Category Archives: writing practice

The Poet Receives A Tool Box

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Teacher and philosopher, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes in his book, My Rebbe, about a holy person, “…we see the connection with the beyond or hear it more in the spaces between sentences…. As they speak we understand that there is more above the line and below the line or between the lines.”

Poetry and holiness are intertwined. Poetry lives in those spaces between the lines: in the layout on the page, the white spaces, whether it is formal or free verse, what the poet says, hints at or doesn’t say, the grammar and punctuation, the connotation(s) of each word and so much more. It’s what makes me come alive when I write and edit. There’s that initial impulse, a word or line pops into my head or something startles me and lurks or most times haunts me until I write about it. Like the time I was sitting on the M104 bus going down Broadway in Manhattan. I saw a man with one leg shorter than the other, wearing a black leather shoe with a tall heel to make up the difference. I started writing about the man and the wife who loves him, makes his breakfast and kisses him goodbye each morning as he goes to work. I missed my stop.

It’s only in the last months that I feel poetry lurking. My father died three years ago, and I wrote four new poems during the first year. Then I stopped. I couldn’t and didn’t want to write anymore; I just wanted to be quiet. I didn’t want to talk most of the time, never mind try to write.  Then I stopped thinking about it. And then I stopped caring about it. I kept in mind something my poetry teacher, Mary Stewart Hammond, told me, “Sometimes you need to live your life, not write about it.”

Recently, I watched an interview with Sarah McLachlan where she talked about losing her father in 2010 and releasing her new album in 2014. “I don’t think anybody gets to this point in their life unscathed,” McLachlan said. “I’m 46 years old and this is the time when parents die, when big changes happen.”

“When you were dealing with all that, where were you musically?” asked [the interviewer]. “Nowhere …. I would play music, but I didn’t have it in me to write anything,” she said. “My father passed away almost four years ago, and it kind of took that long for me to recognize what I’d lost and what that meant to me moving forward, but also what he’d given me.” I know exactly what she was feeling. After my father’s death, it was not a time for writing; it was a time for grieving, for mourning, for reflecting. I was observing the traditional year of mourning, saying Kaddish, not going to movies, not listening to live music or buying new clothes. Like Sarah McLachlan, I didn’t have it in me to write.

At first, I didn’t care if my poetry came back. But after two years, I thought it might actually be gone. I tried to write a few times, but had no inspiration. I began to realize that I needed to wait for it to come back.  About six months ago while visiting my mother, I went to the basement and into my father’s tool room. After he died, we couldn’t clean it out. There were too many memories. He was a tool and die maker. I looked at jars filled with nails, screws, washers. On his workbench were micrometers, screwdrivers, levels, hole punches, two blue cotton aprons and other tools I couldn’t identify. I opened my father’s wooden tool box, and right there in the top drawer was a beige tin with “Revelation, the perfect pipe tobacco” written in red on the cover. When I opened it, I saw several short, round pieces of metal with sharpened ends. They looked like silver crayon tops. The tin had been in there for over thirty years but I never really noticed it. Until now. Poetry was swirling so fast in my head that I could barely keep up. I ran upstairs and started writing; a few minutes later, I had filled up two sheets of paper.

My father always encouraged me in my writing, was so happy when my book, How to Spot One of Us, was published and was always interested in my teaching and readings. There was my father, in his tool room, helping me to move forward. Encouraging me to write again.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007).  She is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry performance filmhttps://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilm.  Her work has appeared in journals and on line in such publications as Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. 

This essay is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Best American Poetry Blog (http://thebestamericanpoetry.typepad.com/the_best_american_poetry/), where this essay first appeared.  

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Questions & Answers: An Interview with Bruce Black

by Karen Blum, editor of The Tulsa Jewish Review

Bruce Black created the Jewish Writing Project, a repository of stories and poems submitted by a variety of writers as an expression of their Jewishness, and as it turns out, ours.

What prompted you to create this space for people to share?

When my family and I moved to Florida nine years ago, we discovered that most of our neighbors at our synagogue were from somewhere else—Michigan, Ohio, Maine, Wisconsin, NY, NJ, Illinois. No longer did folks have families close by
 to share stories, and many families like ours found that their family stories were being lost or forgotten. So I founded the project as a way to help people preserve their family’s stories, as well as to explore and share their Jewish experiences.

I thought if we could share stories online about what it means to be Jewish, we might get to know each other a little better.

I love that you acknowledge that we all have a different lens through which we see our Judaism, why do you think it is important to share our differing perspectives?

