Leslie Kimmelman in Israel
Author Leslie Kimmelman has just returned from a tour of Israel, as one of eighteen picture book and middle grade authors sponsored by the PJ Library Organization. I wondered what a trip with so many creative and zany minds would be like. How would Israel look through their eyes? What details did they see that might go into a book? Did they come up with story ideas? Leslie is one of the most creative people I know and I couldn’t wait to ask when she returned.
Annabelle: Was there a single experience that you would like to share with young readers?
Leslie:Every single experience was a revelation–I think one of the most important things in life is to let go of preconceived notions as much as possible and be open to new adventures. The trip was everything I expected, only in the sense that it was an incredible trip. But it opened my eyes and enriched me in ways I never could have anticipated. You can see how meaningful the trip was to me by counting my (over)use of adjectives in answering your questions!
Annabelle: What surprised you the most? How would you explain or dramatize it in a book?
Leslie: I’m not up to that yet–still processing everything that happened, and waiting to see what rises to the top. I will say that two things stood out to me. The first was how moving it was to be in a place with thousands and thousands of years of history. I am a huge history enthusiast, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so strongly that feeling of walking in the steps of civilization after civilization–civilizations that thrived, then were gone, then replaced by another, and so on. Particularly in Jerusalem. We had an underground tour that gave me goose bumps. Being connected to the generations that came before us is one of the most compelling traditions of Judaism, I believe, but in Israel I felt that in a visceral way. I’m trying to get over the feeling that I may not have the words adequate to describe what I experienced. (Not something a writer wants to feel!)
The second thing that struck me quite strongly and unexpectedly is how many disparate communities make up the country. Standing in Jerusalem and seeing and hearing so many different cultures, all at the same time–a bar mitzvah at the Kotel, the call to prayer from the minaret, the holy places of Christianity. I am not diminishing the very considerable problems of these groups living together in close proximity, but it was amazing to see. We also toured an extremely impressive school where Jewish and Arab children learn together in both languages. The person who showed us around and does outreach for the school is from, improbably, New Jersey. Either of these two themes would be a good underpinning for a children’s book.
Annabelle: Wow, agreed! So was traveling as a group of writers like being in an idea laboratory? Did you and your colleagues bounce ideas off each other?
Leslie: It wasn’t so much that we bounced ideas of each other, though there was some of that. It was more that we were experiencing all of these new and fantastic adventures in the company of a group of incredibly talented and thoughtful people, who just happened to also be children’s book authors and artists. (And did I mention funny? There were definitely a lot of really funny people on the trip.) It was exciting to be able to see each new experience through the eyes of so many interesting colleagues. Everyone had a different take, something to add. As far as specific ideas go, I think we were all too busy taking it in to formulate specific ideas. At least, I was…. I can’t wait to see what kind of books this trip inspires from everyone.
Annabelle:Neither can I! Now tell me –did anything unexpected happen?
Leslie: Everything was unexpected, especially for me, as I’d never been to Israel before. The trip was planned so beautifully. It approached Israel from every possible perspective: historical, archaeological, political, cultural, aesthetic. Each experience added to the mosaic. We got to do things that even Israelis don’t get to do–like a behind-the-scenes, close-up look at the Dead Sea Scrolls. That was very emotional. Kayaking on the Dead Sea was magical: The Israelis I spoke with didn’t even know that was a possibility! Celebrating Shabbat in an Israeli home (we divided into groups of three authors per home) was inspiring. From a purely practical standpoint, nothing unexpected happened, which was kind of unexpected! No one got lost or sick–oh, except that one person’s luggage didn’t arrive with the rest. (He was a really good sport about it.) Mostly everything went like clockwork. Everyone got along as if we’d known each other for years. Pretty awesome.
Annabelle: What stood out about the culture? In writing about it, would you focus on history, food, music, art, or something else?
Leslie: Again, I think the history and the multicultural aspect resonated most with me. I definitely want to find out more about some of the people who loom large in Israel’s history. We saw the kibbutz home of David Ben Gurion, the first president of Israel, and it was remarkably modest. But check back in a few months. And I have to add: The food was excellent, too!
Annabelle: Thanks, Leslie. I can’t wait to see how this experience blossoms into one of your books!
Leslie Kimmelman’s latest books are BELLY BREATHE, A VALENTINE FOR FRANKENSTEIN, and WRITE ON, IRVING BERLIN, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book.