"There is nothing ordinary about a Jewish woman no matter who she is… she is a precious resource of unique creative energy."
(Finding The Woman of Valor by Rivka Zakutinsky, Aura Press.)
At Moadon Gil Zahav, each week a group of women sit around a conference table in the new Har Nof Senior Citizen's Center. They are inspired and gently pushed to create meaningful memoir with their group leader, Ellen Greenfield.
Mrs. Greenfield is a social worker and writer with special training in conducting memoir workshops. When her father died, she turned to writing as a way of handling her loss and grief.
"My journey has brought me to see writing as a healing activity," says Mrs. Greenfield. The solace that she gained from writing about her father inspired her to help others experience their own healing. Highly attuned to the emotional needs of older women, she decided to start a memoir writing workshop for them.
Aware that Moadon Gil Zahav offered varied and interesting activities, she spoke with Miriam Leitner, the program director, who was very open to her ideas.
Who are the women in the memoir workshop?
"Women who lead full lives of grand mothering, great grand mothering, volunteer work, keeping themselves and their spouses healthy, and writing -when they have the time. Their ages range from 72 to 89. Some of them publish, some of them don't. Many want to write just for their families. This is a group of responsive, sensitive and bright women, open to exploring and writing more than 'just the facts, ma'am'.
Fayga Lypshitz recounts how she joined the group: "My daughter-in-law heard about the writing class and she enrolled me. She must think I have potential. She drove me there and back from the class. We've had 33 sessions. I go for the friendships. I enjoy the freedom to say what I want, to talk. We are supportive, more than critical. I didn't know the other ladies and we've become good friends. This is a wonderful outlet. And Ellen tells us what she thinks. I write almost everyday, by hand, in a notebook, but I'm learning how to use the computer."
"These gals travel, do chesed, go to shiurim," says Mrs. Greenfield. "One of them is the appointed photographer at family smachot."
Bryna Scharf is from Waukesha Wisconsin. Her 11th grade teacher inspired her to love literature and writing. The students used to stand around Mrs. Perkins desk after class, but Bryna couldn't linger there- she had a bus to catch to return home. When her children were growing up, she was too busy with the present day to write. During a three year stay in Israel, which included the Yom Kippur war, she found expression through writing. She wrote letters home about the war as well as poetry. After she raised her four children, she wanted to provide them with more knowledge about her life. She started to experience insomnia and found herself writing poems at 2 am. Her daughter encouraged her to continue writing. Now she has a collection of 40 poems.
She 'fell' into this class. "I didn't think of myself as a writer. I didn't know the other women. I respect them, and they call me 'the poet'. The group encourages you and tells you what's missing. My daughters are both artists; one draws and one does animated cartoons. We are planning a book together of my writing and their illustrations, making copies for family and friends. You need something at this stage of life."
"A few are survivors of the Holocaust," Mrs. Greenfield says, "the rest of them are survivors of everything else; from motherhood to widowhood. They each have their own unique voice for expressing themselves. We even have a songwriter."
Fanny Safrin Gottlieb didn't write before, only in junior high when she was a reporter on the school paper. She was interviewed for Spielberg (i.e. the Holocaust Oral History project). Mrs. Gottlieb saw a signup sheet for the memoir group. Since she likes challenges, she put down her name. At the first class, she was hooked. "We learn techniques of writing and what's important. Ellen gives us memory jogs, topics to write about. We do spontaneous writing, which means thinking fast and writing it down. She taught us from scratch. I've finished 30 stories, 10 are on the Shoah."
She shows me her loose leaf notebook with hand written entries and a table of contents. "Writing for the family, it's enough. My daughter does the corrections for me and I have someone type up the pages. In a year I hope to have a booklet for my family."
"For many of our group, their children and grandchildren urged them to write. They're also saddened that their parents didn't leave them memoirs," Mrs. Greenfield explains.
Leah Goldstein recalls how she first heard about the group. "Fanny cornered me at the Supersol and told me about the class. It gives me inspiration. I feel it is important for my grandchildren that I write down the stories about my life. The only way for me to do that is to join a group; on my own, I don't write. I have over 25 grandchildren and have great grandchildren too, keina hora, the oldest is 15. We left Poland in 1936. I lived in Memphis for 50 years before coming on aliya with my husband. My kids tell me I have many talents, but I don't know what they are."
"Writing naturally provides a safe medium for issues like widowhood, aging and illness to be explored," Mrs. Greenfield says.
Francine Raiz says she's a letter writer. "People hold on to my letters, they can relate. I write how I feel. I let it flow, but I'm not that disciplined. I just want to live each day. My daughter keeps a diary. I should, but I don't. I've been widowed twice. This is my third marriage. I'm living life. I'm more adaptable. I know myself more. We've all gone through a lot, but nothing like what Fanny went through."
At eleven AM the women enter the Moadon, warmly greet each other and take their seats. They each sit in the same place each week.
Leah Goldstein readies her paper and pen: "We think that the older we get the more time we have on our hands. Forget it! We are busy with life. If G-d gives us strength- we will keep on playing."
