Adventures in Israel: The Jerusalem International Book Forum

As a writer, I’m always looking for opportunities to expand my knowledge of the publishing world, so when I saw an advertisement about the Jerusalem International Book Forum — a five-day conference where publishers, authors, and literary agents host talks and network — I jumped at the chance to go.

Though I love being spontaneous, it often takes a lot for me to get out of my comfort zone and go somewhere new on my own. So, while I immediately registered for the event, I was terrified about traveling to Jerusalem and being among these distinguished literary people. Thankfully, my friend Shira — who graciously opened her home for me to stay — helped me settle into my surroundings by joining me at the beginning of the event.

Opening Ceremony/First Day

Hosted at the YMCA, Shira and I arrived excited but with no idea what we would say to people. I’d practiced my pitch on the train but knew that this time in Jerusalem would be more about meeting people than finding someone to publish my book. So, sitting in the auditorium among the forum’s participants, I prayed that God would lead my steps and show me the right people to speak to.

It can be intimidating to be among such prominent people, but not knowing who anyone was really worked in my favor. Rather than gawking at being around bestsellers, Pulitzer Prize winners, and representatives from publishing houses like Penguin Random House, everyone looked the same, and no one was off-limits.

In between the sessions — which were enlightening — I had time to introduce myself to the other participants while enjoying refreshments and catered pastries. Observing the people around me, I had no idea who to approach first. Everyone seemed to be there for a specific reason and either stayed in their group or approached key people, so I didn’t want to interrupt. Finding a table in the shade, I again asked the Father to open the doors and bring the right people to my table.

Less than two minutes later, a woman asked if she could sit with me. I’m not going to lie, I was disappointed at first because I was hoping to meet a literary agent or publisher, but the Lord humbled me very quickly. As I began speaking to Isi, whose smile is brighter than the sun, I was reminded that the Lord doesn’t look at outward appearances but at the heart. Sure enough, had I continued searching for someone who “fit for the part,” I would’ve missed out on a fabulous afternoon!

A few minutes into our conversation, Isi’s husband, Tuvia, joined us. Dressed in a white shirt with red suspenders, Tuvia immediately struck me as an animation character. As we spoke, we noticed everyone had disappeared, reminding Isi that lunch was supposedly being hosted for the registered participants. Accepting their invitation to join them, so began our quest to find this special luncheon.

A trek through Jerusalem

If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, you’ll know that it’s full of streets and buildings piled on top of each other. Your map might say you’ve arrived at your destination, but it could be anywhere in the hidden crevices of the ancient stones.

In Israel, nothing is simple.

During our search, we were joined by an American author who began asking Tuvia about his work. The moment he mentioned the name of his best-selling book, Catch the Jew! I knew who he was. Though I hadn’t read the book (yet!) I distinctly recalled the cover — in which Tuvia is indeed an animation character — after it was recommended to me by none other than Dita Kraus, the Librarian of Auschwitz!

It’s incredible how your perspective shifts after discovering who a person is. Suddenly, I noticed people stopping to speak to Tuvia, asking for his picture or thanking him for his work, and I realized that I was not just walking with a famous author but a true Israeli celebrity!

Refusing to give up on our quest, Isi, Tuvia, and I proved to be the real troopers when the American woman turned back, too hot in the afternoon heat. Nevertheless, we persisted, meeting some interesting characters along the way, determined to find the lunch whether or not they let us in.

They didn’t let us in… After almost an hour of strolling up and down the maze of streets, we found the luncheon only to be told that it was only for those within the Fellowship — a group of young people who were just starting their journey in publishing. Feeling like an outcast in the Lord of the Rings, we began retracing our steps to the YMCA, our stomachs empty and skin burned.

Pausing for a rest, we sat on a park bench under the shade of a tree. With Isi and Tuvia on either side of me, we savored each other’s company, curious about one another. When asked if I had a business card, I explained that I did not, though I did have something that would put my contact information straight into their phones. Excited about my decorated QR code, Isi and Tuvia pulled out their phones to give it a go.

Pro-tip: If you’re fed up spending money on business cards, I recommend creating a QR code. It takes less than ten minutes and is very accessible.

My favorite part of the afternoon with Isi and Tuvia was watching them open their arms to everyone they came across. The Tenenboms are the most welcoming couple I’ve ever met. No story was uninteresting, and no person was turned away. Time seemed to stand still as people came over to our table as we ate lunch, gushing about Tuvia’s work while Isi ushered them to take a seat and tell us about themselves. I loved it!

I could’ve spent the whole day with the Tenenboms, but I needed to get back for the next session.

