Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
No one could have known it from my confident smile, but I almost turned tail before my plane took off. I was about to embark on a nine-day tour of Israel with people I’d never met. That wasn’t the scary part. The scary part was separating from my four-year-old daughter.
I know lots of moms get nervous before leaving their kids for the first time. But my kid happens to have a condition that prevents her from talking or walking without assistance. And I have a condition that prevents me from acting rationally when I’m more than ten feet away from her. In seriousness, I’d had postpartum anxiety for years, and I’d gotten good at it.
Still, I’d applied for this trip, drawn by a magnetic pull toward Israel that was more powerful than even my most ornate fears. My husband had assured me that everything would be great.
Then I’d envision our daughter in her little walker, stumbling over a crack in the sidewalk, and check my trip cancellation insurance.
My daughter’s birth had quickly been followed by many types of therapies. Speech therapy, physical therapy, play therapy…and nearly all the therapists had come bearing books. Most of those were the “indestructible by milk teeth” variety, but a certain few were real literature that commanded hundreds of rereadings. Those were the ones, I came to learn, that included three common elements: rhyme, rhythm, and repetition. It also turns out those three are what make language easiest for the brain to process.
Being a writer, I decided to try my hand at books like those, ones that would be accessible to kids like mine. Because my daughter is half-Israeli on my husband’s side (and Jewish on both sides), I found Israel making its way into my stories.
Two years later, I sold my first children’s book, followed by my second, third, fourth and fifth. And then, the clouds parted and I received an invitation to apply for the first-ever PJ Library Author Adventure, a tour of Israel with nineteen other children’s book authors — all of whom turned out to be much more lauded and illustrious than I am. (I was fairly sure I’d been selected by accident.)
The opportunity was at once thrilling and terrifying. I was being catapulted from the very books I’d written for my daughter into a situation that would take me away from her.
Still, Israel called me. Loudly. With deadlines for, say, getting to the gate on time.
Somehow, in the days before the flight, instead of becoming more nervous, I reached a strange state of calm, not unlike in the days before giving birth. Admittedly, it could have been catatonia.
At the airport, I cried a little. But I didn’t use that trip insurance.
And then, I was on the plane with major children’s authors. In a thunderbolt moment, I realized that all those people cared about the same things I did: children, Judaism, and Israel. Almost immediately, they treated me as family. I felt honored, overwhelmed. And never more so than when one renowned author I’d just met crossed the entire airport to tell me she and some others were sitting down to dinner, and would I like to join them?
We arrived in Israel as a group, already bonded. And then another “family member” took me in: Israel, itself. I explored kibbutzes, met major Israeli authors (Meir Shalev! Etgar Keret!), dug in 2,000-year-old soil, and prayed at The Western Wall. I walked a rainwater tunnel under the City of David. I got lost, and found, between the jewelers and juice shops on Shenken Street in Tel Aviv. And, with my tribe of author friends, I breathed in, and out, stories.
I also made many FaceTime calls, during which I was assured that my daughter was very much okay (when I asked her, she blew me kisses and clapped, which is her shorthand for “Yes!”). My husband loved the opportunity to be the parent-in-charge, without my neuroses along for the ride. And somewhere between the Dead Sea and the mountains of Tzfat, I left some of those neuroses behind.
My pulse slowed. My spirit rose.
I returned home with so many stories to tell, I can’t write them fast enough. But one of my most important stories is this one: that, for all my championing of special needs kids, my child is a child first. Her story is that of a strong kid, a happy kid, and a Jewish kid.
It is not the story of a special needs kid who can’t be apart from her mom. It’s that of a child who enjoys her life, and who is becoming more independent every day.
And my story is that of a writer with a great family that supports me, a community of amazing authors, and a huge love of Israel.
I thought I’d gone abroad to gather stories. Instead, it seems I’ve had my own story edited quite neatly. And the new ending is so much happier.
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh is a writer, editor, and author. Her children’s books include Can You Hear a Coo, Coo?, and three upcoming titles from Kar-Ben Publishing: A Hoopoe Says “Oop!”, Listen! Israel’s All Around, and The Biggest of All.
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh is the author of CAN YOU HEAR A COO-COO?, A HOOPOE SAYS, OOP!, LISTEN! ISRAEL’S ALL AROUND and THE BIGGEST OF ALL! (Kar-Ben). She believes even the youngest readers deserve smart books, and that, just as babies can pack great meaning into a few sounds, little books can communicate volumes in just a few words. Jamie also loves the animal kingdom, and regularly writes cover stories for National Geographic KIDS magazine.