Writing tips and tricks make book of stories a novel read

Some people write and others write about it. Ruchama K. Feuerman does both, teaching writing workshops on Jewish topics, in which each participant has a “special story to tell.” Her storytelling powers were presumably enhanced by teaching Torah, the source of so many timeless stories, in Israel, where she lived for a decade.

Feuerman’s book, “Everyone’s Got a Story: 41 Short Stories from a New Generation of Jewish Writers,” is divided into seven sections, each comprising five to seven stories, with the section headed by “Ruchama’s Writing Tips” that include writing exercises. These offer brief soliloquies on “creating character,” “writing humor” and other aspects of the writer’s craft. Most of the workshop students are women who are discovering and rediscovering their voice.

Unsurprisingly, the compiler-editor’s own stories (there are four) are among the best, especially “The World Does Not See,” written when she was expecting her first child and she imagined what it would be like to be a mother. The opening line: “I wonder about my son.” The closing line: “I believe in this boy.” In between the query and the affirmation is a paean to love and pride: “Isn’t it the hopes and visions of mothers that inspire children to go on and do great things?”

Another excellent piece is Dvorah Zuckberg’s “Footsteps in the Snow,” which shares childhood recollections of the war years in Siberia. The author’s sense of place is graphic: “The wolves are hungry and they are on the prowl. They break into stables and kill horses. They attack dogs and even humans who are unfortunate enough to be out after dark. The howling of the wolves sends shivers down our backs.”

Another grim account is Gila Arnold’s “The Star and the Crescent,” in which a young Israeli woman and her Palestinian counterpart are on a collision course — both are headed for the same bus. Only the Arab woman is a suicide bomber. The suspenseful story builds to a credible and powerful climax.

What makes this collection of short stories distinct from others is the pedagogy are the writing tips and exercises provided by Feuerman in each of the sections. For example, in teaching the power of careful observation in describing characters in a story, the workshop leader asks: “What do they do with their hands when they talk? Do their hands move all over the place in jerky stops and starts or do they rest on the lap like two rolls of bread? If the hands are the fidgety type, what do they play with? Rings, earlobes, the fringes of the tablecloth or tzitzis?”

The Jewish orientation of these stories is central to the book’s organization. One of the best of the bunch is a very brief piece, Hilary Spirer Leeder’s “Hal-lowed Hands: A Scribe’s Life,” in which a sofer (Torah scribe) describes his livelihood. Working in the “Holy Tongue,” the sofer reports that “the most difficult part of my work is when you make a mistake.”

If the book has any weakness, it might be in the consistency and quality of the storytelling, which ranges from excellent to dull. But it is understandably hard to maintain a gold standard through 41 stories, all originating in the same workshop. And there is enough substance here, reinforced by Feuerman’s pedagogy, to merit the attention of readers and writers.

“Everyone’s Got a Story: 41 Short Stories from a New Generation of Jewish Writers,” collected and edited by Ruchama K. Feuerman (412 pages, The Judaica Press, $22.50)