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DIVINE GIFTS II: Exploring The Gift of Writing
by Leah Kotkes

Part Two of a two part series as it appeared in Hamodia Torah Magazine Section (December 27, 2002)

In part 1 of Divine Gifts, we explored the personal benefits of writing and the steps a woman can take to develop her private writings. In part II, we investigate the art of developing one`s work outside of its original realm and the methods we can use to achieve a deeper spiritual connection through writing. We will also look at the possibilities that exist for publishing one`s written work.

Esther Chana Stromberg began writing poetry when she was seven years old. As a teenager she kept a daily journal. As an adult, before she came to settle in Yerushalaym after becoming Orthodox, she worked for ten years in New York as a successful creative writer in the field of advertising.

"I still keep a journal today" says Esther Chana. "It goes with me everywhere. It`s my companion and good friend. My whole life is in my notebooks. In a journal, you can see the Yad Hashem; the hasgacha pratis you witness with your own eyes is never forgotten. You can archive your children's lives, your development as a wife, mother and woman. There is no end to what you can write about.

"When I look back through my writings, I get tremendous chizuk. Often we can't see the tremendous chessed of Hashem and His Loving Hand until the events are arranged before our eyes, in our own words.

"I do not think writing for oneself is selfish. Writing can help you grow in a very deep way. It helps you keep in touch with yourself; it can be a friend to you and through that friendship, you can improve the quality of your life. A woman who yearns for a deeper relationship with herself, others and ultimately Hashem, should try to find a quiet time and place and complete sentences such as: "Who am I? I am…" "What's important to me is……" "A path I would like to follow is….." "This is how I would like my world to be……"

"The process of writing and the desire to express ignite the true self through the pen. A Dear Hashem letter is the biggest opener. It helps you unlock closed doors and provides a direct connection from you to the Source of all life.

"A writing chavrusa, someone who you could meet with on a weekly or regular basis, and with whom you would write and share, is another encouraging method of developing your writing. Sharing written work, reading to each other and offering helpful and constructive feedback, within safe parameters, provide a fruitful creative environment. My writing chavrusa and I met once a week for two hours. We might choose a passuk from Tehillim and continue writing from there. This jumpstarts our ideas and can put our writing into a very high and spiritual place.

"For me, writing is a form of tefilla. I know a woman whose husband was sick. They were moving, and a lot of other stressful, demanding things were going on in her life. Her writing became her link to Hashem, and it evolved into her tefilla. It helped her maintain perspective and also gave her a place to kvetch, shout, cry out without disturbing the balance that was so necessary for her husband and children. It was essential for her survival throughout her ordeals, and it was private, shared only with Hashem."

"I would like to offer two writing exercises that I believe can help women to open up and make room for creativity and connection to self, others and Hashem. The first is to try to get up half an hour earlier than everyone else in the morning. This may sound difficult, but the rewards are great. Take a notebook and write for half an hour, spontaneously. This will clear the deck for a peaceful day.

"I try to do this; it gives me strength; I connect to myself. Often I am more open to thoughts and ideas that float to the surface of my mind before the clatter and clutter of the day begins.

"Another precious time to write is just before making challos. I write for five or ten minutes and let my neshama hold my pen. This piece of work enhances my tefilla during kneading. In fact, it can transform the mitzva, taking me to a place of inner peacefulness and deveikus with Hashem.

"Another spiritual exercise that works for me is to keep a teshuva journal during the month of Elul. This gives incredible insight into the potential of growth, the desire to let of ego and move forward toward avodas Hashem. Also, I can look from year to year and see what I've accomplished and what I am still working on."

"The Big Book project is another exciting exercise that you can do for yourself or with your children. Everyone takes a big book and daily or weekly fills it with images and writings that could be for example, descriptive, journal, emotional or observation-orientated, with the focus on developing a story-of-my-life book. It can be a private book or something that becomes interesting and fun to share with family and friends. It also provides a nurturing platform for self-esteem and self-discovery for our children, that they can experience and we can appreciate along the way. All these exercises improve our quality of life and help a person feel alive and connected."

