Yael unlocked her writing potential at 10


YAEL Unterman is delighted to be returning to her parents' former shul to deliver two lectures. The Jerusalem-based author will speak at Yeshurun Synagogue, Gatley, Cheshire, over the weekend of December 4-6.

Yael - whose father, Rabbi Dr Alan Unterman, is the former minister - said: "I feel both moved and delighted at the idea of returning to teach in the shul where I once sat as a young girl."

Her lectures are 'Judah versus Baba: Models of Heroism at the Launch and Demise of the Hasmonean Kingdom' and 'Lonely Men and Women of Faith'.

Yael, who read psychology and Jewish oral law, and then completed an MA in creative writing at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, followed by an MA in Jewish history from Touro College in New York, said: "I will be offering some reflections on the subject of being single as there is a growing problem worldwide of what we might call 'singles not by choice'.

"I am not planning to offer solutions, but simply to reflect philosophically and spiritually on the issue through Jewish texts, hopefully providing some inspiration and support along the way."

She added: "The Torah is chock full of stories of and laws for married people and families, so singles don't necessarily see themselves and their challenges reflected there.

"I am here to rectify this to the extent that I can, since the Torah is for all of us, not just people in the mainstream."

Yael, whose mother Nechama is a former reporter at the Jewish Telegraph, was raised in Manchester after moving to the city aged seven from Australia.

The family settled in Gatley after her father was offered the ministerial position at Yeshurun, having previously been student chaplain based at Hillel House.

She recalled: "My father was also a lecturer in comparative religion at Manchester University. My mother switched careers mid-life to practise law.

"The street where we lived had its own eruv; there were a bunch of ultra-Orthodox Jewish families, a couple of non-Jewish families and us. We were the only modern Jewish family, and I definitely felt different.

"I think some of our neighbours' children would sneak in to our house to watch our TV.

"Each Shabbat we would attend a different shul, but after we moved to Gatley, we only went to one as it would have been a little insulting to my father to go anywhere else, and there weren't any other options nearby, anyway."

The shock of moving to a less religious area is one that still sticks with Yael, especially how her first Shabbat did not quite go as planned.

She explained: " I was right in the middle of making the 'Al Hamichya' blessing after kiddush when a girl called Kate introduced herself to me, interrupting me in my devotions.

"In my childish piety I thought sadly, 'So this is how it's going to be from now on . . .' but the community was actually really nice and we started our own Bnei Akiva when I was 12 - we were leaders for the seven-year-olds.

"That ended up proving a rich experience, as we all grew together, with firm friendships for life being formed."

Yael attended Hubert Jewish High (now Beis Yaakov) School for Girls in Salford, which left her with an hour-long trek across Manchester every day.

She said: "It was really the only choice for any girl wanting to continue with a serious Jewish education at the time. Jewish High was not perfect.

"I could have done without the obsession with the length of our socks and, more importantly, with a more nurturing and intelligent environment for someone who craved intellectual stimulation, broadening of horizons, and the expression of creativity.

"I spent many breaks sitting alone with my back to a radiator reading about Freud and feeling like the odd bird out.

"At 17, I had requested to explore Jewish sources on a higher intellectual level; I was hoping for some Rambam, but was sent to study Rabbi Dessler's writings with an older lady, which was not really what I wanted.

"The school was designed to churn out 'good Jewish women' who would later study at a seminary, get married young and have numerous children, and it did a pretty good job with most of my classmates, but it didn't fit someone like me too well.

"Once, I was told to stop asking questions because 'it sows seeds of doubt in other people's minds'.

"This really hurt me, as I was simply trying to understand things, and yet was being treated like a provocateur."

Yael, whose latest book is The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love and Longing, feels her lifestyle in Jerusalem is much more suited to her creative needs.

She explained: "On some level, I found Manchester a dull life and lacking in a cosmopolitan flavour. I would have loved to have a life involving art, poetry, philosophy, varied activities, instead of an exciting night watching a video with my BA friends.

"But I do appreciate the down-to-earth warmth and directness, I love to slip into the broad Mancunian accent from time to time. It makes me feel at home to say 'Yerright luv?'"

Yael wrote her first novel when she was 10. She said: "It was called Bracelet Magic and was a dreadful story about twins with superpowers.

"In England at the time there was some nine-year-old girl who had just published a book about a family of fruit, and I was horribly envious and worried that my window for fame and fortune was rapidly closing.

"When I was 14, I wrote a novel of schoolgirl rebellion entitled Come on Wally.

"I sent it off to publishers, but with no luck - one time it was returned with some food stains on it and a letter of encouragement."

Her first published book was the biography of Israeli Torah teacher Nehama Leibowitz - which took her 10 years to write.

The Hidden of Things was originally 11 stories, "but, at the last minute, another story, Glove, was added, and I had 12, which, in Jewish terms, is a good number, signifying wholeness."

She added: "My Manchester upbringing played a role in the novel, as I was encouraged to bring out my 'Manchester' voice in my writing."

Having finished her studies, she embarked on a travelling teacher's career, using an unique technique called Bibliodrama.

She explained: "After I was taken to South Africa, Holland, Uzbekistan, and Limmud UK to teach, I began to understand that this was becoming a regular feature of my life and would become my path in the world.

"I call myself a creative educator because I believe in expanding how we can learn to include creativity and experiential modes."

Yael describes herself as a neo-chassidic postmodern Orthodox or 'paradox' as normal labels are "too confining".

She explained: "It means that I value free-thinking, individualism and diversity.

"I do continue to hold on to the broad label 'Orthodox', though some friends of mine have jettisoned this label altogether, because as it describes my fundamental religious orientation and the community I feel most comfortable with.

"Nevertheless, I know that branding also serves to divide us; and I live in that tension, between embracing and rejecting labels. "

One of Yael's other roles is as a life coach, which has given her many rewarding moments, including helping a girl with an eating disorder.

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph