Tikkun Olam Ted and the Importance of Small Steps

My family is one of the many families who benefits from the amazing PJ Library, an extraordinary program that mails free Jewish books and music to 125,000 homes throughout the country. Ruthie enjoyed the program for three years, and last year Chaya got her very own subscription. It is a real gift to have colorful, modern media to use to talk to the girls about different aspects of Jewish life. This week I’d like to talk about Chaya’s current favorite, Tikkun Olam Ted, and how reading it has reminded me how to boil big ideas down into bite size pieces for my young kids.

The book, by Vivian Newman, is about a little boy named Ted, who “is small. But spends his days doing very big things.” Ted got his nickname because of his interest in helping to “fix the world and make it a kinder, better place.” For each day of the week, Ted takes on a different task. What is brilliant about the book, aside from the adorable, colorful illustrations by Steve Mack, is how Ted’s big things are completely age-appropriate for a preschooler. Ted does not heal the world by going to a soup kitchen, running a blood drive, or spending a day with Habitat for Humanity. He does things that any kid could easily do in the course of their daily life – he recycles, he does yard work, he feeds the birds and he remembers to turn off the lights.

Reading this book, I am reminded of my own eagerness as a parent to teach my girls big lessons, and to endow them with a sophisticated toolkit of ideas and approaches to having a full and successful life.  I dream of raising them to know how to make good choices, to be resilient, to pursue their passions, and to try to fix the world because doing so is meaningful for them.  Before I had kids, and throughout my first pregnancy, I often schemed about how I would engender these traits in them, but I spent more time thinking about a Bat Mitzvah-age service project, or the feminist literature I might sprinkle into a 16-year-old’s Hanukkah gifts, than what the building blocks might be for a two-year old.

But it is a long time before those Bat Mitzvahs, and that toolkit will be even stronger if I can start now. Reading Tikkun Olam Ted aloud to my girls reminds me of the significance of the things that they can do independently now, and that those are probably as important as that adolescent reading list. Sure, I’ll keep bringing them to political events with me, and telling them of the bigger things Eric and I do to fix the world in our adult way.  But I will also remind them how turning off the faucet really matters, or how re-using yesterday’s sandwich bag actually has a ripple effect on the health of our planet. Judging by how frequently Chaya hands Newman’s book to me, I think she’s already starting to grasp the connections.

The Challenge of Sharing The Bible with Younger Kids

In 2003 (five years before I had kids), I read about a project that drew me in for the ways it combined my love of storytelling, my nostalgia for the toys of my youth, and my general admiration for out-of-the-box creativity.  A guy named Brendan Powell Smith had started a website, and then a series of books, called The Brick Testament, where he re-created biblical stories from with Legos.  Eric and I were excited to find a big stack of Brick Testament books two years later at the MIT Press Booksale, and we gathered them up, a set for ourselves and a bunch more to give as gifts.

A sampling of The Brick Testament

The project is impressive – Smith has amassed tons of Lego sets and re-assembled them into unique collections for each tale.  As you read it you can see the pieces of a farm set climbing into Noah’s ark, or perhaps the body of Obie-Wan with a new head to look like a biblical farmer, walking across Lego tableaus of the Garden of Eden or the Pharoah’s palace.  Smith does not use an official translation to tell his stories – he’s made his own based on a compilation of sources – but the stories are very recognizable to those that I have learned over time.

About a year ago, Ruthie discovered these books on one of my bookcases.  She saw the Legos – toys – and claimed the books for her own.  I figured there couldn’t be much harm in reading them to her – we frequently talk about the stories behind the holidays, what it means to be Jewish, and conversations about G-d are not foreign to our repertoire.  But as I leaf through them with her, I am both verbally and graphically reminded that The Bible isn’t all sunshine and roses.  There are some pretty tough parts – violent parts, sad parts – that I don’t feel completely ready to delve into explaining to a five-year old.