"We go to a lot of places here." Mrs. Greenfield comments. She brings in a tray with tea for everyone.
She passes out photocopies of a chapter in a book called "I'm Not as Old as I Used to Be" (Frances Weaver 1997) The chapter is called: What Shall I Do Now?
"This chapter deals with the question "what can you do when you're bored?" Mrs. Greenfield says.
"That's easy," Mrs. Gottlieb breaks in, "smile."
"There is plenty to do in this world", Mrs. Goldstein adds.
"Let's take turns reading this chapter out loud," Mrs. Greenfield, says.
They read a moving account of a man exploring the site of his childhood memories.
"What do you think of this?" Mrs. Greenfield asks when they are done reading.
"It's a push, a nudge, go out and live," says Mrs. Goldstein.
"The armchair is the worst enemy," says Mrs. Gottlieb.
Mrs. Goldstein adds: "I want to do things. I don't know how long I'll live. I couldn't do things before when I was young and taking care of my family."
Bryna Scharf says, "my mother lived to 95. Her friends were 'the girls' even in their 80s and 90s."
"We're not old," says Mrs. Goldstein.
"We're preparing for old age," says Mrs. Gottlieb, "I may never reach it."
"My mother at 79 never reached old age, when she died at 79, she was middle aged", says Mrs. Goldstein.
"Ad meah kesreem," they all say in unplanned unison. (Until 100 is like 20.)
"Getting back to the assignment," Mrs. Greenfield says, "Think of a place that was interesting or exciting to you as a child. Now, if you could go back…"
"I would go back to a childhood place, but I would never go back to Poland!" Mrs. Goldstein says.
"I'm not looking for a painful memory. Try to remember a special childhood memory in all its glory…" Mrs. Greenfield continues.
"What if you already went back?" Mrs. Scharf asks.
"It's not so important to go back," Mrs. Scharf continues.
"I see," says Mrs. Greenfield, "maybe we need to revise this a bit. For example, a little girl going to Bloomingdale's…"
"I guess I'll have to write about Poland even though I don't want to," says Mrs. Goldstein in a resigned tone of voice.
"No, you don't have to," Mrs. Greenfield is quick to say.
"I already got it." Mrs. Goldstein bends over her notebook, pen already moving.
"There is going to be a twist on this," Mrs. Scharf says as she too starts to write.
"I need quiet," says Fayge Lypshitz.
They all start writing.
After 15 minutes Mrs. Greenfield invites them to read what they wrote. Mrs. Lypshitz reads first. Her memory is of a picnic with her family at the city park in her hometown, Marshalltown Iowa.
"What was it like to go back?" Mrs. Greenfield asks.
"I'd like to go back again, but not without my husband z'l and kids."
"When was this?"
"In the 1950s."
"It's amazing where our stories go. It would be helpful to know the ages of the children," Mrs. Greenfield adds. "Thank you for sharing this, we all enjoyed it"
Francine Raiz reads her memory of visiting a bungalow in the Catskills, picking blueberries and breaking her arm in a haystack.
How did you break your arm in a haystack? The women wonder.
"I was accident prone," she answers. "My mother loved quiet and seclusion. I loved activity and people. I relate to the days of living in the Bronx and going to the country. I lived next door to my grandparents. Life was about family togetherness."
"There's three stages to life," Mrs. Lyfshitz says during the pause between readers, "youth, middle age and looking good."
Mrs. Scharf reads about a day she spent with her mother who pulled her out of school to go to town and shop for new dresses. The next day she is afraid she'll be in trouble for missing school to go shopping.. The twist is that the secretary reads the note written by her mother explaining why she missed school and then says: "oh is that one of the new dresses you bought? It's beautiful."
"Thing that could have gone wrong, went right," concludes Mrs. Scharf.
"This is called 'If' Mrs. Gottlieb says as she begins to read.
If I could go back to the years when I was a little girl, before Kristalnacht, when our family was united, my parents and us five children sharing fun together.
My father was a nature lover. So at 6am whoever was awake was allowed to join him for a walk along the Rhine River. We lived in Mannheim. ….
(She continues reading till she reaches the end of Shabbes)
Periodically we peered at the sky to watch for the appearance of three stars. Oh if only life could have continued on such a path. If only, if only….
There are a few moments of silence as everyone takes this in.
"But life goes on," Mrs. Goldstein sighs.
The others nod.
"I feel bitter sweetness in it. I didn't know where this exercise would go to… What was that like to read out loud?" asks Mrs. Greenfield.
"I have to go on, to the present, I can't dwell, but I do have to look back."
"Even though many memories are painful, some are pleasant. The 'if' really grabbed me," says Mrs. Raiz.
"The richness of our dreams and fantasies- they feed us," says Mrs. Greenfield. "If you could have been with them longer… No one just fell into the Shoah; each person came with families, backgrounds, lives. And no one just turns 80 suddenly one day either."