Sharing our different perspectives on what it means to be Jewish broadens our understanding of what it means to be a Jew. Often, we mistakenly believe that our way of practicing Judaism is the “only” way. But if you speak to enough Jews and read enough Jewish stories, you’ll come to the realization that there are as many ways of being Jewish as there are Jews in the world. Each of us may belong to the same synagogue or temple as our neighbors—being Jewish is a communal experience, after all—but each of us experience our Judaism as unique individuals and feel differently about what it means to be Jewish.

In sharing our individual understanding of what it means to be a Jew, we may help someone else better understand how he or she feels about being Jewish. Each individual story has the power to inspire others to explore their lives in search of insights into what it means to be Jewish.

What is your best advice for writing about our Jewish experiences?

You might try to make a list of people who influenced how you feel about being Jewish. Ask yourself why a certain person had such a large influence on you. What did he or she do to make you feel that you, too, wanted to be Jewish? Or you might list your most powerful memories of being Jewish. Think of an experience when you realized how much being Jewish meant to you. Then try to describe the experience so that a reader might understand how the experience changed you.

Or, try this: Take some time to think about what matters most to you about being Jewish. Maybe you love the way the light of the Shabbat candles plays on your mother’s face. Maybe you love wrapping your fingers in your father’s tallit during Shabbat morning services. Maybe you remember the first time you held a prayer book in your hands and offered a prayer as part of a minyan. Describe what it is that you love about being Jewish and makes you feel strongly about being a Jew. Start writing. See where the words take you.

This interview first appeared in the Tulsa Jewish Review, which granted permission to reprint it here. If you’d like to read more articles in the Tulsa Jewish Review, visit: http://jewishtulsa.org/our-work/Tulsa-Jewish-Review/

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Writing Personal Prayers

By Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

For several decades I’ve written what I call liturgical readings – sometimes called “additional readings” in a service — but I never penned a “real” prayer until recently when I was asked to lead a personal-prayer-writing workshop for a few hundred people at a local synagogue (Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), helping people write prayers for big and little personal events that don’t occur in the synagogue; sort of the next step after using the prayers that already exist for things like seeing a rainbow, wearing new clothes, etc.

With a quick deadline for teaching the class, I talked with one of Beth Sholom’s rabbis about the basics of writing a prayer, and read through Talking to God, Naomi Levy’s wonderful collection of personal prayers, the type I intended to teach.  In creating my class and writing my sample prayers,  I followed a few guidelines, only enough to ground myself: I could mention God by “name” or not, and I could use any of the varieties such as “Compassionate One,” “Rock,” etc.  Additionally, it was okay for me to pray for or about something “un-synagogue-like,” such as the already canonized prayers for wearing new clothes or using the bathroom.  In general, I felt the prayer should end with an “amen.”  I also believe that God doesn’t have supernatural powers, so while I couldn’t ask God to cure my friend’s cancer, I could pray for the strength and love to be a good friend for her.

Throughout it all, I kept reminding myself that writing a prayer is an active and personal way for me to talk with God.  It’s the opportunity to verbalize my core values.  Prayer is the voice of my heart and soul.  That was the bottom line.

I always experiment with creating a genre of writing before teaching it, so I tapped into what was on my mind; what came up was my 88-year-old mother, who had made a tremendous effort to come from another city to attend the first seder at my house.  So I wrote A Prayer for my Elderly Mother:

Fortify me, Compassionate One, as I help my elderly mother make life-altering changes.  Teach me patience as I support her in keeping true to herself.  Help me make my contact with her loving and clear in spite of complications we’ve had in the past.  Be there with me as I hold her hand as she moves forward, and given her age, support me in trying to make each communication with her end with loving words.  And please, help me balance the needs of my mother with the needs of my daughter, and nourish me with a bottomless well of courage and stamina. Amen.

A few days later, I had breakfast for a former boyfriend who I hadn’t had a real conversation in more than 25 years.  It was great to catch up, and it reminded me of what I had loved about him.  Simultaneously, I was reminded of what would have been the downfall of our relationship.  As we chatted I found myself thinking “Thank God I didn’t marry this man” – and I realized that I could take that thought a step further and actually thank God, directly, that I hadn’t married him.   I realized that anytime I thought or said “thank God,” or “oh my God,” or “God forbid” – or any phrase including a mention of God — there was an opportunity for me to actually connect with God.

So when I got home I wrote my Prayer About Meeting With an Old Boyfriend:

Thank you, God, for giving me the foresight to know that marriage to this man would not have been a happy one in the long run.  I am grateful to you for supporting me with enough self-awareness, and strength, to make a difficult choice in spite of all my longing to find my life partner.  Remind me of the important lessons I learned in my relationship with him.  Finally, please underscore my hope that he has a joyful, loving life with his partner of choice, as I have with mine.  Amen.

