“I believe that my writing, be it scholarly, fiction, narrative non-fiction, or poetry, comes from a deep need to make a difference, to offer a lens that is not being appreciated.” Here, Shoshana Razel Gordon-Guedalia discusses her explorations through writing. You can read her experimental story, “A Hike,” in volume XXXV of The Worcester Review.
First of all, what got you into writing?
Well, if I think back, I suppose I can trace this to several things. For one thing, my home was one of storytelling. My grandparents were partisans in the woods of Belarus during the Holocaust, and I grew up on their war stories as well as their pre-war stories, told to me again and again in their melodious Yiddish, which was my first language. I also have strong memories of falling asleep to the sound of my father typing his doctoral thesis in Jewish philosophy on his old typewriter. I guess you could say that writing was like a lullaby to me in that way. Also, my parents both loved poetry. They both wrote poetry, and I remember reading poetry of many different kinds with them.
I wrote my first poem when I was ten. We had just moved to Israel from New York, and I felt torn between homes. So I wrote about it. I should say that while I wrote informally over the years, it was Paul Harding who first taught me how to write fiction.
Could you discuss how Paul Harding influenced you as a writer?
One summer, I think it was 2007, here in Newton, Massachusetts, where I've lived for years now, I decided to try my hand at a fiction writing course at Harvard Summer School. To my delight, my professor Paul really loved my writing and helped mold me as a writer. Paul embraced my style of writing, which can be rather associative. (By associative, I mean non-linear.) He helped me to stay in touch with my writerly instincts and let my writing flow with the characters’ voices leading the way. He also taught me the value of close attention to descriptive detail. He would often caution me that a good writer writes simply and precisely and that from such vivid description of what is, the deeper ideas emerge. Paul also assuaged my fear of allowing religion and political strife to enter my writing. He encouraged me to write from empathy no matter what I write about—which I like to think I do anyway—in which case, everything is allowed as long as it comes from empathy and human truth. I love that I am Orthodox Jewish and that I call him Rebbe. He us very much my rabbi.
A year or two later, John Canaday helped mold me as a poet. His award-winning book of poetry, The Invisible World, written based on his time living in Jordan and teaching the children of the king and queen, taught me a lot about empathy and the imbibing of a new culture. John also taught me a lot about different poetic styles with which he urged me to experiment. I credit him with teaching me that form need not hamper creative expression but can, in fact, deepen its effect.
The greatly political poet Pablo Neruda once said, "Poetry is an act of peace." What is your response to this? Considering your genre-bending piece in TWR and your other writings, do you consider yourself a political poet? What do you believe poetry's role in politics is?
I believe that my writing, be it scholarly, fiction, narrative non-fiction, or poetry, comes from a deep need to make a difference, to offer a lens that is not being appreciated, to engender empathy in readers for people and situations that come across too readily as "them" or as "the other."
I firmly believe that our ills as humans—as a society of people—be they gender-related ills or nationalistic ills—stem from a lack of empathy and from a willingness to treat people as the "other" with whom we need not empathize. Because how could I? I am not them. I love the philosopher Emanuel Levinas in that he speaks of the face-to-face encounter as a silent but implicating command of responsibility upon one for the "other" for his or her well being
“A Hike” came about because I read about an attack—as is described in the piece—in an Israeli newspaper.
It said something to the effect of ‘two young boys (nineteen) on vacation from the army were hiking with their seventeen-year-old friend when terrorists shot at them from a passing car.’ It said that the girl remained unharmed since one of the boys pushed her behind a boulder. It said that one of the terrorists ran down the wadi and made sure they were dead and that after they were gone the girl called for help.
