Coming Out of Hiding: Highlights and Claiming My Jewish Writing Self

A couple of years ago, I attended a VCFA alumni mini residency where Cynthia Leitich Smith challenged us to write our writer’s manifesto. This is mine:

Number Two, “To write contemporary or historical Jewish experiences that is more than about suffering, but still recognizes it as part of our culture,” probably needs a bit of revision now, but I knew what I meant. I wanted to go beyond the Holocaust to talk about the diversity of Jewish experience. The diversity of my experience. And feel okay about that. To feel like I was Jewish enough to write from my religious and culture of origin in a way the reflected my truth, even if to others it might have seemed wrong. Because in my experience with my religious and culture of origin, I was discounted and not heard or seen. Or, pressured into spaces because of my gender.

I have always studied religion and spirituality, questioning God (or god), my place in the world. At sixteen, after careful consideration, I landed on that I would always self identify as Jewish because, really, if the Nazis came for me, that is what they would see. But, religiously I left it behind–sort of. I connect with what I see as spirit through a variety of personal practices that involve ritual and meditation. I have gone back into Jewish spirituality and found nuggets that speak to me, but I also incorporate other things. My faith is my own and I have spent my life seeking truths that I suspect my orthodox great-grandfather would be horrified by, but we live in a world that requires us to be uncomfortable and that means living in those spaces for awhile as we navigate the deeper questions–the one I started asking at 12: Why am I here? What am I meant to do with my life? How can I be a force of love in the world?

The last few months, I have been in deep exploration about how my writing can be a response to what is happening around the world. My current WIP is a fuck you to the patriarchy, but I also found it tapping into some very old traumas about being Jewish. As a white Jew, I can hide. I can go into spaces and not announce my culture or religious background. Indeed, when I have mentioned in passing something Jewish, I inevitably get the: “Oh, you don’t look Jewish.” Even with this blog post, I’m uncomfortable essentially announcing to the internet: “Yes, this is part of who I am.” I live in the uncomfortable place of other, but with the privilege of the choice to hide. This is what my current WIP is tapping into and it scares the shit out of me.

What also has scared the shit out of me is the rise of anti-semitism. Last week, I heard a student at the college I teach in tell a story where someone was teasing them for being “Jewish” in a game of monopoly. But, I refuse to live in fear, but that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid.

When the Highlights Foundation advertised a Symposium on Jewish Children’s Literature: Novelists and Publishing Professionals, I knew I wanted to go. I had to go. The symposium promised to discuss the question of Judaism in #ownvoices and what we can do to move “beyond the Holocaust and Holidays.” I was like: “This is what I’ve been thinking of ever since I wrote my writer’s manifesto, I must go!” I’m grateful to the Kar Ben publishing company for giving me the scholarship to attend and experience what turned out to be a transformative weekend.

I’m still processing this weekend, but this is what I can tell you today.

I arrived unsure of what to expect. I joked that the last Jewish thing I had attended that wasn’t a family event was probably when I was 16 and wondered how people would react to my non-conformist lifestyle, the fact that I’ve intermarried, and essentially identify but don’t practice. Was I even Jewish enough to attend?

But, when Linda Epstein opened the symposium with the same question, I knew I was in the right place. The conversations we delved into were difficult, triggering a lot of old stuff for me. But, what I discovered is many of the people there–99% of us women–had similar experiences. (As an aside, I’m always very aware of the mostly female spaces I find myself in now because women are reclaiming their voices.) Author, Katherine Locke‘s opening discussion, “Jewish Enough: Building an Inclusive Tent for Jewish Kidlit,” invited us to consider the diversity of the Jewish experience, as well as our privilege. She echoed many of the things I had been thinking about and it showed me that I had found a space where I could feel safe in being me.

Librarian, all around goddess of Jewish children’s literature, and author, Susan Kusel, provided a wonderful overview of “The Past, Present, and Future of Jewish Children’s Books,” that examined the overwhelming amount of Holocaust literature and the gaps (and there are SO MANY) in the publishing space for books that kids want. She solidified for me that my personal call to action those years ago was in the right spirit.

Author, Adam Gidwitz spoke about his personal experience as a Jewish writer, asking the question: “Is Jewish Marginality Optimal…for a Writer?” His talk provided much fodder for how we can support other POC authors, as well as find ways to tell our stories. His honesty and integrity was very inspiring. In “Age-old Traditions, Modern Storytelling,” author Jocelyn Davies asked us to consider how we can put our stories in contemporary settings. YES! I cried–well, to myself. Exactly!

The symposium closing discussion with author and agent, Rena Rossner, “Going Beyond the Golem, Jewish Myths and Legends Reimagined,” basically blew my mind, providing a high level rundown of some other jewish myths and legends. When she talked about these stories, I realized that was the thing I had been studying all along. This is where I identify most and gave me permission to start telling them.

There were round table discussions by authors and agents. Shirley Idelson from PJ Library and Joni Sussman from Kar Ben Publishing were there, reminding me of other places of where I could tell my stories. Ruth Horowitz, was a beautiful presence, making sure everything ran on time and it was so cool to just sit and chat with her. I also appreciated Rebecca Kuss’s vulnerability in telling her story.

I left with more questions than answers–because that is Judaism after all, being okay with, Davies said quoting her rabbi, the “grappling of being Jewish.” But, I am feeling less alone now in my work and in a profession when you spend a lot of time in a writing cave feeling alone that means a lot. I’m grateful to the faculty and to the Highlights Foundation for organizing this symposium. I am excited to see where the discussion leads.

I am going to finish this post with a story.

When I was 15, I travelled with NCSY (a Jewish youth group) to New York City. The experience of that weekend is probably going to be in a book someday (now!), but the one good thing that came out of that trip, was a moment on the Staten Island Ferry. A girlfriend and I were talking and she taught me a song, “Kol Ha’olam Kulo.” The song is written by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, music by Rabbi Baruch Chait. I suspect (given my recent searches for the song), it is very popular, and has a long, complex history, but I hadn’t really heard it before and I suspect this is only the beginning of my research with it.

Kol Ha’Olam Kulo

Kol ha’olam kulo
Gesher tzar me’od
Veha’ikar lo lifached k’lal.

The whole world
Is a very narrow bridge
and the main thing is to have no fear at all (source, Jewish Women’s Archive)

We started to sing and then the entire group joined us. Standing outside on the ferry’s platform (steer?), Jewish voices proudly sang–and yes, we got a few weird looks–but we didn’t care. We were joyfully expressing a world without fear. We didn’t hide.

Over the years, that memory bubbles up from time to time and I’ll catch myself singing it. In January, I started writing a new middle grade, a story that has been sitting with me for probably twenty years. I was also delving into some messy revisions in my YA. The song bubbled up again and I started to sing. I found a number of recordings on You Tube and listened to them. They help me to”have no fear at all.”