Book Review – Layers

Layers: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Resilience, and Growth from Jewish Women by Shira Lankin Sheps

From The Layers Project, “a blog that featured the images and raw intimate stories of Jewish women,” to the book Layers, which “tackles different life situations or taboo topics,” Shira Lankin Sheps invites her readers to experience, understand and commiserate with amazing women through her narration of their stories.

“These women teach us how to love through suffering and how to live beyond heartache…how to be sensitive to those who are different from us [and] open our minds to realities we never knew.” Each chapter in this book is a picture- a photograph of the woman and then her story as narrated to the author. Tzippi bounced between Israel and California, traumatized as a child by stints in bomb shelters, flying back and forth to care for her sick mother and father, and ultimately living with her husband and children in Israel, which “must have chosen me, because I don’t remember doing the actual choosing.” In time Tzippi founded Points of Contact, a group of matchmakers who reach across oceans and continents to bring people together who want to live in Israel. 

Malka has cerebral palsy but titles her story “Living Outside Your Comfort Zone.” The pages of Malka’s narrative are filled with photos of a beautiful, smiling teenager in a wheelchair; that same wheelchair brought her to the chuppah and let her cradle her baby on her lap. Her precocious son at age five explained why “’Hashem made you have a disability.’ I was really curious and anxious to hear this one. ‘So that you would always have a lap for me to sit on.’” Malka’s story ends with the admonition that “we all have limitations. But we don’t need to live according to them.” I can still see her smiling.

Kerry chooses joy; Yaffy chooses her identity and her country; Leah survived the Shoah and, as a “Bubie told her story to Shira and [her granddaughter] over Sukkot 2019, she was verbal, vibrant, and remembered even the smallest details of her past.” Tamary, in “Promises Made, Promises Kept,” cuts through miles of red tape to bring her brother, who has Down syndrome, to live in Israel with her and her sister, fulfilling that “promise made” to her ill mother to always care for him. 

I read this book while in Maine, whose rocky coastline exposes layer upon layer of eroded cliffs. If I had paid more attention in my high school science class, I could tell you about the rocks and sediments and composition of the cliffs. But though I probably yawned through the lesson (and apparently passed the test!), I can tell you about the layers- each change in color and texture relates a story, narrating the forces at work that mold and shape, willingly and unwillingly, that little part of that beautiful piece of our world. Layers relates those same forces- each woman’s courage in molding and shaping her world, surviving the traumas, sharing intimate details of births and miscarriages, illness and recovery- through amazing stories and ever smiling photographs. Thank you, Shira Lankin Sheps, for exposing the layers of our lives in our little parts of Hashem’s beautiful world.

Randy Rubinstein lives in Sharon, Massachusetts