Some kids love the scary, but Ruthie doesn’t, largely because, I am sure, her apple fell pretty close to her horror-movie-hating mom’s tree.  And the challenges of getting the scary out did not start with the nights we read The Brick Testament.  Even though the Disney stories all end in a happily-ever-after, they also almost all contain a terrifying witch, an evil sorcerer, or my least favorite villain, a stepmother out to destroy her husband’s children.  And there’s bad stuff in these stories because there’s bad stuff in real life, stuff that Ruthie is getting closer understanding with each passing year.

Intellectually, one of my primary goals as a parent is to make my kids resilient people.  I know that no matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent them from everything that is scary, I can’t keep them from knowing hardship firsthand.  But if I can give them tools to know that scary things don’t need to make all of life scary, and that the bad things that happen do not need to define them, I will feel like I have done a good job.  When push comes to shove, however, and the picture on the page is of biblical bloodshed, my maternal instinct tells me to skip that page – to gather the girls up in my arms and protect them from even knowing that people kill other people.  If resiliency is the goal, it means that someday, and I am sure a day sooner than I am ready for it, we’ll need to not only read about Cain killing Abel in full, but we’ll also need to talk about it for a while.  And in the end, The Bible, which is reinforced with thousands of years of commentary about why things happened the way they did, is one of my best tools to open the discussion about why evil happens and how to understand it.

In a great article on this website about introducing Torah to your kids, Kathy Bloomfield notes that “There are times when the Torah portion is just not something you want to discuss with the children. Explaining animal sacrifices, what “begat” means or why there seems to be so much bloodshed can get very tiresome.” There is also a great animated video series on this site presented by Torahlog, which presents the year’s worth of Torah portions with commentary.

Ideally, I want my girls to start out understanding the richness and the wonder of the stories upon which our faith is built, and gain a comfort level that will make them open to the more complex parts as they are developmentally more ready.  But for now,  I am going to purchase a few of the books Bloomfield suggests, along with Brendan Powell Smith’s newer bible stories for kids, and start preparing for the days when all four of us are ready for that complexity.

Converting to Jewish – the book

I’m working on a book (actually, I’m more working on the book proposal and gathering data for the book). Essentially, the book is about my own conversion story, but also about my own struggle to raise a Jewish family that also embraces and celebrates a non-Jewish heritage. I’ve got a questionnaire so I can get others’ stories to interweave with my own.  Here’s a brief overview of the topic, and I’ve attached a copy of the questionnaire.

It’s estimated that nearly half of all Jewish marriages are ones in which one member of the couple is not Jewish. While this raises all sorts of questions about the future survival of the Jewish people, what interested me most are the questions that were more personal in nature. What does a marriage between people of different backgrounds look like? If the decision is made to raise your children in one faith, or one tradition, who compromises what? Converting to Jewish explores those questions and offers some much needed guidance on what happens after the conversion, and what raising a family with someone of a dramatically different culture and tradition is really like.

This book will serve as a inspirational guide to anyone in a relationship that deals with interfaith or intercultural differences. For those of us who convert because our spouse is Jewish, and we don’t want our family to be something we aren’t. This is the book I wish I had had when I started, an honest look at what it takes to be in an interfaith or intercultural relationship, how to navigate the trickiest aspects, and how to respect, celebrate and embrace the differences, even as you focus on what brings you together as a family.

If you’d like to fill out the questionnaire (a Word document), I’d love it. Ideally, what I’d like is to be able to weave in others’ stories along with my own. All responses will be anonymous. Please let me know if you have any questions or thoughts; my email is melissa.cohen0214@yahoo.com and my website is melissaannecohen.com.

Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah Come Light the…Christmas Tree?

Saturday morning my family and I were at a children’s Shabbat service. Halfway through the service, our youth director asked the children to think of something they were excited to experience in the coming week. My son Oliver perked up and shot me an excited look, then reached his arm high into the air. I knew what was coming. We were going to cut down our Christmas tree the next day, and Oliver had been talking about it incessantly all week long. He is a child who hides his face and refuses to talk in Shabbat services, but Christmas trees could bring him out of his shell. I began sinking farther down in my seat and wishing this wasn’t happening.