Mrs. Goldstein reads: When I was a child in Wyskkov, 54 kilometers north east of Warsaw. I lived there till I was 10 and a half years old. I lived with my mother, two sisters and two brothers, because by then my father and two older brothers were already in America…
Opposite the alley there was a bakery that used to make some kind of oblong pancake- I can still remember its taste and smell. I wish I knew what it was, then I could make it now. Walking across the bridge over the river, my sister and I bought tomatoes in town to take to the forest. She ate up almost all the tomatoes. On our way, a farmer gave us milk straight from the cow. I can still taste and enjoy the warm foamy liquid.
Deep down I would like to go back and see our town and forest, but it was completely destroyed and rebuilt and I do not want to give my time and money to the Poles who are still anti-Semitic.
"How did that feel to read it?" asks Mrs. Greenfield.
"I wish I knew what that oblong pastry was!" she answers.
"I liked the warm milk," says Mrs. Raiz. "When you take a trip and see animals, does it take you back?"
"No. I have no desire to see anti-Semites."
"I connect with what you wrote," says Mrs. Raiz.
"In what way?"
"I'm getting to know more about you."
"You don't know anymore about me from this…"
"Is this where your interest in baking came from?" Mrs. Scharf breaks in.
"The end of your story is very different from the beginning," Mrs. Greenfield points out. "You use a lot of sensory detail, such as 'warm foamy milk'. In the beginning you are matter of fact about your family. The writing shifts. Can you write about your family the way you write about the milk? Will you come with me? Go out on a limb?"
"Then the limb will break," Mrs. Scharf comments.
"Do you have any feeling of missing your father? Mrs. Greenfield asks.
"You don't miss something you didn't have. My only memory is at the train station, when he left for America, I was hanging on to his leg. I didn't see him again till I was 10 and a half."
"How was your relationship when you saw him again?" Mrs. Raiz asks.
"Fearful and respectful, not natural."
"There's a lot more here to explore," says Mrs. Greenfield.
The women talk more about the bakery, pondering what that oblong pastry could possibly be.
"I don't want to lose the thread here," Mrs. Greenfield says. "This image of holding on to your father's leg…."
"I can't remember anything else," Mrs. Goldstein insists.
"If you work with this one image the memory can flower off."
"Believe me, I don't remember my father."
"Maybe you could fantasize…" Mrs. Raiz offers.
"I only remember the scene at the train station… everyone crying…there's nothing else. I only have one memory…"
I asked Mrs. Greenfield what she perceives as the benefits to participating in this workshop.
"The women have enjoyed getting to know each other in a deeper more meaningful way through sharing their stories. Besides the heavy stuff, we have a lot of laughs together too. Each woman is an olam-encompassing decades of Jewish feminine experience-ad hayom hazeh."
What do people in their later years gain from being in a memoir workshop?
"Chazal encourage us to do a chesbon nefesh at various intervals of our lives. At the end of each day, on our wedding day, Yom Kippur, etc. What is a more fitting time than the golden years to do a comprehensive life review? People can feel depressed over losses, and diminished physical abilities. Remembering the experiences and challenges they faced and dealt with, raising children, making aliyah can boost the endorphins enough to chase the aches and pains away."
Do you have advice for older people who might want to write, but never have before?
"To paraphrase Sarah Shapiro, all you need to write is the desire to do so. I've seen that happen now hundreds of times over. When desire meets pen and paper, seemingly buried memories and feelings get reignited.
Often the logistics are difficult. Where to write, when to write. A writing group or partner can address these issues, also making it more into a personal commitment, as opposed to a whim.
People are often overwhelmed by the idea of writing their life story. Here's a hands on tool to make it less intimidating."
The Extended Life List:
Make a running list of events and relationships in your life. Include the significant, life changing ones. Write this as a list with each event described by one word or a phrase that fits on one line. Now reorganize the list according to subject. Then read through your list and choose what are the ten core items. Use the list as ideas of what to write about.
How do you feel now that the group is finished?
"It was a pure joy and privilege to be on the receiving end as they wove together the wondrous tapestries of their lives. I feel sad to be ending with them. After almost 35 sessions, and a lot of tears and laughter, it's a loss for me. So off I am, to cut up sugar free cakes (they are all on special diets) for our 'graduation'".
The impetus to examine one's life and share pivotal moments; these yearnings fuel the desire to write, surfacing with greater urgency during life's later years.
There is a tendency to think that memories are only interesting to oneself or one's family. In this group we see how women who did not previously know one another, became interested and supportive of each other. We see how the encouragement and prodding of their children and grandchildren motivated them to take on these challenges.
Since each person is a universe, every story is its own world. In these times, when our senses are bombarded with unrelenting sights and sounds from the external world, with captivating stories proliferating wherever we turn, in every book and magazine; it's easy to overlook the stories of the real everyday people in our lives.
Think how you would feel if you were to find today a letter written by your great, great, great, grandmother, describing daily life and giving time-transcending wisdom. Most of us don't have letters like these, but any of us could write letters for our descendants.
And when we write these letters, memoirs, and poems, we can see that the moments we have captured are like precious metal. Our days and months becoming our own personal golden years.