Ashley: To start off, tell us about yourself. What are you doing? How do you identify in terms of your work, your creative work, or anything you want to talk about?
Jennifer: I’m an American living in Tel Aviv. I’m founder of Israel Writers studio where I teach and host master classes with other writers who teach as well as literary salons. I also host literary salons. I started teaching back in New York in 2009. We moved to Israel in 2011 and it wasn’t as apparent how I was going to continue teaching. I had to figure it out and reached a point where I realized if something doesn’t exist, then you have to create it.
In 2014, I entered a low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing program in the US. I went back and forth to Vermont College of Fine Arts every six months and worked with a mentor online in between. Toward the end of my degree, I created Israel Writers Studio. Also, I’m a yoga instructor and so I already had my own studio, I knew how to use Facebook to market and how to introduce myself to people and say, “Hi, I’m Jennifer, I'm a writer and I teach writing.” So it starts from that place I think. You either have that in you or you don’t, and you have to be relentless.
Ashley: Relentless to get the word out, to build that kind of momentum?
Jennifer: To market yourself.
Ashley: What gave you that ability to be relentless when it came to this particular thing?
Jennifer: I actually don’t know. But I’ve really learned that I'm a self-starter. I don’t know why because I didn’t do all this for myself in the States, where I worked for a number of yoga studios and for adult school communities, teaching and writing. All I know is that I want to work, that I have to work and that I know it feeds something in me. I’m not just a writer who writes. That’s only a part of it for me. I think if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that I'm a teacher.
Ashley: It’s really interesting you say that. When I interviewed Eshkol Nevo for The Meaning Creators, I asked him how he became a writer. Eshkol said he’d always wanted to be a teacher and that, for him, a lot of the best part about being a writer is being able to teach.
Jennifer: That said, not everyone who writes teaches.
Ashley: I think it depends on what kind of interaction you want to have because writing is a very lonely endeavor. Teaching, which I've done a bit of, doesn’t seem to be that way. It seems like it’s more about the engagement, about connecting, so there’s almost a bit of a counterbalance to that. Because the loneliness of writing can be corrosive.
Jennifer: Well, that’s the comical part. I had a yoga studio in our former home, when we were living in a suburb of Tel Aviv. It was wonderful and it grounded me. It kept me here but it also started to really interfere with the writing. I would sit down at my desk at 8 in the morning and at 9 my buzzer would ring for class. I got to the point that I was done with that. When we started planning to downsize and moving to an apartment in Tel Aviv, I was really ready to let go of the studio—and I did.
We moved in December. Three and a half months later, in March, coronavirus hit. One of my students texted me and asked if I’d consider teaching on Zoom. I taught three times a week starting mid-March (six months later, I still teach one a week). Every time I looked at my screen, it felt like a This is Your Life episode, seeing all these people—former students, friends, neighbors—from Israel to Bainbridge and Shaw Islands off the coast of Seattle.
It’s crazy and it’s amazing. We were in a whole new world, and, because of the time differences, it doesn’t interfere with my workday. It’s just gratifying. I sit at my screen and I use my words to guide students into poses and watch and correct them from thousands of miles away.
Ashley: I think about this idea in terms of writing—how can we be gift givers? Writers literally talk about “grabbing” the reader. But how do we think about it the other way round, as giving them something?
Jennifer: I see people doing it in all kinds of different ways. I’ve created a community (again, thank you to coronavirus) that was really intended for my students here in Israel. Then I went to a very close friend from my MFA program who lives in California, where I'm from, and, together, we created Writers Near and Far.
Ashley: That’s great.
Jennifer: Yeah, we come together to listen, which is validating, supportive. It’s a group of people who wouldn’t otherwise be together. I think we have 50 names right now. So, if everybody were to come to a session, we wouldn’t be able to have everyone read because we’re doing all this within an hour. But, for me, all I see is the beauty of Zoom. I'm using it in these ways and it’s incredible.
Ashley: I think what you put your finger on is that instead of looking for an audience, look for a community. Writers are struggling to be heard— that’s the hardest part about it, in a way—but if you don’t think of an audience and you do think of a community then you can be heard and you can listen.
But back to being an expat, what’s it like for you to be an American writer in Israel? How does that work into the writing and even into the teaching? I’ll speak for myself: I'm an outsider here in Israel, still after 15 years, and it’s harder for me in a way to connect my writing to a place because I feel like I’m a bit of a tourist. How does that work for you in terms of Israel and your writing and teaching?
Jennifer: As a memoir writer, I consider Israel my muse. I write it as the outsider that I am. I completely embrace that, and I use it, and abuse it maybe. I think I had a complete emotional switch about 3 years ago when I went from feeling uncomfortable as the outsider to understanding that I can be an American in Israel and I can be an American in America and I can be an American Jew. And I can be Israeli, when I want to be. I can pick and choose when I want to be what. I have this existence that can work for me, rather than thinking that I have to break myself up and compartmentalize all my identities. If it doesn’t fit into one neat box, so what? Who cares about that box? And I completely embrace that otherness and I write about it and it figures into a lot of what I do.
As a memoir writer, I consider Israel my muse. I write it as the outsider that I am.
Ashley: In a way you’re saying that your core is intact. You don’t have to worry about it. You can just be a bit more fluid, which is amazing.
Jennifer: I think it’s thanks to writing a memoir that I got there, honestly.
Ashley: How so?
Jennifer: A deep, deep, deep look inside myself. I write about finding home, and finding it in the place I never expected to find it. I was looking for it in a country. I was looking for it in a city. And I finally understood what many people understood many years ago, which is that it’s inside yourself. But for reasons you’d have to read my book to fully understand, I didn’t feel it inside me all those years. It took a lot of moving around the country, and back to America, and back and forth, and a lot of writing and a lot of other things to understand that it was inside all along. It wasn’t about where we were trying to find the home.
Ashley: What the title of the book?
Jennifer: The working title right now is Warrior Pose: Finding My Place in the Promised Land.
I write about finding home and finding it in the place I never expected to find it.
Ashley: That’s good. Where are you in the process?
Jennifer: In the procrastination part. I’ve hired an editor (this would be editor number two) who is looking at the structure. It’s a super complex structure and I'm not sure if it works or if it just gets in the way. I love it and I'm connected to it. I hired this woman who is a total stranger to the subject matter because I really admire her writing and I wanted someone who didn’t know anything about where I was from to tell me if the structure works and if I’m engaging the reader from page to page.
I write about finding home and finding it in the place I never expected to find it.
Ashley: Tell me a little more about the next batch of writing, teaching, the next workshops and how you’re going forward with COVID and beyond. What’s next?
Jennifer: I usually teach one summer writing camp in August, around travel schedules, which I teach around the dining room table. I really miss that. I think it’s very much a face-to-face experience. But it works on Zoom. It does. But it has to be live (and not a recording). I think doing it live is essential. I think that and the community. I'm all in for the community. I’m also really into crossing borders so I love the idea of these classes.
Ashley: Jennifer, thank you for doing this. I look forward to seeing you, next time in person. Most of all, I can’t wait to see your book in print.
Jennifer: Thank you, Ashley.