Varda Branfman and Judy Belsky are both writers and creative writing teachers, who work together leading weekly writing workshops and writing conferences in Yerushalayim. Their love of their divine gift drives them to help other women succeed in their own pursuit of writing.

Varda began writing "to understand life." She has a strong educational background in English and creative writing.

"The solitude and meditation that surrounded my writing helped me find Hashem. I spent the first twenty-nine years of my life immersed in writing," she explains. "When I became a balaas teshuva at that age and discovered Tehillim, I thought to myself, What else is there to write or say? It was so beautiful, so deep, and poetic."

"For a long time after my discovery of Dovid HaMelech's psalms, I felt no need to write. I just immersed myself in Torah study and learning how to become a new human being. I had entered a new world; I had to learn how to dress the Torah way, eat the Torah way, really live the Torah way. I made no time for serious writing, but I also thought there was no place for my writing in the frum world. This was, I discovered later, a misconception.

"I still scribbled here and there - on a napkin, on the back of a birthday card - wherever I could, when the inspiration took me. Scribbles are important; they had a definite purpose. If I could not have open- ended hours ahead of me to write anything of substance, I could still write something.

"One way I fulfilled my creative instincts aside from writing was to invent bed time stories for my children. That way they received something from my inner self, something unique and precious."

"Then four years ago I heard about Judy Belsky, a writer and artist. She was living in my community all the time; however I had never heard of her until one erev Shabbos, when I decided to run over to her house to say hello. 'Can I see some of your work?' she asked. 'I don't write anymore,' I confessed. 'That's a shame; it's important. You are a writer,' she said.

"Her words were like music to me; I hurried home and wrote a poem, my first in a very long time. That day, Judy helped me find a part of myself again, and from then on we began to share our writings, first on the telephone and then through being writing chavrusas.

"It was at this time I came to realize that writing was my gift from Hashem and that I must use that gift. I started to get work published again and led writing workshops from our home in Geula. In May, a group of us organized a one- day writing conference in Jerusalem and fifty women attended. That was encouraging and inspiring."

"Life is a chiddush; every day is a new creation, and there is so much to write about. Women should not hold back if they want to write; fear kills a writer. How are Jewish women different from other writers? Hashem is there with us. I feel that all of our writing is a searching for Him, bringing us closer to Him with every pen movement. "

Varda Branfman's latest book is a personal memoir called I Remembered in the Night Your Name, (Carob Tree Press).

For Judy Belsky, "Writing is the language of my neshama". She has been writing since she was a child. She is a clinical psychologist who practices in Yerushalyaim and Ramat Bet Shemesh. She is author of Thread of Blue (Targum Press/1992), in addition to many children's books.

As well as leading workshops and conferences for women writers alongside Varda Branfman, she teaches creative writing at her husband's seminary Ateret Bnot Yerusalyim. She tells her eighteen-year-old students "If you want to own this year of Torah learning, it has to become part of your emotions, it has to enter your heart. Writing can help you achieve this."

"Western culture kills the internality of a person. Everything that used to be private is now exposed. The interior of a Jewish woman is precious. It is the place where the neshama resides, the place we come to know ourselves, the spiritual side of ourselves. Writing is a way so many women can express this part of themselves; the divine self.

"Whenever I meet a new group of writers, I always share this passage from A Tzaddik In Our Time (Feldheim): Rabbi Aryeh Levin shares his thoughts on writing: "A holy duty lies on every one of us to record for himself the details of all the events, incidents and adventures in his life. In the Torah we read, "From my own flesh I can perceive G-d" (Iyov 19:26). With a clear vision you can see His sure hand in the happenings of your own life. Now that most of my years have passed by in the blessed L-rd's kindness and abounding compassion, I have decided; Let me relate to my children and grandchildren what happened to me in my days on earth."

"Everything we create is from the soul and reflects Hashem. Writing elevates words beyond speech. If a women dips her pen into the ink of her life she can enhance the yiras Shamayim of another woman. Her unique voice, heard through the words on the paper, can touch another woman's soul and bring her closer to Hashem."

