The ProsenPeople

Everything Is Fresh and New

Friday, April 29, 2016 | Permalink

Barbara Kreiger is the author of The Dead Sea and the Jordan River, a chronicle of the natural and human history of two of the Middle East’s most iconic bodies of water. Barbara is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

When students ask me what to write about or how to start, I tell them never to underestimate what’s interesting, because the truth is that any subject can potentially engage a reader’s attention. If you have an instinct, no matter what it is, try writing a couple of pages, I suggest, and then see if those pages become three, then four.

I recommend research as a way of learning more. If you ask older family members what it was like when they were young: that’s research. If you visit the town where your parents grew up: that’s research. If you look online or in a library to find out what might have been on your grandparents’ dinner table or what games kids played back then, that’s research. Research reflects our curiosity and is how we find answers to our questions. It’s about “being there,” in our subject, both literally and imaginatively.

When I started writing my book about the Dead Sea, the first thing I did was to hike in the region and get a feel for the landscape. I was fortunate that I was able to spend several weeks in Israel, and with a friend who knew the region intimately, I was able to learn far more than I would have on my own. I talked to all kinds of people—outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers, scientists, kibbutzniks—and heard how precious the environment was to all of them.

At one point, I came upon a particular feature along the shore. It was a rock that was marked with incised letters. It turned out that the rock had a history of some eighty years and was connected to early exploration of the Dead Sea region, and I made it my mission to dig into that history. After a few months of investigating, I had written the first ten pages of what would be my book. I didn’t know it then, but what’s interesting is that those ten pages ended up as the conclusion to a later chapter.

What that taught me, and which I try to pass on to beginning writers who are wondering how to start, is that it doesn’t matter where you start, but that you start. I explain that unlike a potter, the writer has no clay to begin fashioning into a bowl or jug: our “clay” is not the thoughts in our heads, because they come and go, and we can’t turn them over in our hands to see if we want to alter the shape, add to it, remove excess. For a writer, words on paper are what we have to work with. Then we can develop a kind of relationship with what we’ve written and test it for its truth or beauty: Do I like what I said? Have I said it well? Have I said what I meant? And—most importantly, to my mind—do I know yet what I meant to say? For to me, writing is a process of exploration and discovery, and while it causes some uncertainty when we don’t fully know what we want to express, it’s also quite exciting that the very process of writing brings us to greater understanding of our subject.

There is no such thing as objectivity in writing. Even when we try, we can’t leave ourselves out entirely. Our writing reflects who we are, and rather than try to hide that, we can use that awareness responsibly and creatively. That’s not to say that when I wrote about the Dead Sea I wrote about what it means to me. Rather, it’s to suggest that implicitly I conveyed my appreciation for this unique body of water in the way I described it and considered its significance.

My final advice: everything is fresh and new. No one has yet said the things you want to say in the way that you’d say it. It’s your opportunity and your privilege to find the words to express yourself.

Barbara Kreiger is adjunct associate professor and chair of creative writing in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

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Beautiful Because It Simply Is

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 | Permalink

Barbara Kreiger is the author of The Dead Sea and the Jordan River, a chronicle of the natural and human history of two of the Middle East’s most iconic bodies of water. Barbara is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I was raised in a multi-generational Jewish family with firm roots in southern Connecticut, to where my great-grandfather Abraham had immigrated from Russia with his wife, fittingly named Sarah, at the start of the twentieth century. My earliest memories are of living in his home with him, a house he had built on a small street in Shelton. We were three children by then; my great-grandmother had just died, and Abraham asked my parents to move in with him. My grandparents lived next door, making my childhood very cozy and fulfilling, and very Jewish.

There weren’t many Jewish families in the small towns of the Naugatuck Valley between New Haven and Bridgeport, and we Jews were a tight community. There were two Orthodox shuls, one in Derby and one in Ansonia, and in the mid-1950s the two congregations merged. I remember the groundbreaking, when we kids ran around with our little shovels to participate in the ceremony. Before long, the building was ready for us, and my life from that point through high school was focused on Beth Israel Synagogue Center, the yellow brick structure in Derby. Friday night services, Hebrew school twice a week, Sunday school for history, culture, and Israel, and a long string of bar and bat mitzvahs, then confirmation, all served as the glue that kept each class together until we went our separate ways to college.

It’s an understatement to say that it was a rich and intensely meaningful experience, growing up in a small town amid generations who were committed on behalf of the community itself, Jews worldwide, and Israel. It has served all my life as a template for fulfillment. These days it’s impossible to replicate that model, with generations scattered, aspirations divergent, and identification so individual rather than communal. But those years taught me what I needed to know about what it means to be a Jew.

