JBC’s Chris­tine Maas­dam inter­views Diane Heiman, co-writer with Liz Sune­by of It’s a…It’s a…It’s a Mitz­vah and The Mitz­vah Project Book (Jew­ish Lights Pub­lish­ing).

Chris­tine Maas­dam: Diane, you cer­tain­ly have an impres­sive back­ground — Brown, George­town, a decade of prac­tic­ing law, and rais­ing a fam­i­ly. When did you find the time to write? What was your moti­va­tion to move into a writ­ing career, espe­cial­ly with a focus on chil­dren? Do you recall that spe­cial moment when you said to your­self that this was some­thing that you must do?

Diane Heiman: I have always loved words — read­ing, writ­ing and talk­ing! As a child, I espe­cial­ly loved to read. Books trans­port­ed me to far away places, dis­tant time peri­ods and entic­ing expe­ri­ences. Some of my favorite child­hood friends lived inside books — such as the five sis­ters in Syd­ney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly series. Even as a young girl, I hoped to become a children’s book writer. Once, in sev­enth grade, I went to a bar mitz­vah par­ty and a for­tuneteller looked at my palm and pre­dict­ed I would write and illus­trate children’s books. How did she know my secret dream? I guess at least one of her prophe­cies came true.

CM: The Mitz­vah Project Book has brought tremen­dous­ly mean­ing­ful expe­ri­ences to thou­sands of Bar and Bat Mitz­vah young adults since its pub­li­ca­tion. Can you tell us about the spark that ignit­ed you and Liz to cre­ate that par­tic­u­lar book?

DH: Wash­ing­ton Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tion’s Mitz­vah Day (my fam­i­ly’s syna­gogue in Wash­ing­ton, DC) inspired The Mitz­vah Project Book (MPB). On Mitz­vah Day, the entire con­gre­ga­tion comes togeth­er to vol­un­teer for the greater com­mu­ni­ty through a myr­i­ad of activ­i­ties. Liz and I want­ed bar and bat mitz­vah stu­dents to learn about the myr­i­ad of great mitz­vah projects, large and small, that their peers are doing all across our coun­try. We saw our own kids strug­gle to find mean­ing­ful mitz­vah projects. So we focused the book around kids’ inter­ests – com­put­ers, ani­mals, sports, art, music, Israel and more. MPB would have been a much-appre­ci­at­ed resource in our own homes.

CM: Was It’s a…It’s a…It’s a Mitz­vah in your mind while work­ing on The Mitz­vah Project Book?

DH: It’s a…It’s a…It’s a Mitz­vah was a nat­ur­al next book after MPB. We real­ized younger chil­dren par­tic­i­pate in good deeds too. And we want­ed to rein­force that doing goods deeds is an inte­gral part of Jew­ish life, not just part of a bar or bat mitz­vah year. By high­light­ing dai­ly acts of lov­ing kind­ness and oth­er mitzvot in an upbeat man­ner, we hope­ful­ly con­nect young chil­dren to this concept.

CM: How did The Mitz­vah Project Book bring It’s a …It’s a…It’s a Mitz­vah to life? At what moment, did you real­ize that the acts of mitz­vah need­ed to and could be addressed even ear­li­er in the lives of children?

DH: We wrote It’s a…It’s a…It’s a Mitz­vah to inspire young chil­dren in mul­ti­ple ways. Each sce­nario illus­trates a dif­fer­ent good deed. The chil­dren who hear our words and smile at our pic­tures expe­ri­ence the pow­er they have with­in them­selves to make the world a bet­ter place. Mitz­vah Meerkat reminds us that shar­ing food with some­one who is hun­gry, vis­it­ing some­one who is sick, and cel­e­brat­ing Shab­bat are mitz­vot. Par­ents, grand­par­ents, teach­ers and care­givers who read this book aloud can use it as a spring­board for talk­ing about tikkun olam (repair­ing the world). It can be read before col­lect­ing tzedakah. The book can also spark dis­cus­sion about oth­er mitzvot. And read­ing it just for fun is fun too. Kids love to repeat the refrain, It’s a… It’s a… It’s a mitzvah!”

