An ancient verse from the Dead Sea Scrolls inspired singing among visiting authors and may just weave its way into a plot of an upcoming children’s book.“We were in the laboratory that is conserving and digitizing the Dead Sea Scrolls,” relates New York Times bestselling author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.“We got to see actual scrolls from inches away – amazing – but then the director of the lab pointed to a place on the scrolls. One of our group who could read Hebrew read out the first line of a Psalm still sung in Jewish liturgy. Three-quarters of the group began to sing. That piece of parchment is over 2,000 years old, and its words are still a known melody. Even thinking about it gives me goosebumps.”
The visit to the Dead Sea Scroll Labs, located in Jerusalem and run by the Israel Antiquities Authority, with Pnina Shor, curator and head of Dead Sea Scrolls Projects, was a highlight for the 20 North American authors participating in the inaugural Author Israel Adventure in March. Organized by the American PJ Library and PJ Our Way programs, with support from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the authors traveled to historical sites and met Israeli authors, illustrators, artists, journalists, educators and social activists.The trip’s purpose was to help authors reflect Israeli life and culture in their books, to be included in the PJ Library program, which sends books each month to children ages six-months to eight-years-old in 590,000 Jewish families living in 17 countries across five continents.“The PJ Library program was founded in 2005 by philanthropist Harold Grinspoon to increase Jewish literacy,” says Catriella Freedman, organizer of the trip. Freedman, who lives in Israel, is the director of PJ Our Way, a sister program of PJ Library, which sends books to children ages nine to 11 years old. PJ Our Way reaches more than 27,000 families a month.“Harold’s vision is to strengthen the future of the Jewish community. He thought of the special moment of children’s bedtime as a moment to introduce Jewish values through picture books about holidays and Jewish rituals. The 20 authors were chosen from more than 160 applicants with the intent of building a group that through their books can connect our families to Israel, its diverse communities, the role of Israel, and the connection of various sites to the founding of the State of Israel,” says Freedman.Some of the authors have been in Israel before, but for others it was their first time. “Most of the authors had not fully understood the reality and the vision of what Israel is all about,” says Harold Grinspoon. “This trip allowed them to experience that. We hope to do this again in the future.”“The trip provided us authors and illustrators with the inspiration, information, history and an opportunity to experience Israel in a sensory way, which will undoubtedly contribute to many upcoming stories we will write and/or illustrate,” says author and illustrator Marla Frazee.Frazee’s readers are very young children who are experts at reading pictures. She is a Caldecott Honor recipient for picture book illustration. Her book The Boss Baby is now a DreamWorks animated feature film.“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but from the very first morning when I set my eyes on the desert landscape of Ein Gedi, I knew it was going to be a transformative trip – and there were so many opportunities to be transformed.Being a Catholic of Lebanese descent provided me with an outsider’s fascination. I learned so much.We got our hands in the dirt, our bodies in waterfalls and seas, saw the desert, hill towns, the Old City, the neighborhoods, the markets and the schools. We listened to Biblical stories, political stories, human-interest stories and historical stories. As a visual artist and storyteller, I am personally most inspired by the landscape and by the Old City streets of Jerusalem.”“This was not my first trip to Israel, but it was the first time I traveled with other authors and that was exciting,” says David Adler, author of 250 published books, including the Cam Jansen mysteries series, the Picture Book biography series, Jewish holiday stories, Holocaust books, historical fiction, math, science and economics books.“I am always more inspired by people than places, and Israelis for many reasons are an inspirational, diverse people. It was also great to meet Israeli authors and the people of PJ and Our Way.”Among the Israeli authors were Etgar Keret, Meir Shalev and Matti Friedman.“We learned their voices and the way in which they told their stories. That’s different from culture to culture as well as from writer to writer,” says Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, author of 17 books, including The War That Saved My Life, which was a Newbery Honor book in 2016. She also enjoyed meeting American authors on the trip.“I live in Tennessee, which is a pretty remote part of the United States, and I don’t get to meet other authors on a regular basis.”Bubaker Bradley was inspired by the desert, the archaeological dig, Kibbutz Lavi and the Yemin Orde Youth Village, where Shmuel Yilma related to the group his moving personal story. He came to Israel from Ethiopia as a young boy in the early 1980s.Today he focuses on educating others on the Ethiopian experience and helping Ethiopians move forward in Israeli society.“My grandsons love PJ. Each book they receive excites them about books and the Jewish experience,” notes Adler, whose Jewish-themed books also reach non-Jewish readers.Sifriyat Pijama In Israel, Sifriyat Pijama (Pajama Library) is an adaptation of the American PJ Library program.“Unlike the American program, Sifriyat Pijama operates exclusively in educational settings, serving about 350,000 children, ages two to eight, with books in Hebrew,” says Galina Vromen, the founding director of Sifriyat Pijama. Children receive books throughout the school year in class, and then take a personal copy of the book home to keep.“The purpose of the Israeli program is to both instill a love of reading from a young age, and spark book-related conversations in class and at home on Jewish/Israeli heritage and universal-Jewish values,” explains Vromen. “Our books range from Israeli classics to Jewish folktales to high quality, non-didactic books that can stimulate children to think about such diverse values as caring for the sick, acceptance of the other, protecting nature.”The Education Ministry is Sifriyat Pijama’s primary partner in funding and implementing the program in preschools and first and second grade classrooms. Most children receive the books for free through funding of the ministry and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation with other philanthropists.In municipalities ranked as more affluent by the Central Bureau of Statistics, communities can join the program through funding from the municipality, parents or a combination of the two. Children in the first years receive eight books a year; children in first and second grade receive four books a year.For two- to three-year-olds, a program known as Sifriyat Pijama for Little Kids operates in cooperation with day care organizations such as WIZO, Naamat and Emunah among many others.“PJ Library and Sifriyat Pijama are both increasing the trove of high-quality Jewish-content books for children,” claims Vromen. “In some cases, the books are used by both programs, or the same Midrashic stories or folktales are common to both programs, so the programs are creating more common ground among Jewish children and their parents around the world.” – B.P.