By Michael Orbach
This year, seven students from Yeshiva University High Schools will be participating in a new independent study Hebrew literature course where they will be mentored by a renowned Israeli author with the goal of developing their Hebrew-language creative writing skills. Entitled “Meet the Israeli Author,” the workshop is the first of its kind in a North American Jewish high school. Chana Bat Shahar, an alumna of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the author of nine Hebrew titles and a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Prize (1994), was chosen as this year’s mentor. The Jewish Star spoke with Chana about her goals for the workshop.
Michael Orbach: What it like to teach your students virtually?
Chana Bat Shahar: It is impossible to call these lessons a “virtual workshop.” Even in a regular workshop I meet students without knowing them and become acquainted with them through their writing and the conversations that we have. The workshop, which I am leading with the students from Yeshiva University High Schools, are meetings that are “face to face” through Skype. I see and hear the students and they see and hear me. I hope to become acquainted with them through their writing and to afford them to learn from my expertise in creative writing.
MO: What are the goals of the workshop?
CS: The goal of the course is twofold: learning Hebrew and learning creative writing. The project is in the framework of the Hebrew Language courses in the high schools.
Tova Rosenberg, Director of Hebrew Language in the high schools, suggested this idea, and the Hebrew teachers, Liora Haibi and Elite Shaier are implementing this.
The main goal is the study of Hebrew Language. My role is to challenge the students in creative writing. So the language study is integrated into the creative writing.
The art of creative writing motivates the language learning, and the meeting with the author affords the students and additional bonus: training and suggestions in creative writing.
MO: Is there a culture gap between Israeli and American students?
CS: It is difficult for me to answer this question after two meetings with the American students. I assume that the social and political surroundings are influential and the issues which interest students in the U.S. and Israel, will be different. But “it is the same all over” according to Chazal, and problems which youth have are similar, I assume.
MO: Why do you write under a pseudoynm?
CS: I write under a pseudonym for family reasons. When I began to publish my books in the 1980’s, there were not Orthodox authors, and certainly not ultra-Orthodox (charedi) ones. I was afraid that publishing books for adults that would be mainly well received by the secular public, will not be looked upon well by the Charedi society, to whom I belong, and that my family and children would be hurt by that. Therefore I chose a pseudonym and “concealing my face.”
MO: What Israeli authors are you introducing the students to? Are there any authors in Israel you feel that we in America should be reading?
CS: Israeli authors usually write about issues that occupy them as Israelis or as part of the universal world. A minority are writing about issues that deal with their being Jewish. I prefer to recommend Israeli authors that their Jewish issues are the center of their writing, e.g. Shai Agnon, Aharon Appelfeld, David Fogel, Jacob Steinberg and Devorah Baron. I definitely recommend to also read universal authors and especially classics, e.g., Kafka, Dostoyevsky; Virginia Woolf, Eva Tika and others.
MO: Would you say there is growing disenchantment by mainstream Israeli writers about Israel and its current policies?
CS: Authors tend to take a critical social stand and to highlight the problems rather than achievements. Literature is being written about issues and conflicts. I prefer to write about personal and social issues rather than political issues.
MO: What words of advice do you have for fledgeling authors?
CS: Important advice to a novice writer is to open your eyes. To look not only to the immediate or distant surroundings, but rather to look internally and to learn how to express their findings of this unique insight in a creative and artistic way.