Sharpening Our Pencils

Jewish Text Comes First… then Adrienne Rich

New York

I teach a weekly, two-hour writing class to nine women and one man at the Skirball Center at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Skirball is exceptional for its commitment to teaching Judaism through the arts. It employs a visual artist to teach Jewish texts through drawing, painting and sculpture, and it employs me to do the same through writing.

I start each class by teaching a Jewish text — either something that the rabbi has given me and the visual arts teacher to work from, or — increasingly — something I come up with myself. After 30 minutes of discussing, say, Leviticus 19:1-18, “You shall not wholly reap the corners of your field” — during which I might offer some ancient context, rabbinic commentary or a dollop of contemporary critique — we sharpen our pencils for the integrative work to come: “What does ‘not reaping the corners of your field’ mean to you?” I might ask my students. “Are there things you possess that you never use? That you keep explicitly for othaers? Are there things you use entirely yourself, but perhaps shouldn’t? What corners of your field remain ungleaned?” The writers work for 10 minutes, pulling from their own personal experience and committed to enlarging their lives by connecting them to sacred text.

Joseph Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith always inspires interesting work. In the first chapter, Soloveitchik describes the two versions of the biblical Adam — Adam 1 and Adam 2 — found in Genesis’s two disparate Creation stories. We write about the “Adam 1” part of ourselves — the part Sharpening Our Pencils: that “masters” and “dominates” — and the “Adam 2” part of ourselves — the part that is “pure being.” One student (who, at 90-plus, is my oldest) wrote about herself at midnight. After her therapist’s practice is over and she has spoken to each of her children, she explained, she takes out her Adam 2 — “pure being” — and chats with her long-deceased husband.

When we studied Exodus 6:6-7 — “and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm” — one woman connected it to the experience of fainting on a New York subway and awakening in the hands of nearby, solicitous commuters. Another, when we studied the Havdalah blessings that speak of a God who “separates between holy and unholy, between light and dark,” connected the prayer to the Before and After moments when her daughter, crossing a street in Cambridge, MA, was hit by a car. When we studied the biblical text in which King Solomon, immediately after building the Temple in Jerusalem, asks, “But will God really dwell on Earth? Even the Heavens …cannot contain You,” a woman with a super-palatial, Upper East Side apartment wrote of being 10 and discovering a “sanctuary” of climactic forest and swamp in Lexington, MA.

During the second hour of our class, we “workshop,” with kindness, each other’s manuscripts. Our work is generally material that has grown from classroom exercises and is being developed and polished. At the end of the year we publish a booklet. Tobi Kahn’s class and mine stage an art show and reading.

So what happens in these classes, after we study sacred text and then read aloud our truths and desires, our secrets and doubts, one voice layered upon another? Well. It starts to sound like prayer. We end up in a place that everyday conversation rarely touches. When you are given only 10 minutes in which to put your newly generated thoughts down, trolling them through the 3,500-year-old collective wisdom of the Jewish people, you tend to outdo yourself. The process forces us beyond what we thought we knew about our stories, our lives, our world.

This is not a memoir class, I must say. I have taught memoir in university settings, and what distinguishes this class is that, first and foremost, we’re interrogating ancient Jewish text. The deep brilliance of the texts and the playfulness of the rabbinic imagination stand behind us, with us. The text becomes our Muse. And that tends to take us further in, beyond where we could go by simply documenting our lives.

Look. People in our rushing world don’t have time to sit with a thought, to look at their lives through a sacred lens, through a lens that’s not ironic and isolating. This class is about wrestling with some of life’s most important questions. In the process we become a deeply bonded community.

Adrienne Rich has said that women (and, I have to add, the occasional man) tend to be more willing “to dive into the wreck.” Deep down, where the treasure is. Perhaps women know best the urgency for that other Torah — the one still being written today.

Shelly R. Fredman teaches writing at Skirball and Barnard College. Her work has appeared in Lilith, Best Jewish Writing 2002, The Chicago Tribune Magazine and elsewhere.