Shira’s Story: Behind the Scenes of the New Layers Book
Some of you may already know parts of my story.
This next part I’ve been keeping to myself for the last three years.
Now it feels like the right time to share it.
I’ve written about how for most of my twenties I wrestled with chronic illness. Years passed and my life became smaller and smaller, and I became angrier and angrier. I had so much life that I wanted to live. There was so much I wanted to do.
I had to accept that I was not in control of my life. I couldn’t be the perfect mom, wife, professional, and person that I thought I was supposed to be. That I wanted to be.
I was flawed and messy and breaking in a million places. But the worst part of it was the shame. Shame for something that I couldn’t control. That I wasn’t perfect. I was afraid that people would judge me and think I was weak. The shame destroyed me more than illness.
In 2015 I decided it was enough. I was going to put my experience out there and let go, relinquish the shame that suffocated me. Tell my story to my little corner of the world, and do my best to accept the life I was living and try to live with grace.
So I did.
I posted it on the internet and that moment changed my life.
That post led to someone seeing it who was able to help me find an accurate diagnosis and treatment. It took several years, but I began a journey of healing that I still am on today.
In 2017 I launched The Layers Project, and in 2018, The Layers Project Magazine. I was healing while telling the stories of incredible Jewish women who inspired me more than I can describe.
At the same time, my greatest dream of the time was to go on aliya with my family- but in those darker years, it seemed like an impossible reality.
With a new lease on life, my husband and I knew that it was time. We packed up our home, our kids, and our life, and got on that plane.
When we landed, he gave me a necklace that read, “Mishane Makom, Mishane Mazal” which means, “Change your place, change your luck.”
I could not have imagined how right he would prove to be.
We landed in Israel on a Tuesday.
As you can imagine we were overwhelmed and excited and had a million things to do to set up our new life. We had been waiting for this moment for years and it was finally time to make it all real. I figured that I would cool it on work for a little while. Not take on anything new. Take a little break. Give myself the space to make life happen in a new country.
That lasted till the next Sunday, when I got a call from someone who had been following The Layers Project for a long time and who worked for a Jewish publishing house. She told me that they believed in the work and thought that more people needed to have access to these stories.
They wanted me to compile a coffee table book of the profiles that I had already written for the magazine.
I was stopped in my tracks. My biggest dream was to write a book. I had dreamed of being an author since I was small and devoured any book I could get my hands on. But it seemed like a faraway thought, not something for right now. Shira in the future- the one who had gotten her life together (btw still waiting to meet her)– that version of me would be writing books.
I was hesitant but was encouraged to write up a proposal. I couldn’t throw away an opportunity like this. So instead of unpacking boxes, I sat at my laptop and I wrote.
They got back to me and the publishing house wanted to make changes that didn’t resonate with the vision I had for the book. We respectfully agreed that our visions of the book were not aligned.
But the woman who pitched it to me believed in the book so much that she encouraged me to present it to other publishers.
I connected with Koren Publishers and within two days, I had an email from them telling me that they wanted the book.
When I sat with their team, their enthusiasm bolstered me and I realized that we shared the same vision of a book of raw stories from Jewish women, sharing the challenges and triumphs of their real lives. I couldn’t believe the level of excitement and support for this project. They chose Toby Press as the imprint in which the book would be published.
This time, the only difference from my proposal was this: write all new, never-before-seen profiles.
By the end of August, I had signed the contract.
Two months into my aliya, I got to work.
For the next year and a half, I worked nonstop.
I traveled the country of Israel interviewing Jewish women about their lives.
They told me their stories, which became more fascinating as the process went on.
At first, I thought that I would be showing up to interview them about a specific topic. As I listened, more topics, themes, and issues were revealed. I was experiencing a renaissance of my work in a way that I had not anticipated. At that point, I had done so many profiles for The Layers Project Magazine, with each story being deeply moving for me. Working on these new profiles in those early months of my aliya, a time so filled with emotion for me, impacted my creative process. These stories for the book became longer and more multifaceted than any I had ever done.
Stories of suffering and healing of lives revolving around eating disorders, mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder…
Incredible narratives of caring for loved ones sick with cancer, multiple-sclerosis, paralyzed, developmental disabilities…
Heartrending stories of all different types of grief and loss; spouses, parents, pregnancy loss, and more…
I learned about refugee and immigrant experiences; tales of escape and the gratitude that comes with finding a place to call home…
I was told about the inner life of someone who is fighting cancer and chronic illness…
I heard what it was like to fight in or witness war; intergenerational trauma, the indescribable costs of terror…
What it’s like to go on a spiritual journey; closer or further, choosing your religion and a new life…
The feeling of finding love, losing love, and still waiting for love…
There are so many more stories.
