Building a ‘culture worth fighting for’ after Oct. 7, one writing workshop at a time

“Writing on the Wall” is a new creative writing community founded to ‘make something of our desolation’ following the Hamas attack

It was the cans of tuna that author Gila Green hoarded in her safe room that finally unlocked her case of writer’s block after the trauma of Oct. 7.

Green took part in a workshop earlier this month that is part of “Writing on the Wall,” an online community aimed at producing art that reflects the complexities of Jewish and Israeli life at this time.

The workshop led by Bar-Ilan University English professor William Kolbrener and novelist and Ph.D. student Ronit Eitan was titled “Haven’t the Jewish People Suffered Enough” — how humor “transforms tragedy into laughter.” 

Humor, Kolbrener told attendees, “is a long Jewish tradition. That’s how Jews deal with tragedy.” 

The workshop began with a reading, a selection from a David Foster Wallace essay in Rolling Stone about life in Bloomington, Ill. after 9/11. A summary that does not do the selection justice: Everyone had American flags up, Wallace wanted one, too, but the stores were sold out. A sympathetic convenience store owner saw his distress and gave him construction paper and markers to draw his own flag.

The writing prompt was to take an ordinary object and use it to say something personal, and something related to Oct. 7. Attendees were given 15 minutes to write, and those who wished read their work aloud.

A woman based in New York wrote about the hostage posters and her response to their defacement – she had never shouted at a stranger before, she said.

Objects collected in safe rooms – water bottles, cans of tuna – took center stage. 

After Green read her piece on collecting canned tuna fish, some of which she gave to her daughter who was living in a building without a safe room, one response was that it showed her love for her daughter.

“This insight was valuable and unexpected,” Green told Jewish Insider. “Perhaps, unknowingly, I have been more worried about her than I was willing to express.” 


After Oct. 7, Kolbrener, who was academic director of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, recounted that the idea of publishing another paper on antisemitism did not feel sufficient to him: “I thought, ‘the house is burning down.’”

Kolbrener, who has taught English literature and creative writing at Bar-Ilan University for nearly 30 years, led “an impromptu writing workshop” on Oct. 17, for students who would not be able to return to classes for over two months.

“Writers were on fire,” Kolbrener later wrote about that workshop. “Their stories: a grad student home with four young children, her husband ‘somewhere’ in Gaza; a writer, her son-in-law, identifying the still burning bodies of Kibbutz Beeri; the undergrad who stayed home from the [Nova] rave, but whose friend did not. But they found words, and images – to transmute the horror into art.”

Kolbrener and Eitan were then inspired to start Writing on the Wall, which has held a series of workshops and publishes essays, poems and visual art on its website.

The idea, Kolbrener wrote, is “to make something of our desolation, of that day,” citing precedents in Jewish history: “The desolation caused by the sin of the Golden Calf led to the second tablets, and human creativity. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem led to the creation at Yavne of the Oral Law, the beginning of the Mishnah and Talmud and Midrash, the inspired poetry of the rabbis.”

Kolbrener wanted to create “a different kind of community,” a post-Oct. 7 creative outlet. 

“I live very close to Mt. Herzl, the military cemetery [in Jerusalem],” he recalled. “At the beginning of the war, there were funerals, day after day…thousands of people came and there was absolute quiet and silence… You felt the resilience of mourning.”

Yet Kolbrener and Eitan felt that they could not remain silent.

Eitan compared the situation to the Eurovision Song Contest, in which Israeli singer Eden Golan’s first submission, “October Rain,” was rejected on the grounds that it was too political, so she had to sing a neutered version of the song, “Hurricane.” After that, Golan was bullied by other participants and forced to stay in her room while she wasn’t performing due to security concerns.

“We cannot take ourselves out of the game,” Eitan said. “Even if we’re booed, we need to be there. It’s a metaphor. We cannot be silent; we cannot be afraid; we need our voices out there.”

Doing so is “really urgent,” Kolbrener said. “We cannot fight on the front, but we can build a culture that is worth saving, worth fighting for.”

Kolbrener, who is religious and lives in Jerusalem, and Eitan, who is secular and lives in Tel Aviv, highlighted the importance of sharing different voices at this time.

Eitan said that she “didn’t see [herself] as a collective, but I have no choice. I was pushed into that. I had to reconstruct my identity, everything I thought I was after Oct. 7. The rules have changed.”

“This is an opportunity for us to find our voices again. We’re very different,” she added.

Kolbrener said that “no matter how bad it seems in the newspapers in terms of internal rifts, when you walk in the streets you feel 100% unity.”

Still, he said: “We don’t want false unity – that’s dangerous… We are a growing community of people who may not share the same lifestyle or values, but notwithstanding our differences, we all have what to say about this experience.”

Green told Jewish Insider after the workshop that she came into it with the idea that it would help her “regulate and cope with difficult times” as someone who often uses writing to process thoughts and feelings. 

“Since Oct. 7, I’ve found myself unable to write,” she lamented. “It might simply be because we are still living through these events. It’s ongoing and there isn’t enough psychological space to write about it yet. Just when you start to process the chaos…something else hits you hard. The pace and enormity of it all can be overwhelming.” 

Erica Landis, who began writing professionally after the death of her son in a swimming pool accident, said that “writing has always been how I process my experience in the world… I had no trouble pouring my heart out in my own personal horror.” 

Oct. 7, however, “was a bigger horror.” Landis found herself “distracted in a way I’d never experienced before… I found myself having trouble concentrating on my work. It all felt frivolous… I felt that coping mechanism has been taken away from me. I was unable to put this all into words… I was truly afraid I’d never be able to write again.”

Landis said she felt she “simply had to” sign up for the workshop.

“I was hoping for and expecting some ‘writerly tricks,’ I guess, on how to break down the million moving parts of this pain and anger,” she said, “but I think so far I’ve learned that there are no tricks.”

Still, Landis appreciated that the workshop was about the craft of writing, leaving the participants to work through their emotions themselves before putting them on the page.

Green said she was “pleasantly surprised” to be able to write something during the session, and that it was a “significant step forward” for her.

She found the piece about torn-down hostage posters resonant, despite living in Israel where the posters are mostly left intact.

“It’s reassuring to know that others are experiencing similar things and value writing as an outlet,” Green said.

Landis said that the experience “validated the difficulties I was having as a writer … that this is a pivotal horror.”

She was also “thankful to have this virtual room full of safe people (Jews or not) who don’t want to kill me,” Landis said.

“While Oct 7 hurts me down to my DNA, I am terrified of the fact that people – no matter their beliefs – are not horrified and angered by the pure evil and brutality. So, I guess the answer to how the workshop has helped me process is by validating the impossibility of Oct. 7 and the world response not making sense. And from there, we will do our best to bear witness … by recording it all the best we can. Breaking it all down into writing exercises that may spur an idea, a connection, or simply a sentence is very helpful,” Landis said.

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