Interview with Yael Unterman, Author of Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar

Yael Unterman

Yael Unterman

Yael Unterman, author of Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar, is a finalist winner of a 2009 National Jewish Book Award.

Q. What is something you would like readers to come away with after reading your book?

I’d like readers to be inspired by the great personality described in this book, and through this to get in touch with their own greatness. To realise that dedication and devotion to one’s passions and ideals can really change the world. I’d also like my book to become a resource for people researching various issues of interest such as Torah study, feminism, pedagogy, etc., such that the book enters the cultural discourse.

Q. Which teachers/educators/writers have had the greatest impact upon you?

Lots of different influences, but – for better or worse – not one outstanding guru. Of course, spending ten years in the company of Nehama Leibowitz left its mark on me; and I have also been influenced by the teachings of the Hasidic masters. My teachers in my MA in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan gave me some really helpful pointers in how to improve my writing style.

Q. Which biblical character do you most admire or identify with?

In recent years I have become more and more interested in Hannah. I want to know what process she went through, such that in that particular year at Shiloh her destiny was changed and her prayers answered. I think she made a leap into maturity, something akin to Esther’s decision to go ahead with what she was being called to do, even if she would perish in the process. Jonah is the flip side of it – he runs away from his calling. We spend our lives choosing between Esther and Jonah, between Hannah before and Hannah after.

Q. What books are you currently reading and/or studying?

The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer
Expanding the Palace of Torah by Tamar Ross
A Heart Afire by R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yepez
Hochmat Nashim by R. Shalom Arush
Dirshuni (Midrashei Nashim), edited by Tamar Biala and Nehama Mintz-Weingarten

Q. What advice would you give to authors writing a book in the same genre as you?

Writing a biography is a lot about the art of interviewing. Have patience, and wait for the interviewees to access their memories – it doesn’t always come immediately – and try to find interesting questions to ask. Really listen to what is being said but you can also express your own opinions to spark a response. As you go along, use the answers you are getting to start creating chapter headings, which will also help you understand what you want to ask future interviewees, as you deepen and flesh out the topics.
Also – and this applies to any book – use the resources around you. Give chapters to friends to read, or to academics in the field who are willing to help. Post on email lists. Writing a book can be lonely work, so include people in the process – their advice can be valuable. And don’t give up. There comes a point with writing a book where the going gets really tough. Push through it, and know it will end, and settle for good enough – it will never be perfect.

Q. What is your next writing project?

I am taking a break right now from major writing projects, since I want to focus on other areas of my life, but in the future I would like to write a novel, a book of my own thoughts in the realm of either philosophy or self-help, and another play. I also have a collection of short stories about Jewish religious singles I would like to publish.


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