Diversifying offerings

PJ Library launches Sephardic Stories Initiative to boost representation in kid lit canon

Seven Sephardic and Mizrahi authors will take part in new three-year program, which will feature regular online meetings and a trip to Israel

At age 6, Gail Carson Levine’s father was sent to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York. He had grown up in a Sephardic household, but at the orphanage, he was bullied for his background and grew disconnected from his heritage. His daughter, the author of the novels Ella Enchanted and Dave at Night, is trying to reconnect to her family’s roots.

She is one of seven Sephardic and Mizrahi published authors involved in PJ Library’s Sephardic Stories Initiative, which was announced early last month.

“The need for diverse Jewish stories, coming from diverse Jewish communities, has been around for a while,” Catriella Freedman, the director of PJ Library’s Author Stewardship program, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

PJ Library, a Harold Grinspoon Foundation program, distributes over 148 titles for free to over 670,000 subscribers worldwide who are raising Jewish children. “We have some really great titles already in our library, but they don’t nearly represent the number of Sephardic and Mizrahi families that we have in our subscriber list,” Freedman said.

The first year of the three-year initiative focuses on the experienced-author cohort, which will meet online regularly and participate in an all-expense paid trip to Israel, which is currently on hold due to the security situation in the country. The authors also will have access to experts to help with research for their projects. Their initial meeting, held during the first week in December, focused on Sephardic voices from Israel and featured guest authors Sarah Sassoon and Ran Cohen Harounoff.

During the second year of the initiative, the original authors will mentor 20-40 emerging authors, and the third year will focus on virtual programming for the larger Jewish community.

The final component is a Sephardic Stories manuscript prize that will be open to any unpublished manuscript, with the winner receiving a financial prize as well as a PJ Publishing contract.

PJ Library hopes “to improve the number and quality of Sephardic stories in general,” Freedman said, even if the work created during an author’s time in the program ends up being published elsewhere. Writers involved in the initiative can submit their work to be considered for publication by PJ Library through the same platform authors not involved in the program do.

The original $195,000 grant was provided by the Samis Foundation, which has historically been involved in philanthropy in Israel and Washington state — the city with the third largest Sephardic population in the United States. Samis supports a variety of educational initiatives throughout the Jewish community, several of which feature Sephardic content..

“We look out for opportunities to support areas which we think are game changers,” Al Maimon, a Samis Trustee, told eJP. “PJ Library is a flagship of [bringing] Judaism to the kids, but the library bookshelf is pretty empty when it comes to anything having to do with a Sephardic or Mizrahi family’s culture. So families who are Sephardic don’t have much for their kids to see, and the broader Jewish community doesn’t get a chance to see a different view of what’s happening.”

They hope this initiative changes that. “If we can reach these families with Sephardic content at this inflection point in their lives, we can expand their knowledge and awareness of the beautiful tapestry of Jewish life,” Ariel Lapson, the director of grants management at the Samis Foundation, told eJP.

Sarah Aroeste, a PJ Library author and member of the initial cohort, says that PJ Library has been talking to her about this initiative for years. “They’re putting their money where their mouth is, which proves their commitment,” she told eJP.

She’s excited to be a part of a cohort of passionate Sephardic and Mizrahi artists. “Geographically, our families are from all over the map, whether it’s from Cuba, Mexico, Turkey. My own family is from Macedonia. That’s really beautiful. And I also love that there are illustrators, graphic novelists, middle grade and YA authors. We have picture book authors. It’s such a wide range of authors and styles and experiences,” she said, adding that she also looks forward to helping emerging authors “bring out” their own stories.

For Carson Levine, she’s excited to dive into the heritage her father lost in the orphanage. Her work has traditionally been based on European fairy tales, and she hopes the initiative will allow her to learn more about Sephardic ones.

“Sometimes I think that I’m channeling my father’s losses,” Carson Levine said. “And getting to know other Sephardic writers would be a kind of reparation for him.”