Yitta began her writing career at age of eight

By Doreen Wachmann

BEST-selling author Yitta Halberstam is an Orthodox woman with a difference - just as her parents were chassidim with a difference.

Yitta's Holocaust survivor father, the late Laizer Halberstam, to whom Yitta owes her highly-successful writing career, edited Elie Wiesel's articles for the Irgun newspaper, Zion in Kampf, published in post-war Paris.

"Both my parents were very unusual," Yitta told me. "I really owe everything to them. I had a father who was very rooted in the chassidic world, but was very intellectual and a talented Yiddish and Hebrew writer."

When American-born Yitta began writing at the tender age of eight and edited her Beis Yaakov elementary school yearbook, her father's excitement knew no bounds.

He was so thrilled that his young daughter had inherited his writing ability that he sent her work for publication and applied for positions for her, sometimes without bothering to inform her.

Yitta recalled receiving a phonecall at the age of 19 from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) about her application for an internship - which her father had applied for on her behalf without even telling her.

But her father's management of her budding writing career had started much earlier.

"When I was at elementary school, my father schlepped me to the library every week," Yitta said.

"He made sure I got good books. He would pull me by the hair to the biography and history sections. He was very devoted to extending my mind.

"When I started writing he would send my little poems and stories to the Jewish Press, which had just been established. He was responsible for my journalism career."

Yitta became JTA's first Orthodox intern at a time when the agency had left-wing leanings, both politically and religiously.

Her ability to cope with and even flourish in a much more open environment than her chassidic background was also helped by Yitta's mother's penchant for New Age reading material.

Yitta's open-mindedness and journalistic ability had already manifested itself in her elementary school.

She recalled: "When a new girl came to class in Beis Yaakov from an out-of-state community, I would promptly sit her down and start asking her questions about her life.

"Everyone would roll their eyes and say I was interviewing again. I was a very curious person, very open to learning new things."

At JTA, Yitta became "totally enamoured of journalism".

She said: "That turned everything around for me. Until then I saw myself as a fiction writer."

Yitta gave up an academic career to devote herself to journalism, having articles published in Money, Working Woman, New York and Parade Magazines, as well as in Jewish publications.

Her writing career was fully supported by husband Mordechai Mandelbaum, who came from a similar chassidic, yet intellectual, background to herself.

Yitta's first book, Holy Brother - Inspiring Stories and Enchanted Tales About Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was written a year after the death of the rabbinic singer.

"I felt so sad that Carlebach had been misunderstood by so many people," she said. "My father had taken me to his concerts from a very young age.

"I gathered stories about him, travelling to San Francisco, where he had established a House of Love and Prayer, and to Los Angeles, where he had a lot of chevra in film, music and TV. I spoke to hundreds of individuals.

"Most of the book focuses on his extraordinary chesed (kindness) and how he reached out to Jews of all persuasions."

The book became a Judaic bestseller.

Yitta's Small Miracles series of books, which climbed into national bestseller lists, began with what, at first sight, seemed to be a chance meeting with her co-author Judith Leventhal.

The two had known each other previously, but had not met for some time till they bumped into each other in Manhattan.

Going for lunch together, social worker Judith explained that she had not been scheduled to go to Manhattan that day, but unforeseen circumstances had brought her there.

Talking about coincidences and how they were not really coincidences, but divine providence, the two decided to co-write a book on coincidences from a spiritual perspective.

Yitta said: "I felt it was a phenomenal idea. At that point there were no such books on the American market, no books saying that coincidences were spiritual taps on the shoulder from God and that we should pay attention to them.

Their first Small Miracles book sold one million copies and was in all the bestseller charts. Subsequent Small Miracles books also climbed the bestseller lists.

Yitta and Judith have just published their eighth in the series, Small Miracles from Beyond - Dreams, Visions and Signs That Link Us to the Other Side.

Yitta said: "In our previous seven books, we had concentrated on coincidences that revolved around life events.

"Now we concentrated on coincidences that demonstrate the soul's eternity and the fact that the relationships we have on this earth with loved ones don't die with the physical demise of the body. They remain.

"Our ancestors are watching us. They are guiding and helping us. We felt that people who have undergone losses would gain comfort from them.

"Also there has been such an acceptance of books on these kinds of topics in the literary climate of the USA."

The book is an anthology of true-life experiences from Jews and non-Jews about how they have received messages from their deceased beloved.

It begins with Yitta asking for a sign from her own deceased mother, who had read widely into New Age spiritual and mystical works and ends with her feeling inspired during the shiva house for her father to write her first-ever poem in flawless Yiddish, just as her father would have written it.

It also contains stories of people being saved from death in concentration camps by messages from the deceased, as well as Christian stories.

A Hollywood producer is hoping to make the book into a TV series.

Small Miracles from Beyond is published by Sterling Ethos.

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph