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, spiritualityandpractice.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.