Finding a Refuge in Words: Inspired by Etty Hilesum

Transcription: Hi, I’m Hila Ratzabi, and this is “Finding a Refuge in Words,” a writing and reflection practice inspired by Etty Hillesum. Etty Hillesum was a Dutch Jewish writer whose Holocaust diaries and letters reveal profound spiritual wisdom relevant to our times. I’m honored to lift up her voice and share her words of healing and love.

Activism is a creative practice. It works best when it comes from place of love, joy, and a sense of possibility. But often, through burnout, we lose connection to that core of strength and hope that fuels our necessary work. The following three writing/reflection prompts are inspired by quotations by Etty Hillesum. These exercises will guide you in addressing your areas of struggle and lead you toward a clearer space where you can find meaning again in your activism. These exercises could also be used when you are stuck creatively as an artist or writer. Each exercise will start with one or two quotations and then a writing/reflection prompt.

1. Wrestling with our Demons
“One must also accept that one has ‘uncreative’ moments. The more honestly one can accept that, the quicker these moments will pass. One must have the courage to call a halt, to feel empty and discouraged.”

“Even in my most fruitful and my most creative inner moments, there are raging demons and self-destructive inner forces. Still, I feel I am learning to control myself, even in those moments. That is when I suddenly have the urge to kneel down in some quiet corner, to rein myself in and to make sure that my energies are not wildly dissipated.”

Writing/reflection exercise: What are the demons holding you back in your creative practice or activism? What do they look like? What do you say to them? [You might choose to pause the video here and write/reflect for about five minutes, then return to the next exercise]

2. Clearing the Space
“I am battling my way through a jungle of words, many of them redundant and many wide of the mark and wrong, but then, it’s not a question of words but of battling through them until you suddenly come upon a clearing with a view in all directions and of the sky, and that means you have managed to move a bit further.”

Writing/reflection exercise: Imagine you are battling through a jungle of words. What are you struggling with? What do you need to get through before you can arrive at a clearing?

3. A Refuge in Words

“Sometimes I want to flee with everything I possess into a few words, seek refuge in them … I am in search of a haven, yet I must first build it for myself; stone by stone. Everyone seeks a home, a refuge. And I am always in search of a few words.”

Writing/reflection exercise: Once you’ve wrestled with your demons, battled through the jungle of words, this is the place to return to: your refuge. What does your personal refuge look and feel like? Where are you? What words or images give you a sense of safety, security and home? Write or reflect on this for a few minutes, or just sit with those images in your mind, and know that you can always return to your place of refuge when you need it.


Hila Ratzabi is a poet, essayist, writing coach, and editor. Her essays have been published in the Forward, Alma, MyJewishLearning, Kveller and elsewhere. Her poetry has been published widely in literary journals and in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. Ratzabi holds an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, a BA in English from Barnard College and a BA in Jewish Philosophy from List College at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the Managing Editor of Ritualwell.org, and lives in Oak Park, IL.

Thank you to Rise Up, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah for their generous support of Reset.

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