Gotham Fiction Writing teacher Shelly Oria is a tale of two cities, splitting her time between New York and Tel Aviv.
Shelly’s father is an Israeli actor who moved the family to the United States in search of work, and that’s where Shelly was born. But after a few years, the family returned to Israel. Now Shelly spends part of the year in Tel Avi and the rest in New York. While she is comfortable with both her American and Israeli identities, Shelly is aware that some parts get lost in translation.
A major difference between the U.S. and Israel, for young people, is that in Israel each citizen is obligated to join the army. Men are required to serve for three years and women for two. Shelly, who served herself, says, “It’s a communal experience—something that every single person has gone through. It also functions as a melting pot in Israeli society.”
Once Israelis complete their service, many will save their money and take what Shelly refers to as “The Big Trip” to see other parts of the world and learn about other cultures. By the time young Israelis go to college, they’re typically in their mid-to-late twenties. “When you go to school on your terms versus when society tells you to,” Shelly says, “it’s a very different experience.”
At twenty-five, Shelly moved back to the United States, in part to pursue her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College. As she prepared her application, she realized she had been writing most of her stories in Hebrew, which led to a massive translation process. Shelly finds the act of translating agonizing. “My identities are different, but I can’t necessarily bring one to the other and have them hold hands,” she explains. “On occasion, it can happen and when it does, it’s extraordinary. But the effort is not all that enjoyable.”
Shelly is helping writers translate their work in another way. She and fellow writer Annie Levy have created a reading series in New York called Sweet: Actors Reading Writers, which Shelly describes as “sort of the opposite of Symphony Space.” (Read: edgier, shorter, and what’s hot right now.) The series incorporates fiction, poetry, and memoir. “Writers are present at Sweet,” Shelly says, “but they don’t have to perform. It’s nice for them to go out and not actually read.” While Shelly herself enjoys performing her own work, she understands the anxiety that many writers experience. Plus, as she says, “Actors approach readings in a different way than writers do.”
Currently, Shelly is finishing her short story collection, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0. The title comes from a line in one short story that explores the complexities of relationships, cultures, and gender through a romantic entanglement composed of two women and one man. To further complicate things, two of the characters are Israeli and one is American. Given Shelly’s geographical experience, she is sure to be the perfect navigator for such a story.