Scholar Fridays is a series on Bearings Online where we feature 2018-19 Resident Scholars. Beth Kissileff is an independent scholar and writer from Pittsburgh, PA. She spent two weeks in March and April 2019 as a short-term Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute where she worked on a writing project. To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
Tell us about your project.
I am currently finishing my own essay and editing the other essays for the anthology Reading Exodus: Journeys, sequel to Reading Genesis: Beginnings and prequel to Reading Numbers: Wanderings.
The project I started to focus on while at my residency, and that I will be continuing to work on in the coming months, is a book of reflections on how to grieve and how to find comfort after a traumatic event. I’m calling it Who will comfort?: Reflections on a year of grieving after the Pittsburgh shooting.
What inspired you to embark on your current project?
A shooter came into my synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 and killed eleven people including three members of my congregation. My husband was lucky to be able to hide and escape.
Our whole community is grieving, and continues to grieve, for the lives lost, the community fragmented (none of us are able to meet in the Tree of Life building now).
Our whole community is grieving, and continues to grieve, for the lives lost, the community fragmented (none of us are able to meet in the Tree of Life building now). It is something I am experiencing and thinking about; since I am a writer, I realize that I can best cope by writing.
Immediately after the event, I was busy attending funerals and shivas and just helping my husband cope. I was asked to write about the Torah portion of the week which happened to be Genesis 23 -25:18, about the life of Sarah and realized that in speaking of those lost, the focus needed to be on their lives, who they were and what they stood for, not the manner of their deaths. Since then, I’ve been writing on the weekly Torah portion and have found it very helpful to me personally, to examine these texts I know well but that speak to me in a discrete key, with a distinctive tone this year, in a way wholly separate from the past.
I am modeling my book on a few books – Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason, Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and Ariel Burger’s Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom. The last book is both a discussion of some of the things that happened in Wiesel’s Boston University classroom as well as the texts he discussed. I want to blend discussion of texts that I have found meaningful and useful along with my own personal experience in this text.
Have you ever read a book that changed your life? If so, what book and how?
Answering differently, being part of a writer’s life as she wrote a book changed my life. In 1987-88, I was in my junior year of college, studying Jewish texts at Neve Schechter in Jerusalem, in a program run by the Conservative movement of Judaism. A writer, Vanessa Ochs, also took some classes there and was working on the book that became Words on Fire about female Bible scholars in Jerusalem. She told me that since I was an English major, I might be interested in meeting one of the women she was studying which led me to the opportunity to study with Avivah Zornberg. At the time, in the middle of college, I was thinking that maybe I should go into the rabbinate or pursue a PhD in Jewish studies, but studying with Zornberg who uses literary and psychoanalytic texts, made me realize that my interest was really in texts themselves, of all kinds, and that what I actually wanted to do was to learn all the most sophisticated methods for textual analysis. I decided then that I definitely wanted to go to grad school in comparative literature and literary theory and never looked back.
Studying with Dr. Zornberg helped me see the value of a variety of systems of knowledge and how to bring them to bear on the Bible.
I did do a great deal of Bible study in graduate school but didn’t make that my main field; I’m glad I am able to use my knowledge in writing about both Jewish texts and literary texts and in both journalism and fiction. I realized that much as I loved the world of Jerusalem and Jewish texts, I felt more at home in the university and wanted to go back to that. Studying with Dr. Zornberg helped me see the value of a variety of systems of knowledge and how to bring them to bear on the Bible. I feel extraordinary luck to have met someone I still consider my teacher when I was only 20, more than half my lifetime ago! Though Avivah Zornberg has now written five books, she hadn’t published much then, so it was only through someone writing a book about her that I was able to have this life changing experience.
What book are you reading right now for pleasure?
I came across How to Think Like an Anthropologist by Matthew Engelke when my family was on vacation in Chicago and browsing in the Seminary Coop bookstore. I am reading it for pleasure but hoping to use some ideas from it in writing about Leviticus, which we are up to in the season of reading in the Torah now. It’s a fantastic intellectual opportunity to browse in a good academic bookstore and I was so glad to see my kids indulge in browsing and reading what they got.
I also bought Deborah Eisenberg’s story collection Your Duck is My Duck, which I saved and read in Collegeville. All I can say about it is that every sentence is a gem. That collection is a model of excellent writing – I am planning to go back and read her other work now. I also just finished reading Robert Alter’s The Art of Bible Translation, which was well done and thoughtful, as one would expect.
What is your greatest “ecumenical moment”?
I loved attending the Ash Wednesday service in Collegeville. The moment when each participant handed the worshipper next to her a bowl filled with ashes, faced the other person and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”(Genesis 3:19) while marking the face of another with the cross was full of poignancy. The notion that we are all mortal and admit and welcome the vulnerability and awareness of the mortality in those around us brought me to tears.
That is one of the values of being part of a religious system, to have those to affirm shared humanity and shared mortality with.
The sense of shared mortality reminded me of a story in Talmud about Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eliezer in BT Berachot 5b. Rabbi Eliezer is sick and dying and his teacher Rabbi Yochanan, known as a beautiful man, comes to visit and exposes his arm. When the arm is exposed light falls on it, and Rabbi Eliezer begins to cry. His puzzled teacher does not fathom the source of the tears. Once the student explains that this arm that is so beautiful will one day decompose in the earth, student and teacher begin to cry together over their shared mortality.
That is one of the values of being part of a religious system, to have those to affirm shared humanity and shared mortality with. I’m working on writing an essay about this experience, but haven’t quite been able to articulate it yet. I think it will take a while to process the many gifts I gained from my time at the Collegeville Institute.