Eyes sparkling, faces fiery with inspiration, pens racing across the paper. The place? Beirav shul, in the picturesque Old City of Tsfat. The occasion? The 3rd annual Tsfat Writers' Conference, founded by Esther Susan Heller, editor of Soferet newsletter and Stepping Stones journal, and the director of the Jewish Writing Institute. This year, the Conference was directed by Leiba Smith. The annual conference provides an opportunity for Jewish women writers to get together and to write together, to benefit from a wide variety of workshops covering many aspects and styles of writing, and to soak up the lofty spiritual atmosphere of mystical Tsfat.
From the first year, the conference has been wildly popular, growing to an attendance of over fifty women this year, and drawing writers from all over Israel and even a few from abroad. Esther Susan Heller says, "It's hard to believe that this vague dream we had of offering a conference and connecting Tsfat writers with writers from other locales has turned into a large and vibrant annual event."
The conference took place over two days, with workshops throughout the afternoon and into the evening, followed by dinner and an evening of entertainment, The next day was comprised of further workshops in the morning, followed by lunch and an opportunity to share work with others. Women coming from outside Tsfat were comfortably accommodated in family homes throughout the community, efficiently coordinated by Elisheva Phillips.
The afternoon program was opened up by the calm presence of Esther Susan Heller, and followed by a davar Torah by Leiba Smith. Leiba served as director of the conference this year due to a simcha in the Heller family. She was assisted by Elisheva in organizing the myriad details that go into running a conference.
Leiba talked about "Writing as Art", how an artist feels when carried away by his art. I quote only a short excerpt, for lack of space: "The artist, through tremendous skill or great inspiration, is able to move from self-conscious, self-driven expression, to that free-flowing, ecstatic space of feeling his art literally, and figuratively, move through him. There is no self-consciousness anymore, and there is no resistance. Ego has fallen away. The artist, as it were, exists no more and, in his place, and through him, we, together with him, are invited to experience the electricity, the pure thought, or the Divine light, that is channeled through him." Leiba then blessed us that, during the Conference, we would merit to feel a little of this Divine Light through our writing.
The first workshop was led by Esther Rubenstein, a founding member of the Tsfat Writers' Group and a key organizer of the Conference. She spoke to us on that age-old classic theme that we nevertheless still succeed in forgetting - "show, don't tell." Esther led us through an exercise designed to help us use description in our writing, making use of our five senses, to enable the reader to be able to really 'feel' our experience, rather than just being told about it.
After a short break for Mincha and a cup of coffee, Leiba Smith whisked us into the wild and wonderful world of metaphor. The secret treasure houses of the imagination opened up before us as we explored the use of metaphor as a descriptive and artistic tool.
This was followed by an informative and refreshingly lively presentation by Tamar Ansh on the do's and don'ts of self publishing.
After a delicious dinner, catered by Eshel Binyamin, we settled down, physically and spiritually satisfied, to a scintillating evening of entertainment, produced by Danya Boksenboim and Elisheva Philips. We were both amused and inspired by a wide variety of talented performers. First on the stage were Danya, Elisheva and Karin Lesser, who treated us to a theatrical interpretation of the poetic muse, expertly written and acted. They were followed by Rivka Ohana, who performed an improvised dance interpretation of ShiraYehudit Djlilmand's poem,"A Holy Joy", a performance that was sheer poetry in motion. Next we were invited to try our hand at combining writing and art, guided by the glowing Laya Jackson, an innovative idea that produced some stunning results. The evening's finale was a performance of pure holiness by Chava Rachel Saban, setting the eternal words of Tehillim to music, with voice and violin.
After a good night's sleep, and suitably awakened by a selection from the refreshments table, professionally organized by Johanna Yaffe, we were ready to get into action.
The morning's workshops were started off by Ruth Fogelman, who introduced us to an unusual poem form, known as a 'pantoun', and guided us all through the writing of our very own pantouns, producing some astonishingly good results.
Ruth was followed by Sarah Shapiro, who gave us some valuable insights into how to create a dialogue within our writing, something with which many of us find difficulty. Sarah gently led us through a series of dialogues, each one complementing the previous, helping us to develop a natural and authentic language.
After a short break, we welcomed Leah Kotkes. Leah discussed with us how we should view our writing as art, as a means of self-expression, and expertly guided us through a succession of well orchestrated short exercises, designed to help us to use our writing as a tool, to nurture, to energize and to create change.
The final workshop was conducted by Tsfat's Rifca Goldberg, who dealt with the subject of character development, another thorny issue for many of us. She gave us a number of examples of good characterization, and provided us with an exercise designed to develop this skill.
After a delicious dairy lunch, catered by Faigie Pam of the Etz Chayim restaurant, the conference concluded with an opportunity to share the writing we had produced. This was moderated by Esther Rubenstein.
This was a place to linger in, to savor afterwards the sweet taste of moments of pure understanding between women of a common consciousness. As one of this year's participants, Ilonka Sappir, said, "The respect found amongst the women for each other's individual style of writing made it easy to write, without fear of rejection or criticism. When a person writes straight from their heart, without any designs or motives, then sometimes the simplest wording can be more beautiful than the most sophisticated poem, because its essence is truth."
In the words of Harav Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, brought down by Leiba Smith, "We see in the flowering of literature, the shining of the light of Moshiach in the world…" And as Leiba blessed us, may we merit to participate in the light of Moshiach, through using our writing as a tool of holiness.