Workshop Envy: Where Are the Jewish Writing Classes?

By Erika Dreifus on January 12, 2016

The other day, I ran across an ad for an upcoming writing class at the Skirball Center of New York’s Temple Emanu-El. This isn’t just any writing class. It’s a class for memoirists, to be taught by the acclaimed author Shulem Deen. And it got me thinking—not for the first time—about this question: Where are the Jewish writing classes?


As you may recall, we already think that Deen has a lot of good ideas about how to write a memoir. But I’m especially happy to see this course offered at the Skirball Center because it is definitely not every day that we see opportunities for writers to learn their craft within synagogues, Jewish community centers, and similar organizations.

Of course, anyone writing Jewishly-infused work—stories, novels, memoirs, poems, essays, plays, etc.—can learn a lot in any rigorous-yet-nurturing learning environment. The setting doesn’t need to be a “Jewish” one. And surely the Skirball Center welcomes all comers, Jews (of all denominations) and non-Jews alike. In fact, you won’t find any specific mention of Jewishness in the catalog description for Deen’s class.

But as someone who writes “Jewish” material, I have found there to be something especially inspiring and helpful about opportunities that do offer a concerted emphasis on (or at least, some clear inclusion of) Jewish content. Unfortunately, I have also found there to be a surprising scarcity of such opportunities (especially for those of us of vintage Gen X or older).

In fact, I’m a little envious of established “niche” writing communities and conferences dedicated to other “groups” of writers, such as Cave Canem, VONA, and Kundiman. I’d like to believe that given the diversity of the Jewish community, there is Jewish writing happening in those settings. But I’d also like to have access to more settings that explicitly—and consistently—welcome and cultivate Jewish writing talent.

So, in part for my own (selfish!) purposes and in part to help others, I have compiled the following list as a beginning resource. Some of these offerings occur annually or cyclically; others may be “one-time” events. Please be sure to check directly with each organization linked if you have questions.

Tent: Creative Writing
If you’re lucky enough to be between the ages of 21 and 30, you may wish to consider this week-long seminar at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. If you attend, you’ll have the chance to “workshop, read, and talk about craft and literary history. The 2016 program will offer workshops on fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, taught by Sam Lipsyte, Lisa Olstein, and Eileen Pollack.” In addition, you’ll “discuss classics of modern Jewish literature, by authors from Sholem Aleichem to Adrienne Rich, with literary scholar Josh Lambert and consider the roles played by Jews in the creation of literary modernism and postmodernism.” And more. Bonus: no application OR participation fees. “If required, lodging will be provided; most meals will be provided. Participants are responsible for their own transportation to and from Amherst, MA.” In 2016, the program will take place May 29-June 5; application deadline is February 14.

KlezKanada Poetry Retreat
This one is also limited to those on the younger side of the age divide (between 16 and 35). The information that’s currently available on the website appears to be for last year’s retreat; check for updates!

Memoir and Midrash: A Writing Workshop with Judith Kerman
This one began last Sunday, but check with the host (the Woodstock [New York] Jewish Congregation); they may run it again! “Memoir, writing based on the author’s personal experience, and midrash, filling in the gaps in the Torah narrative, may not seem to have much in common. But both require the exercise of the imagination within limits. Memoir should be about things that really happened, but we never remember it all precisely. To really live on the page, the experience must be reimagined in full sensory detail. By necessity, something will be invented. Midrash invents experiences and explanations to fill gaps in the Torah narrative, but cannot contradict what the text already says. Fortunately, there are lots of gaps to fill. In either case, the writer’s imagination supplies the detail. In this workshop, participants will write in either or both forms as they choose, walking into their own pasts or into the gaps in Torah narrative to see what they discover. We will write during group sessions (as well as in between) and share the results. Don’t worry if you have never done this before! After the class ends, participants will be invited to give a reading on a Friday evening at WJC.”

Writing About Religion
My friend Linda Wertheimer knows religion writing, and if you’re in the Boston area, you can catch her seminar next month (February 6) at GrubStreet. (Sign up for her newsletter if you want to stay apprised of other speaking and teaching she’ll be doing in the future.)

