Shira Zwebner

Responsibility of the Jewish writer

Which responsibility is more important to me: My responsibility to the Jewish community, or to myself, as a writer, and to my art?

With great power comes great responsibility.

— Voltaire, and also Spiderman’s Uncle Ben

I let my hand linger in the air a bit and then thought better of it, my question no longer relevant given the direction in which the conversation was going. It was such a shame; I would have loved to hear the thoughts and opinions of an entire roomful of Jewish writers. But, at the special blogger session with Tablet magazine’s Alana Newhouse, put together during last week’s Israeli Presidential Conference, people were more interested in discussing monetizing blogging and moderating comments.

I was slightly confused by the direction the conversation went, especially since the organizers said that the session would focus on “the power and importance of Jewish writing.” And, quite frankly, I was ready for a rousing debate about this topic. I was disappointed.

For an entire year, I have been grappling with the concept of the “responsibility” of a Jewish writer. And, as an Orthodox Jewish writer, I have been struggling with the issue of hillul Hashem,” or bringing shame to the Torah and the Jewish community.

I moved to Tel Aviv six years ago, to pursue one of the top items on my bucket list: To write a book. I was approaching 30 and was looking for something new, an adventure, and an opportunity for change. I was thrilled when I got accepted to the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University. I sold and donated most of my belongings, found a good home for my Gibson acoustic electric guitar,  left my adorable studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and boarded a plane with two suitcases and an idea for my book.

“The Spinsters of 96th Street” is a collection of short stories about a group of young, single, Jewish professionals living in a fictitious building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I spent three years working on this collection as my thesis project, which I successfully defended last year. I walked away from my defense elated, the graduate degree almost an afterthought. I was determine to find a book agent and get my stories published.

But then, I started thinking about how the book would be received in both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. I thought about all of the characters I had spent years crafting; for example, the agnostic rabbi, who used to be the most sought-after guy to date, but after a decade and a half of failed relationships, is no longer on top of the shadhan dating lists. I wondered if people would appreciate the nuances of his story, and empathize with the fact that he takes out his dating frustrations on his belief in God. Or would people focus on the fact that he is a drunk, using alcohol as liquid courage to give him the strength to go out with girls he deems beneath him?

I thought about my story “Mitzvah Night,” about a single woman’s whirlwind weekend. She tries to put together the pieces of a Friday night dinner gone awry during the Shabbat morning shul kiddush, and as the pieces slowly fall into place, between bites of cholent and sips of cheap grape juice, an unlikely ally becomes her pillar of strength. I wondered if people would focus on the strong bond that exists between single women competing for the same prize in an unmarried world. Or would they speculate that rape is not an anomaly on the Jewish Upper West Side?

Would my Orthodox Jewish readers in Atlanta assume that “tefillin dates” were common practice? Would my non-Jewish readers in Montana assume that every Jewish mother suggests to her single sons that “shiksas are for practice”? Would my secular Jewish readers in Seattle assume that all successful Jewish single men living on the Upper West Side were cheap? And would my non-Jewish readers in Batman, Turkey — of course my book would be translated into multiple languages! — think that all of the skinny, pretty, Jewish, single women in Manhattan were bitchy?

Is it even for me to decide how the public would interpret my book? Which responsibility is more important to me: My responsibility to the Jewish community, or to myself, as a writer, and to my art?

I still do not know that answer. What I do know is that I would never want  to be doing a reading at a Barnes & Nobles in Everywhere, USA, and have to field questions about the sex lives of semi-practicing single, Orthodox Jews on the Upper West Side. Even though my book is a work of fiction, there will definitely be people who will want to draw parallels to the real lives of the hundreds of Jewish singles that populate the areas between 64th Street and 110th Street.

Even though I would still love to hear other Jewish writers’ opinions on the responsibilities they feel they have as Jewish writers, I’ve made the decision not to publish “The Spinsters of 96th Street.”

I might never become a published author, a dream I’ve had since the third grade. For now, the copy of my book will languish on my bookshelf, gathering dust. Perhaps, one day, I might show these stories to my children. And, when they finish reading each and every story, I will explain why I made the decision not to chance being responsible for a possible hillul Hashem.

Even if that means I will never realize a lifelong dream.

About the Author
Shira Zwebner is a public relations consultant and writer living in Jerusalem. A Mommy blogger and recent Olah, Shira writes about living and raising a family as an American trying to find her niche within Israeli culture.