Soferet #18

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SOFERET

Issue 18 Newsletter for Orthodox Women Writers

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

Jewish Girls Around the World Club

By Miriam Walfish

Miriam Walfish flew in from Canada to represent her publisher, Judaica Press at the Conference. Many writers were intrigued to hear about her club for Jewish girls. Here is some more information about the club and how it works.

What is the Club?

It’s a club for girls. Membership is free, and one need not buy a book to join. I wanted the club to be accessible to all our readers, including those who borrow the books from friends and/or libraries. Members receive an introductory gift package, including stickers, bookmarks and posters. Members are then eligible to participate in various contests, and win prizes. The first contest took place in the fall. Members were sent a postcard with a few questions that tested  their knowledge of the books in the series. They were to fill out the answers and mail the postcard back; this postcard was then entered in a draw. The draw took place January 31 at the publisher’s office in New York.  I am happy to relate that two sisters from London, England, won a gift certificate for Judaica Press books.

How did the Jewish Girls Club get started?

It developed as a result of a few conversations I had with my publisher, Aryeh Mezei of Judaica Press. Initially, my thought was to offer some sort of writing contest for girls who read the series. I had thought this would be a great way to encourage girls to write their own stories and express themselves creatively. While my publisher liked the idea of interacting with our readers, he was concerned that a contest might lead to disappointment and hurt feelings among those entrants who did not win. We came up with the idea of a club, where everyone who participated could feel good about doing so, where everyone was a “winner.”

The third book in the series, Penina’s Adventure at Sea, introduced the club and included an entry form. (April 2010). The form was reprinted a few months later in an article about my work in Binah Junior. It appears at the back of my most recent book, Tova Bloom Solves the Riddle, (September 2011.) A list of members will appear at the back of the next book in the series, Tova Bloom To the Rescue, set to be released iy”H this spring.

As more books in the series iy”H continue to be published, we hope to offer more such contests. What format these contests may take is currently under discussion, as is the possibility of holding events for members.

Included in the membership package is a letter that encourages readers to write to me and share their thoughts about the series. I ask them such questions as: Who are their favorite characters? What illustrations did they like the best? Do they have any suggestions for future characters and/or settings? I have received many such letters in the past year, and it is always a thrill for me to hear from my readers.

The response, b”H has been very good. I am not sure of the exact number, but to date the club has over 500 members. Most are from the New York, New Jersey area, but we have a large contingent from Toronto (where I live) as well as a large number from England.  We have members from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Montreal and Virginia, as well. We have a few from Israel, and even a few from France and Australia. It truly is a Jewish Girls Around the World club.

I don’t know how the club has influenced sales. Each book in the series sells better than the one before, but it is hard to know why. Perhaps the club membership has something to do with it, but I can’t say for certain.

Should you want any more information about the club, feel free to contact the publisher, Aryeh Mezei at aryeh@judaicapress.com

A Pressing History Lesson R.M.Grossblatt

When I was in Junior High, I wrote an article for the school newspaper about two teachers collaborating to write a history book.  That article changed my own history because the school advisor called my parents and suggested I switch from a commercial course to an academic one to become a teacher. If I hadn’t done that I might not have married my husband z”l, whom I met in college. And I might never have written my first children’s book because he was the catalyst who encouraged me to press on.

Since I was a young child, I always loved anything to do with words, but I wasn’t a good reader.  I  later learned that because of an eye muscle problem my eyes didn’t work well together which compromised my comprehension.  Still, I loved hearing stories and often wondered at the history of words.  In high school and college, while others groaned at the thought of writing a term paper,  I could hardly wait to gather note cards and watch a thesis emerge. On campus, I wrote poetry about nature and love, of which I knew nothing.   And although I had a challenging student teaching experience in an inner city school, once I got into my own classroom, I enjoyed teaching and encouraging my students to write. I’m getting paid for this? I remember thinking.

My own writing needed practice and polishing.  As a young mother, I wrote about bundling up babies in snowsuits and taking them to the library, banishing TV from our house and living through the women’s lib movement.  Nothing got published except letters to the editor of a local Jewish paper and ideas for educational magazines.  About this time, while reading children’s books to catch up on what I missed as a child, I started writing children’s stories and collecting rejection letters.

One day, I was interrupted in my 4th grade classroom  to answer a call at the office–a rare occurrence.  Over the phone, I heard these words from a small publishing house, “We like your story and want to publish it.”  I was so excited that I practically flew back to class and shared the good news with my students. “Early Friday Morning,” a story about a little girl and her mother making challah for Shabbos was accepted for publication.

