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My children believe in Christmas elves. And leprechauns. They also believe that there are little elves who live in our backyard. Last year when spring came, the elves moved in to our pine tree and set up a mini Adirondack chair, a white picket fence, and a miniature watering can outside. And they nailed a small 12-inch door into the tree trunk. Last weekend, while everyone was taking a nap, they left a little note on the counter announcing they were back and leading the kids on a scavenger hunt around the yard. These are our stretelech, Yiddish for magical little people.
My husband discovered the stories of stretelech at the Conference of American Jewish Educators conference after seeing David Arfa speak. Later he asked his Yiddish-speaking grandmother about them. She confirmed that as a child she was scared of the shtretelech. Like many fairy tale creatures over the past century, they have morphed from evil trolls into mischievous pranksters.
So who are these little Jewish elves? Apparently they live outside for most of the year, but relocate behind our stoves during the winter. Children are excellent at spotting stretelech in the woods, but adults have trouble identifying their tracks. Some stories identify them as musicians. Others as shoemakers. One Yiddish folk teller says the Elves and the Shoemaker story about the poor shoemaker who wakes one morning to find that someone has mysteriously made a pair of exquisite shoes, is a stretelech tale.
One of the things I really loved as a kid were fairy tale creatures. I remember chasing the end of a rainbow with a very real belief that there would be a pot of gold, guarded by a mischievous little leprechaun. And even though I never really believed in Christmas elves, I loved the idea of tiny people making toys and singing Christmas carols. So I was excited to learn about the stretelech, and since there is so little known about them, I could make their story whatever I wanted. I read (in the Encyclopedia Britannica) that Jewish fairy tales are “conspicuously absent” from Jewish legends, “because fairies, elves, and the like are foreign to the Jewish imagination, which prefers to populate the otherworld with angels and demons subservient to God.” Well! This just isn’t true, not when I know there are a group of stretelech who live in my backyard.
For a picture of what a stretelech might look like, click here. Otherwise, you’ll have to search for one on your own.
The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as the “days of awe” – a time of reflection, atonement, saying you’re sorry to those you may have wronged. The Days of Awe 2011 for our family has officially been re-named the “days of sick”. Unfortunately our older son was sick and out of school for the past 10 days. Nothing serious – but he had a long standing fever, horrible cough and a big case of the “I just want to lay on the couch, watch TV and play Wii”. He got x-rays for pneumonia – nothing, we went to the doctor’s – his exam was perfect. We went to get blood work – which was a whole other ordeal unto itself – nothing. Just more Jr. Tylenol and cough-induced sleepless nights for us all. I just felt so bad for him – no energy, no appetite, no interest in doing anything. The worst part for my husband and I was that we felt so helpless – we just couldn’t do anything to make him feel better.
The one bright spot of the week was one night before bedtime. We usually read our boys a book or two (or three) before bedtime that they get to choose and at this point, our older son can read on his own – he was so proud of himself when he came home from school on library day with two chapter books after he passed the “test” to take them out. Instead of reading Hooray for Fly Guy or Gus and Grandpa’s Halloween Costume or a book about tornadoes, dinosaurs or baseball, he requested The Only One Club and The Shabbat Box – two adorable PJ Library books that we probably haven’t read in two years but are still in his bookcase. The Only One Club is a great picture book about a girl who realizes that she is the only Jewish child in her class as her teacher is having all of the kids make Christmas decorations. She goes home that night and makes a special badge for herself that says “The Only One Club”. At school the next day everyone asks her what the badge is for and then everyone else wants to be part of the club. Although she makes the badge because she is the only Jewish child, she figures out that each kid in her class is the “only one” of something – red hair, freckles, big teeth, etc. It’s a book that is particularly relevant during the December holidays when kids start to figure out who is Jewish and who is not, or remembering my son’s explanation – “who is Christmas and who is Chanukah.”
The Shabbat Box is a book about a boy who waits “98 sleeps” to take home the Shabbat Box from pre-school and then it drops in the snow on his way home and he ends up making another, even more special Shabbat box for the class. From our experience at the JCC pre-school, the Shabbat Box includes candles, a fresh challah, grape juice, a blessings sheet and a Shabbat book. Getting the Shabbat Box in pre-school was always fun for us – except on the Friday nights when my husband and I were completely exhausted and couldn’t rally to do Shabbat and instead made French toast on Saturday morning.
I was more than happy to read these sweet, moral-based, Jewish books to my sick son who obviously needed a feel-good book before bedtime that night – too tired and too exhausted to read on his own and more in the mood for a pre-school story than a big boy book. My husband also read these same books to our son the night before – unbeknownst to me.
As I look back on these ten days and do my own reflecting, I realize I am so lucky to have a healthy family, an amazing husband who is helping create a Jewish life for our children and a supportive community in which to do so.
For more information on the PJ Library and how your child/ren can get free, age appropriate, Jewish books and music sent to your home on a monthly basis visit www.pjlibrary.org. You will be happy you did!