Judy Belsky teaches memoir writing and in addition, inspires many women of different ages and backgrounds to write from the neshama.

Soferet, is a newsletter for Orthodox women writers, created by Esther Susan Heller, who lives in Tsfat. It inspires, educates and connects writers. Esther Susan is presently in the process of establishing, The Jewish Writing Institute, a correspondence course for writers wishing to develop their style and skills. The teachers of the course are published Orthodox writers.

Esther Susan also edits Stepping Stones: The Jewish Woman's Journal, a literary magazine. She taught creative writing for seven years at Sharei Bina Seminary, which successfully combines creative expression classes such as writing, dance and art with a high level limudei kodesh curriculum focused on personal spiritual development.

"When I was five I used to create my own stories and tell them over to my mother. She wrote them down and made little books out of them. She knew how to nurture my creativity. It was an incredible thing; her encouragement really had an indelible impact on me as a child.

"When I was able to write, I did and I have never stopped - journal writing, poetry, children's stories, short stories. I just kept writing. Twelve years ago when we lived in Chicago, before we moved to Tzefas, I had four little children to take care of. When they were at gan or napping in the morning, I yearned for adult communication so I began to write a novel. I was not looking to publish it; the novel was simply my outlet. I was eager to communicate, and I discovered I could write more truthfully through fiction."

"When we moved to Tsfat, I thought I would be an isolated and lonely writer. There were no resources in English for writers like you find in America. Or so I thought.

"The week we arrived, an amazing thing happened. I found advertised a one-year writing course in English. What haschagcha pratis! I couldn't believe it. I signed up immediately, as did a few other religious women writers.

"A core group of writers from that course formed a writing workshop, and we have been meeting once a week for twelve years now. Most of us have had work published. However, that is not the point of the group. We meet to encourage each other, giving each other permission to write for whatever reasons are important to us at the time. From my experience, I see writing can have a different purpose for a woman at different stages of her life; self-discovery, building self-esteem, artistic expression, a need to communicate a message - they are all valid and exciting reasons."

"Two years ago I created a newsletter called Soferet to give support and encouragement to Orthodox women writers. The newsletter features methods and techniques by experienced writers and has become a center for resources as well as an opportunity for networking. Today there are so many more venues for writers to get their work published, and Soferet keeps writers updated.

The Jewish Writing Institute, is being established to offer writers around the world an opportunity to nurture the gift of writing in a tzauna environment.

The following are two excerpts from the first edition of Soferet.

Writing Poetry by Roberta Chester:
"My first poems were not written, but sung to myself on long car trips with my family. It was my way of amusing myself. I don't recall if anyone else in the car was amused, but I certainly had fun. I think that aspect of writing was always a major incentive for me. And today, too, if enjoyment is not something I feel as I am writing, I tell myself I should put it away and start again some other time…."

Esther Rubenstein is a published short-story writer and creative writing teacher. In this excerpt, Esther could be talking to her future self, the old woman in this story. Her writing style intrigues the reader; encouraging her to think, to reflect, to consider her own life purpose.

"And she asks herself. Again. Did I appreciate it all? Hard as it was, painful as it was, did I pull some good out of it anyway? Did I enjoy my life? The question haunts me now, too. A Jew's life is filled with so many trials, doubts, difficulties. We have to try to do the right thing within our situation. To fear G-d. But we are also supposed to be b'simcha. Appreciate the moment. Be happy with what you have, it is yours, all you are going to get this time around. It's irreplaceable."

"Those that have been touched by death, disease, accidents, or near death experiences are the ones who know, those who have been on the brink of having to give it all up. They are the ones that really know how to cherish this gift of life."

"And so I write. To bring joy to that old woman sitting by the open window. So that when she looks back at herself she will find some sense of completion. Because as she sits reviewing her life, a life that continues mostly in the realm of the past, it will not be the knowledge that she had published world-wide, nor that people have told her how talented she was, that will bring her comfort."

