Readers gulp down women writers book, a living memorial

What's black and white and being read all over the Bay Area these days? The correct answer is "Wednesday Writers, 10 Years of Writing Women's Lives," a slim volume of pieces by the Women Writers' Workshop of Oakland. The group includes 34 past and present members of Elizabeth Fishel's Wednesday morning writing class.

All of the entries are short, the kind of thing you can gulp down and digest with a quick cup of coffee. Some are funny; a few are sad. All of them are good enough to have propelled the anthology onto the San Francisco Chronicle's Top 10 Paperbacks list for several consecutive weeks last month.

Oakland resident Fishel, who edited the book with Terri Hinte, is herself the author of four published books. A soft-spoken, dignified mother of two, she turns passionate on three subjects: family, writing and Judaism. They all tend to come together in her work.

Her first book, "Sisters," published in 1978, is about women's relationships with their female siblings. Some of the people profiled in the book are famed feminist Gloria Steinem, singer Carly Simon, anthropologist Margaret Mead and, of course, Fishel's own sister. The second, "The Men in Our Lives" (1984), was inspired by her father, now 85, who also has inspired her Jewish life.

"I come from a rather devout family," Fishel confessed recently over a poolside lunch at the Claremont. "My great-uncle was Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, and we practiced a very intellectual 'no frills' Judaism with a strong emphasis on education."

Fishel's father is a longtime board member and benefactor of New York's 92nd Street Y and her late mother, an artist, created whimsical ceramic ceremonial objects, some of which were carried at Afikomen in Berkeley and other Judaica stores around the country.

Despite this background, Fishel did not marry a Jewish man — "but he's been a wonderful fellow traveler," she said. The family belongs to Congregation Beth El in Berkeley (where she studied Hebrew for a time in preparation for the bar mitzvah of one of her sons) and her kids are active in Jewish life.

"I always thought that marrying someone who was not Jewish reinforced my sense of my own Jewishness," she observed. "I had to work harder at it."

Although many of the contributors to "Wednesday Writers" are Jewish, two pieces stand out in that sense. Gina Waldman's "The Roots of Terrorism" grows out of the author's personal experience as a Libyan Jew who fled her country at the age of 19. In Rina Alcalay's "Belgrade Revisited" (originally published as a guest column in the Bulletin), the writer walks in the footsteps of her parents as they fled Yugoslavia in 1941.

"These two writers are among the more political in this book," Fishel explained. "Most of the others deal with the events of ordinary life — its pleasures and its pains."

Humorist Ronnie Caplane (a Bulletin correspondent) contributes a column on switching from being a high-powered lawyer to a stay-at-home mom. Lori Rosenthal writes about picking blackberries with her little girl. Fishel tells us why she swims. Cancer survivors Bonnie Epstein and Elizabeth Montgomery have their say. Other writers deal with trips and adventures, dreams and memories. There is memoir, poetry, essay and the occasional short piece of fiction.

"I tell them to look at their own lives, their challenges and how they can work them through in their writing," Fishel said.

This book has helped Fishel work through her own challenge. The impetus for compilation and publication came after her beloved mother died of breast cancer. The UCSF Medical Center at Mount Zion Hospital Auxiliary was persuaded to cover publication expenses, and all proceeds from sales are donated to the UCSF Breast Care Center. All this has helped Fishel create a living memorial to her mother.

"Some women participate in marathons — swimming, running and hiking — to raise money for causes," Fishel said, smiling. "But writing seems to be the only thing I can do for long periods at a time."