Writing retreat in the Negev desert sparks inspiration


Most of us search for community in one way or another. One of the communities I’ve sought out in Israel is writers, both while getting a master’s degree in creative writing from Bar Ilan University and while writing about events in and around Jerusalem.

So my interest was piqued when I heard that there would be an overnight writing retreat that would only cost 250 shekels (about $75). My first reaction was, “Yeah, right. Too good to be true.” Fortunately, I was proven wrong.

This past December, about 14 other writers and I met in southern Israel, in the Negev, a desert region. The event was partially subsidized and organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that helps people from North America and the United Kingdom make aliyah (immigrate) to Israel. A few years ago, the group started its southern division of the Go Beyond Department of NBN to encourage olim (immigrants) to go beyond key urban centers, such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, to find out what southern Israel has to offer. The event was organized by Gahl Pratt Pardes, a writer who lives in the south, and Amanda Gold, who works in Nefesh B’Nefesh’s southern office.

After meeting in Be’er Sheva, the largest city in southern Israel, we boarded a chartered shuttle bus to Kibbutz Sde Boker. This kibbutz is famous because David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, retired there, and was eventually buried there.

After an introductory circle where we all got to know one another, we took a short walk to Ben-Gurion’s grave. There, an American olah (immigrant) spoke to us about Ben-Gurion the writer. We learned things such as how Ben-Gurion told his father back in Europe to save the letters he wrote to him, knowing they might one day be important.

For our first activity, we spread out to do some desert vista writing. As I sat under a tree, ibexes walked past me as frequently as squirrels do in Providence.

We spent most of the afternoon and evening in workshops conducted by fellow participants. During each time slot, we were given the option to attend one of two workshops.

During a playwriting workshop, we each took a scene from a play we’d never read before and wrote our own scene that would take place later in the same play.

In a self-editing workshop, the moderator gave us a random topic to write about.  I took the information she shared with us about “desert hedgehogs,” and gave it my own creative spin by writing about a young boy who mimicked a desert hedgehog’s characteristics.

Next, I attended a performance poetry workshop. The moderator taught us how to read our work out loud in a way that would captivate the audience.

I was on such a high at each of these workshops that I never hesitated to share what I had written or to give my take on a particular topic.

The next day, we hiked into the Negev Desert. We spread out among the rocks, dirt and sand to do our writing. I chose a spot where I couldn’t see any signs of civilization or other people – it was just me and the desert. Those moments freed me of a writer’s block that had prevented me from continuing a particular story, which happened to be set in the desert.

Another great benefit of the retreat was mingling with the talented writers. One is writing a memoir about the unlikely friendship she forged with a Palestinian woman, who lives on the other side of the separation barrier, after they met at a breast-cancer support group in Jerusalem. Another woman and I realized that we’ve been living just two buildings apart for over six years!  

When I came home, my roommates asked me about the retreat. I replied with as much energy and enthusiasm as one might see from someone who just came back from Disneyworld. It was just the breath of fresh (desert) air that my writing needed, and I’m happy to say that my personal community of fellow writers in Israel has now grown even larger.

DANIEL STIEGLITZ (dstieglitz@gmail.com) is a certified Life Coach and freelance writer who lives in Jerusalem. His collection of short stories, “Tavern of the Mind,” was recently published and is available for purchase on Amazon.

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