"It will be the knowledge that she caught the moments of her life, touched the flow of G-d's story through her pen, that will help her face the future. That by pulling the plots and themes out of her experiences, and capturing them through writing them down, she has loved the process called living!"

One of the most prolific authors on the Jewish writing scene is Libby Lazewnik. She has written numerous novels, for both children and adults, which have been published variously by Feldheim, Targum Press, and Artscroll. She also translates books from Hebrew into English for Artscroll, and writes an original short story for a Jewish newspaper on a weekly basis.

Her passion, she says, is fiction. "I'm a storyteller. I love to weave a plot, using characters who eventually become as familiar to me as my own friends or next-door neighbors."

When asked how she launched her writing career, her answer is simple: "I'm driven." She has, by her own account, always been driven to write -"ever since I could hold a pen" is the way she puts it. There are writers who use their skill with words as a hobby, or as a practical means to earn a living. Libby would write even if there were no one on earth interested in reading a word of it. There's nothing more satisfying to her than taking an inner vision and putting it down on paper for others to enjoy and draw inspiration from.

This is the story of how she came to writer her first novel Shira's Summer (Feldheim); "There I was, a mother of three young children - one of them an infant of just six weeks - who'd flown to New York from Israel to attend my younger sister's wedding. My older sister patiently listened as I rhapsodized about a book I had all worked out in my mind. 'I can see the characters and know exactly how the story will go,' I gushed. 'One day, I hope to actually sit down and write it.'

"My sister looked at me in her laid-back way, and asked, 'What are you waiting for?' The words seemed to set off ringing bells and flashing lights in my brain. I saw the years unreeling behind me, and also ahead of me, and knew that the dream I'd cherished from childhood would never become a reality unless I made it so. I would not wait, not a moment more.

"The minute I returned home to Yerushalayim, every time the baby put his head down for a nap, I'd be seated in front of my computer. I didn't know what I was doing, so I wrote the kind of book I thought I'd have enjoyed reading as a child. Shira's Summer was written in six months."

And to her delight, it was accepted for publication within 24 hours of submission.

What would she advise other women longing to see the fruit of their minds in print? Together with her close friend and colleague, Miriam Zakon, (Senior Editor at Targum Press - we will hear her thoughts on writing later in this article), Libby Lazewnik offer periodic writing/publishing workshops for just these women. During the course of four hours, the women area shown cogent tips for good creative writing, taught about royalty structures and how to query a publisher, and set firmly on the path to seeing themselves as potentially publishable.

"The First Rule: Set aside time to write.
The second: Believe in yourself!
And the third rule; Revise, revise, revise.

"Any good writer needs a good editor to cast an objective eye on her prose. If you simply cannot be objective about your work, find someone who can be. And, of course, view rejection slips as a spur rather than a failure. Hashem opens doors to those who knock hard enough. Whatever you do don't stop knocking."

For Libby, stopping has not been an option. She writes the way she breathes, continuously and joyously. For her own inspiration, she draws upon a vision of the many people who read what she writes, curled up in their own homes and using her words as springboards for their own dreams. "I don't know you, and you don't know me," she says with a laugh. "But you're the one I do this for." And the many letters she receives from total strangers tell her that they appreciate what she does.

That's the magic of writing for publication, and what motivates so many women to put pen to paper in their own homes and in their precious spare time. It's more than just expressing an inner vision, more than plying the beauty of the language. It's also, and most of all, reaching out and touching someone's life.

Shoshana Lepon, editor of Heartbeats: Jewish Writers at Their Best (Targum) is busy planning and accepting submissions for Heartbeats III & IV. "It's so exciting. There is so much to say and so many women with a voice who know how to put pen to paper. I want to encourage any woman who has something to share to send work to me. I can help her develop it for publication. I want women to dust off their notebooks, letters, poems, writings from their heart and find something special to send me."

Shoshana is a writer herself with an abundance of children's books on her publishing list that started with The Ten Tests of Avraham in 1984. She also wrote No Greater Treasure, stories of great Jewish women. "I was always reading as a child. My friends and I used to play publisher, writing and illustrating all our ideas on paper. I loved the creative process of communication, and I always wanted to share my writing. Over the years I have built up my confidence as a writer, editor and teacher, where I use writing as a method for baalos teshuva to learn Torah and discover their true selves in the process."

