Soferet #8



Issue 8                               Newsletter for Orthodox Women Writers           Winter2004/5764

______________________________________________________________________________________ “Many writers have the desire to write, but lack the confidence to own the full horse power of that desire”

Dr. Judy Belsky, What Is Cliche?

Wells of Creativity: “Tsfat and Yerushalyim Together”

The Second Annual Tsfat Writers’ Conference By Ruth Fogelman

Lori Leiba Smith, who together with Esther Susan Heller, organized the 24-hour conference, opened the afternoon with thoughts relating to the creative process, and quoted Rabbi Henoch Dov (Howard) Hoffman, of Denver, Colorado, who visits Tsfat every summer: “Any real experience of Torah, any learning, any tefilla and any involvement with mitzvot should necessarily create transformation in a person.” She went on to say that the very act of delving into the mystery of the Torah, into the deepest places where Torah causes us to examine who and what we are, what we believe, and what we are doing in the world, must transform us in the end.

Basing her words on the teachings of Rabbi Hoffman, Lori Leiba said that false humility lies in hiding so much that one seems to disappear and is therefore incapable of making any impact on the world. True humility comes from a place of confidence that recognizes that one has a contribution to make. Withholding that contribution is, in the words of Rabbi Hoffman, like stealing from the world. “Knowing who I am means knowing that I must give over some of that to others or I am withholding my G-d-given talents,” she said.

She expanded Rabbi Hoffman’s insights to the creative process of writing and suggested that truly good writing becomes an act of transformation for the writer facing the mystery and moving through the process from the blank page and the initial creative spark to the end product of the fully formed and completed final piece.

Dr. Judy Belsky, psychologist, author and creative writing teacher, presented the opening workshop on memoir, in which participants were requested in advance to bring an evocative photograph. “Photos are a gateway to memory,” she explained, and eloquently demonstrated how one needs to go beyond the information given by the photo. ”You’ll travel on paths of discovery into yourself again and again,” she said.

Esther Susan Heller, the moving force behind the conference, Director of the Jewish Writing Institute and editor of the magazines Soferet and Stepping Stones, presented a fascinating workshop on subtlety, demonstrating step by step, with the aid of a newspaper opinion piece, how one builds subtlety in a piece of writing.

“Why write with subtlety? Why not be obvious, blunt?” Esther Susan asks. She answers that because HaShem gives us free choice, human beings balk at being told what to think. When the reader has to work a little to understand what the writer is trying to tell her, then the writer and reader become engaged in a relationship of transmitting and interpreting text. The reader cannot remain passive.

“If you are merely digesting what the author gave you, then you are not part of her creation. You are a passive recipient. But when you interpret and reflect upon the possibilities that her work presented, then you become part of the creative process,” she said.

Varda Branfman author and teacher of creative writing, presented next. She gave out single vivid verses in English from various psalms, and the conference participants used these verses as opening lines to inspire their spontaneous writing.

“Our own memories surface through Tehillim,” said Varda. “When King David talks about his oppressors, we can also understand this as the oppressors within us.”

The next morning began with an evocative workshop entitled “New Vistas: Interviewing,” Leah Kotkes, a self-esteem leader in addition to her professional writing, presented exercises inspired by her work in partnership with Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, the world renowned psychiatrist, and Rabbi Yisroel Roll, a Baltimore self esteem consultant.

“Before every interview I daven very seriously to HaShem asking for His help and a wisdom to see beyond the pleasant masks and past the mazes of words. Usually at the beginning of every interview I quietly ask the neshama of the interviewee: Who are you? What would you like to share with others? Invariably I acquire the answer I need to write the feature HaShem wants me to write. I know I am just a vessel, a shaliach. I am acutely aware that HaKadosh Baruch Hu creates every feature I write,” says Leah. She regards writing as her divine tool, and interview features as the pathway that takes her beyond her limitations and towards her expectations.

“Who are you?” she asked in an exercise. And in a tone that made the listener look more deeply within herself, “Who are you?” and again, “Who are you?” With each following question she encouraged her listeners to look ever deeper into their self and facilitated the peeling away of one’s outer layers, to find one’s innermost core.

