In Israeli Writing Program, English Is No Longer a Foreign Language

Bar-Ilan official says MA track, now in its 10th year, drawing a diverse mix of local Israelis and international students, from aspiring writers to the more seasoned.

There is an obscure legend among a handful of veterans and students in the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University that the writer Amos Oz once declined an offer to address its conference because he didn't want to support non-Hebrew-language writing courses in Israel.

"I can't verify this," says former acting director Michael Kramer, recalling a story he had heard years earlier from the program's late founder, Dr. Shaindy Rudoff. "I have enormous respect and admiration for Amos Oz and can understand the sentiment. But part of Shaindy's vision was to build a community among Israeli and Diaspora writers; and many Israeli writers, including Aharon Appelfeld and Meir Shalev, have participated in the program's activities over the years."

Bar-Ilan instructor Evan Fallenberg, left, interviewing author Etgar Keret.
Yoni S. Hamenachem

This week - when the critically-acclaimed Israeli author Etgar Keret read an English translation of one of his short stories at the program's international writers conference in Ramat Gan - some confirmed that the 10-year-old program has earned its place.

"I think we've had a very profound influence," says an unabashed Allen Hoffman, the program's 69-year-old permanent writer-in residence and former fiction coordinator, whose retirement was marked at the three-day conference. "There are large numbers of English-speaking olim who desire to be writers and participate in literature, and consequently there was a need for this program."

A native of Clayton, Missouri, Hoffman foresees an "English-language literary record of aliyah" emerging from a collective body of student work that often deals with the Israeli immigrant experience. "These are the stories that people tend to write about," he says.

The program's two-year master's degree tracks in poetry and fiction, coupled with a penchant for attracting a cadre of prominent visiting writers, are drawing a diverse mix of local Israelis and international students, from aspiring writers to the more seasoned, says the program's director, Marcela Sulak. A third track, in creative non-fiction, will be introduced in the fall to the 50 students enrolled in the program.

Amanda Cohen, an editor and author of children's books who moved here from Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2001, is now completing her master's thesis.

Having previously studied in New York City and having worked in London as an editor, Cohen recalled her initial concerns that the program's standard of teaching might not measure up to American and British writing programs. "I was amazed and delighted to find that not the case," says Cohen, who attended the conference's opening session featuring the award-winning American novelist Joseph Skibell. "Each teacher had something distinctive and enriching to offer [and] was open to each student writer's individual expression."

Sophie Judah, a 62 year-old housewife and mother of five, arrived from India in 1972. Her collection of short stories, "Dropped from Heaven," about a fictional community of Indian Jews, was published by Random House in 2007. "I always wrote as a kid, but I always thought my writing was useless," says Judah, a member of her native country's Bene Israel Jewish community, which claims descent from the lost 10 tribes of Israel. "The creative writing program was the launching pad that helped me to develop my skills and recognize my own talent."