by Sarah Shapiro
This book was born one evening on Rechov Malchei Yisrael in Jerusalem, when I met up with Varda Branfman on my way home from a class. We hadn't seen each other for four or five years, but after a few minutes of conversation I told her that I still remembered her poem entitled "Bread."
"Bread?" she said. "What was that?"
"You don't remember, Varda? I can't believe it! Remember that one you showed me before you got married, the one that kept repeating, `I want bread'? It's not lost, is it?"
"I don't know. Maybe my sister has a copy. Sometimes I used to send things to her."
I felt a real loss, as if a jewel had been dropped carelessly to the bottom of a dark lake.
"Are you still writing, Varda?"
She bit her lip apologetically. "No, not really. Thank G-d, we just had another baby a few months ago, beli ayin hara. I guess you didn't know."
"So there's been a lot to do. There's always a lot to do."
"Of course! Thank G-d!"
"And in any case, a long time ago I found myself wanting just to focus on building our home, and not to fracture myself up into pieces trying to do all kinds of different things. Every once in a while something does come to me and I scribble it out on a slip of paper, but then I lose it in a pile of laundry or something or stick it into some drawer, and if I do ever come across it again it's already been crayoned over or cut up into pieces, and I think, gam zu letovah. I talked about it onceit must have been a few years ago, I thinkto a rebbetzin whom I respect very much, and she told me to forget about writing for the time being. She said that each child is the most meaningful poem one could hope to create. That having a family is the greatest possible artistic venture."
I had been chastened into silence, but then Varda commented quietly, in an afterthought: "I do still have the book bug, though."
"The book bug?"
"There's still something in me that wants to write a book. But I know I never will, because I don't have the time, or I don't want to make the time. I wish that somebody would do some kind of anthology of religious women's writing, then I could just come out with my random little bits and tiny pieces and feed my book bug that way."
"What a good idea!" I exclaimed. "Let's do it!"
Varda smiled doubtfully. "Well, I don't know. When it comes right down to it, do I really want to go so far as to take time out for that kind of thing? What for? I've let go of all those aspirations."
I called Varda often during the next few weeks. Targum Press had agreed that an anthology was a good idea, and work on it was already under way. It was becoming apparent that there were scores of religious women writers who had much to contribute to such a volume. So if she could just get a hold of that poem from her sister, then "Bread" would be included, too.
"Oh, yes," she'd exclaim. "Thank you for reminding me. Beli neder, I'll try to contact her."
"And Varda, do you think you could write about why you're not writing?"
"That's an interesting idea. I'll see if maybeOh! The rice! Be'ezras Hashem, I'll get back to you later!"
I gradually devised a little speech for my conversations with Varda Branfman. It's not necessarily a matter of those old and meaningless aspirations, I'd tell her. It's that G-d placed a certain ability with words within you, just as all kinds of other gifts were given to other people. A gift from Hashem should not be rejected. Like everything else created by Hashem, human communication in the form of writing has its reasons for being. The power of speech distinguishes the human from the animal; using language for worthy purposes in some measure redeems it from the debasement it suffers in our times.
Writing gives life to the mind, I'd tell her the next time around. It's a magical process, this business of transforming thought and perception and experience into words, and of being able through reading to see into other people's worlds. My friend Shelley Ben-David says she wishes that when her mother was dying twenty years ago, she'd had a book to read about someone else's experience going through the same thingor one of those women's magazine articles on the subject that now appear all the time. It might have broken through her mother's deep sense of being so profoundly alone. Shelley herself keeps an ongoing diary. Can you imagine what a treasure she'll have one day, when she'll be able to remember the everyday events of these years? To realize that they experienced all that's in Koheles: they had times to grieve and times to rejoice, times to dance and to mourn and to laugh and to weep. It's a consecration of life, to recognize that everything in our lives is of value and is worthy of being recorded.
And even if reading your words just brings someone else pleasure, isn't that enough of a justification? It's not only a way of giving to yourself, Varda, it's a way of giving to others. Don't you get a lot out of talking on the phone to your close friends? Well, that's what this is. We're talking to each other.
Varda would hear me out politely, but each time I called, I felt like an emissary from the sitra achra. An Uncle Moishy tape would be blaring in the background. Sorry it's so noisy, she'd tell me, the children are dancing, or sorry, she'd get back to me as soon as possible, she was in the middle of serving dinner or finishing a skirt or reading them a story or putting them to bed or fixing the children's doll house. There were the sounds of a baby's cries or a child's supplications....
And there was I...asking for her poem.
Varda Branfman was not the only writer whose work was stuffed away in an unopened drawer, and not the only one who for a variety of reasons greeted my requests with reluctance and misgiving.
Though many of the women were well accustomed to having their work published, others felt that handing over their writing for public perusal made them too vulnerable. This didn't strike me as odd (since I myself have always felt the same way) but I did wonder why it is that writers are often so fragile and sensitive on this score.
It was not until a phone conversation one day with Devorah Rosenblumanother writer whose notebooks had not seen the light of day for yearsthat together we realized an obvious fact: Writing reveals one's inner self. To share it is to lay oneself open to misunderstanding, disapproval or scorn. What makes you think that what you've got to say is important? Or even worse: This has no meaning for anyone else but you.
And it was not until another phone call with Elisheva Marshall in New York (Ma Bell and Bezek owe a lot to us females) that I understood why women keep writing even when they have no time to do any such thing. Elisheva had been immobilized by worry over her sister's illness. "I decided I'd tell her about what I've been feeling since she got sick and how much I love her," she said. "So I just sat down in the middle of trying to clean up the house and wrote her a poem. When I finished, I had so much energy, I was able to do all the dishes in one minute."
Varda did find "Bread," in an old notebook in a long-unopened drawer. And she did agree to write about not writing. In fact, Varda is now giving a women's poetry workshop once a week, and somehow her family neither goes without dinner nor stays up till midnight on workshop nights.
"You shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." I've been told that this means one should utilize for the good, as much as possible, all powers that have been instilled within us.
If giving to others is a central characteristic of the feminine nature, as I believe it is, may we share our lives with one another through all the infinitely varied capacities for giving with which we are individually endowed.
And may this particular book serve as a long-distance telephone line for talking to each other.
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