An American Girl

An article in the New York Times about the latest American Girl doll caught my eye in the blog Anti-Racist Parent. (I subscribe to their RSS feed because I aspire to be that.) It’s an interesting story — the latest in this line of historically-based dolls is Jewish.

Just to give you the background, if you don’t know: American Girl dolls are not generic baby dolls for open-ended play, nor are they fashionable ladies to act out being mathematicians or mommies; each doll comes with a pre-written background historical fiction. The dolls alone sell for $95. Accompanying story books, sold separately, place the characters of each of the dolls in her time and region of the United States, and there are also accessories for each doll that may be purchased separately. (This is the kind of racket that makes me really happy to have a little boy.)

The New York Times piece discusses how previous African-American and Latina dollies attracted criticism. Which you can understand, I think — you don’t want to give children the message that their ethnic identity is bound up exclusively in oppression, and choosing to have the one African-American doll be born in slavery could be seen to do that. As a Jewish parent I do want my child to know the history of anti-Semitism, of the Shoah and the pogroms and the expulsions. But it’s not the first thing I want him to learn about himself, that he’s a target. I’d rather have him learn that musicians and scientists he admires are Jewish, first, and that there are Jewish people, who look different from each other, living all over the world, and then Jewish food and Jewish songs and Jewish jokes. There’s plenty of time to learn about the other stuff. In any case, the company went to great lengths this time to get it right, including consulting with, among others, Jewish historian Paula Hyman at Yale.

If you were going to write a story about an American Jewish girl set today, what would she look like and what would her story be?

Lamm, of God? Hardly.

A week and a half ago, Norman Lamm, the chancellor of Yeshiva University, gave an interview with the Jerusalem Post that is so full of insults for every Jew who’s not like him that it could pass as anti-Semitism.

In the interview, Lamm says, “With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements,” a statement as incorrect as it is condescending. It actually gets worse, much worse, from there.

For our purposes, we’ll only focus on the vitriol he directs at the Reform movement’s policy of recognizing the Jewishly raised children of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers as Jews. Discussing population growth in the progressive movements, he says, “The Reform Movement may show a rise, because if you add goyim to Jews then you will do OK.” We wrote a letter to the editor about this particularly revolting quote, reprinted below:

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Especially in This Economy

A new game that has amused me and my friends in recent days is adding “…especially in this economy” to the end of any opinionated statement. The more ridiculous, the better.

Let’s take some examples from friends’ Facebook status updates (all names changed to protect the guilty): “Lisa Martin is really going to miss ‘Lost’ this summer, especially in this economy.” Not bad. “Richard Poe is struggling to stay awake, especially in this economy.” Decent. ”Trader Joe’s gazpacho is delicious, especially in this economy!” Nice. “Susan Portnoy is amazed by the logic a 4 year old will use not to take medicine, especially in this economy.” We have a winner!

I bring this up because just as this economy is leading people to question all kinds of political and economic assumptions, it’s also leading the Jewish community to question assumptions about some of its most enconsced institutions.

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Double Header

It is rare that an event accomplishes two goals at once. The Jewish Family Network helped my family do just that. Last Saturday night, my family headed out to the Children’s Discovery Museum in Acton for a Hanukkah celebration. I am a Jewish professional and my husband is a scientist and our priorities sometimes clash, but last Saturday night they melded beautifully.

Our evening opened with Havadalah and ended with Hanukkah songs and sufganot with Cantor Gaston My 21 month old son was so mesmerized he sat in a chair for 25 minutes clapping along to Hanukkah songs. In between, we spent time in this amazing space where we explored interactive and age-appropriate exhibits focused on scientific inquiry. We also had an opportunity to create our own dreidel.

We liked the way the evening integrated our cultural and scientific exploration and the way it worked for our child and both of his parents.

Books and Other Goodies

My son started kindergarten this week. At our Havurah, we did a ceremony for him and the other new kindergartner in our little community. The other little girl’s mom baked cookies in the shape of the Hebrew alef-bet. Each set of parents came up and said the blessing on part of the Torah reading.Then our resident blesser-stock photo of children reading-we don’t have a rabbi in our lay-led group, but we do have members with special talents, like the ability to make bilingual puns in Hebrew and English–said a blessing on our families in honor of the milestone of starting formal education. As part of the ritual, my son got the first Hebrew letter of his name with honey drizzled on top.

This is a Jewish folk custom that I wanted to do with my son, but probably would have forgotten in the rush to get out the door the first day of school. In Eastern Europe, Jews sent their little boys to school at a young age, and used to put honey on the slate they would be using to learn the letters, or even, on the cover of a book. Reading and writing should be sweet.

Yesterday my son was home sick–yes, on the third day of school–and was watching an Elmo video on Youtube. I overheard a little story from the computer screen about a girl whose house was made of books, whose bed was made of books, who read while she walked around and who had books everywhere. I thought, “That’s supposed to be funny and absurd but that’s what our house is like.”

Soon my desk is going to look as bad as my house. (It doesn’t yet, coworkers.) I get books here at work, a steady stream of books for us to review on the site. Whatever publishers don’t send us, I request. I’ve made friends with some of the people who send out the review copies from the Jewish publishers. We all ooohed and aaahed over a beautiful cookbook, The Book of New Israeli Food by Janna Gur, with its gorgeous photos of pomegranates, halvah and stuffed vegetables. We’re going to review it. One of our frequent book reviewers, Jayne Cohen, just came out with a great-looking book called Jewish Holiday Cooking, which we’re also going to have reviewed.  It was hard to let these yummy-looking books go. Continue reading

A Troubled Daughter and an Atheist Mother

Yesterday I wrote about the fictional story of a successful man whose child inexplicably descends into self-destruction in her teens. Today, my friend Nate Bloom alerted me to a similar story in The New York Times. The big difference is that the story in the Times is true.

In Sunday’s edition, Julie Schumacher, a novelist and English professor, writes painfully and poignantly about her daughter “who has fallen apart.” Schumacher was brought up Methodist but is a long-time atheist; her husband once said she was “the least spiritual person he had ever met.” But she finds herself in a Jewish women’s support group after being invited by the mother of a girl her daughter had met in treatment:

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Inside Baseball

search for hametz--with Google!My five-year-old son is very subtle. The morning after our Havurah Purim party, my son told me, “You know, not everyone knows what a Purimspiel is.”

“But you do, honey, because we saw one last night. It was the play people were acting out, about Queen Esther.”

He nodded. “But not everyone knows what that is.”

Sometimes my son will start using words correctly and then ask me later what they mean. I’m always sliding new words by him and finding out that he’s picked them up when he hands his dad a board book of the Noah’s Ark story with the request, “Read me the abridged version.” My big challenge is to introduce the words in such a way that he gobbles them up like a little Pac-Man and doesn’t shut off his attention.

This is also my challenge at my job. The difference is that I am writing here for adults who are, generally speaking, highly educated. Continue reading

“Both Sides” of the Story

Both Sides of the Family publicity photoI saw a very interesting one-act on Sunday. Called “Both Sides of the Family,” it tells the parallel stories of an Episcopalian woman raising Jewish children in a Conservadox community and a twice-married Jewish man with Jewish children from his first wife and Christian children from his second. It was created and produced by the Charenton Theater Company of Ohio, and was sponsored by the Interfaith Collaborative, a group of Boston-area outreach groups of which InterfaithFamily.com is a part. I helped arrange the connection between Charenton and the Collaborative, and I still don’t know what to make of the play.

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