I should have called the publisher every month to see what was happening, but I assumed that all  was going well. Two years later, when I found out that not even an artist was assigned to the book, I didn’t know what to do.  So I consulted with Yaffa Ganz, a famous children’s writer from Israel.  She said, “Ask for a publication date.”

Before I had the chance to do that the owner of the publishing house called saying that they were short of money and were asking their authors (which I wasn’t really one yet) to be on hold.   That’s when I wrote the letter asking for a publication date and  –for some strange reason — added the words “or release me from the contract.”  Guess what?  That’s exactly what they did; they released me from the contract I had been so thrilled to accept two years earlier.

R.M. Grossblatt is a grandmother who lives in Atlanta, Georgia where she’s taught elementary and middle school English for 20 years and presently works part-time at Temima High School for Girls and Judaica Corner, a giftshop/bookstore. She’s been published in the Jewish Observer, Yated Ne’eman, Hamodia, Mishpacha and Mishpacha Junior. Her two children’s books are When Mashiach Comes and Who’s That Sleeping On My Sofa Bed.

For the Love of Writing

By Rhona Lewis

The kernel is there—in the corner of a back room in my mind. Almost hidden under the dust of day-to-day living. In a quiet moment, when I am peeling potatoes and the baby is finally sleeping, when I lay in bed so grateful that every one of my children is also there, I prod gently at the idea, turning it over and hoping it will flower.

I write because I want to inspire you. To take you deep into feelings that you know but don’t listen to because you are too busy.

I write because I want to teach children to see the intricacies in the world Hashem made.

I write because I love to paint pictures with words, to draw for the reader what she has never seen. To share the simple beauty of African nature, the spiritual beauty of Israel.

I write because I want to make you laugh, to take you for a few moments into a world where life flows in a bubbling river of mirth.

I write because it is a chessed. When I delve into the miracles behind the life of a person and I publicize Hashem’s hand, I am doing a chessed for the person.

And so I write about forgiveness, loyalty, Africa, the baobab tree, a hilarious robbery, people’s lives.

And when I write, I connect to the part of me that wants to give and so I grow.

Thank you Hashem for giving me the gift of words.

Born in Kenya, my childhood gave me a love of open vistas both in space and spirit. In 1990, I moved to Israel where I married and have merited raising a beautiful family. When I am not busy as a wife and mother, I love to write. To date, my work has been published in Mishpacha’s Family First supplement, Hamodia, Lifestyle, Ami Magazine’s AIM supplement and on the website TheJewishWoman.org.
Expressions About Writing or Being a Writer

by Linda Goldberg

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was six years old. In my case it was to make order out of chaos. Now I write because I have to write.

In the beginning I wrote stories about growing up in Jewish Boston. Many of these stories had lived vividly in my memory starting when I was five years old. I did not put everything on the page finding memories even harsher that fiction. After I shaped what I remembered happening into complete short stories, I understood both the incidents and myself better. I understood even more when I received feedback from readers explaining their interpretation of the events. The work had taken on a life of its own.

I use the light: sun, lamps, moonlight, and dark nights to help show my theme. I try to have my characters go from darkness to light.

I learn much from my rabbi about Jewish themes.

After I published my book of short stories with the aid of grant from the Natick library where I live and lead a writers’ workshop, I gave power point presentations showing pictures of   Jewish Boston and talking about my book. Audiences, even those who did not grow up there, but grew up in other tight neighborhoods enjoyed the talk. I found myself a new me; someone who could speak in front of audiences and enjoy it. I kept their attention with laughter and sadness.

I am trying to write from memories of when I was a child from one to five years old which is very challenging.

I would like to move into more fiction than autobiography using what I see and hear around me from people who catch my attention.

From writing I found many like-minded people to befriend. That lead to a friend suggesting I join a poetry workshop. I told her I didn’t write poetry. After her continual prodding, I joined. That group lead to my writing poetry which I also enjoy.

Discovering the Jewish Writing Institute online was another breakthrough for me.  There I learned from teachers of both fiction and poetry great insight on how to be a better Jewish writer.

A Jewish writer is what I Am.

Ebook by Esther Heller

Six Ways to Turn Good Writing into Great Writing

This is the creative writing curriculum that I have found to be the most effective for my own writing as well as for the many writers I’ve worked with. Based on years of teaching creative writing and culled from scores of creative writing technique books. Please click on this link:  http://www.greatcreativewriting.com

Coming Soon: New Email Course with Esther Heller!

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