"You have to be able to handle rejection if you choose to share your writing. A writing group, where you can read out loud and get feedback from other writers, is definitely a safer place for a writer to begin.

"However, when a woman feels ready for publication and believes what she has to say must be shared, she must be able to hear criticism without taking it personally. When she welcomes comments from readers as a way to improve her writing, that's when things can take off for her as a writer.

"Heartbeats is an important outlet for Jewish writers; it's a platform for them to share the Jewish perspective as it really is, the goal being to give a true picture of our lives without alienating, offending or excluding anyone in the process. If there is a need to share private worlds and express what we have gained from a personal experience, the writer may want to protect his privacy. At these times, a pen name can be used or the work can be transferred into third-person fiction."

Shoshana is an encouraging, patient and committed editor. New writers could benefit much from submitting work to her. "Most people have a desire to share something of themselves during their lifetime; they want to record a piece of their life on paper. Deep down they want to share their view, their feelings, something from their heart. I think it is imperative to write, to share, to communicate."

"When my son was seventeen he was stabbed by a terrorist and lost a kidney. I could not think clearly about the whole ordeal for two years until finally I was able to write it out. It had a tremendous healing effect on me. As a mother, I had to be strong. I couldn't speak about my feelings, so I wrote instead. And as I began to put my son's story of survival on paper, I was able to connect to my child who was suffering in silence, too. Together we created a piece of work that was published and later reprinted.

"My son is a quiet, private person; however, it was important for him to be heard through this written article. It was also important for me to tell how this brush with terror changed me as a person.

"We all have a story to share. We all have something to give to someone else through our words."

Targum Press, Feldheim and Artscroll, have shown their commitment to women writers by publishing a considerable amount of fiction and non-fiction books. The choice for the English-speaking reader has never been so varied and inspiring.

When I spoke with Miriam Zakon, Senior Editor at Targum Press and Editor of Horizons, The Jewish Family Journal she told me. "I'm constantly amazed, and often inspired, by the caliber of writing coming out of our kitchens, our homes, and our lives. Frum women are writing lyrical poetry and incisive prose. Their experiences and their words are the fuel that keeps Horizons, our family quarterly, and Targum Press, moving forward.

"How far can we go? One woman had two articles accepted in Horizons - her first published work. Within a year she'd gone on to author two books, and start a new, and fulfilling career as a writer.

"Frum women are givers. When we write for publication, we're sharing something so precious - our very thoughts - in the hopes that others will gain from them. That's chessed, indeed."

Rabbi Yaakov Feldheim of Feldheim Publishers in Yerushalyaim added the following encouraging words "I am happy to say that many of our authors are women. Women know what others need and what has to be done." Although various subjects are covered by their women writers it seems the self-help and practical advice books have achieved a tremendous response from women readers.

Rabbi Nosson Sherman of Artscroll concludes our series with an important perspective on writing. "The written word will always be a basic means of communication. Today, more than ever - because there are so many unacceptable printed materials available to adults and children alike - it is essential that we have more cadres of people who can communicate intelligently and literately. Not only our own "machaneh" needs this but we must be able to present ourselves to the world at large in such a way that we gain its respect. When the great gaon Rabbi Akiva Eiger's family was preparing his writings for publication, he wrote them that they should use good paper and quality typesetting for the honor of Torah. The same holds true for the caliber of the writing and expression."

Every readers dream is to read something that will touch their heart and will make a difference in their life. Every editors dream is to receive "a piece or writing or a manuscript that will make a difference". My hope is that this series Exploring the Gift of Writing, will serve as an inspiration to any woman who feels she has something worthwhile, important and inspiring to share. I say to these women, keep on writing and encourage others to do so; the written word is also our voice, the voice of the Jewish woman.

End of second part. RETURN TO PART ONE

Leah Kotkes is a published author and teacher at The Jewish Writing Institute.


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