I've been thinking about identity in several different capacities---for panels, my life coaching, my art---and so here's a draft in the works. I'll be in Baltimore this weekend visiting my cousins and seeing O.A.R.!!!
Life as a Jewish Writer or a Writerly Jew
The subject for these essays reminds me of an activity from a BBYO summer program. I was 15 and in a room with Jewish teens from all across the country. Rabbi Carrie Carter posed the question: Are you a Jewish American or an American Jew? We were supposed to go to opposite ends of the room based on how we identified. I remember thinking, which is stronger, the adjective or the noun, the word or the modifier---which one held the most power? I tried to logic it out---most of my peers had already made their decisions. I was sitting in the center of the room with a few other kids. One of them asked if we could be our own category. I don’t remember if Carrie said that was ok or not, or where I ended up, which path I chose.
Years later, I find myself still trying to answer the same question, but in other terms---am I a Jewish writer or a writer who sometimes writes about her Judaism? And I think I will always be writing and thinking about this question. Writing began for me through my Judaism. One year later, after that summer program, I was on another BBYO program, The March of the Living. As part of our experience, we were supposed to keep a journal. I was a compulsive writer. I wanted to document every fact, every moment, every feeling I had as I bore witness to the largest and closest inhumanity I had ever come this close to. Somewhere, poems were born and I became known as the “bus poet.”
In 2006, my first book of poems was released. It’s a poetic sequence written in the voice of a fictitious Holocaust survivor. It was written during the last semester of my MFA, a time when my only Jewish identity was through my writing. At that point, I wasn’t part of a community---there was no BBYO or Hillel, the organizations that shaped my young adult life. I had been own my own and somehow, this voice came from somewhere inside. Even though externally, nothing about me signaled “Jewish,” there was this voice, inside telling me who I was as a writer---definitely Jewish.
We write from the places we’re from. For me, landscape is as much internal as it is external. After spending much of my middle and late twenties unaffiliated, I decided to go back and seek the source from which writing began. My religion. My cultural identity. I applied to be an Arts Fellow at the Drisha institute. I wanted once again to surround myself with a vibrant and artistic Jewish community. Next year, I will continue my explorations of Jewish texts as a part time arts fellow. What I hadn’t thought about until recently is that phrase, we are a people of the book. Judaism is one of the most literary traditions, so it’s no wonder these paths of my life are intrinsically fused together. Before this year at Drisha, I had seen my art and my Judaism as Robert Frost’s proverbial “two roads diverged in a woods,” and I thought I had to pick one, just as I had to cross to one side of the room when I was 15, declaring myself either more “American” or more “Jewish.”
But my learning at Drisha has told me that it’s the exploration of the answer and the journey there. Recently, my writing has taken a new twist. My second book, an anthology of poems in which I edited, compiling poems that women have written about rape and sexual assault, has become a social action project. I found a publisher who would agree to half the profits being donated back to local rape crisis centers. So in this way, my writing has moved from the subject matter as Jewish, to the very purpose of my writing stemming from the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam. Or perhaps that it’s that nothing has shifted except for how I understand my position as both a writer and as a Jew.
Thus, as I grow Jewishly, my writing shifts and is influenced by my learning---whether it manifests itself in the text of my poems, or the purpose behind my work, it’s impossible for me to separate my writing life from my Jewish life because both of my worlds inform each other.