Mark Shulman is an author and packager of several books, mainly for children, including a new graphic biography series, Show Me History, and I Voted, a picture book about the importance of each vote. His Jewish-oriented books include a concept board book series titled the Bagel Books, and Scrawl, a middle grade novel about a hard-luck bully who was never told he is Jewish. For Shulman, this voyage to Israel has already launched new projects, strong friendships and, most important, a way to get people to look at his vacation photos.

With apologies to Shakespeare, some of us are born Jewish, some achieve Jewishness, and some have Jewishness thrust upon ’em. Where I grew up, in 1970s/rust belt/upstate New York, I was routinely singled out (to put it kindly) in my urban public schools for having been born Jewish. This never made sense, since my Star Wars-to-Jewish identity was roughly 35:1. Sure, my big family met the minimum requirements: holiday awareness, porklessness, bat/bar mitzvahs (though mine was behind a traffic judge’s podium in a town hall). But little else until, at 16, Judaism was thrust upon me. I was yanked off the mean streets (thanks, Mom) to shepherd kids at a Jewish summer camp with suburban people. In a flash, I went from being too Jewish to feeling not nearly Jewish enough. But over the years, JCC camp and NYC life proved that even a straggler like me can belong in a tribe like this.

My latest proof: I was one of 18 children’s book authors who spent eight days in Israel with the PJ Library people. PJ Library spreads Jewish-themed children’s books across the world, and they mail out 200,000+ books each month. Finding high numbers of appropriate titles isn’t easy, so they funded an author exodus to Israel to inspire the genesis of new books. I applied. I hit “send.” And I was stunned to learn I was chosen.

I’ll be honest. I was expecting a sort of Florida-time-share experience whereby ultra-Orthodox Jews try to upgrade me and my unorthodox ways. Wrong. With incredible generosity and thoughtful planning, our PJ hosts put us in the hands of a superb tour guide named Jonty Blackman. Jonty expertly weaved history, stories, and our present-moment experiences like a loaf of challah. The opportunities we were offered ranged from the sublime to the surreal.

From the Negev desert to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, we zigzagged between historical and archaeological sites, secret passages, cultural experiences, night markets, a robot-driven diorama, and private homes. We spoke with Eastern European and Ethiopian immigrants, Palestinians, famous authors, young adults, schoolteachers, historians, singers, philanthropists, artists, and the local SCBWI chapter. The most religious-seeming person we met, at the Turkish synagogue, used his time to teach us goose-quill-and-ink Hebrew calligraphy. Each of these varied presenters wove their strands into a tapestry that kept all of us feeling, thinking, talking.

And talk, we did. Notably, and unusually, this particular flock of children’s authors didn’t talk of agents or manuscripts or book deals or reviews. We talked about ideas. Observations. Connections. Reflections. We began as strangers. We formed a genuine community by the second day, in ways I haven’t felt since being a camp counselor lost in a new old world. Our group texts evolved over one week from simple introductory comments to photos to in-jokes to what is now, just a few days after returning home, a collective yearning and mourning for another scattered diaspora keeping its shared experiences alive with the written word.

And in case you’re asking, will I recommend this trip to other children’s authors next time it’s available? No, I won’t. Because more and more people will apply, and that will lower my chances of being invited back.

All photos by Mark Shulman, unless otherwise noted.

Our tour guide, Jonty Blackman: a master storyteller with a keen eye, an artful tongue, and a compassionate heart for the limitations of his captive audience. It’s the first day, and we’re in the Negev Desert learning how this steep, wide canyon we are perched on, called Makhtesh Ramon, was caused by erosion and not the merciless giant asteroid that would have been a better story.

Ein Avdat canyon. Eighteen sedentary authors. One highly vertical Negev Desert mountain switchback trail. No turning back. A few of us got religion just by reaching the top.

And what did we find above the high cliff? Guardrails? Hardly. In this highly literate nation, they use tri-lingual signage. For non-readers, there’s a relatively graphic image of certain death. With punctuation!

The breathtaking tram ride to the fortress of Masada. In the years 70–73, more than 900 Jews hid from the conquering Romans in King Herod’s backup palace. It took three months for the Romans, those infrastructure behemoths, to erect a massive, nearly 400-foot ramp and overtake the mesa fortress. You’d have to be extra-vengeful to want victory that bad. Rather than be captured, the Jews took their own lives before their walls were breached. Masada ranks high among the more emotionally conflicting tourist magnets: it’s a really sad memorial with really incredible views of the Dead Sea Valley.

On our second day together, Barney Saltzberg (l.), Sean Rubin (r.), and I (c.) discovered on Masada that we all have upcoming picture books on Neal Porter’s spring 2020 Holiday House list. That seemed notable enough for a photograph. (Photo credit: Danny Paller)

David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, retired to a very modest house in Sde Boker, a kibbutz in the Negev Desert. Exactly 50 years ago, in February 1969, my mother stood where I’m standing and took a photo of my father standing at the desk with Ben-Gurion, who was also standing. This seemed notable, too.