Esther Chana Stromberg of Jerusalem presented a workshop in Chavruta, stressing the gains a writer can receive when writing with a partner. After describing what a typical chavruta writing experience might be like, she gave us step by step guidance on writing with a partner.

Esther Rubenstein, of Tsfat, led a workshop entitled “The Inner Journey,” using the steps of changes that one has undergone in one’s own life as the basis for rounding characters in both fiction and non-fiction writing. “In real life,” says Esther, “changes are slow, especially deep changes. These give the readers the most satisfaction.” One often feels a lack or some kind of a threat, or one suffers in some way. Esther says that it is this sense of lack or suffering that can be used to create tension in writing, showing slow change through focused action.

The Tsfat conference was the meeting ground for observant women writers from Tsfat, Jerusalem, Betar Elit and Ramat Beit Shemesh. Some of the participants write professionally, some as a hobby, some write regularly in the Tsfat Women’s Writing Group, Jerusalem’s Pri Hadash Women’s Writing Workshop, or in chevruta, while others write on a more sporadic basis. What made these women take off two days from their work and family to devote themselves to a writing conference? Many came to network with other writers, some to learn new writing techniques.

“I needed the encouragement to start writing again,” says Jerusalem resident, Tzivie Tabak. The conference definitely encouraged her.

Free-lance writer Yoheved Leah Perkal, of Jerusalem, who came to the first conference last year, found it “an inspiring atmosphere to bask in.” For her, one of the conference’s highlights was writing without the pressures of editors’ deadlines, word-counts and other special requirements.

For R.Z., taking the risk of reading her work before a large group opened up the opportunity to experience herself in a new way. “I experienced myself as a ‘writer’ among other ‘writers’ – a new identity,” she said. “I strengthened belief in myself and my writing by reading out loud and receiving feedback,” she added.

The organizers, Esther Susan Heller and Lori Leiba Smith, concur that the conference succeeded beyond all their expectations.

“We had excitement, inspiration and variety,” says Esther Susan. Lori Leiba adds, “we had the pleasure of working with fellow writers and meeting so many women who are sincerely involved in writing as craft and in the personal transformation that comes from writing and sharing what we write. The feedback was more positive and enthusiastic than we ever expected.”

For Lori Leiba, writing is a very personal effort that comes from deep places and which she hopes will allow her to affect deep places in others. “It is very special to see how much this perspective is shared by other women in the craft who, as Leah Kotkes said, use writing to understand and reveal the tzelem elokim in others.” She says that what we gain from technical books and courses from the broad field of writing does not compare to what we can get when we share our understanding with other observant women who see our work not just as communication but also as a means of revelation of HaShem in the world.

This article would be incomplete without mentioning the evening’s entertainment, produced by Danya Boksenboim and Elisheva Phillips. It opened with a skit performed by  Danya, Karin Lesser and Devorah Alexander, on the writing group’s dealing with issues of unconditional love and acceptance. Exceptionally funny, the skit also provided much food for thought and discussion about these issues.

Talia Applebaum, member of Jerusalem’s Pri Hadash Women’s Writing Workshop, and editor of the recently published magazine, “A Woman’s Way,” followed with singing some of her own compositions. Varda Branfman read her poems and Judy Belsky read excerpts of her memoir.

The Tsfat Women’s Dance Group, led and choreographed by Leah Heinrich, presented the “Mirror Dance,” accompanied by Meron Klezmer music. This dance portrays the Hebrew women in Egypt who, despite their task-master (played by Elisheva Phillips) and heavy labor, took the time to look in their brass mirrors to keep themselves attractive for their husbands. The “Mirror Dance” was followed by last year’s outstanding hit, “The Broom Dance,” which was as humorous and entertaining as ever.  Tsfat’s Chava Rachel Saban, accompanying herself on the violin, performed her  own musical renditions of  Tehillim, influenced by Irish folksongs.

