Green Bean Books

Q&A with Tammar Stein

1. Where did the inspiration for the book come from?

I went to Israel on a trip sponsored by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. They curated a special itinerary for authors and illustrators which was simply magical. Being around twenty fellow authors, as we travelled up and down Israel, so many incredible conversations were sparked and there was a constant hum of creative energy. 

I was already thinking of stories when we arrived in Jerusalem. I couldn’t help but notice the cats. They were everywhere. It was such a fun juxtaposition. This ancient city. The epicentre of so much history. And these cats, who couldn’t care less about any of that. 

2. In what ways do you hope this story inspires children?

Cats in Jerusalem is basically a tour of Jerusalem through the eyes of cats. Kids are already pretty great at this, but I want them to see past the monuments, the ‘important’ artifacts, and notice the life teeming around them. There are busy ants, there are birds trilling ancient melodies, and there are cats who are sneaky, silly, and utterly self-absorbed.

3. Which Jewish stories, or secular children’s books, did you love as a child?

I was a huge reader as a child (I still am!) I loved Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula Le Guin, and Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series. I loved books that took me someplace different. 

4. Do you see a Jewish value behind the tale, and if so, what is it?

Cats in Jerusalem will feel special to anyone who has been to Jerusalem. They will recognize the city they know, but from a perspective they may not have noticed. For readers who have never visited Jerusalem, I hope the cats intrigue you enough to visit soon. 

5. For a Jewish story, do you think it’s important to have a Jewish author?

An author’s imagination should be free to go where it goes. An author’s responsibility is to do the work and to get the facts right when they write outside their own experience.

6. What does Israel mean to you? What place does it hold in your heart?

I lived in Israel until I was 8 years old, so for a long time, Israel was the place of my young childhood memories, my beloved grandparents and extended family. When I went back and lived there for 3 months as a young adult, Israel became the place that inspired my first novel, Light Years, about a young IDF soldier who moves to the US to attend university. Israel is a fragile, eternal and precarious place all at the same time. It is complicated and constantly shifting, an idea as much as a physical location.

7. Do you grapple with what it means to be Jewish? What does it mean to you?

I’ve never lived anywhere for longer than 6 years. The one constant in my life has been finding a community through Judaism. This was basically my speech at my daughter’s bat mitzvah: chances are you’re going to move. You’re going to arrive at a new place, friendless and lonely. Where do you start? Go to shul. Sit down at the Friday night service. Say hello and tell them “I’m new here.” By the end of the evening, you won’t be so alone after all. 

That’s what being Jewish means to me.

8. What words of wisdom can you offer for aspiring writers?

Every author you’ve ever read was once an aspiring author. Every book you’ve ever loved was once a mediocre first draft. The only way anyone published a book was the only way that first draft became a great work of fiction: revision. 

That is the secret sauce. 

It’s okay if it feels like work. That doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It just means it’s hard.