Diane Troderman, co-founder of PJ Library with her husband Harold Grinspoon (not pictured), is seated next to a sketch of Paula Ben-Gurion in the Ben-Gurion home.

So… 18 authors walk into a nondescript office in the Israel Museum. And it’s no joke, because we were treated to a presentation of the actual Dead Sea scrolls by curator Pnina Shor. Now, I don’t know why I thought these priceless artifacts would be large, but in fact they fit in a few of those black boxes. Because, you know, they were found in some little urns, not the Ark of the Covenant.

At first, I saw a picturesque sign. Then I imagined going to school across from this wall in Jerusalem.

Welcome to the Herodian Channel. It’s narrow, dark, and goes on forever, like some TV channels. It’s also a sewer. End of comparison. Rather than enter the old city of Jerusalem through the usual large, triumphal gate, we took this 3,000-foot-long, 20-inch-wide scenic tunnel from King David’s palace to...

... a hidden, subterranean extension of the Western Wall, among the holiest sites in Judaism. It was astonishing to be suddenly in this storied place, and to have it to ourselves. You never saw a group of writers grow so silent, so quickly.

This is Noa, formerly of New Jersey, now doing outreach for Yad b’Yad (Hand in Hand). It’s the first school in Israel to teach Jewish and Arab children together, in both languages. See the Hebrew and Arabic letters on the board? Now in the next photo, find the Arabic. Hint: It’s not on the book covers.

Entering Jerusalem’s old city, a writer seeking the past can travel through time to find almost no evidence of modern life among the ancient walls. Here is one of those moments.

Jonty prepares us for Mechane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s popular market. Meaning, prepare to be overfed, overstimulated, and to overpay.

This isn’t the starting line at a halvah-eating contest. Still, what could be more Israeli than a parade of fresh halvah...

...olive oil, nuts, cigarettes...

... weird but delicious tea made from gumdrops...

... and of course, Jerusalem artichokes. Which these aren’t, except they’re artichokes which happen to be in Jerusalem.

For all I know, this Jerusalem café is where my great-great-great-great-great grandparents met, long before the British partition. Enjoying, most likely, the same great falafel recipe.

Old vs. new. Timeless vs. late for dinner. Motionless vs. way too fast. Solid vs. gas. Etc.

Deep in the caves of Bet Guvrin-Maresha. This was once a city of thousands living partly underground.

Down below, Archeologist Mark unearths a roughly-2,000-year-old broken pot. The rim of the jar is of mild interest to the experts. The rest of the pieces—painstakingly extracted from millennia of rubble with soft, writerly hands getting rapidly blistered—are discarded into the junk pile. This is a metaphor for writing, if you try hard enough. (Photo: Meredith Lewis.)

Now begins a metaphor for editing. The rocks are removed. The writers endlessly sift and sift through the remains of the rubble. Whatever might have even minimal value is examined, and if it isn’t a bronze coin, it is thrown into the junk pile.

The junk pile.

At the Turkish synagogue, we’re learning calligraphy for an alphabet most of us can’t read, using animal products we can’t eat. Still, not bad for first timers.

Evidently, years of doodling have made me capable with a quill. Here’s my Hebrew name, and the names of my kids, only slightly misspelled. That’s not paper. That’s traditional animal skin. It’s kind of fuzzy on one side. (Photo of me, my feather, my cap: Meredith Lewis.)

This year’s PJ party (from l.): Emma Carlson Berne, Barney Saltzberg, Diane Troderman (PJ), Leslie Kimmelman, Debbie Levy, Jonathan Auxier, Katherine Locke, Mark Shulman, Sean Rubin, Adam Jay Epstein, Nancy Krulik, Debra Garfinkle, Eric Kimmel, Ariel Bernstein, Jonathan Rosen, Catriella Freedman (PJ), Madelyn Rosenberg, Laura Shovan, Donna Gephart, Meredith Lewis (PJ), and Danny Paller (PJ). Elsewhere at the moment: Leslie Margolis. (Your photographer is the bald man in the far back. In just 10 seconds, he rested his camera on a fire alarm box, tripped over that chair, bumped into three people, whacked the tall blue sign, stabilized it, and yet seems relatively calm. He isn’t.)

Over one too-short week, the wise folk at PJ Library made a great miracle happen. A disparate collection of solitary writers became a collective tribe. Our group chat has lit up constantly since we returned home. We’re sharing memories, photos, recipes, and new book ideas. The goal of our trip was to inspire us, and to pass along that inspiration through our work.

By every measure, we’re on our way.