And a few days after that, my financial planner was asking my husband and me about medical conditions that might make it more difficult for us to qualify for long-term-care insurance.  He went through a long list of diseases and disabilities which, thankfully, we don’t have.  At the end, I thought, “I should write a prayer thanking God for our good middle-aged health” – which became the first in a growing list of personal prayers for me to write.  Frankly, even just recognizing the possibility of a prayer, even if I never write it, is a new way for me to enhance my spiritual life.

Tuning into “If I just ‘thanked God’ then I should go ahead and actually thank God” as the source of possible prayer-writing is a wonderful new mindset.  I’ve tuned into my own experiences with the awareness that many dimensions of my life, however seemingly trivial or mundane, could be appropriate sources of prayer.

I’ve also begun to play with with other formats for writing prayers, such as a haiku (a poem in which the first line has five syllables, the second has seven syllables, and the third has five syllables):

Lord, fill me up with courage
That doesn’t run out
To face what has to be done

I’ve also experimented with an acrostic (a poem in which you write a meaningful word vertically, and then each line of the poem opens with a word whose first letter is determined by the word you wrote vertically; in mine, I used “gratitude” as the key word.)

God, I never
Realized how important it is for
A person like myself
To grapple with the Torah
In search of meaning
Thank you for
Understanding and
Doing all you do, which
Enables me to stretch and grow

And I wrote a more traditional poem, too, which I called “Thank you for Fruit”:

We ate your apples at the seder, Adonai,
Their flesh off-white, like day-old ice
as if they’d never seen the sun
all covered by a blanket of thick skin
Stuff to keep the doctor away
softened by wine and walnuts

But now it’s time for your strawberries
the color of sunburn on a green-eyed girl
Heart-shaped, wearing green collars
that remind us where they came from
and as sweet as the honeysuckle smells.
Another gift from you, summer, is just beyond the bend.

You don’t have to be a “good writer” – however you define that term– to write a prayer.  You don’t have to be an observant Jew, or someone with great knowledge about Judaism.  All you need is to tune into yourself and be receptive to your own thoughts.  All you need is the desire to be in some sort of relationship, and to share yourself, with God.

Janet Ruth Falon is a Philadelphia-based award-winning writer and writing teacher.  She is eager to teach workshops about how to write personal prayers; please contact her at jfalon@english.upenn.edu.  She is also the author of The Jewish Journaling Book, and is writing liturgy for all the Jewish holidays, hoping to compile it into a book entitled In the Spirit of the Holidays.

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Writing Midrash: A Writer’s Workshop for Two

by Pamela Jay Gottfried & Jonah Gottfried (Atlanta, GA)

My ten year old son and I study Torah together.  Once or twice a week, we sit together and read the narrative of Genesis. Then we discuss its deeper meaning and our interpretations of the text.

It is both a responsibility and a privilege to teach my son Torah.  It is also, at times, a burden. But the burden feels lighter, now that we have discovered a common interest: writing.

The progressive school he attends introduces Writer’s Workshop in 1st grade and the teachers help the students develop their critical thinking skills beginning in Preschool.  This year it all came together for Jonah: improved motor skills, increased facility with words, and a Language Arts teacher who inspired him to work to his potential.

I realized earlier this year that I could hitch a ride on this teacher’s coat tails, and I suggested to my son that we form our own Writer’s Workshop.

Some weeks—as often as our time permits and the text demands—we write our own midrashim (interpretations/legends) and we critique each other’s work.  Recently, we decided to attempt a co-authored piece. We left the file in a shared folder on the desktop and worked on revisions independently, using Word’s “track changes” tool.

Jonah started the midrash, an imagined conversation among the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Our goal was to illustrate how Isaac’s parenting skills affected Jacob’s decisions in his adult life.  The biblical text is sparse and often merely implies the inner thoughts and feelings of the heroes.  We thought it would be fun and instructive to give voice to these biblical figures.  We are also open to your feedback and ideas, so please share them!

 Interesting Interviews

by Jonah & Pamela Gottfried

Isaac: “Hello, I am your ghost-host, Isaac. Today I will be interviewing my son, Jacob, about whether he learned anything from the mistakes that I made while raising him.  What do you want to say about your childhood, Jacob?”

Jacob: “I don’t have many memories of my life as a little boy…except that you ruined my childhood because you loved Esau more than me!”

Isaac: “How did that ruin your childhood?”

