Writer by Azriela Jaffe

The Invisible Writer by Azriela Jaffe

I read this article a few weeks ago in Mishpacha Magazine and for a good week or two I was thinking about it all the time. When I first read it, my first reaction (especially as a fellow writer) was anger, as in: “Azriela, what are you doing!!?? Don’t let yourself get taken advantage of by this greedy lady!!!” But then, after thinking about it, I realized that Azriela had her priorities totally in place: she gave up material wealth and prestige for spiritual and eternal gifts. Exchanging $25,000 and the thrill of being on the New York Times Bestseller list for the opportunity to bring her family on their first trip to the Holy Land. Through spiritual lenses, the truth is, Azriela was the one who ended up with the far better deal…

When my first book published with HarperCollins hit it big, the Wall Street Journal named it one of the top ten reads of the year. I remember setting my alarm for 4 a.m., bundling up against the frigid winter air, and driving to the nearest 24-hour convenience store to pick up five copies of the newspaper — one for myself, one for my parents, one for each brother, and an extra one just because. My proud husband even had a plaque made out of the article, which hung on my office wall for years. I was sure that the prestigious honor was going to change my life forever.

During that time, I appeared on 200 radio and television programs and received four-star book reviews in most major newspapers. The grateful fan mail kept pouring in. But my moment of fame came and went quickly, and although my name was now “on the map,” it was hardly a household name. And my bank account — well, it certainly didn’t make me feel like a celebrity. In one way, however, I was changed forever: Writing went from being a passion to a full-time career.

Sixteen years later, that book, now long out of print, resurfaced in my life. In 2011, a secular publisher approached me to write an updated edition, but this time with a coauthor, a Reform Jew who is an expert on the book’s main topic. While mulling over the offer, all I could think was: yeshivah bills, upcoming seminary expenses, mortgage payments … when can I start?

For six months, I rewrote the book, integrating into its pages the expertise, stories, and counsel of my new coauthor. She and I understood each other: I was the writer, she the professional expert. She cherished the opportunity to fulfill a long-held dream to become a published author, but with no time for pen and paper (or mouse and computer keyboard), this arrangement seemed the ideal way for her to publish a book without having to write it herself.

Everything was going along swimmingly … or so it seemed.

And then I began to catch the drift that my coauthor wasn’t going to be satisfied with the status of coauthor, especially with her name following mine on the cover. And that wasn’t the only problem: She wanted her picture on the front, like many celebrity books now have — but that wouldn’t work since I had no interest in my photo being splashed on the cover. She also wanted full control over the content and the marketing.

My coauthor was very grateful for what I had written, and she loved the book. But now, it became clear, she wanted me to disappear. She is a nice person, so she never said these words out loud, or even admitted them to herself. But I felt it.

Then, one day, I got the call. With a trembling voice, my coauthor began: “I know that what I’m about to ask you is entirely unreasonable. I recognize that most of the content of this book is yours. Still, it will be much easier for me to market this book if my name appears first, and my photo is on the front cover.”

Silence. She waited for my inevitable reaction to her outrageous request, righteous indignation at the least. I do the work, and she takes the credit? Why would I agree to such a preposterous idea?
G-d gave me the gift of silence. I didn’t react right away, at least verbally. I didn’t say no. I said, “That’s a very big-deal request, and I need to think about it. I’ll let you know.” We chatted some more, both of us aware that our relationship had just changed.

I hung up the phone and shook my head, as if to shake off this insanity. My ego was firing on six cylinders. How dare she! Who does she think she is? How completely unreasonable! Is she out of her mind? I wrote this book. How does she have the audacity to take the credit?

But just as the voice of outrage was filling my head, a quieter, more soothing voice was also becoming audible. You know how she’s feeling. You were there once yourself. She wants the thrill of her first book, with her name on the cover. She’s going to pour her heart and soul into marketing this book, making sure that everyone in this nation knows about it. You understand what it feels like to be on fire with your first book. You’ve been there.

