On my first day of teaching at Bar Ilan University, during a tour of the palm-tree-lined campus near Tel Aviv, the program administrator informed me apologetically that I’d been assigned a basement classroom in a building some distance from the English department. I wasn’t concerned — over the years I’ve taught in basement classrooms, in crowded classrooms, in overheated classrooms, in New England classrooms so cold the students and I never took off our winter coats.
We walked to the building where I’d be teaching and, classroom number in hand, began our search. The room number led us down a narrow hall, then beneath Hebrew signs bearing the word miklat, or shelter, through a double set of reinforced doors of the sort you’d see in an American bank vault. These opened into a forbidding, unlit corridor, which we followed to another reinforced door. And then, through that door, was a large, bright room with escape ladders: the building’s bomb shelter.
My concern was made obvious by the startled expression on my face. If I wanted to request a switch, the program administrator assured me quickly as my students began to file in, she’d do her best to make it happen.
I’m not a prima donna about classrooms — still, unpacking my handouts for the first class, I found it hard to escape the sensation that I’d be teaching inside a giant metaphor. I didn’t mind the bomb shelter itself, which was spacious and bright — but teaching inside it not only reminded me of the threat and emotional pressures of war, but also seemed like fate’s idea of a joke. (My own first novel used the sealed room, required in every Israeli home for shelter in case of attack, in its title and as its central metaphor.) I knew, of course, that bomb shelters are everyday places in Israel, as common as tornado shelters in some regions of the United States. Within a few weeks, in fact, I’d be watching my son play on a colorfully painted climbing structure on a desert kibbutz — a structure that was, in fact, the roof of the kibbutz’s bomb shelter.
What was everyday to Israelis, though, was still striking to me. I was concerned the setting might affect the group’s morale. In that first session I joked with my students about the possibility that they would be tempted to use the escape ladders during particularly difficult critiques. But when I mentioned the unusual nature of our classroom, no one else seemed to find it notable. One student shrugged: she hoped, she said wryly, that the room wouldn’t have to serve its other purpose, as it had the previous year when sirens had sounded and university students gathered in the campus’s shelters — but should that happen, at least we were in one of the safest rooms on campus. And besides — as several of my students pointed out later that hour when they declined my offer to request a new room — unlike many classrooms, bomb shelters have air-conditioning.
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.
During these sessions, the motion-sensor lights provided occasional ironic punctuation. We learned swiftly that in most locations within the room, our natural gesticulations kept the lights on. But if we positioned our seats in the wrong spot, then someone periodically needed to get up and take a lap — or, in more creative moments, do an interpretive dance to keep the lights from snapping off.
One day, a Finnish woman wrote movingly about the pressure she felt being the first to translate some painful letters for beloved Israeli friends — letters written in German during World War II by doomed relatives. The student wrote and spoke in class about the free-floating guilt she felt being a blonde European Christian helping a Jewish family sort through this material, and the pain of being warned one day by a stranger at a conference that some Jewish readers might feel she had no right to tell this story.
That, in turn, led to a discussion about who has permission to tell any given story and to me returning to my soapbox to talk about the importance of granting ourselves and one another that permission — even knowing how challenging it is to do justice to someone else’s stories (let alone our own).
In the discussion that ensued, my Swedish student mentioned learning only at age 40 that his father had had a prior wife and a baby girl who both died at the hands of the Germans. This fact, he said, only came out when his father ran into his former brother-in-law in Israel decades after the war. In a voice cracking with emotion, my student said he hadn’t yet been able to write about this revelation.
Hearing this, another student responded with this story: A family friend — a Holocaust survivor — was in the market in Israel one day when she heard a familiar voice. Turning, the woman recognized the non-Jewish woman who had hidden her during WWII — and who had also murdered her baby. The Jewish woman had been pregnant while in hiding, and had given birth; the non-Jewish woman hiding her had said, “If this baby cries, then you and every other person here will be discovered and killed.” So the non-Jewish woman had killed the baby.
Now, all these decades later, the Jewish woman didn’t know whether she ought to approach the aged woman she saw in the marketplace as the person who saved her, or as the person who killed her baby. She couldn’t speak. She let her rescuer pass without saying a word.
At this, someone else turned to the Finnish student and said, “Welcome to our traumatized country!”
It’s not that every story told in that workshop was traumatic — most weren’t. Students wrote about politics, medical issues, the echoes of old loves and the promise of new ones. They wrote about family immigrations from Iran or the U.S.; about adoption and the search for birth parents; about art, travel and one student’s remarkable work teaching dance to disabled men and women in Africa. In and out of class, they reached out warmly to one another, and to me as well. When snow stranded my family outside Jerusalem, they went out of their way to check that we were safe, and when childcare plans didn’t materialize on a class day during Hanukkah vacation, one student brought a bag full of books and activities for my children.
I’ve never before written about a workshop. What happens in class stays in class. So when I asked my students whether they’d be comfortable if I wrote about the work we’d done together, their quick assent took me by surprise. “The conversation in this room is different than the conversation on the bus,” one said, to nods. In daring each other to explore literary craft, they’d given each other permission to explore stories many of them had feared to tell. And of course, our weeks together had expanded my point of view as well. When I walked out of that bomb shelter for the final time, it seemed less a metaphor for the threat of war, and more a reminder of how difficult and how essential it is to create shelters like this: safe places where heartfelt argument, human gestures, and the occasional interpretive dance keep the lights on.
Rachel Kadish is the author of the novels “From a Sealed Room” (Mariner Books, 1998) and “Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story” (Mariner Books, 2006) and the novella “I Was Here” (Daily Lit/Rooster 2014). Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The New York Times, on National Public Radio, and in the Pushcart Prize anthology.