Reading the land

PJ Library authors discuss storytelling with Etgar Keret on Israel trip

20 Jewish writers traipse all over Israel during eight-day visit sponsored by non-profit Jewish book organization

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

20 children's book authors were in Israel for the PJ Library 2023 Author Israel Adventure. (courtesy, Danielle Mehler)
20 children's book authors were in Israel for the PJ Library 2023 Author Israel Adventure. (courtesy, Danielle Mehler)

“Writers are agents of ambiguity,” Etgar Keret told a room full of children’s book authors, as they nodded in agreement.

The proclaimed Israeli author regaled the gathered crowd with tales and anecdotes about his Holocaust survivor parents’ storytelling skills and his own upbringing in Israel.

The meeting with Keret was a final gathering for a group of 20 writers in Israel for an eight-day trip with PJ Library Author Adventure, the North American Jewish non-profit organization that brought the writers to Israel to experience the Negev, Masada, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv.

“We had a lot of books in our house, but no children’s books,” said Keret, relating how his mother, while growing up in the Warsaw Ghetto, did not always have food, but her parents always made up bedtime stories, along with the ethos that children’s books were created for lazy parents.

That one elicited laughter from the authors, since these writers, all of whom write children’s books or young adult novels, desperately need those “lazy parents.”

“Telling a story is a way to show love,” said Keret, referring to his mother’s words, whose own story of Holocaust survival he told in “Inside Out,” an exhibition at the Berlin Jewish Museum and in “Half-Baked Stories about My Dead Mom,” an episode of the podcast “This American Life.”

Israeli writer and artist Etgar Keret during an interview with AFP at his home in Tel Aviv on November 5, 2020. (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP/File)

“He’s like a prophet,” said writer Adam Gidwitz, who has read Keret’s work. “To see this crazy ecstatic land of Israel through his brain was an inimitable experience.”

Graphic novelist Terri Libenson was hearing Keret for the first time, and thought he was both hilarious and compelling.

She particularly noted the story Keret told about his father, also a Holocaust survivor, who escaped from the Nazis by living in a hole in the ground for 600 days, with his parents.

Keret said his father escaped by telling stories to himself, creating alternate realities with just enough truth in them to make them feel real.

Adam Gidwitz, one of the 20 children’s book authors in Israel for the PJ Library 2023 Author Israel Adventure. (Courtesy, Danielle Mehler)

“It was so symbolic to me, these tools of survival and storytelling,” said Libenson.

The time spent with Keret was a final nugget for the writers at the end of their eight-day trip.

The PJ Library tour was a first time-visit to Israel for Gidwitz, and the second for Libenson, an Ohio-based writer who had traveled in 2014 with a Jewish Federation group.

Both found meaning in in visiting with professional colleagues, “a little like singing in a chorus,” said Gidwitz, “all singing in different registers and like vibrations of vocal cords, our minds were buzzing.”

It is familiar verbiage from Gidwitz, author of the bestselling children’s books “A Tale Dark and Grimm,” “In a Glass Grimmly,” and “The Grimm Conclusion.”

Libenson said that as a “very visual, humorous” cartoonist, she wasn’t sure what the trip would be like.

She discovered that it encouraged her to think about collaborations, and about adding more Jewish content to her books in a meaningful way.

Graphic novelist Terri Libenson, one of the 20 children’s book authors in Israel for the PJ Library 2023 Author Israel Adventure. (Courtesy, Danielle Mehler)

“As I get older, I love exploring Judaism more. It’s personal, it’s representational, and it can be done in a very joyful, humorous way,” she said.

Gidwitz said he had come to Israel with an idea of a project, but found his experience so rich that it would inform not just that plan but “all of my writing going forward.”

“With every experience here, there’s a ‘but, also,’” he said, referring to the many sides they heard about the country’s history and current realities. “No matter how simple it sounds when something is said, if you think a little harder there’s always a ‘but also’ in Israel — but also everywhere.”

Several Israeli authors joined the trip, including Ran Cohen Harounoff, Ori Elon, Netalie Gvirtz, Shirley Yuval-Yair, and Rachel Shalev.

Libenson said meeting Shalev was a doppleganger experience of sorts, as the two both started out with comic strips about working mothers, and then branched into graphic novels.

“We kept looking at each other,” she said. “It just brought the world closer together.”

Children’s book writer Richard Ho, one of the 20 children’s book authors in Israel for the PJ Library 2023 Author Israel Adventure. (courtesy, Danielle Mehler)

For Richard Ho, author of “Red Rover: Curiosity on Mars,” and “The Lost Package,” the trip offered the opportunity to visit Israel as a Jew and as an author getting to know fellow creatives.

“What was truly unexpected were the bonds that I’ve formed with other authors,” said Ho. “The interconnectedness has been beyond anybody’s expectations and it’s been a life-changing experience, primarily because of the relationships.”

Ho, a Jew by choice, said he had visited Israel before.

While his earlier books did not engage in Jewish subject matter, his next book, “Two New Years,” is about the intersection of Chinese and Jewish identities in the Jewish and lunar new years.

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