Jacob: “Well, the story began when Esau came back from a hunting trip. He was very hungry and I was making soup. He told me that he would give me his birthright in exchange for some soup. If you ask me, that was a pretty stupid trade on his part, but I was happy to agree.”

Isaac: “Some soup for a birthright sounds like a pretty good deal for you, but why would Esau do that?”

Jacob: “He did it because he was so hungry that he was willing to give up anything for food.”

Isaac: “That didn’t stop you, though, did it?”

Jacob: “Nope, not really. But then you decided to give the blessing of the firstborn to Esau. I still had his birthright, so I deserved the blessing, too. And when you actually gave me the blessing, boy, was Esau mad. I had to run away just to survive!”

Isaac: “Wait a minute. I gave you the blessing for the firstborn?”

Jacob: “Yep.”

Isaac: “Hmm, I certainly don’t remember that happening.”

Jacob: “Anyway, Esau still resents me to this day for what I did, but I think he had it coming because of the way he treated me.

Isaac: “Wait, what’s the connection between this story and my question?”

Jacob: “Well, you ruined my life because my brother despises me and then later, when I became a parent—Hold on. I think I should let my father explain this part.

Isaac: “What? Father? I’m your father!”

Abraham: “No, Isaac, I’m your father. And I’m also the Father of Monotheism, making me Jacob’s spiritual father along with being his grandfather. Besides, everyone knows that grandparents have a special bond with their grandchildren. It helps that we have a common enemy.”

Jacob: “No kidding, Saba Abe.”

Abraham: “Yes, son. Now, let’s enlighten your father.  Isaac, your eyes may have grown dim with age, but your thinking was cloudy from the moment Esau brought you fresh meat.  Did you forget what God told Rebekah?”

Isaac: “I remember: ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ But as Esau grew, I wasn’t sure that God got it right. Esau wasn’t the servile type.”

Abraham: “What?! You thought God was wrong?”

Isaac: “Not really. I just didn’t know how to parent those unruly kids. They were always disagreeing and bickering with each other.  And your mother coddled you, Jacob. She loved you more than she loved Esau, and she didn’t hide her favoritism.

Jacob: “Really, Abba?! She was fulfilling God’s prophecy and you wrecked everything!”

Abraham: “Well, folks. There you have it. Rebekah and Jacob may have staged the deception, but it was the Almighty who wrote the script.”

Isaac: “I still don’t see how this ruined your life, Jacob. I mean, now you have everything—a house full of wives and kids, sheep, worldly possessions…”

Jacob: “Is that what you see?! Look more carefully and you’ll understand. My beloved wife, Rachel, died in childbirth, leaving me with only Joseph and Benjamin to console me. The other ten brothers hate Joseph because he wears a special coat and describes his dreams of the entire family bowing before him.”

Isaac: “Didn’t you give him that special coat? You showed favoritism to the younger…”

Jacob & Abraham: “Exactly!”

Pamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher and author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom.  Jonah A. Gottfried is an aspiring author and rising 5th grader whose teachers are trained in the Writing Workshop curriculum. You can read more of Gottfried’s work at her website:  http://www.pamelagottfried.com/ 

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Writing Practice: Leaving Egypt Behind

Every year when we sit down to begin our Seder, I look around the table, amazed at the effort that it took for all of us–family and friends– to come together.

We have finished cleaning and shopping and cooking and preparing the Seder table. It’s time to open the Hagaddah and recite Kiddush over the First Cup, and then read the first words of the story: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.”

Each year I’m awed by the sound of these words, the first words of the Hagaddah, as they ring out across the ages. They are words that sing of our people’s endurance and faith, and they remind me as we wash our hands, lift our cups, break our matzah, dip our herbs, open the door for Elijah, and sing our favorite song about the little goat that we have been given a precious gift.

On Passover, we celebrate not only our gift of freedom but the gift of being Jews and sharing a memory of communal faith in whatever it is that supports us as we step into the unknown, one foot after the other, day after day, year after year, century after century.

Imagine what it must have felt like to leave Egypt. We abandoned everything we knew–the comfort of a regular routine, a place to cook, eat, share stories, make love, and sleep every night–all for an unknown future.

Freedom meant learning to live with not knowing where we’d settle the next night or the night after that, not knowing where we’d find food or ways to defend ourselves or a clear path into the wilderness.

For hundreds of years we lived as slaves. How could we have stepped away from all that we knew? How could we have gone from the heartache of slavery to full independence in one night? How could we have taken such a huge leap of faith from the known to the unknown–into the sea and beyond?