Sure enough, the youth director called on Oliver first. “I’m excited to get our Christmas tree tomorrow!” he practically shouted. To the youth director’s credit, and probably in recognition of the number of interfaith families who are members of our synagogue, she asked Oliver whether or not we were going to cut the tree ourselves or buy it pre-cut. Oliver had no idea, but that didn’t stop him from saying we would buy it pre-cut. Then she said, “Sounds fun!” and moved on to the next child, who expressed his excitement for Hanukkah starting in a week. Which got Oliver excited, too. Hanukkah AND Christmas were so close? Amazing!

It was a nice moment, because she didn’t shoot him down or ignore his excitement. She did what a good youth director does and engaged him in conversation. Oliver was pleased that he participated. And I felt relieved and thankful for a youth director who understands interfaith families and excited little kids.

The episode reminded me of a Hanukkah/Christmas book called, “Light the Lights” by Margaret Moorman. I like it because it explores how both holidays use light during the darkest time of the year, and many of the sweetest interactions are about talking to your neighbors and observing your community as it prepares for the holidays. I especially like that you can’t tell which parent is the “Jewish” parent and which one is the “Christian” parent. Instead, both parents are equally participating and enjoying the holidays. It’s available at Amazon.com for under $10, and is part of the growing canon of books exploring both holidays.

Joy

In early May, I had the amazing opportunity to attend the JCC‘s of North America Biennial Conference in New Orleans.  Most of the conference sessions I attended were about leadership, community and the future of the JCC movement – all very interesting and meaningful to me as a JCC professional.  However, the best workshop I attended was the one presented by David Ackerman of the JCC Association and Karina Zilberman, creator of Shababa at the 92nd Street Y in New York City focused on celebrating Shabbat at JCCs.  If you live in Manhattan and you have small children, my advice is to RUN, not walk, to the 92nd Street Y for Shababa Fridays and Saturdays.  If your kids like music and you like to feel inspired, this is the place.  In a room full of 40 adults, Karina was able to create an atmosphere of joy that I haven’t experienced really since summer camp many moons ago.  Her spirit, creativity and unique enthusiasm had a way of making everyone feel good, and in essence, make everyone feel good about being Jewish.  That’s a pretty big and important task.

This experience really got me thinking about joy and Judaism – are my husband and I making Judaism joyful for our boys?  We try to make it fun by bringing them to the JCC and synagogue Purim carnivals, by taking them to see Mama Doni concerts and by celebrating Passover with their cousins.  We try to make it part of our lives by going to religious school on Sundays and participating in the family service each week.  We try to make it social by setting up playdates with Jewish friends.  But do we make it joyful?  How do we really do that? 

I think I can see and hear joy when our boys are singing Jewish songs in the car and reading books from the PJ library – but how can we take it to the next level?  Overnight camp is one way for sure – Friday night services outside with all of your friends, singing the Birkat Hamazon (blessing after the meal) with all of the “campy” traditions – but until they (and we) are ready for that, what can we do now?  How can we ensure that they feel great about being Jewish and that they feel joy when they are doing Jewish things? 

Book: The Invisible Wall

When I go to the library at the Jewish Community Centre, I tend to browse and just grab whatever book catches my fancy.  A few weeks ago, I couldn't find anything, so I asked the librarian if she had any recommendations.  I was in the mood for a memoir or something historical.  She recommended Harry Bernstein's memoir The Invisible Wall. 

Mr. Bernstein wrote his memoirs (a series of 3 books) in his late nineties after his wife had passe away.  He paints an amazing picture of England in the early twentieth century.  He lived on a small street where the Jews lived on one side and the Christians on the other side.  Antisemitic remarks were commonplace and something they lived with constantly. 

I hadn't realized that the book would actually include the issue of intermarriage.  The eldest sister Lily, married a non Jew, a boy who lived across the street.  They had a secret romance and eventually "eloped" to the country side where they were married.  Mother Bernstein was heartbroken.  They mourned her "death" and sat shivah.  Lily even came to the house to show she was very much alive, but her family ignored her. 

Eventually they accepted the marriage, when a grandchild was born.  In fact the street became united to celebrate the birth of the child of intermarriage. 