Every one of these women touched my life in a way that I will never be able to quantify.
I pushed myself as hard as I could to travel, collect, interview, photograph, and write everything that I thought needed to be said.
I put a lot of myself on pause because I was consumed by holding these stories — that at times overwhelmed my own emotional life.
I wrote and wrote until I had the first draft. It was hundreds of pages (around 500 at the time) and I was in awe of the collection of stories that was shared with me.
It was October 2019, and I submitted my manuscript to the publisher.
I was not prepared for what came next.
This photograph was taken in November 2019. It had been a week since I delivered my manuscript to the publisher and I was not OK.
I felt like I had been moving a million miles a minute and when all the work stopped, I slammed hard into a wall of reality.
I hadn’t been taking care of myself.
I had been sitting at my desk for too many hours a day, too many days a week, editing. I was so immersed that I barely moved from my chair- my eyes trained on thousands of words (and photographs) and I got lost in them. I should have done it differently. I should have been in therapy while I was writing and interviewing. I had such beautiful closure with my therapist in the States, I didn’t want to open up that relationship again. But I was full of other people’s rollercoasters of emotions and I could not let them go because I felt a responsibility towards each woman. To do justice by her. To write her voice in a way that was individually authentic.
To capture her experience. My saving grace was Rachel Hercman, who was the clinical editor of the book (as well as our magazine). We went through each chapter together. We cried. We were inspired. We talked about what the stories brought up for us, how it touched our own personal lives. Together we processed the feelings that each story evoked.
It made us realize that there was a very important element missing from the book. We needed to include reflection spaces at the end of each chapter. Personal questions for thought, important quotes from the women’s stories, group discussion points, and exercises to return to yourself; breathing, inspiration, grounding, gratitude. These reflection spaces have become an essential part of this book and I am excited to hear how they will add to your experience of reading.
I fell into a depression when the work stopped.
The wall (of my own making) that I slammed into when I finished crumbled on top of me. It was all the real-life stuff that I finally turned around and heeded. I had doctor’s appointments that I pushed off that I finally attended. I reopened dialogue with my therapist and began the personal exploration that I needed. I rested. I slept. I ate nourishing food. I spent time with my friends and family who picked me up and helped me heal from neglecting my human needs.
It took a few months, but I returned to myself.
After some months of editing, I got a call on March 9, 2020 (which was Taanit Esther) when I was in the mall doing some Purim shopping; getting odds and ends for costumes, and Mishloach Manot for later in the week.
I jumped in the car and flew across town to the Koren offices to pick up my copy. I was in awe to hold this incredible thing in my hands. I cried as I saw all these beautiful stories and their photographs in print. The advance reader copy was the second draft; in the many months to come it would get a new cover and many changes within.
But I’ll never forget the thrill of picking up this book for the first time.
None of us had any idea what was coming next.
I was supposed to announce the book to my social media world on March 15, 2020. That day turned out to be the first real day of the pandemic lockdown here in Israel. It was the first day of zoom school, something none of us were prepared to grapple with. It was the first day that people stayed home from work. Surgeries were canceled. Flights grounded.
The world was in shock and still.
By the end of the week that I had received the advance reader copies, obviously, like so many other things, the book was put on hold. We all took a collective breath and braced ourselves for what was coming.
In the months that passed, I said that “Hashem has the only plan.” Life had spun so far out of control that the only thing that I could allow myself to feel was surrender. I knew that there had been so much clear Divine intervention in bringing this work to fruition. I knew that these stories would be read by who they needed to be read by, at the right time. Not my timeline. God’s timeline.
As I continued to work on the edits, the stories became clearer and more vibrant. The cover got a new gorgeous design. My editor and I used the months that stretched on to the best of our abilities. We were productive. The book was sponsored by some incredible families who have my endless gratitude. The final product is so different than it would have been if it had gone to print last summer as was intended.
I am so grateful for the gift of time.
I think now is actually the perfect time to put this book out into the world. Life has been so hard for so many this year. The pandemic has cracked us all open, leaving us feeling a new sense of vulnerability and empathy. I think that more than ever we need to be reminded that we are not alone in our struggles. That resilience can lead us through darker moments. That there can still be beauty woven even through an experience of pain.
The moment the book was sent to the printer I had so many mixed feelings. So much joy. So much gratitude. Also, sadness, because I loved working on this book so much. I had the best team at Koren, who understood this project, its vision, the women, and their stories.
They told me that these stories were important and they needed to be told. They worked hard to make that a reality.
Now you, the reader, are on the cusp of experiencing the stories within the text of this book.
I can’t wait for you to join me on this adventure.
We have so much to talk about.
To purchase your copy of our book from USA, Canada, and worldwide- click here.
To purchase your copy from Israel click here.
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.