CM: Jews have had a his­to­ry of teach­ing mitz­vah — it is at the core of our beliefs. It’s a …It’s a…It’s a Mitz­vah makes it a uni­ver­sal con­cept for every­one. Do you see the book as a bridge across var­i­ous reli­gions and cultures?

DH: My coau­thor, Liz Sune­by, and I knew that the con­cept of doing good deeds tran­scends cul­tures and reli­gions. But we didn’t expect that It’s a…It’s a…It’s a Mitz­vah would become a bridge across reli­gions. We were thrilled to learn that The Luther­an, the mag­a­zine of the Evan­gel­i­cal Luther­an Church in Amer­i­ca includ­ed It’s a…It’s a…It’s a Mitz­vah in its Sep­tem­ber 2012 col­umn called, The Best.” Also, a non-sec­tar­i­an web­site, spir​i​tu​al​ityand​prac​tice​.com, award­ed It’s a…It’s a…It’s a Mitz­vah one of the fifty best spir­i­tu­al books of 2012.

CM: How much fun was it to cre­ate these endear­ing crea­tures? They are so filled with emo­tion and won­der­ment, that a child grav­i­tates to them instan­ta­neous­ly. Did Lau­rel Molk sur­prise you with the charac­ters or did you both col­lab­o­rate on their cre­ation? Why the Mitz­vah Meerkat? Does he hold a spe­cial spot in either of your hearts?

DH: Liz and I want­ed the nar­ra­tor of our pic­ture book to be an appeal­ing crea­ture with an m” for allit­er­a­tion with mitz­vah. How did we choose a meerkat? My kids adored the Trav­el Channel’s wild­ly (pun intend­ed!) pop­u­lar doc­u­men­tary series filmed in the Kala­hari Desert, Meerkat Manor.” Meerkats live in fam­i­ly groups, stand up on their hind legs, use their front paws and are very cute. We also hoped that a meerkat would bring a fresh face” to our children’s pic­ture book. Lau­rel Molk, the book’s illus­tra­tor, sprin­kled a won­der­ful lay­er of inven­tive­ness onto our cast of char­ac­ters. She cre­at­ed the trio of mice that appear in each spread. The warmth and delight expressed in her water­col­ors is contagious!

CM: Each of you live mitz­vah through­out your dai­ly lives. I sense that It’s a…It’s a…It’s a Mitz­vah was a very per­son­al jour­ney for you. Your work with the Equal Jus­tice Foun­da­tion, Take Our Daugh­ters & Sons to Work Day, and the upcom­ing event for Pre­ven­tion of Blind­ness Soci­ety speak vol­umes. Any thoughts that you would like to share on future mitz­vahs or devel­op­ing interests?

DH: In today’s world, any­one can con­nect with friends and even glob­al strangers in an instant. Elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tions make all kinds of infor­ma­tion so acces­si­ble. The great need for mitzvot in our own com­munities and far beyond is very present. Liz and I are grate­ful to Jew­ish Lights Pub­lish­ing for help­ing us com­mu­ni­cate to young peo­ple that they each have the pow­er to make a dif­fer­ence. As writ­ers, Liz and I hope to con­tin­ue to focus on the theme of good deeds.

Diane, thank you for this inter­view and the joy of mitzvot you and Liz have brought to a new generation.

Chris­tine Maas­dam holds a Mas­ters in Human­i­ties, cer­ti­fi­ca­tions in Mu­seum Stud­ies and Cul­tur­al Prop­er­ty Pro­tec­tion. She is cur­rent­ly complet­ing her M.L.I.S. Her inter­ests are phi­los­o­phy and the impact of art and tech­nol­o­gy on culture.

Chris­tine Maas­dam holds a Mas­ters in Human­i­ties, cer­ti­fi­ca­tions in Muse­um Stud­ies and Cul­tur­al Prop­er­ty Pro­tec­tion. She is cur­rent­ly com­plet­ing her M.L.I.S. Her inter­ests are phi­los­o­phy and the impact of art and tech­nol­o­gy on culture.