Women of the Book: The Writers Seminar in Jerusalem

Women of the Book
by Chava Dumas

What inspiring event has been happening for years in Eretz Yisrael?
Where is one guaranteed to meet friends, learn something new, gain a different angle, approach, perspective, insight and skill?
What special seminar packs so much information on such a variety of related topics into one day?
Are you still guessing?
The Annual Jerusalem Writers’ Seminar!

The first writers’ conference, for women, Pri Chadash, was co-led by Varda Branfman and Judy Belsky in Jerusalem nearly a decade ago. Then Esther Heller and Leiba Smith began organizing an annual conference in the mystical city of Tsfat, which went on in Cheshvan for four years. These were unpretentious, intimate affairs, with innovative writing exercises presented by creative experts, stimulating women to discover untapped resources within themselves that were worthy of being brought out to light and transcribed onto paper. There were tears and laughter as we listened to our comrades share their poetic responses: our emotions were triggered and our souls were tugged by the blatant power of the word.

Leah Kotkes brought the experience of Tsfat back to Yerushalayim, where she organized The Writer’s Journey, six annual writing seminars held in Iyar, from 2005 until 2010, each one growing in size. She was the driving force for much inspiration: What started out as small gatherings of like-minded women grew beyond overflowing halls in Yerushalayim, each seminar expanding exponentially as the word spread that tremendous opportunities for chizuk would be gained by attending.

How many people have the habit of picking up a pen and piece of paper and pouring out their thoughts in prose, poems, letters, essays, articles, features? This incredibly valuable process has been a part of our collective expression as a People for millennium! And now, with the eruption of a volcanic force from a previously concealed quiet community of Orthodox Jewish women writers, the impact of our words is being felt around the world.

All of this is enhanced by the influence of these annual seminars, these writing conferences that serve to stretch us further, each time we delve into new dimensions of self-discovery and emerge with a heightened awareness of the power of the pen.

“I have never met such driven people,” a non-Jewish woman once told me.
“Where I come from, people ‘hang out’ and ‘shoot the breeze.’ They aren’t possessed with this need for meaning. Everyone thinks so much and so deeply about every move they make! And everyone I meet is writing a book!”

A long way from the 30-40 women who met in Tsfat once upon a time, the 2011 annual seminar welcomed over 150 participants, not including the large team of publishers and presenters. Expanding beyond the Reich Hotel and the Prima Palace of previous years, this was the first conference held in the wide and spacious Shirat Yerushalayim hall in Givat Shaul.

With Leah Kotkes now living in England, far from us physically, but close to us in spirit, this year’s event was organized by Tamar Ansh and Esther Heller, with assistance from Chaya Baila Gavant and Yocheved Leah Perkal.

Inspiration, encouragement, practical guidance and concrete tools were given over in a professional way. “Networking opportunities”—also known as making new friends—abound! It is truly incredible to share so much common ground and similar values with women from all over Eretz Yisrael as we, together, honor the written words ability to convey our core values in the most powerful, effective way, in this most holy medium of communication.

It was evident how much thought and planning was invested into offering practical workshops, writing sessions and discussions to enhance both personal and professional writing, for beginners and experienced, published writers. Considerable consideration was invested in meeting the writing needs of every participant, from journal dabbler and closet poet to potential professional journalist. All venues of writing and writers are highly prized and endorsed, which is what makes attendance at these events an affair of tremendous chizuk!

We have come to expect a variety of top-quality workshops offered by our favorite writers and teachers, and we were not disappointed. Sarah Shapiro, Shifra Devorah Witt, Esther Heller, Debbie Shapiro, Yaffa Ganz, Varda Branfman, Yocheved Leah Perkal, Pessie Frankel, and Tamar Ansh all offered information essential to writers. The challenge of the day was how to decide which worthy workshop to join, since that meant not being able to attend others! This was very tough, especially if The Art of Writing for Children, How to Release Vision through the Craft of Poetry, Writing Out of the Box, and the Ins and Outs of Publishing and Publicity were all of equally vital interest! Looking longingly in different directions around the hall, it was difficult to choose in which beloved speaker’s presence to be. But as an interviewer, I wanted to hear Debbie Shapiro’s “The Successful Interview: Getting to the Heart of the Matter” to gain some trade secrets.

Speaking in an entertaining, engaging way, Debbie took us right to the point: writing an interview means learning to listen. We have to tune in with our hearts, and hear more than the words being said. Facial expressions, body language are all clues. She also gave over practical tips regarding equipment, interview etiquette, questions to ask, time considerations, putting it all together. Her words were relevant to all our bein adam l’chaveiro interactions, not just interviews. The same is certainly true of the other workshops: “How to Release Vision through Poetry” is similar to asking “how do we learn to access what our inner vision is?” —a question vital to all of life! And what does it mean, as an Orthodox Jewish woman, to think and write “out of the box”?

An impressive morning presentation was held after the smaller workshops were concluded, with a publishing panel moderated by Tamar Ansh. Miriam Zakon from ArtScroll, Deena Nataf from Feldheim, Aviva Rappaport from Jerusalem Publications, Miriam Walfish from Judaica Press, Liron Delmar from Israel Bookshop Publications, and Suri Brand from Brand Name Publishers each spoke as a representative of their company, to explain what they offered the writer looking to publish her work.

Bassi Gruen, Chavi Ernster and Shira Moncharsh spoke as representatives from Mishpacha, Hamodia and Binah magazines. (Unfortunately, Esty Weiss from the new Ami magazine was not able to attend.)

After a great buffet lunch, a book raffle took place, where many attendees won new books donated by publishers and authors. We then were entertained by Elisheva Phillips’ hilarious comedy skit—“Editing Advice You’ve Never Heard Before!” She showed us how she would have edited the works of Robert Frost and William Shakespeare.

Sarah Shapiro spoke about “The Velveteen Jew,” and then Esther Heller moderated an in-depth career discussion panel with Yael Mermelstein, Suri Brand, Naomi Elbinger, Beth Shapiro and Paula Stern, each one explaining the particular niches—in freelance writing, editing, web writing, grant writing and technical writing— that exist as lucrative career options. This was a particularly practical presentation to encourage our application of writing as a marketable skill. In these financially challenging times, this presentation was especially appreciated.

Thirty years ago there was hardly a way to whet one’s thirst for Torah knowledge if one wasn’t proficiently fluent in Hebrew. When Rabbi Bulman, zt”l, encouraged Sarah Shapiro to write about her life as a Jewish mother, a new chapter opened, a very, important chapter in Jewish history. Observant Jewish women began to write about their personal experiences as Torah Jews. The Jewish world at large would now hear the voices of the women from within.

Those of us who are aware from whence we have come as women writers could feel a sense of awe and amazement at this year’s Writing Conference —at this magnificent public display of historical accomplishment—Orthodox Jewish women writers have really come a long way and are making a tremendous impact on the Jewish world today.

May our continuing efforts to learn to effectively use our written and spoken words be met with success. May we internalize the value of our ability to build and repair, edify and uplift, support and educate through this essential medium of communication that helps transform us into better people. And may all of our efforts to be a Light to the Nations with our example of the true power of the pen give Hashem tremendous nachas and help hasten the geulah sheleimah!

Chava Dumas is a freelance writer, editor and certified doula living in Jerusalem. She teaches a series of shiurim on emunah called “Making Every Day Count” and can be reached at lightsd@zahav.net.il

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