In the American paper it said, ‘Two soldiers with M-16s were shot while hiking with a friend,’ or something like that. I felt very upset. It could have been me on such a hike a hundred times over. I grew up hiking with my friends in the very area where this happened. My friends were usually older boys. I was what we used to call a tomboy. I also lost friends to terror
I felt like the newspaper portrayed the boys as "soldiers with M-16s,” not as two young boys on a hike, and the girl as a "settler," not as a seventeen-year-old girl with her friends. These three people were portrayed as "others" rather than as fully fleshed-out people like you and me. That girl could have been me. Those boys could have been me.
I needed to become her to write this. I needed to give her a voice that no human—in that he or she is human—could look away from with a brush of the hand. So I dove in and became her, and this happened. Call me Pollyanna, but if everyone in the world could look past the label of "other" and recognize themselves in the person before them, no matter what nationality or gender, if we truly recognized the holy spark in every human being, there would be peace.
I'm not naïve. I don't think it's easy, but that does not mean that I am allowed to quit
I noticed that “A Hike” reads much like a prose-poem. How did you decide to choose this form, as opposed to more traditional verse?
Well. I did wonder about what to call it. I think experimental prose or prose-poetry or poetry could all fit. I felt that the arrangement of the words in this piece was important. I found myself making the lines sway with the girl’s memories. I felt that this piece—in that it shifts tones so often and in that it embodies a process of shock, in that it expresses the trauma it experiences as it evolves—needed to viscerally jolt and wobble, if that makes sense.
In addition to being a poet, you are also a doctoral student and working to become a rabbi. Could you discuss any projects (both literary and non-literary) that you are working on at this moment? As for non-literary projects, do you believe these endeavors have influenced your work?
I do think that it all comes together. As I mentioned, my maternal grandparents were partisan fighters in the woods of Belarus. One of the projects I am working on is a narrative non-fiction work based on their lives before, during, and after the war through my lens as their granddaughter and how this legacy has impacted me. In fact, I gesture towards part of that legacy in my short story "Drowning," which is coming out on jewishfiction.net in the fall.
My father, of blessed memory, was a Modern Orthodox rabbi and a doctor of Jewish philosophy.
Contrary to the norm back when I was growing up when girls were not taught Talmud and when ordination for Orthodox women was unheard of, my father began studying Talmud with me from a very young age. As a so-called tomboy, I was frustrated by the stark gender divide that I felt reflected in Orthodox society. I was very blessed in having the father I had. He studied with me, and he encouraged every question or challenge and instilled in me a love of humanity and of God and of peace and of the need for every voice in this world. He implored again and again when I was upset about some ruling I heard or some phenomenon happening in the religious world not to blame God for the misdeeds that people carry out in His name. “Believe me,” he would say. “God is also upset that people are saying and doing these things in His name.”
My novel in progress is a coming-of-age novel based on this relationship between my father and myself. It is important to me to have this particular perspective articulated through the experiences of a young woman such as myself growing up with a lot of questions in the 80s in Jerusalem.
In recent years there has been a move to ordain Orthodox Jewish women. I have been excited about this and involved in Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance causes for all my life, you could say. I hope to finish my doctorate—in which I examine how new practices get absorbed into or rejected from religious-legal canons in the four traditions I study—and then to pursue the final stages of official ordination. In the interim, I have published a scholarly article in the first volume of Keren—the journal of Yeshivat Maharat in New York where Orthodox women are being trained and ordained. I wrote about the obligation of the religious-legal decisor to take an oath to first and foremost do no harm before he issues a ruling. A religious ruling in Judaism is called "pesaq," so I called the article "The pesaqratic oath" (alluding to the medical hippocratic oath).
So, it’s all about creating space for all voices to be heard, facilitating the morally implicating face-to-face encounter in everything I write (which doesn't mean I will succeed—or never fail—I still remember how much it smarted when three men stormed out of a sermon I gave in my synagogue two years ago. I kept thinking—they missed the punch line—they couldn't have understood me correctly. I felt a bit bad but, as Paul used to say, you have to write for good readers)
The Worcester Review would like to thank Shoshana Razel Gordon-Guedalia for contributing to volume XXXV and for participating in the online blog series.