Every year, as we prepare for our Seder, it’s a struggle to leave behind whatever I’m doing, to pick up stakes and move on, so that I can focus on the holiday. And then for the week of the holiday it’s a struggle to forego hametz and eat matzah. But then I remember that we managed centuries ago to pack up our belongings and put one foot in front of the other and make our way into the unknown.

Egypt became a memory, a place to go back to one day, and our future became our destination, the place where we could find the freedom to become whoever we were meant to be.

What will you do with your freedom this year? How will you live your life as a Jew now that you are no longer a slave?

Will you celebrate the many possibilities waiting for you? Or will you mourn the past and all that you left behind?

Before taking another step, can you pause a moment and write about the challenges of stepping into the unknown?

How does freedom give you the opportunity to explore a new, different side of yourself?

What does it feel like to look at the world after leaving Egypt now that you’ve passed through the sea and reached dry land on the other side?

Can you hear the lamentations of those still unwilling to leave Egypt behind?

Or do you hear the joyous sound of Miriam and the women dancing with their timbrels and singing the Song of the Sea?

Bruce Black

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Writing Practice: Faith

How would you describe faith?

Is it something inside you–a deep trust in God, an unwavering belief in God’s presence–that flows like a swiftly running river toward the sea?

Or is it more like a flickering flame, a candle burning brightly one day, waning the next, mysteriously gathering strength and intensity then fading to a shadow without reason or explanation?

Do you think faith is something that you work toward like climbing a tall mountain… something you have to seek out, searching for a clear path to reach the pinnacle, slipping and sliding off the path, only to regain your footing with more certainty further on?

Or is faith like a rock inside you, sturdy, unswerving, always present, never in doubt?

We have different experiences of faith, and each of those experiences can serve as sources of inspiration in our writing.

We can write about standing amidst fellow Jews on Shabbat and offering our prayers to God and feeling a certain faith that God is listening.

We can write about approaching the Kotel, the Wailing Wall, in Jerusalem and sensing God’s presence in history, in our lives, at that moment.

We can write about learning that someone we love has cancer and not giving up hope.

We can write about a dear spouse who may have survived a car accident or hip surgery and praying for his or her recovery.

We can write about losing a parent, giving birth to a child, caring for an ill aunt, helping a frail grandfather… and how each individual, each experience, influences our faith, for better or worse.

How does faith play a role in these experiences? How does faith play a role in your life?

Can you define faith without checking a dictionary? What does it mean to you? How would you describe a life with faith versus a life without faith? And how does having faith–or not having faith–influence the way you view your Jewish identity?

Can you think of a time in your life when you felt your faith challenged… and can you describe what happened? Set the background for the event and how you came to find yourself in the situation. What made you feel that your faith was challenged? How did you respond? And did you feel after the experience that your faith was stronger or weaker?

Can you think of a time when you realized that you didn’t possess any faith? What prompted you to realize this? How did it make you feel? And how did you respond to this revelation? (Do you still pray? Can you still believe in God, even if you doubt His or Her existence?)

Look at passages in the Tanakh for examples of individuals who displayed–or failed to display–faith. Abraham when he set out on his journey. Nachshon when he led the people into the sea. The ten spies when they entered the Land.  What can you learn about faith from these passages? Can you compare the faith–or lack of faith–displayed by these individuals to your own?

In writing about faith, you may discover your faith deepening, running swiftly like a river’s steady current, or you may discover an empty well, barely illuminated by a flickering flame. Whatever you find in your search, let us know. Sometimes sharing the search is enough to inspire faith in others, if not in ourselves.

Bruce Black

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Writing Practice: Counting the Omer

Over the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot we count the omer each day, marking the period between our liberation as slaves in Egypt and our receipt of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

It’s a period of counting when we reflect on the link between slavery and freedom, and it’s a time when we can reflect, too, on the blessings of our lives.

You can use these days to count your blessings and to think about how your life is different in freedom than it might have been in slavery.

Why not take a moment to make a list of blessings that you are grateful for each day?

Then choose one of these blessings and ask yourself why you feel it’s a blessing.

How does it change your life into something remarkable?

What is it that makes something– or someone– a blessing?

You might describe how you first came to understand this something or someone as a blessing.

And then you might expand your thoughts and discuss how you’ve grown or changed as a result of this blessing in your life.

For more information on counting the omer, visit:
http://www.aish.com/h/o/lac/48971726.html
http://www.jewfaq.org/holidayb.htm
http://www.chabad.org/generic_cdo/aid/130631/jewish/Sefirat-HaOmer.htm
http://www.ritualwell.org/holidays/countingtheomer/
http://www.uscj.org/Counting_the_Omer_an6375.html

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