Finding Inspirational Words from Sarah Shapiro–Defining Jewish Writing, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, some of the comments on a post I wrote about defining Jewish writing revolved around the introduction to Sarah Shapiro’s All of Our Lives. I took a workshop with Sarah–who writes, edits, and teaches amazing writing workshops that have inspired many fledgling Jewish writers–and have a lot of respect for her opinions, so I borrowed the book from a friend (thanks Miriam!) in order to more accurately represent Sarah’s opinions here.

Sarah’s essay “The Writer’s I” reflects several of the issues I discussed in my original post. Jewish Writing can be defined by the author’s identity, by its subject matter, or can be considered a completely arbitrary label. She personally feels that “all three are right,” but admits the difficulty in establishing a single definition.

Sarah goes on to say that attempts to identify or define specifically Orthodox Jewish writing are even more complicated. Not only are you concerned about the author’s identity and subject matter, but other aspects of the content, such as compliance with Jewish law (halachah) regarding proper speech, modesty, an insider vs. outsider perspective, and intent. Also, Sarah asks, does such an author necessarily, “regard[s] his identity as a writer…as merely a corollary to his primary responsibilities to G-d, as a Jew; and who measures the value of whatever he writes, first and foremost, within that larger context. For just as G-d spoke and the world came into being–creation of something from nothing–so do we bear responsibility fore creating the reality of our lives with words.”

She goes on to relate the story of a critically-acclaimed author who–while writing fiction–so clearly depicted the shortcomings and private experiences of his family members as to humiliate all of them for the sake of “his art.” Sarah explains that the Orthodox Jewish writer may feel impelled to write his personal (sometimes heart-wrenching) story–but there remains a moral imperative to be sensitive to those who “inspired” him. Fame or critical acclaim can be a form of idolatry if they come at the cost of someone else’s privacy or dignity.

I think I like this definition of Orthodox Jewish Writing. But I hope there’s a day that this final quality–where words are used connect to the world and to people in a holy way–can be attached as a characteristic to all writing, by Jews or not.

Aside from this outstanding introduction, All of Our Lives contains a collection of Contemporary short-form (including personal essay, short fiction, and poetry) Jewish writing. It’s well worth reading. Containing sometimes funny, sometimes devastating glimpses into the lives of their authors, the book features many inspirational moments. Many of the authors are well-known, but many others are non-professional writers who took workshops with Sarah or simply invested their time in the written word. I’m glad that my initial post induced me to pick up All of Our Lives.

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