Title: The Kabbalah of Writing – Mystical Practices for Inspiration and Creativity
By Sherri Mandell
Back in the eighties, I took a writing workshop with Sherri Lederman, a poet who’d just arrived in Jerusalem. She seemed to not fit into any of the Jewish boxes or ‘niks’ I knew. Not a Bnai Akiva-nik, or Chabadnik or who knows, probably not a Dati-nik either, judging by her chicly bohemian get-up. And what could a poet teach me about fiction writing, my passion? But creative writing workshops weren’t ubiquitous then, or just a Zoom click away, so I signed up.
A creative writing teacher is part magician, part technician. She must convey the art as well as the nitty gritty craft of writing, and the delicate dance between the two. I have to tell you, Sherri cast a spell, gently boggling our minds to pull out new, never-told-before stories from each of us, stories within that I didn’t know existed. Years later, when I began giving writing workshops myself, I remembered how she did that, how she set the bar so high.
By the end of the workshop, I still didn’t know in which religious slot to place Sherri, but I sensed she was leaning toward a more Jewish life, not leaning away.
Apparently, she leaned so deeply into it, she became Torah observant, married a rabbi, settled permanently in Tekoa and had children.
Scoot ahead a few decades to 2023. Sherri Mandell’s book, The Kabbalah of Writing has been released. Still, it’s impossible to talk about it without touching on her books that came before. Namely, The Blessing of a Broken Heart, a memoir about Koby, her 13-year-old son murdered by terrorists not far from his home, and Sherri’s struggle – spiritual, emotional, every kind you could imagine – with that unspeakable evil act. The book seemed to write her as much as she wrote it, taking her on a journey, to other books, other careers, pastoral counselor for one, and philanthropic work (she and her husband Rabbi Seth Mandell founded the Koby Mandell Foundation in 2002 which runs healing programs and retreats for families directly affected by terror) and what has emerged is not only an extraordinary writer but a profound Jew and human being.
For someone who has accomplished and written so much, what’s left? I opened another book of Sherri’s to see what I might find.
In the first chapter, the author asks us to consider what drives us to write, because if it’s money or fame, you’ll be waiting a long time. “But if you’re writing because you want to understand the world and yourself, if you need to compose your world through your writing – and I mean compose in both senses of the world, to arrange and re-create but also to calm and quiet – then writing itself becomes its own reward.”
Yes, I think. In a nutshell, I write to compose myself and the world. I read on.
The kabbalah in these chapters is there to impose a structure, each chapter featuring one of ten sefirot, or emanations, which becomes an avenue of touching the processes of creation. Luckily that structure is pliable and expansive, to contain a multitude of wisdoms, literary, Jewish, and more.
For any religious memoir writer – or actually anyone with a conscience – there’s an ongoing struggle of what to reveal, what to conceal. This inner debate can strangle the writer, often resulting in not writing at all. We tell ourselves that “our narrative is dangerous. We suppress the story because we are afraid of revealing too much, harming others or ourselves, betraying even those who have hurt us. One needs to hold back and yet the story must be told.” The advice Sherri then offers is worth the price of the book alone. And I love the Thornton Wilder quote she throws in: “Art is confession; art is the secret told. But art is not only the desire to tell one’s secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time.”
Whoa. I could feast on that quote for a week.
Sherri explains how we don’t change our past through writing, but we can change our relationship to the past. “Writing offers us the generous possibility of accessing additional meanings that were not possible at the time of the experience.” This resonates deeply with me. The healing aspect of writing is indisputable.
In addition to the structure of the sefirot, Sherri offers another model, of pshat (simple meaning) remez (what it reminds us of) drash (interpretation) and sod (the secret that waits to be revealed). Anyone who has ever studied Chumash with Rashi and Ramban should know these terms cold. Sherri is suggesting these four levels of parshanut “provide a conceptual map for analyzing any experience or encounter. They also offer an excellent structure for enriching and developing our writing.” I particularly like the originality and usefulness of this conceptual map. It also partly helps me understand what makes the Torah the most re-read book of all times. It’s multilayered-ness gives birth to such richness and meaning, that even a non-believing free-thinker such as Nietzche held it in the highest awe.
Wisdom, healing, and kabbalah aside, what stood out most for me in these pages are the writing exercises. The first one I tried resulted in the freshest thing I’d written in months. It would be ungenerous not to share the exercise: “Write your autobiography in one page, a list of ten experiences or turning points that comprise your personal history. This isn’t a resume but an emotional or spiritual history, events that shaped your being and caused you to change… these events call you to write about them because they have emotional heat rising from them… what did you want? What did you get?” I shared the exercise in my own writing workshop, and it touched something powerful in everyone. The best part is, we now have a treasure trove of nine other seminal incidents to write about whenever we run dry.
A question that runs through me is, how could a book with such depth be such a pleasurable read? Or maybe I shouldn’t wonder. When I read The Blessing of a Broken Heart surely the most tragic book a mother could write, it somehow got me to laugh out loud. Lightness and profundity, the holy and the ridiculous, heartbreak and humor, they reside comfortably in Sherri, not trying to elbow one another out of the way. By also sharing stories and anecdotes from her own journey, we see in real time how to create intimacy with the reader, a bond the reader doesn’t want to pull away from.
By the time I’ve finished the book, I have that wonderful feeling that comes over you when you’ve shared a dinner with a brilliant, funny friend. Yes, you had a blast, but you also walk away feeling you learned more from this conversation than ten years of college.
Some things never change. The author/writing teacher is still casting spells. In this slim volume, Sherri extends a wand like a warm hand inviting you to grab hold and enter a different zone, to play and create and write, to look at your past and maybe even see your future.