To be a Jew is to value our particular way of living because we love it, not because we have to. We love it because it’s beautiful, and it holds certain truths for us. In my family we spoke always about fair play, rooting for the underdog, loyalty, responsibility to those who have less than we did. It’s beautiful because the Shabbat table was set with a white tablecloth, our best china and crystal glasses, the brass candlesticks my great-grandmother had brought from Russia, the shiny silver wine cup a bar mitzvah gift to my father, the challah tucked under my grandmother’s satin cover; beautiful to hear my grandfather with his Ashkenazi Hebrew chant Jonah on Yom Kippur; beautiful to hear the old folks speaking Yiddish; beautiful because it simply was.

But our particularism never obscured a larger worldview where we were taught to embrace a universal system of values based on justice and fair play. To be a Jew is to be inclusive, to understand that once we were strangers in Egypt, and millennia later in America, and that it was our obligation to treat the real or metaphorical stranger with compassion. To be a Jew meant to question the status quo and never take our comfort for granted. To be a Jew meant that when we opened the door at our seder, it was not a mere symbolic gesture but would be fulfilled in our sensitivity to others.

So when I think about my connection to Jewish life, I don’t see it as something I created but rather as a birthright, part of my genetic make-up you could even say. I admire those who create a sense of Jewishness for themselves and their families. But I can’t take credit for myself. To be Jewish was to be human, was one of the wonderful ways to be human. And with that understanding, I was sent out into the world.

Barbara Kreiger is adjunct associate professor and chair of creative writing in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

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Discovering the Dead Sea from a Different, Not-So-Distant Shore

Monday, April 25, 2016 | Permalink

Barbara Kreiger is the author of The Dead Sea and the Jordan River, a chronicle of the natural and human history of two of the Middle East’s most iconic bodies of water. Barbara is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

When I started writing my book about the Dead Sea, I was somewhat tentative in my approach because the subject was so large and there were so many possible ways to begin. Yet, mesmerized as I was by the landscape and history, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I was awed by the beauty and uniqueness of this strange landscape, where the barren cliffs towered above a long and narrow lake. I was intrigued by the fact that the Dead Sea was shared by Israel and Jordan, two nations that were then in a state of war. I looked out at the crisp blue water, salt crystals sparkling along the shore, and I wondered how it could be that an international border was somehow demarcated. Who could tell where 50% ended and enemy territory began? I looked at my map, where a soft lavender line, painted in a pleasing curve, indicated the border. It was not at all intimidating.

To start the project, I spent several weeks in Israel, where I divided my time between the Rockefeller Library in East Jerusalem and hiking around the Dead Sea to become better acquainted with the surroundings. One day as I was exploring the shore, I happened to meet a team of scientists who were going out in a boat to gather samples of water and sediment to bring back to their laboratories. When they heard I was writing about the Dead Sea, they invited me to join them for the day. It was an unprecedented opportunity. I gathered my notebook and camera, quickly packed my backpack, and jumped aboard.

It was a very exciting day. I was out on a forbidden lake, and looking first to the Israeli side, then to the Jordanian, I was struck by the contrast between the tranquility of the scene and the turmoil of the political world. At the same time, I was with a group of scientists whose work knew no borders and who were committed to one thing only: a greater understanding of this corner of the natural world.

I instinctively knew that on both sides, on all sides, were people with shared goals and a passionate attachment to the region. Indeed, later I became acquainted with a trilateral organization consisting of Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians whose focus was their shared environment. Working together to promote regional cooperation as they strive to protect their collective resources, EcoPeace/Middle East inspired me with their commitment to education and cross-border initiatives. Undaunted by political obstacles, they continue to draw support from all sides and internationally. Of course I couldn’t help but be drawn in by their devotion to social and environmental teamwork.

So when I speak about my influences, I think about the dedication of all the people I eventually met—Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians; the scientists on the boat, the nature lovers whose careers were devoted to protecting the fragile environment, the hikers who trekked across the desert for a view of the Dead Sea from the heights—in other words, all who feel drawn to this unique landscape and compelled to keep returning. I considered myself very fortunate to have become aware of this network as I started out: their devotion inspired me, and my own commitment, which was to do justice to theirs, had to be expressed in a book worthy of their collective contributions. I felt I had to write as engaging and evocative a book as possible, to attract an audience with a huge variety of reasons for wanting to read my narrative, to highlight the work that so many others had done in various fields over the years, and to find for myself a quiet intersection between my values and the natural world, too often threatened, but, we hope, resilient and enduring.

Barbara Kreiger is adjunct associate professor and chair of creative writing in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

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