By Richard Michelson
Twenty Jewish-American children’s book authors walk into an Israeli bar.
It’s not the beginning of a joke, but rather a life-changing experience for many of us. OK, two of us aren’t Jewish. And two are Canadian. And it was more of an organic farm slash kibbutz slash restaurant slash bar.
But there we were, fatigued after a 10-hour red-eye (12 on the return) from Newark after a day’s travel to New York from around the North American continent when we piled onto a waiting bus, hoping for a quick trip to a hotel and a hot shower. Instead, sweaty and tired we were driven to Tur Sinai, where Harold Grinspoon, the visionary philanthropist behind PJ Library, his equally accomplished wife, Diane Troderman, and his daughter-in-law Winnie, president of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, awaited us with a klezmer band, limitless food, backpacks, journals, T-shirts and smiles. 89-year-old Harold was ready for some dinner and line dancing before heading off to Ben-Gurion airport for his own red-eye back to America. His energy and enthusiasm were the antidotes to my own lack of each.
Why was I there? I hate groups (of writers especially) and planned itineraries. I prefer sitting at my desk to traveling. My guard was up against the anti-Palestinian propaganda I assumed would be forthcoming (I was glad to have as my trip-mate Northampton friend and neighbor Leslea Newman to worry with ahead of time). I grew up as a non-believing, non-Bar-Mitzvahed, left-wing totally-secular Jew, and my wife’s eventual conversion (against my wishes) to Judaism did little to spark my religiosity.
But I had written a children’s book, The Language of Angels, about Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the reinvention of Modern Hebrew. As a poet, my interest was in how language works, and Ben-Yehuda had done the impossible; taken a “dead language,” unused since Biblical times except for textual Torah readings and prayer, and brought it into the 20th century, making up words for everything that had been invented since the prophets – bicycles, ice cream, schools. He even needed to invent the Hebrew word for “dictionary” before he could store his words there. He wanted his son Ben-Zion to be the first native Hebrew speaker in nearly 2000 years.
I wanted to walk past Ben-Yehuda’s home and hear the language I didn’t speak spoken in the streets. And, bottom line, why turn down a free all-expense paid trip (my Zayde would be calling me a goyishe kopf from his grave).
Were there strings attached? Of course. But loosely. Harold was hoping to inspire us to set our books in the Israeli landscape. PJ Library is growing by leaps and bounds. They give away 590,000 books monthly in 17 countries. That means 11 books each year for each age between six-month and eight-years (plus PJ Our Way for older kids). That means 88 different titles annually, and because of siblings, they don’t like to repeat titles within a four-year span.
The program has been tremendously successful, in many cases helping to teach parents about Judaism along with their children.
Our group ranged from Modern Orthodox to “not a spiritual bone in my body.” We wrote picture books, comics, middle grade and young adult. We ranged from our 30s to our 70s; from one published book to 200 (shout out to David A. Adler); from long familiarity with PJ Library (I have five titles on their list) to “never heard of them before a friend forwarded the invite.” I am told there were more than 180 applications, and I have no idea how the sorting-hat worked, but I have never been part of such a cohesive group.
It helped that the first two days were actively bonding experiences – kayaking on the Dead Sea and shmearing our faces with its rejuvenating mud. We hiked to waterfalls in the Ein Gedi desert and went on an actual archeological dig at Beit Guvrin. We dug up pottery shards that hadn’t seen the light of day for 2200 years. Judah Maccabee himself once drank from my busted cup (I make up stories for a living, but I promise, really).
We dined with world-renowned Yemenite singer Gila Beshari (who cooked us a feast), and Shmuel Yilma, an Ethiopian Jew who arrived via a harrowing journey through Sudan during Operation Moses. We visited the novelist and children’s book authors (in Israel there is not the separation we maintain in American between “writing for adults,” and “writing for children”) Meir Shalev, an early left-wing kibbutznik (so much for right-wing indoctrination), and the story magician Etgar Keret. Mishy Harmon, the “Israeli Ira Glass,” entertained us with his “Israel Stories” radio adventures (based on “This American Life”), and we mingled with our counterparts in Sifriyat Pijama, PJ Library’s sister program in Israel.
We ate and drank our way through the Old City of Jerusalem and walked underground through a 2,000-year-old drainage tunnel built by King Herod, to emerge right outside the Western Wall. We met with ultra-Orthodox in the neighborhood of Makor Baruch, with Syrian Aleppo Jews, and with Israeli-Arabs. We went to Shabbat services at the inclusive Zion pluralistic community and then split up to experience Shabbat in individual host homes.
Our world’s-best-ever-guide, Jonty Blackman, kept us informed and moving, and took our perennial lateness in stride. If we had a question, he gave us three interpretations minimum: the official one, the more likely scenario, and his own take on the subject.
For me, the highlight of a week of highlights (aside from watching Gail Carson Levine of Ella Enchanted fame do her daily push-ups. Think Ruth Bader Ginsburg style.) was the “back-room” tour of the Israeli Museum archives. Pnina Shor, Israel Antiquities Authority curator in charge of the Dead Sea Scrolls, came in on her day off to offer ten of us an hour up close and personal with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Two hours later, the room crammed with 25 of us (writers and PJ Library staff), we spontaneously broke into singing “Hinei ma tov u’ma nayim” as Pnina brought out a copy of Psalm 133, readable to many of our group, though written by a scribe in the first century BCE. And when I looked at the earliest known written example of a complete Ten Commandments, I discovered that anti-authoritarian as I am, my eyes were wet with tears.
Never before have I felt such a direct connection to my ancestors.
Was the trip a success for PJ? Will they be swamped with books based on our journey? Will your children and grandchildren be reading them in a year or two or 20?
Only time will tell, but from the number of “first dibs on that idea,” we threw around all week, I would bet my shekels on “yes!”
Richard Michelson is an author of books for children, teens, and adults. He has five PJ Library titles and two Sydney Taylor Gold Medals and he is the recipient of a National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature. Richard is the owner of R. Michelson Galleries, which represents many of the country’s premier illustrators.