When I began my ba’alat teshuva journey almost twenty years ago, I had much to learn about keeping Shabbos, making Pesach, and getting a command of the laws of kashrus. The rules of tznius (Jewish modesty) were also right up there in the top ten list of internal and external transformations I needed to make to become a frum Jew, a life-changing process that unfolded over a decade at least.
And that’s why I was delighted with the opportunity to spotlight in this blog the author of the book that helped me grasp tzniut and see it in a positive light: Gila Manolson, author of Outside/Inside, a classic in the field that is recommended to all Jewish women and teens. One might think that the book was written especially for BT’s, but rather, Gila, a BT herself, had a different agenda in mind. I asked Gila how she came to write this book, which has forever pegged her as: “The author who wrote that amazing book on tznius!”
“Before I started writing, I taught an extra-curricular class in Jewish outreach at Michlalah. That’s when I began discovering that kids who had been brought up religious had never been exposed to the meaningful and powerful ideas that I, as a ba’alat teshuva, had. The notion that one had to be a ba’alat teshuvah to hear a persuasive reason for being shomer negiah (refraining from premarital physical contact) made me crazy, so I decided to write a book on the topic, called The Magic Touch. It was a big hit, causing me to write a second book on another misunderstood and under-appreciated topic, tzniut, called Outside/Inside. Both books catapulted me into fame (or infamy, depending on how you felt about them!). They were followed by, Head to Heart, on preparation for dating and marriage, and Choosing to Love, a kind of sequel to the first three.
“To my great joy, countless people have told me that my books changed their lives. Many became shomer negiah, began taking tzniut seriously, or prepared themselves properly for their lifelong relationship. (One person told me that after reading the chapter on recognizing the signs of abuse she broke up with someone she was dating who she realized was problematic.) The Magic Touch is often the first book someone reads when they become interested in Judaism, and many have told me it actually helped make them religious.” The topics of negiah (touch), tzniut, and preparation for love and marriage are central to people’s lives. Probably nothing is more central to our happiness and success in life than our ability to love ourselves and others. Yet, that’s where so many of us are really messing up. I wanted to help people “get it right.”
Gila is branching out from writing about tznius and relationships, and hopes to write a new book on a topic she devoted a chapter to in Outside/Inside, the topic of individuality. “People often fear that becoming religious means becoming a clone,” she explains. “Indeed, I have seen people ‘lose themselves’ in the process. And in fact, there is pressure in certain parts of the religious community to conform to an ideal that simply may not be the truth of who someone is. I maintain (based upon traditional sources) that Torah wants us to be who we are–the best ‘us’ possible, for sure, but not someone else. Being religious means developing our own unique relationship with God, and making our own unique contribution to the Jewish people and the world. There is NOT just one way to be religious!”
Gila makes her home in Jerusalem with her six unmarried children, ages 14 thru 24, and one married child who lives outside of Jerusalem. Her husband, Avraham, has worked for AishHaTorah for many years, and they are both extensively involved in outreach. Gila travels all over the world, leaving her husband to hold down the fort at home, and thoroughly enjoys visiting other countries and continents, sometimes even speaking with translation, to her audiences. “Seeing that my ideas have universal appeal is always gratifying,” she reflects.
Although writing, speaking, and mothering fill her days and nights, she also enjoys reading a good book, particularly on issues relevant to women’s lives; she’s a natural foods vegetarian, and physical fitness fan. Hiking in the Golan and swimming in pools and the ocean are great loves, and she has an adventurous spirit: “I recently went tandem skydiving (with a woman jumper). I recommend it!” she declares.
Gila is excited about the potential for Jewish ebooks to carry her message around the world. She also is enthused about her own continued growth as a woman, wife, mother, and spiritual being, as reflected in her writing. I’ve often noted that being a writer is a lot cheaper than being in therapy! Gila and I understand one another –writing these kinds of personal books is internally transformational as well:
“Every book I write, I feel like I’m writing it for myself also!” she agrees. “My understanding of tzniut has definitely deepened since writing Outside/Inside and Choosing to Love. I’m always feeling more centered in myself, and more aware of what tzniut really is. Dressing modestly was never a huge issue for me, but being “modest”–which for me means learning not to speak too casually (I have a big mouth) or to be overly friendly with men (hard for an out-going, social person who loves people!)–has become easier and easier, thank God. I feel like I’m always becoming more “appropriate” and sensitive to the situation I’m in, which means reserving myself in some situations, but not in others (like when I’m just having a good time with friends).”
Lucky us, as we get to join Gila on her spiritual journey, and benefit from her new insights and spiritual growth.