Jewish Sources, Literary Narrative: A Writing Workshop
“The study of traditional Jewish texts offers a unique opportunity for fiction and memoir writers to engage with Jewish thematic material, deepen character and plot, explore nuances of language, and uncover new approaches to craft. This workshop is designed for writers with work in progress, as well as for those seeking to generate new work based on Jewish themes.” I’ll be taking this class—led by novelist and poet Amy Gottlieb—for the third time when it begins anew at New York’s Drisha Institute in April. The previous sessions have been absolutely marvelous for my poetry (and, honestly, for me as a Jewish person, too).

Writing Jewish-Themed Children’s Books
Scheduled for May at the Highlights Foundation in Hinsdale, Pennsylvania, featuring faculty Barbara Krasner and Kathy Kacer, this is a “hands-on workshop specifically designed for writers of Jewish-themed content. Whether your manuscript has slight or overwhelming Jewish content, this is the workshop for you. Unlike a one-day conference, this workshop includes one-on-one manuscript critiques with a literary agent or editor and time to revise. There’ll also be two group critiques.”

LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture
This program of the 14th Street Y in New York “uses classic Jewish texts to inspire the creation of art, dialogue and study.Part of LABA is the House of Study, an artist fellowship program for which around 10 culture-makers, a mix of visual artists, writers, dancers, musicians, actors and others, are brought together to study classic Jewish texts in a non-religious, open-minded setting. The fellows use the study to inspire work which is featured on this website and in our series of LABAlive events and performances. Every year LABA focuses its study around a theme. Previous themes include Paradise, Eros, Blueprint, Eat, Mother and Time. This year’s theme is Beauty. LABA puts out a call for applicants every spring for the following year’s fellows and announces the cohort by June. LABA fellows study with us from September through June.”

Writers Retreat
Ever since reading about it in Lilith magazine, I’ve been intrigued by a four-day writers’ retreat, with Faye Moskowitz as lead facilitator, that originated at the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center. The retreat administration has since moved on from the DCJCC, but the event still happens. Organizer Jean Graubart reports: “This year it will be held Sunday, July 31-Wednesday, August 3 at Capital Camps Conference and Retreat Center in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, where we have held several of the retreats. Our teachers are Faye Moskowitz: Memoir and Personal Essays; Michelle Brafman: Fiction and Character Development; and Carly Sachs: Poetry.” She adds: “Attendees participate in all sessions in which we write and read with mild critiquing. We are a small group, 13-15 participants, and there is a commitment to encourage each other which leads to a true writing community.  Michelle teaches a workshop [in the DC area] during the year for those who have attended retreat and some have created their own little writing groups.” (Michelle’s workshop is described further in the above-referenced Lilith article.) If you’d like to learn more about this retreat, please contact Jean Graubart directly (JeanGraubart[at]gmail[dot]com).

Jewish Book Council Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Seminar and Jewish Writers’ Seminar: Writing for the Adult Reader
On these pages, you’ll find information for the 2015 events. Stay in touch with the Jewish Book Council (JBC) for news on future programs.

The Writing Pad in Tel Aviv
In Israel? You might want to check out The Writing Pad’s creative writing classes for Anglo Israelis. They’re organized by Judy Labensohn, an American-Israeli writer. Next up, on January 28: a fiction workshop with Janice Weizman. (We’re thrilled to see she’ll be using Jessamyn Hope’s work as an example to teach from!) And after that (February 25), you’ll find a chance to study writing with Joan Leegant.

Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing
And speaking of opportunities in Israel: “The Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing is a magnet for English-speaking Israelis, as well as Jews and non-Jews from around the world. The two-year Program, housed in the Department of English at Bar-Ilan University, offers an MA in English Literature with specializations in Literary Fiction, Poetry or Creative Nonfiction.” NB: “The Program organizes biennial conferences and sponsors informal gatherings with writers in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv.”

Please add your comments and suggestions about other, similar opportunities that you may know about. And remember: Once you have that superb full-length memoir or novel (including YA or graphic novel) on American Jewish Experience ready for publication, we’d love to consider it!