Everyone’s Got a Story

by | in Books

imageEveryone’s got a Story
Edited by Ruchama K. Feuerman
Judaica Press
Brooklyn, 2008
412 pages

Everyone’s Got a Story, an anthology of creative non-fiction and short stories, has more than the customary stamp of its editor, Ruchama K. Feuerman, who culled these forty-one pieces from writing workshops she has led over the years. Many of them were midwifed by Ruchama, and unlike the usual background presence of the editor, Ruchama, author of the novel Seven Blessings, has a highly visible role in the book as she introduces each section with writing directives and mentoring wisdom.

Full disclosure: Ruchama and I were members of a writing workshop that was active about twenty-five years ago in Jerusalem. (A get-together of creative writers in the English language in the middle of Geulah was quite an anomaly, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the first of its kind there.)
Everyone’s Got a Story is Ruchama’s second book, and it reflects her immersion in teaching creative writing during the last fifteen years. Some of her students who contributed to the book have advanced degrees, while others never finished high school. Contributors include computer programmers, psychotherapists, lawyers, social workers, teachers and stay-at-home moms. A few of the authors have many publishing credits.

Ruchama introduces each section of the book with writing tips and advice about how to get over the humps encountered in the writing process. She explains that sometimes you have to trick yourself into creating:

Write in haste, revise at leisure. Give yourself a topic and write about it for ten minutes straight, without pausing to evaluate or make a single correction….If what I’m writing is composed in haste, no one expects it to be perfect or amazing. Therefore, I’m free to write sloppily, foolishly, sentimentally. Ironically, in such a state, we produce our most exciting—albeit raw—material.

When a writer feels hard-pressed to come up with something interesting, with grist for the mill, there are always writing catalysts to jumpstart the writing. This anthology-plus-writing guide is peppered with “exercises” to inspire a piece of writing. For example, here’s one exercise that tickled my fancy and made me want to sit down and write:

Make a list of places you’ve been. Dentist’s office, New Hampshire motel, labor room with Jacuzzi, chicken coop in Chofetz Chaim Kibbutz, facing thirty fifth-grade boys as a substitute teacher in a classroom, Kotel on a winter midnight. Notice how “setting” and “situation” sound so similar, because a setting so easily shifts into a situation, bringing with it its own set of problems. A story set in the principal’s office will naturally differ from a story placed in the Himalayas. Look at your list of settings and choose the one that says: Write about me. I need you to tell my story. Please.

The anthology has a sprinkling of gems that are well crafted and focused. Marina Gelfand’s “A Family Portrait” tells her story of being newly observant and yearning for her brother, with his three earrings, to “see the light.” Dvorah Zuckerberg, a retired computer programmer, is masterful with her spare prose when she writes about her memories of the war years in Siberia.

Every reader will find his or her own favorites.

In all of these stories, the subtext, what is being said underneath the words and inside of them, is the subject of God consciousness.

I especially like the story of the Santa Cruz vintner who lives alone in a clearing surrounded by redwoods. Told in his own words as a running monologue, the story appeals to me; it describes his pleasure and pride in his wines and the homespun beauty of his home in what I might have chosen as one of my alternative lives.

Then there is the compelling tale about a beloved grandmother who survived the Holocaust and now endures the ravages of illness in a hospital room as her oldest granddaughter tends to her needs and tries desperately to keep her alive.

“Sometimes she spoke about the camps, about the hunger and the friendships,” the author, Yael Zoldan, writes. “She was fifteen when they got on the trains. Just fifteen, my age! How did she live? ‘We did what must be done to survive.’ Wordlessly, I willed her—Do it again. Whatever you did, do it again.” Zoldan narrates her story with a lyrical force that turns her prose into poetry. “I sat beside her, guarding, afraid that some dark thing would steal her away. She slept fitfully, moaning in her dreams, and I crooned, ‘Stay with me. Stay with me.’”

By its nature, an anthology can be uneven in terms of the quality of the work gathered. The individual pieces might run the gamut from the mediocre to the sublime, and this collection is no exception. It’s unfair to expect uncompromising literary excellence from an anthology of this kind, where so many of the authors are not “seasoned writers.” A number of the stories trail off at the end instead of being fully developed; they might have achieved a greater depth given the time to mature and ripen. With a push, these pieces could have gone further to more interesting places, but instead they pull up short as if the writers ran out of time and energy. But while we can’t expect the anthology to reflect the literary mastery of a collection by Dovid Zaritsky or Isaac Bashevis Singer, the book succeeds in proving what it set out to prove: that every person can write his own story, and he can write it well.

What is it that characterizes the distinctly Jewish voice running like a thread through this book? In all of these stories, the subtext, what is being said underneath the words and inside of them, is the subject of God consciousness. A Jewish writer who is Torah observant is always searching to reveal God in the events of her life or to share the experience of His hiddenness.

Each story in this anthology contributes to this process of trying to understand how God works in our individual lives and in the world at large. The stories accomplish this with varying degrees of success, depending on how far the particular author is committed to getting to the heart of the matter, how precise she is in her craft and how she well she sustains her focus through to the end.

Besides the uniquely Jewish subtext of God consciousness, the Jewish writer also has a certain responsibility to consider the ramifications of what he is launching into the public domain. Words are powerful; they can be uplifting and even life giving, but they can also be potentially harmful, with subtle boundaries that a Jewish writer should not overstep. There is such a thing as commitment to one’s artistic vision, but the Jewish writer is also guided by a higher vision of God’s central role in the process of all creative endeavors.

In discussing the difficulty inherent in writing about holiness without being vague or resorting to clichés, Ruchama points out the necessity for requesting God’s partnership in the writing process:

“If I were to devise a prayer before writing, it would be for some divine assistance to capture the tzaddik and tzaddeikes, to capture the holy moment,” she says. “I see these people and these moments in captivity. We must find the words to release them.”

Everyone’s Got a Story is more than a showcase for developing Jewish writers. It affirms the importance of creative writing to the Jewish world.

Varda Branfman is the author of I Remembered in the Night Your Name (Jerusalem, 2003) and creator of Virtual Writing Retreats, which she conducts continually in cyberspace with individuals all over the world.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2009.

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