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Jewish Music for Rock and Roll Preschoolers?

Reviews of Peter and Ellen Allard Present Songs for a Jewish Head Start (Based on the original songs by Rita Gold) edited by Peter and Ellen Allard (URJ Books and Music, 2008) and The Bedtime Sh'ma by Sarah Gershman (EKS Publishing Company, 2007.)

We all remember songs we loved from childhood and we can probably recall several we'd rather omit from our long term memory. But music from our earliest years stays with us and, as Rabbi Daniel Freelander suggests in his foreword to Songs for a Jewish Head Start, "there is no better way to teach Jewish values and to instill a strong, positive Jewish identity than through song."

bedtime story stock imageThe compositions included in Songs for a Jewish Head Start are based on those that educator Rita Gold, a graduate of Teachers College at Columbia University and director of a Head Start Program, originally composed for use in the Head Start classrooms. Head Start is a national educational program for disadvantaged preschoolers that seeks to prepares them for kindergarten. By redirecting the lyrics of the original songs for the Jewish classroom, Peter and Ellen Allard and 11 other composers aim to provide Jewish children with songs that deliver a strong base of familiarity with Jewish traditions and values.

There are 19 songs in the collection. As with all music, personal preference will dictate which of these you wish to replay over and over (and those of you with small children will know that it's likely out of your hands). There are songs about good manners, about making a difference in the world, about prayer and faith. Some of the lyrics can be moving: "It's not the location, the gender, the nation, / The color or language or size. / It's Torah and Hebrew and saying Sh'ma / And to see God in each other's eyes." Some of the lyrics are appropriately simple and direct: "Good manners are the best / For each day of the year. / With everyone you meet … " The included CD serves as a portable classroom; each song is sung in a folksy style by a cheery female voice that doesn't grate, which is always a welcome relief with children's music.

My daughter, who is 3, did not light up with enthusiasm for this album. I am not sure that she is representative of all kids, largely because she tends to favor more beat-oriented, less folksy styles of music (much to the dismay of her folk-loving mom). I imagine if she were in a group setting, like preschool where the Head Start songs were being sung, she'd have enjoyed them more. The only other problem with the book for interfaith families with young chidlren is that there are few translations and no glossary of terms to help with the abundance of Hebrew in the lyrics. Many of the songs have extended Hebrew passages which, undefined, could alienate those unfamiliar with the language. Still, Songs for a Jewish Head Start could be a vehicle for imparting Jewish and universal ethical values in some interfaith families. 

Another recent title, The Bedtime Sh'ma, also encourages Jewish learning through the new interpretation of ancient ideals. Adapted by Sarah Gershman from what she suggests is the original "good night book," this delightful children's version of the Sh'ma covers all the basics, doesn't water down the sentiments and, as Gershman says in her afterward, stays "true to the essence of the prayer, while interpreting the ancient texts with the youngest of listeners in mind."

At the back of The Bedtime Sh'ma, large excerpts from the traditional prayer are printed in English and Hebrew. In addition to being a good learning opportunity for adults who don't have the practice of reciting this version of the bedtime Sh'ma, it was handy to have the adult version immediately available to compare with Gershman's children's version. She has simplified the text without changing its original spirit.

On the first page of The Bedtime Sh'ma, "I forgive anyone who made me angry or upset or who hurt me, my body, my things, my feelings, or anything that is mine, whether by accident or on purpose, by words, actions or thoughts, in this world or in another world. I forgive each one…" becomes "Did someone hurt me? I try to forgive." This is scaled down, not dumbed down. The book's illustrations, by Kristina Swarner, are drawn with plenty of stars and in the pleasant nighttime palate of rich blues and purples. Sometimes the art echoes Marc Chagall in the swirliness, in the way that horses can fly through the air and parents can literally hover over their sleeping children.

An audio CD is also available to accompany The Bedtime Sh'ma. Even though Rabbi Julia Andelman's vocals and Benjamin Dreyfus' guitar were gentle and sweet, my beat-crazy 3-year-old liked the music at bedtime. She seemed to appreciate the beauty of the book and the accompanying music as much as I did. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for just the right introduction to prayer for their children; The Bedtime Sh'ma is produced in such a way that anyone can feel comfortable with its presentation and purpose. "Wonder is at my right," Gershman tells her young readers. "Tomorrow will be filled with new adventures." That's a hopefulness anyone, from any background, at any age, can appreciate.

A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Lynn Melnick

Lynn Melnick has reviewed books for Publishers Weekly and Boston Review, and has published poetry in Boston Review, Paris Review, Crowd, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and daughters.

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