Over the next few days, I moved ever so slowly towards a decision that made no rational sense at all. I would give her what she wanted. I realized that I simply didn’t care if my name was on the New York Times best-seller list. The only fame I really wanted anymore was to be recognized as the mother of Sara, Elana, and Eliyahu, as the Mishpacha writer, and the “Chatzos Lady.” From some place inside of me that I didn’t even know existed, I realized that I could give her what she wanted, with love.

And so I did. And she cried. And I cried. And we agreed to redesign the front cover of the book, so it would read with her name first, my name second, and her glamour shot photo would be splashed on the cover.
But it didn’t stop there.

Once she got a taste of being “first author,” it was only a short step to being “only author.” I realized, when before she did, that what she really wanted was to be the sole author, with me safely hidden from the public in the role of ghostwriter. It’s done all the time: Over-scheduled luminary hires a writer to pen a book because she is too busy being a celebrity to spend all those hours writing. My coauthor ultimately wanted me to disappear — from my own book!

Two voices battled in my head: Preposterous! Unfair! Who does she think she is? And: Yeshivah bills, seminary expenses, mortgage payments. Then I started thinking about how ghostwriters can be paid substantially for their services.

This was no time for ego. It was time to make a deal. The street price for ghostwriting a full book starts at $25,000, exactly what it costs these days to send a daughter to seminary. Was Hashem providing me a way to finance my daughter’s dream to spend a year in Israel? The fire of financial need took over the fire of ego.

I called my coauthor and, with love and calm in my voice, told her that I understood her yearning for fame and reverence as a published author. I, too, had once been in that place. I could see that this was something she really wanted, and I could give it to her … for a price: $25,000 dollars.

She gasped. “I don’t have that kind of money!”

I remained calm. I wasn’t going to give away a best-selling book for nothing. “I understand,” I replied. “Talk it over with your husband and get back to me.”

And she did. She called back, voice quavering, and presented her counteroffer. “You’re right,” she started. “I feel that it is the time in my career for me to launch my own book, and I do want to take you up on your offer. But we can’t afford anything close to $25,000.”
I willed my voice to remain cheerful: “What would work for you?”

“We’d like to pay you $2,500 dollars,” she said softly. “But don’t worry, we’ve come up with some other ideas for how to make up for the difference.”

This was my moment to vehemently object, especially when her other ideas were not cash-in-my-pocket alternatives. I was watching my dream of covering a year’s seminary tuition disintegrate in a matter of seconds.

I was tempted to launch into a tirade of “How dare you suggest that my book is only worth $2,500 when you know it’s worth much more than that!” But I didn’t go there. I trusted her. We weren’t two business people in a hard-core negotiation. We were two Jewish women locked together in a dance, each wanting to give the other what she needed, and not knowing how.

And then she casually said, “You know, I have this time-share, and we travel a lot, so we have a gazillion credit card points that we can trade for airline tickets. Is there anywhere you’d like to go?”

My world grew quiet. Israel. My entire family. A dream never fulfilled because every dollar goes to yeshivah and bills. My daughter would be there in seminary — this would be our opportunity to visit her. Succos vacation, the one time all year when all of our children are on the same vacation calendar.

“Yes!” I practically shouted. “If you can get my entire family to Israel, including plane tickets and a hotel in Jerusalem to stay in, you’ve got yourself a deal,” I told her. “The book is yours!”

And so it is that I’m traveling with my husband and two of my children (one daughter will already be in Israel at seminary) to Jerusalem for the entire two weeks of Succos vacation in 2012. To finance this dream, I have sold the rights to my first published book — and the rights to this new book that will be published in 2012. And a Jew who has not yet been to Israel herself, but somehow understood how compelling Israel would be for me, is the shaliach.

I spent two weeks rewriting my book, removing any traces of my name and my stories, shaping this book into its next destiny, under the authorship of a woman with big dreams for its success. I have no doubt that I will see her face in the national news, and I will watch my former book, now her book, climb the charts, and get into the hands of many readers. Will I feel jealous of her? Will I experience any regret?