Weak at the knees

Titled Debut Books: How to Support and Promote New Authors in a Post-Pandemic World, I was excited to hear what would be said during the panel. Taking notes, I tried to absorb everything and even jotted down a question to ask during the Q&A. The moment the moderator turned to the audience, my hand shot up, and I was chosen to speak.

Now, this was the third session of the event, and during the previous Q&As, we’d had to strain our ears to hear the questions since a microphone had not been supplied. So, of course, it would be just my luck that the moment I stood to ask my question, I would be the first to be handed a microphone and have my voice projected throughout the auditorium.

Standing in the aisle, I asked the panelists, “What can authors hoping to get published do to impress agents and publishers? Is there a certain character trait or spark you’re looking for?”

The moment I asked the question, I felt my surroundings fade into the background as my knees began to shake. All I could think about was trying to hide my nerves as I felt everyone’s eyes on me. Thankfully, I recorded the session and was able to listen to the panelists’ answers afterward.

Their response was rather broad, saying: “A very well-written first two pages. Language, style, and innovation. Novels about truth.” Followed by a riddled Mad Hatter answer from Noa Menhaim from Kinneret Zamora Publishing House, “I’m looking for something that hasn’t been told before, told to me in a way that hasn’t been used. I would settle for something that has been told before but in a way that hasn’t been used before. I would also settle for something I haven’t read before in a way I have heard before.”

Later on, while speaking to publishers and literary agents, they commended me for my question but explained how they would’ve answered differently. One literary scout said that the most important thing was never to shy away from who you are. She explained that authors should write what they know because a publisher can tell when a book is not written with the author’s whole heart.

Exiting the auditorium at the end of the session, I found Tuvia and Isi and asked if he had time for me to purchase his book so he could sign it. “Of course,” he enthused. So, off I went to find the bookstore they’d recommended.

Cracking the code on the bus system

Along with the maze-like streets, the buses in Jerusalem are a puzzle themselves. When I arrived the day before, the bus I was supposed to get refused to stop (twice!), and I waited almost an hour before the driver finally let me on. That afternoon, as I ventured to this unknown bookstore, I followed the map and waited for the bus, only to realize that I’d been standing on the wrong side of the road and was heading in the wrong direction!! Thank God for Moovit; I’d have been hopelessly lost without this little app to track my journey and tell me which bus would get me to my destination. So, hobbling off the wrong bus with blistered feet (I’d walked 8+km in pumps!), I prayed the right one would come along soon. Another hour later, after missing two more buses (my fault this time), I finally arrived at my destination.

Mission accomplished, I returned to the YMCA and was relieved to see Tuvia and Isi still there. Handing him a pen, I watched Tuvia take his time before writing. When he was done, he insisted on reading his words to me so I’d understand his writing. Tuvia wrote, “To Hannah, the most beautiful and spiritual lady in Jerusalem.” Now, I promise I’m not bragging, but his words completely blew me away! I mean, this coming from a man who has traveled around the world, meeting influential religious leaders and spending time listening to them share their faith! WOW!

Just as Tuvia was finished, Christian Kracht, a German author we’d met during our search for lunch, returned with an Israeli publisher to speak to the Tenenboms. Not wanting to interrupt, I said I’d leave them to it, but Isi insisted I stay. Feeling like a fish out of water, I sat quietly and listened as Tuvia asked about getting his next book translated into Hebrew. It was a fascinating conversation. Before their departure, Christian mentioned a cocktail party happening later that evening. Graciously, the invite was extended to me, with Christian remarking, “I sure hope to see you there.”

Party Time!

The cocktail party was hosted at The Deborah Harris Agency — an agency representing worldwide publishing and dramatic rights — in honor of Pulitzer Prize winner Joshua Cohen. Set up in their front yard, it was a dazzling evening under the stars full of music and conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and loved what Joshua said during his speech: “People who know, know that risks don’t exist. It’s only a risk if you’re not fully confident in your judgment and your ideal of reading.”

It was the perfect end to an epic day. I returned to Shira’s completely exhausted yet buzzing with news of all that had happened.

Going Home

Though the forum continued until Thursday, there was only one more session I was interested in attending on Tuesday morning before going home. So, packing my things, I carried my huge backpack to the YMCA for a few more hours of learning and networking. After the session, I had one last exciting conversation with a German and Polish publisher before catching the train home.

These three days in Jerusalem were an incredible lesson in God directing my steps. I’m so pleased that I went with the flow and didn’t let my expectations steal what turned into wonderful memories I won’t soon forget. As I end this article and get ready to continue reading Tuvia’s book, Catch the Jew!, I smile at the experience and pray that God will open the door for another spontaneous adventure soon!

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