I could certainly relate to what Lily went through.  After I started dating my first non Jewish boy, my parents were disappointed and our relationship was severed for a long time.  After the birth of our son, my parents have come around themselves, accepting my husband.  I know it can't be easy for them to put aside their own upbringing and ingrained beliefs, but they are doing it and showing amazing love and grace to my husband. 

Historically, Jews who intermarried were trying to shed their Jewish spirituality.  They felt that religion and spirituality were the cause of antisemitism, and by being "like everyone else" they would be more accepted.  This was the case for Lily and her husband. 

Today, people have many reasons for marrying "out"; religion may not be as important, or it can be as simple as they fell in love with that person, who happens to not be Jewish (the latter is what applies to me).  More importantly, many intermarried couples still want their children to have some kind of Jewish upbringing. 

Lily didn't even want her son to be circumcised.  I felt a bit sad that she could not see anything beautiful about her Jewish spirituality, only the ugliness of the antisemitism. 

I thought that as a society, we have moved forward and intermarriage would be more accepted, but from my experience of forming a parenting group, I am hearing otherwise.  Intermarriage rates may be high, but it does not necessarily imply that Jewish communities are welcoming. 

Book review: P is for Passover


image from : http://www.judaism.com/gif-bk/33835a.gif

I love reading to my son.  One day soon, he’ll actually understand the words but for now it is still special bonding time over the pages.  As much as I love Dr. Seuss, I am starting a collection of Jewish holiday children’s books.  For Passover, I bought the book P is for Passover by Tanya Lee Stone at the first ever Passover fair at our Shul

Since my son is only 6 months old, he tends to respond more to books that has a good rhyme to it (which this book does well).  I love how he sits up and pays attention when the words have a rhythm. 

When I first opened the book I wondered if the author would skip letters or just stop somewhere in the middle of the alphabet.  I was impressed (and pleasantly surprised) that there is indeed a Passover “something” for each letter (ok, the X was in Exodus, but still). 

The artwork isn’t anything terribly fancy, but the colours are bright and there is much to look at on each page. 

Do you have a special Passover book you read with your kids (other than the Haggadah)?

Bedtime Routines

Baby’s bedtime routine is pretty typical: bath every other night, pjs, possibly a little playtime (depending on how organized we are that night), some cuddle/wind-down time with Mommy and/or Daddy on the couch, then upstairs. If Mommy’s putting to bed that night (Mommy’s and Daddy’s put-down routines differ slightly), we go upstairs, read one or two books, sing songs, and then it’s night-night.

Lately, I’ve been letting him pick out what books we’re going to read. (He’s got a veritable library to choose from – that’s what happens with an English-major-nerd-type of a Mommy and Grandma.) For quite some time it was Dr. Seuss’ The Foot Book or a Mother Goose compilation followed by Goodnight Moon. For Christmas, my Aunt Lyn (or, as Baby learned to call her, “Gate At Leee”) gave him On the Night You Were Born and Llama Llama Red Pajama, which quickly became favorites, even ousting Goodnight Moon. (Truthfully, Mommy was a little sad at that, because I love Goodnight Moon.)

But you know what he’s picked, almost exclusively, for the last week (which, let’s face it, in toddler-time is basically a lifetime)? My Shabbat, a soft shapes book by David Brooks. At first I thought Baby just liked it because the shapes come out, so it’s like getting to do a puzzle during bedtime stories. And I’m sure that’s one of the reasons he likes it. But I’ve noticed the last couple of nights that once he gets the removable shape out (or in, depending on whether we started with the pieces in or out of the book), he sits very still as I stumble read through the blessings (full disclosure here – I use the transliterations; I’ve not mastered Hebrew in my “spare” time). Now, I know he doesn’t understand yet, and that he probably really is reacting to the rhythmic sounds of the blessings, but I have to admit that I like it (and remember, I’m the non-Jewish parent). I also like that he now asks for his two night-night songs – the Sh’ma (which he calls “Sam-ah”) and “La La Lu” (also known as the lullaby from Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp”). I hope that these routines are, in some small way, a step toward incorporating more Jewish traditions in his daily life.

What do your children’s nighttime routines look like? Do you try to incorporate Jewish prayers/thoughts/traditions into those routines, or at other times of the day?