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Originally published in The PJ Library October 2008 Newsletter, reprinted by permission.
The PJ Library program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to children from age 6 months to ages 5, 6 or 7 years depending on the community. It's called The PJ Library because families use the books as bedtime stories--when children are in their pajamas.
Each month, as part of my job at The PJ Library, I have the truly enviable opportunity to interview a The PJ Library "Family of the Month." I get to peek inside the family life of engaged, unengaged, interfaith, two mom, and otherly defined families with a Jewish connection. Below is an interview with an interfaith family from Conway, Mass., that we thought might be of interest to InterfaithFamily.com readers. The parents are Amy and John and the children are Maddy, 9, and Isaac, 6. The whole family participated in the interview on the Sunday after Rosh Hashanah in 2008.
John Perrault, Amy Dryansky and their children Maddy, 9 and Isaac, 6.
Maddy: We went outside on our porch and we blew our shofar. We had orange honey chicken and apples and honey for dessert.
John: Around the dinner table we reflected back on the year and discussed how to make the next year a better, sweeter time.
Amy: We "took stock" and talked about doing things differently in the coming year.
Q: What difference has it made to your family to have a PJ Library book arrive in your mailbox each month?
Amy: It has made a tremendous difference. It is a great way for our kids to get introduced to different parts of Jewish history and culture. This doesn't mean that I always agree 100 percent with the books but we learn from them and discuss them.
John: The books introduce things that we don't have at our fingertips. We don't have a Jewish community here in Conway, I wasn't raised Jewish and Amy grew up with minimal knowledge. The books open channels of communication and allow us as a family, and especially Maddy, our 9-year-old, to get more involved and to learn. She talks about and takes in all the books. Today a friend who is not Jewish came over and Maddy was explaining to her about the books.
Isaac: I think that even if you are not Jewish you can read the books. You just like what you are reading.
Q: It is your younger son Isaac that is signed up for the PJ Library but it seems that Maddy is engaged in all the books? Do the books speak to both ages?
Amy: It's great because since Isaac couldn't yet read the books himself, Maddy would often read them to him before John or I could. I think for the most part, even though they're picture books they work on many levels. For instance, books that use a story to talk about core Jewish values have a deeper significance for older kids, but can still be enjoyed by the younger ones. And the books are instructive (without being didactic) for kids who haven't had much formal Jewish education.
Q: I know that Isaac and Maddy went to Camp Shemesh, a Jewish camp, this past summer. Why did you choose to send them there?
A&J: Maddy wanted to go to a Jewish Camp ?
Maddy: I wanted to learn more about my heritage and meet other Jewish kids, and it sounded really fun.
Amy: My parents are both gone and they didn't raise us observant or religious, but with a cultural Jewish identity. I wanted to make sure that our children were exposed to Jewish culture. Not pushing them, but offering them opportunities to learn. And Camp Shemesh sounded like a good opportunity.
Q: What did you like about Camp Shemesh?
Maddy and Isaac: Playing Ga-Ga and going swimming.
Q: Did you learn any songs that you remember?
(Maddy proceeds to sing a full Hebrew rendition with hand motions of HaKova Sheli ("My Hat Has 3 Corners."))
Q: Did you make a conscious decision to raise your children Jewish?
Amy: No. (turns to John) John, are we raising the children Jewish? But to be honest, I always just assumed they were, in the same way that I am, even though I wasn't raised in an observant family.
John: We are raising them with lots of options.
Amy: We have talked with the kids about how my parents were Jewish so technically they are Jewish. I want them to know something about Jewish culture and what it means in a very broad way. I want us to celebrate Jewish holidays along with Christmas and Easter.
John: We celebrate Christmas and Easter but without the religion, in a secular way.
Q: John, how were you brought up?
John: I was brought up Catholic and in college I set my own path.
Maddy (to her father): Did you like church?
John: It just was. I didn't question it until college. The hard part of going to church was sitting on the pews, and the enjoyable parts were gathering together with family and community.
Q: What PJ Library books have been significant to you?
John: Raisel's Riddle because of the whole idea of pushing the daughter toward knowledge and education. The message supports how I want to support my daughter Maddy. The message that what you learn, no one can take away from you.
Amy: I love the illustrations and ideas in Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. The story emphasizes reusing and recycling, has contemporary applications, holds up being an artist as something positive, and it is based on an old Yiddish song that our friend Evie taught us.
Isaac: I like Joseph Had a Little Overcoat because he makes all this stuff with the coat and when something else happens, he makes the coat into something else.
Maddy: I like The Way Meat Likes Salt. (Maddy proceeds to retell the whole story with deep understanding. This older sister is surely benefiting from her brother's PJ books!)
Q: What issues have been raised for you as parents from reading the PJ Library books?
Amy: Funny. I'm not crazy about The Way Meat Likes Salt because I think the father was ridiculous, so why are they catering to him? Not a feminist book. There were a couple of books that talk about God and make the assumption that you are religious or believe, and this is difficult as I don't really believe in that way. There is a difference between hearing a story with a religious theme and a story that assumes that you are religious or believe, like for example, Before You Were Born.
Q: Anything else you would like to share?
Amy: I love what you have shared about alternative ways to celebrate holidays without going to synagogue. I know so many people that would do something Jewish, like the Sweet Harvest Festival. For our family and others like us, if we are given an affirmation that the way we do Jewish is legitimate even if we never go to synagogue, that would be really helpful.
We want to explore what it means to be Jewish and we are interested in learning more, and we want to be with Jews. But we don't only want to do Jewish things. It's really important for us to find a balance, to feel that we are part of a broader community as well.
Q: Tell us a little about yourselves.
A: Amy: I grew up mostly in Syracuse, N.Y. My parents were not at all religious?being Jewish was definitely part of their identity, but they were involved in their community in a political and artistic way. My parents were from Brooklyn and Queens, and had a community of Jewish friends they grew up with, especially my Dad, who was involved with the Brownsville Boy Club. My grandparents and parents spoke some Yiddish and I grew up hearing certain kinds of expressions and stories that I knew were Jewish, but we were very secular, and celebrated Christmas and Easter, which was kind of confusing.
John is from Ludlow, Mass. We met in college. He was raised Catholic in a pretty traditional family, but does not really consider himself Catholic or religious now. He's very supportive of bringing Jewish learning and ritual into our home, and knows more about some of the holidays than I do! John works in IT for a local company, is an avid mountain biker. I've worked as an arts administrator and fundraising consultant for many years work and now work part-time for the Jewish Arts and Culture Initiative at HGF. I'm also a poet, with one book published and another, I hope, on its way to being in print. Since becoming more engaged in Jewish life I'm also interested in writing a children's book about the many ways of being Jewish--the kind of book I'd like my children to read! Maddy and Isaac are both huge book lovers and reading is an important part of our life. Maddy also loves to write, sing, and she plays the violin. Isaac is a Lego fanatic, loves to create and wear costumes, and play sports, especially soccer. Both kids go to Conway Grammar School, which is a lovely small school, but has a tiny Jewish population. As a family we really enjoy hiking together, and travel, especially somewhere near water.
Q: Thanks, and it's been a pleasure hanging out in beautiful Conway!