Green Bean Books

Q&A with Leah Cypess

1. Why was this book a project you were excited to take on? 

When this project was first suggested to me, I hemmed and hawed and decided to do some research first. I bought a copy of When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone, by Gal Beckerman, and planned to read a chapter a night.

I finished that book in a single weekend and, after that, I read everything I could find about Soviet Jewry and the fight to free them. I ended up writing multiple books about the subject!

2. Where did the inspiration for the book come from? Did any personal experiences inspire this story? 

I didn’t actually know much about Soviet Jewish history before I started working on this book. I had read several of Natan Sharansky’s books, and was impressed with him as a thinker, but didn’t fully understand how his life was part of the larger story of Soviet Jewry. 

Once I began my research, I started remembering various personal experiences that I had never realized were part of this larger picture. For example, my grandmother’s family got out of the Soviet Union in the 1920s; I wrote down her memoirs when I was a teenager, and she talked about how hard it was to get visas, and how the Bolsheviks were shutting down the yeshivas. This was information I had, but I accepted it without thinking much about it. Growing up in Brooklyn, I frequently encountered Soviet Jews and heard tidbits about their lives that I filed away as disconnected facts. So for me, it was kind of the opposite; writing this story inspired me to a new understanding of my personal experiences.

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

This tale is, obviously, Jewish from beginning to end. But if I had to pick one thing that amazes me most about the Soviet Jewish story, it’s the strength of Jewish identity. These were people who had never been taught anything about Judaism except that it was bad, and that being born Jewish was an unfortunate curse that they had to bear. Yet so many of them discovered—often to their own surprise—that they felt connected to the Jewish people, that they wanted to be Jewish, and that Judaism was going to be the central pillar of their lives. It’s something I still don’t fully understand, but it is clearly incredibly powerful.

4. Where do you stand on the ‘Own Voices’ debate? For a Jewish story, do you think it’s important to have a Jewish author? Could your story have been written just as well by a non-Jewish author? 

I wrote this story by immersing myself in Sharansky’s words, and in the words of many others who shared the Soviet Jewish experience. I think a non-Jewish author could have done that just as well—perhaps with a little more work, but if someone puts in the work, I think it is very possible to write a story outside of your experience. 

In fact, you could argue that a Soviet Jewish writer, rather than an American-born one, should have written this book. If one had, I’m sure they would have had an easier time, and probably also had some insights that I could not grasp. Then again, they might not have realized that there were certain things that needed to be explained. So while I do think there are advantages to ‘own voices,’ I also think it shouldn’t limit what projects a writer is ‘allowed’ to tackle. If a writer is willing to do the work to write authentically outside of their own experience, I believe that’s a wonderful thing.

4. How did you create a balance between an educational and entertaining book for children on a serious topic? 

With this book, it was easy – Sharansky’s life is educational, exciting, and entertaining without me having to do much work to make it so!

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

I hope that it inspires them to choose freedom and to be proud of who they are, even in difficult circumstances.

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

Shortly after I got my first publishing contract, I saw this quote on Mandy Hubbard’s blog: “A published author is an amateur who didn’t quit. Don’t quit.” I think that’s the best advice I can give!  I would also suggest that you pace yourself in your writing development. First, find your own voice and style, then find a critique group to polish it, and only then should you start worrying about publication.

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

There are so many that it’s hard to even get started on this question. I devoured every book put in front of me as a child. My favourite books were children’s fantasy, including anything by Diana Wynne Jones (especially Dogsbody). But I also loved Judaica books like The Lost Children of Tarshish, by Ehud Tokatly and Shmuel & Judy Klitsner, as well as Shira’s New Start by Libby Lazewnik, and Avner Gold’s historical fiction series.