Layers: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Resilience, and Growth from Jewish Women
By Shira Lankin Sheps
Published by Toby Press, 470 pages
I first encountered The Layers Project a few years ago on social media. Shira Lankin Sheps, a social worker who is also a talented writer and photographer, shared profiles of women who were layered – complex and often having overcome significant hardships. What began as a blog series expanded to become The Layers Project Magazine (thelayersprojectmagazine.com) and now a book, Layers: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Resilience, and Growth from Jewish Women.
In the book’s introduction, Sheps recounts her struggle with an unexplained illness which she dealt with privately for years. Finally, no longer able to bear the pain, she wrote about her experience online. Readers responded with compassion. Revealing her struggle led to a helpful medical referral, and she was inspired to reduce the stigma of other women’s challenges by sharing their stories. The Layers Project began as a blog series in 2017 and became an online magazine in 2018.
Soon after making aliyah in 2018 Sheps began work on the book. Over the course of a year and a half, she interviewed and photographed 34 women throughout Israel. The result is a beautiful book with glossy magazine-like pages and striking photos.
Like the online Layers Project profiles, these stories are not always easy to read because they recount painful experiences. However, the stories are also uplifting because of the women’s strength and resilience. In addition to sharing how they processed trauma, frustration or sadness, many share happy, unexpected results of their struggles, and several note that the process of sharing their stories is therapeutic.
The subjects in the book are incredibly diverse, ranging in age from early 20s to 90s, representing broad ethnic backgrounds, and including several Jews of color. In addition, each woman has struggled with different challenges, including pregnancy loss, physical disability, mental illness, loss of loved ones, physical trauma, infertility and persecution. Their stories take place in wartime and peace, and stretch across the globe, with women who were born in Mexico, India, Egypt, and Ethiopia. I marveled at Sheps’s ability to connect with so many diverse women in a short period of time, and to tell their stories in such depth and detail.
Reading the book, I found myself at times overcome with sadness, but also feeling a sense of awe for these women and their incredible strength. The more I read, the more I wanted to read.
The book is best read episodically, taking time to process the stories. To encourage this, each chapter is followed by a page for readers to reflect on what they read, and includes exercises in gratitude or relaxation as well as discussion questions. As a solitary reader, I felt these reflections were not necessary, but the book would be a great tool for a book club or support group. In addition, if the emotional content of the book is overwhelming for some readers, the exercises will likely be helpful.
Even though the women in the book are all photographed and speak openly about their life experiences, they are only identified with their first names. In the Internet age, this hardly guarantees privacy, but the policy is aligned with the long-standing practice of The Layers Project. Some of the women profiled in the book come from more insular communities, and their decision to speak about their experiences is surely out of the norm, and required great courage.
In the end, the book is true to its mission: giving voice to women who have had difficult experiences, reducing the stigma about topics that have traditionally been deemed inappropriate for public discussion, and giving the women profiled and our communities the opportunity to grapple honestly with life’s difficulties.