Memoir is not biography, writers tell audience in S.F.

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

After a character named Rachel appeared in one of Ehud Havazelet's stories, he said, "each of my flesh-and-blood sisters got on the phone with each other and said, 'Oh, Rachel, you must feel terrible.'"

Havazelet reminded his sisters that memoir is "fiction, not biography." It was a point he drove home several times during a panel discussion on "Writing One's Own: New Jewish Exploration in Fiction and Memoir." He was one of several well-known Jewish authors who spoke at a conference Sunday at the Yerba Buena Arts Center.

His reminder, of course, doesn't always help smooth family feathers, Havazelet said. And it doesn't always ring true to readers. he added, but is true nonetheless.

"This concept of one's own is not an automatic thing," said Havazelet, a much-praised short story writer. "Don't worry. You draw on your family but theirs is not the story you're telling. Philip Roth has written and rewritten. Which one is the 'real' Philip Roth?"

That was one of many bits of wisdom shared by three writers during a panel on memoir writing, part of an event sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, the Koret Foundation and the San Francisco Jewish Community Endowment Fund. More than 100 — mainly academics, students and aspiring writers — showed up for the conference.

Jerusalem-born Havazelet grew up in New York but now teaches at Oregon State University.

Joining him on the panel were Max Apple, author of "I Love Gootie: My Grandmother's Story," and poet Chana Bloch, author of "Mrs. Dumpty."

All three stressed that they didn't set out to be "Jewish writers," they simply wrote what they knew. "Listen, if I could write about your grandma I would, but I can't," Apple told a young woman who asked about the wisdom of airing one's family business. "We're stuck with ourselves."

Bloch, director of the creative writing program at Mills College in Oakland, urged writers to let go of the "inhibitions [that] keep people from uttering what is most secret." Those innermost secrets, she explained, can form the heart of a work's power.

"My aim in writing 'Mrs. Dumpty,' is to try to understand my own experience," Bloch said, referring to her poem about loss and self-discovery. "Secondarily, I also hoped to help other people."

Throughout the two-hour panel discussion, certain issues surfaced and resurfaced. One was a continuing sense of exile and longing in the memoirs of American Jews.

"Yearning itself is a quality," Havazelet said. "I don't discount the Buddhist notion of accepting the moment, but there are a great many more people in a state of yearning than in a place of being satisfied with one's accomplishments."

Some audience members took issue with the content of the works presented. They almost entirely reflect the Ashkenazic experience of European immigrants and their descendants, some said.

One woman contended that chroniclers of the Sephardic experience have been shut out of the nation's literary pipeline.

"I invite any of you who think we are balanced to talk to me," said Caroline Smadja, who publishes a newsletter of Sephardic writings. "I do not think in America we have a balanced view of the fullness and richness of our culture."

Audience members queued up to ask questions — many philosophical, very few particular to the authors' books and some, inevitably, about the procedure for joining their ranks.

"I am a Holocaust survivor, an internationally known artist and a first-time writer," said Parisian-born Nadine Sasha, who lost everyone but a brother to Nazi atrocities, and who arrived in this country "with a cardboard suitcase."

"I would like to find an outlet for a publisher," she told the panel.

Asked whether their academic background as college professors "informs or impedes you," Apple quipped, "It finances me." He is a professor of English at Rice University in Texas.

Bloch, who began her career as a specialist in 17th-century literary works and teacher of Shakespeare, once felt "there was a conflict." But "the critical part of the mind is actually very useful," she said. In more recent times, she has drawn on the Bible as a literary source for her work, she added.

A man who began learning English at the age of 40 wondered whether he could chronicle his own shattering experiences in his second language, given his late start.

"I come from such a bland world compared to you," Apple told him. "On the other hand, if you don't tell your story right, you'll have an audience of one. The world is full of stories. You've got to make yours interesting to others."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.