Meals were provided by Faygie Pam, owner of the Etz Chaim vegetarian restaurant in Tsfat’s Old City. And Johanna Yaffee graciously helped with behind the scenes preparations.  Elisheva Phillips once again organized over night accommodations for out of town attendants.

(Due to space constraints, this article was condensed. To read the original, unabridged version, click on to

What is Cliché?

By Dr. Judy Belsky

Cliches are to poems what weeds are to the garden.

They choke the life out of the plants. They interfere with the plan, symmetry and unique character of the garden.

The editor- in- chief can prune and weed, but how does the poet avoid scattering cliches to begin with? What awareness is needed? What replaces the cliche, or better yet, prevents it?

Cliche is avoidance.

Cliche is a dance of avoidance, a dance away from transparency. An attempt to obscure. It’s like covering your mouth when you laugh. Something is funny, you have to laugh, but you do not want to admit that . You dilute the laughter as if you are ashamed of your teeth, or embarrassed to be caught in the act of freedom, or open joy. It’s an act of  hiding  and it is an infuriating one. A coy act, because we see both your cover up and your laughter. Which signal do you want us to read?

Cliche is an act of unassertiveness

If you are not in the habit of taking authority, a cliche is a way of slithering away, of hinting at truism rather than at truth, at sentimentality rather than feeling, at an easy approximation rather than at a startling insight. Cliches are a low risk, but they yield an even lower return.

Language is constantly being used up, words become eroded and effaced like a figure on a coin that loses its contours from over handling. We can still identity of the figure but it has lost its crisp relief. What we have, after a time, is a vague resemblance, a caricature of the original engraving. Caricatures reduce complexity to a flat reminder of the original. In a similar way, a poor rendition of a symphony is recognizable but the nuance is missing, the mystery, the sweet lilting heartbreak and excitement that moves us. Something of the spirit is missing. The soul is missing .

Many writers have the desire to write, but lack the confidence to own the full horse power of that desire. They feel the pull to writing too much to abandon it, but they do not pay their dime to the power. They fear it. Humility makes for poor writing. The humble writer must find something to hide behind. He or she longs to write so s/he hides behind cliches, a series of signals that let the reader know: I am alive and well but hiding. You will know what I mean, because everyone knows what the generalities mean.

Only, they do not convey heart, spirit and soul.

If you dare to avoid universal buzz words, you might reveal the exquisite or funny or heart wrenching truth. Honor your experience. Dare to tell your story. Stop passing around an old coin to club members who could read the poor facsimile blindfolded.

Five Minutes of Fame
By Rosally Saltsman

As we send our messages of inspiration into the world hoping to um… inspire, we find we are at a
disadvantage because we don’t know how far exactly our message gets. Occasionally we get feedback. When it’s positive, it’s very nice but we and our audience, for the most part, are and remain strangers to each other. Though our worlds impact on each other, the sound of the impact is a fading echo which resonates in distant corridors.

There is however, one effect that I have found is worth its weight in feedback and whose impact resounds
clearly in the hearts of those we touch. I am speaking of the subjects whom we write about. Since a good deal of my writing is slice of life, I often include other people in my stories. Some are people I am close to,
others are casual acquaintances, still others are passing ships. When I write about someone and how they
have made an impression on me in some way, I always try to give them a copy of the article when its
published. The reaction I get when I do this is gratifying . People crave recognition, endorsement,
acknowledgment, appreciation and in mentioning them, in giving them their five minutes in the spotlight,
albeit anonymously, they feel important, cared about, honored and honorably mentioned.

I had a very special illustration of this recently. I had written an article about how I appreciated the
time and attention a colleague at work had given me. When the article was published, I cut it out and
brought it to him. He sat smiling, beaming as I translated. He asked if I could bring him the whole
paper. I did. I said he could now paste the article back (I was kidding) he said he would (he wasn’t
kidding) (Note to myself, bring people entire paper). He told people at work. A woman who never speaks to me told me she had seen my article. The man told me that he usually doesn’t get this kind of appreciation at his job.