I think not. It’s her time for secular fame, she has worked hard for it and deserves its rewards. It’s my time to see a Jerusalem sunset and to visit my daughter’s seminary and remember why we sent her there. It’s time for my husband, bar mitzvahed son, and teenage daughter to see the country they have only read about and dreamed of visiting … some day. That day has come.

The fire of my ego was transformed into the light of love. I have given up my book for adoption and its new parent will raise it with care. And I will kiss the ground of Israel when I arrive, knowing that it is only because Hashem deemed it possible that two Jewish women who love Him differently, and yet the same, came together to create love instead of war.

Photo courtesy of user Jain Basil Aliyas


  1. As a fellow writer, I doubt I could get to such a high level of removing myself from my work. I’ve ghost-edited books but with advanced knowledge, and I’m happy taking a backseat to others. And here’s Azriela, doing something so amazingly brave, with the gifts Hashem gave her. I think she is in for some major spiritual dividends for her incredibly gutsy move. Thanks for posting this, CJ.

    • Clarification: I’m happy to take a backseat to others for editing, but for writing? Don’t think I’m there. Azriela is a complete and total inspiration!

  2. I read her writtings in the magazine. here she made clear about what is truly important to her and her family. she is very special.

  3. That is probably one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. It is the essence of what every Jew should be willing to do. Sacrifice even themselves or who they feel they are for Eretz Yisrael/Hashem. She is on a super high,holy level. Very inspiring. Also, living here, I forget what people will do just to get here for one minute,this was a good reminder. Thanks for posting.

  4. I’m speechless. Whatever such a sacrifice is worth in Olam Haba will surely infinitely exceed her wildest writer’s imagination. Ken Yehi Ratzon!!!!!

    You are right, deb. It also makes me look at my life in Israel with different eyes. It is so important to be grateful for being here. I really do forget that it is a privilege.

  5. Ladies I am truly humbled by your posts. A member of our chatzos group alerted me that this discussion was taking place and sent me the link. I won’t lie to you – the experience of erasing myself completely from my own book was surreal, especially one that was once so dear to me and so revered by the media. It was and continues to be a trying experience, and it continues because the author has continued to depend on me for ongoing editorial support throughout the entire process of seeing this book through to publication. So yes, very strange indeed. Truthfully, I bought the chinese auction tickets that promised a family trip to Israel but had not yet won…. and I can’t fathom any other way I ever could have done this. My daughter is going to seminary next year. How could I never see where she is, or visit her, and after being frum for so many years, how was I ever going to get to Israel? It’s one thing to buy a ticket for one adult – already a lot of moula. But a family of five and all of the living expenses while over there? Every bit of our money goes to yeshiva bills and mortgage and you know the list, and it took a miracle like this to make a trip to Israel possible. I know that this is truly a crazy story, but I really feel that Hashem orchestrated it, and it is especially meaningful because I did feel anger and “how dare she” plenty of times, so it was an opportunity for me to turn that into something positive. I’m happy you all got something from it too.

    • you give us a great lesson, and the oppportunity to know you and the chatzos group! i definitely want to belong to it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. That is huge, Azriela. Kol Hakavod! I hope to acquire something near your level of altruism.

  7. The big question we’d love to ask is what’s the name of the book??? From a fellow, former Highland Parker, we’re proud that you live in that town!!! You’re an inspiration to us all.

  8. With all due respect, I don’t think this any kind of inspirational story. The other woman was in fact a crook and she took advantage of Azriela and the financial situation she was in. If the going rate for “ghost writing” is $25,000 then that’s what she deserved and should have gotten. The other author stole her ideas, her book, and due fame and possible fortune. I am very disappointed in this other “author,” and fellow Jew and wish Azriela had remained strong. She probably would have made the money from the book anyway to get to Eretz Yisrael. Why should this other woman who was unworthy of the fame receive it when Azriela was the drive and talent behind the book? It’s like she sold her soul as her book was a part of her.

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