It’s a blessing to get to see people move through life, operating in all the various roles over time that make them who they are. I’ve known Ellen Blum Barish, the author of the new memoir, “Seven Springs,” for 30 years. We were young moms together, we were part of a small group that studied Jewish spirituality together, I’ve gone to writing workshops she’s facilitated, attended spoken word performances she has led, and there was even a time when she was a writing coach for my son working on his college application essays. In all of those roles, over all that time, I’ve known Ellen to always be curious and excited about people, and words, and find ways to capture life’s realness on the page. That’s why I couldn’t wait to read Ellen’s new book, as she explores a dramatic event buried in her past that turned out to be a missing puzzle piece to understanding the Jewish woman she would become.
I caught up with Ellen as she was in the middle of her busy book launch schedule and asked her a few questions about writing this very personal memoir, and why it was a story she finally felt she needed to tell.
Hi Ellen. So good to connect with you again.
Let me start by asking you this…As a writer, what was your journey to writing this book? Why this book, and why now?
I am a reluctant memoirist. I tried very hard not to write this book but it stalked me, begged me to take note, to return to my past and put fingers to keys. When the words for the title – seven springs – suddenly projected themselves like a text message in the screen of mind and offered themselves as a structure, I saw it as a call in which I was asked to respond. Perhaps even more poignant was that I was on a break from writing at the time, having tried to get at the story but feeling as if I had failed. It was as if it was demanding to be attended to.
Did you find the writing therapeutic?
Yes, but not all at once. In much the same way the benefits of therapy come in fits and starts, I would feel like I had reached some clarity in some moments, but then, in others, I could feel myself very stirred up and would have to stop for a break to regather myself.
How did your evolving Jewish life help drive the narrative of this book?
I see now that my Jewish journey was the very driving force of the narrative. Without a Jewish lens allowing me to magnify those seven springs, I believe the story would be far less layered and rich. The number seven alone is steeped in Judaism as representing completion that prompted me to ask “Could seven be the number of springs it would take to move me from brokenness to healing?” Understanding how my grandmother cared for me with the guidelines of bikor cholim ((Talmudic guidelines for caring for the sick or injured) was also very powerful.
How does Judaism and its teachings and rituals inform your understanding of what you experienced as a young girl?
The way mystical Judaism understands brokenness changed my entire thinking. When you undergo trauma, especially as a child, and it is not properly addressed, you live with a heavy burden of brokenness that you may, or may not, have words for. You can be healthy, productive and have a life but there you still feel that clipped wing, the limp in the leg, the heavy heart. Remembering and returning are deeply Jewish themes. We remember and tell the story of Exodus every year at Passover. We return to the passages of Torah. We are here, says the writer Rachel Naomi Remen, to respond to brokenness. “We are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people,” she says, “to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.” It’s the essence of tikkun olam – the restoration of the world.
What was the hardest part about writing this book?
Recognizing that I needed self-care during the writing process was probably the most challenging for me at first. I had to get comfortable asking for help. Once the structure was set, the writing had its own engine. But some passages were more difficult to get onto the page than others and it took me a while to realize I needed a small village to get through it. A writing coach. Good heads to run it by. Bodywork. Yoga. Walks. Therapy. Breaks. But once I saw that the work was getting done with this support, I was able to own this and I came to rely on it.
Like your comforting Bubbie, who makes an appearance in the book, what words of wisdom would the Ellen of now give to the Ellen of then?
I would tell her that though it will take a while – a few decades – everything will be okay. That feeling the pain will actually be easier than shutting it down. That giving voice to pain may seem frightening, but staying silent is worse. That Judaism encourages expression and the art of lively discussion! To take solace in the fact that our story is out there now, between two covers, for anyone who feels drawn to it.
Thanks so much Ellen for sharing your thoughts with us. The book was a great read, and a great prompt for readers to consider things that may have happened to them in the past, and continue to shape their lives, whether they are aware of it or not. Your book, “Seven Springs,” invites us all to look back on our own lives and cultivate this awareness. I can tell you that’s where your words took me, and I appreciate you leading the way with your poignant and inspiring journey.