When we write about other people, and they see it in black and white, it is for them evidence that they
matter, that their input counts, that they are making a positive difference in the lives of others. And when
we as writers illustrate this point for them by publicizing their contribution for others to see, we
are doing something even more important than inspiring or entertaining our reading audiences, we are
validating the significance of another human being, we are feeding his soul.

Though we will at some times, with God’s help achieve our goal of inspiring others and changing the world by setting off ripples in its streams, much of what we write will be forgotten like… yesterday’s newspaper.
However, those whom we have acclaimed in our articles and stories will not soon forget us and we will know that at least in their lives, by paying tribute to them, we have made a difference.

Rosally Saltsman has a new book out called Parenting by The Book, The Book being The Torah.
Parenting by the Book discusses parenting issues as they pertain to each parashah. The book is published by
Targum and follows the same format as Finding the Right Words, her book on shemiras halashon.

I Am a Natural for Cyberspace

By Varda Branfman

I am a natural for cyberspace. I have always felt drawn to places that exist on a psychic level but take up no actual space in terms of length and width. During my school years, I was known in my class as a daydreamer. I was habituated to removing myself from the action—spitballs and stern commands from the teachers—by staring out the window and escaping into my own world.

I completely understand the idea that you are where your thoughts are. I have seen it demonstrated thousands of times. And besides the worlds we reach with our thoughts and dreams, the Kabbalah teaches that there are countless worlds upon worlds.

The nature of the world of cyberspace came home to me as we were sitting with the graphic artist who is designing our website. We were there for several hours building and breaking down, choosing colors, laying out the copy, and working with the white space. When we took a break, she typed in on the homepage: “Site under construction. Please visit back soon.”

I loved it. Many years ago, I was an active participant in building my own little house on the coast of Maine. I used to sew, and I am still a baker. I like to construct things, including cakes in the shape of houses. I like to see things slowly go up.

The building arts are a good metaphor for the writing process—the writer as builder. The writer laying the foundation of her piece. The writer putting together the walls separately on the ground and then hauling them up at right angles.

Through the process of writing and building, she finally realizes what the writing has come to tell her and where it has all led to. She puts on the roof . Now the whole thing is free-standing, and she can pull away the scaffolding, in case what got the writing going is extraneous to the finished piece. And she puts in the finishing touches—the doors, the window glass, the chimney.

Suddenly, the intimate connection between building and writing gets another spin as I experience building on the Web. I no longer need a tangible book or magazine to contain my writing and deliver it to my audience. Now I have an address where people can visit me. I have a home, starting with my homepage, and as many rooms as I would like to add on.

I have rooms for poems and rooms for essays. I even have a bookstore with shopping carts. And wherever I want to, I can put a link, a doorway to a friend’s home for easy visiting.

In constructing a website, I am pitching my tent out in cyberspace as I build my more permanent dwelling. You can visit me there whenever you want. You can read my latest poem.

I have a friend whose mother visits her website daily to see what’s new or just to be in the proximity of her daughter. I may also start visiting my website, even when I’m not engaged in building it, just to see how I’m doing up there.

My website has an address,  Appropriately, it carries material about exploring the inner life and suggestions on how to navigate on the underground river of the subconscious. My husband is a spiritual psychotherapist, and I’m a writer. Sometimes he does the writing, and I practice the psychotherapy. We are basically both active in the healing arts. It’s all about getting closer to ourselves and to Hashem.

I imagine my site floating up there between Jerusalem and Columbus, Ohio. Why Columbus, Ohio? Because I have a link to another website which offers Jewish writing courses. I’m one of the instructors, and the first one to sign up for my course is a woman in Columbus, Ohio.

Her e-mail confirmation lists her address, which is fairly irrelevant to our relationship. But somehow, her being over there in Columbus and me being here is thrilling.

I see us horizontally floating towards each other like two Marc Chagall figures in the night sky, and meeting at a half-way point in our satellite classroom over the Atlantic Ocean. We overcame what might have been insurmountable obstacles to meet, before cyberspace was put on the map.

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