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So there, amid escape ladders and reinforced doors and motion-sensor lights that occasionally plunged us into darkness, we set to work.
In an M.A.-level creative nonfiction class, students can write about anything from science to childhood memories to powder keg politics. The job of the instructor is to keep the conversation focused on the craft of writing. This isn’t generally a challenge in the U.S., where history and politically charged issues enter the classroom somewhat less often than I wish. But this was Israel. And my 11 students spanned six nationalities, as well as a range of points along the religious spectrum (some were wholly secular Jews, some Orthodox, some Christian. None was Muslim, though I’m told Bar Ilan has a sizable Muslim student population).
In the workshop’s second meeting I thought we were sunk. A religious student had submitted an essay about her ambivalent relationship with the mikveh, a ritual bath. Critiquing the essay, we reached a scene in which the student’s husband said to her: “Your feelings matter more to me than the question of whether you go to mikveh, and I’ll accept your decision if you don’t.”
At this point, another student chimed in to advise that this bit of dialogue be cut; the husband’s willingness to put his wife’s feelings above Jewish law, she said, made the husband look bad.
Immediately, others in the room voiced the opposite sentiment: The husband’s willingness to set his wife’s feelings above Jewish law made him look wonderful.
Silence in the classroom, a sense of factions forming.
How, I wrote that evening in an email to a group of colleagues back home, does one begin to teach writing in a setting where people can’t agree on even basic parameters of what makes a character appealing? And how to keep this group off the shoals of those differences?
At the start of our next meeting I got up on my soapbox. I said: “We’re going to offend each other — let’s consider that a given. Your job is to help the person sitting in the next seat write his or her story as powerfully as possible, even more so if that story offends you. Argue, dare each other to be more persuasive and remember that this room has to be a safe place, and not just because it’s a bomb shelter. This room is where you can write anything, and then sit back and let other people tell you how it sounds.”
To my relief and delight, the students embraced that approach. Only in retrospect did I realize that they might have been as relieved as I to let ideology take a backseat for once to the urgent question we all shared: how to put the world we see around us into words.
Religious difference, it turned out, was only the beginning of what surfaced in the classroom. Any writing exercise I assigned — no matter how technical and craft-based — tugged at larger issues. In the weeks that followed, a woman in a head covering wrote a moving piece about childhood memories of terrorist bombings. Another woman — a dancer — wrote a powerful scene about sneaking into a West Bank bathhouse and dancing with Palestinian women there. A Christian woman wrote about her teenage immersion in mosh pit culture in the U.S., and offered the first pages of a harrowing piece about friends who joined neo-Nazi skinhead hate groups. Challenged to rewrite a single paragraph in three different voices, a Swedish student began a nostalgic passage extolling his mother’s baking. By the third iteration of the same paragraph, he ended up revealing that his mother was an Auschwitz survivor, and that this bounty of pies and cakes stood in sharp contrast to her own childhood of starvation.