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Meet the Lenns, A PJ Library Family

Originally published in The PJ Library April 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 of Easthampton, Massachusetts that we thought might be of interest to InterfaithFamily.com readers.

Q: How did you hear about The PJ Library?

Shelly: From the Mothers Circle.I got involved with the Mothers Circle almost two years ago. The group leader shared a whole bunch of resources with us, and The PJ Library was one of them.

Q: How did you hear about the Mothers Circle?

David, Shelly and Evan Lenn. Evan had just turned 4 years old!

Shelly: We got a letter from Dr. Simkin, the mohel for Evan's bris.

Q: Who in your household is Jewish?

David: I'm Jewish--

Evan: Everybody's Jewish.

David: Evan's Jewish.

Evan: Mommy's Jewish.

Shelly: I'm raising you Jewish but I'm not Jewish.

Evan: Why?

Shelly: When I was a little girl I was Christian. Although I don't embrace Christianity anymore, I am not officially Jewish either. Like you are, or … hmm …

David: Depends who you ask.

Q: Do you touch the Jewish community in any other way beyond the Mothers Circle?

David: A little bit, not much. We have been going to Tot Shabbat at Beit Ahavah, (a Reform congregation in Florence, Mass.) and we went to CBI once (Congregation Bn'ai Israel, a Conservative congregation in Northampton, Mass.) and we did the Rekindle Shabbat programs with another family from Holyoke. We have been doing Shabbat here at our house also. We went to the (Pioneer Valley) Jewish Film Festival and saw Bad Faith.

Shelly: We also did the family programs that Shoshana (the Mother's Circle Group Leader) organized at the JCC down in Springfield, one on the shofar, and didn't you and Evan do one?

David: Yes, we did one around December about what it means to be Jewish and what Jewish people do, what makes them Jewish.

Shelly: Everything points back to Shoshana!

Q: Did you keep Shabbat before Evan came around?

David: No. When I was younger, a few times, but not on a regular basis. My religious background was Reform and I did Sunday School and I liked it okay. I don't remember too many details, but I remember I had a lot of good times with other kids. I also did the bar mitzvah training and had a bar mitzvah. And then, after that I lost touch with it.

Q: Shelley, how did you grow up?

Shelly: I grew up in the Lutheran Church. I was baptized and confirmed. All my schooling was parochial. But since graduating from high school, I haven't really been back. I did a short stint on my own as a young adult in the Episcopal Church but it's been a long time since I did that.

When I married David and we were embarking on this journey to have a child, we talked about what's going to happen with religion. Since I wasn't as committed to being Christian as strongly as David felt about raising Evan Jewish, I was willing to raise Evan Jewish. Ever since then we have been taking tiny, tiny baby steps. Starting with the bris, and then there was a lapse until the Mothers Circle. The Mothers Circle has really just opened up our world. From the JOI (Jewish Outreach Institute) there are daily messages with great discussion topics and questions to The PJ Library and some of the online resources like Culture Connect. We would really like to do more in the community.

Q: What books have either of you enjoyed reading to Evan?

Shelly: To Everything is my all time favorite. I'm a real visual person and I like lots of color. The book is just filled with color and I like his use of paper collage. The messages are really, really sweet. Even though he presents it as an either/or dichotomy, but I do like that it shows things that make us happy and things that make us sad. I brought this book in to share with the kids I work with. I work with grieving kids. So in particular, "A time to be born, a time to die ... a time to mourn a time to dance." Just the fact that they have used the word die. So with Evan too it has become a conversation. What is "mourning," what is "die" and it was great that it came in the mail and it was right there.

Q: Do you look at this book To Everything, and think what's Jewish about this?

Shelly: Frankly, I was initially. But I don't see any book coming from The PJ Library needing to be strictly about Jewish religion. I see it as perhaps introducing to ideas that can be Jewish as well as universal.

David: I like Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. Because the story has a lot of continuity to it and I like how one page leads to the next. It has a good message that you can always reuse something and make due with what you have. What I like most about it is the pictures. I also liked To Everything. I like the illustrations, very colorful, very easy to read, and you can get through it pretty fast. The words are so time-tested.

David: One of the problems with some other books is when I read them sometimes the pictures or the story don't really hold Evan's attention as much as some of his other books because he's into firetrucks, and now he has moved on to predators and wild animals. Noah's Bed does help with that.

Shelly: Evan, when I asked you what was your favorite book, you said Noah's Bed. Do you want to tell Judi why?

Evan: It has a lion, two lions! They crawl into the bed, a girl lion and a boy lion. Lions are predators, and they can eat peanuts, snakes and ants!

Judi: What's a predator?

Evan: A predator is an animal that can eat meat and grapes.

Shelly: I remember the night after we read Noah's Bed for the first time. He wanted to sleep with us, because they all cuddle up together.

Q: Are there other books that bring up issues or conversations?

Shelly: When we read The Shabbat Box it reinforced what we are trying to do on Friday nights. It was great, because Evan caught onto it, the candlesticks, the hallah. This book Papa Jethro, was appreciated. My family is Christian, and I appreciated getting this book because it showed Evan that some other children can have a grandparent or someone in their life who doesn't practice Judaism. It showed him that they can embrace Judaism and vice versa.

David: Papa Jethro was really good, because as Shelley said, his grandmother wants to talk to Evan about Christian things all the time. She wants him to have Christmas presents and Easter presents, so this is good because it helps us talk about it with Evan.

Q: Does your mother have a little difficulty with your decision to raise Evan as a Jew?

Shelly: Yes, a lot of difficulty. My mother is religious and has been really upset that we are not raising Evan as Christian. In particular she is upset that … is really concerned that he won't know Jesus and he won't go to heaven. We've tried to talk with her about this as our decision. We love you and want you in Evan's life, and we want him to know that his grandmother is Christian, but we are raising Evan Jewish, and we appreciate your help in whatever way you can. It's been a process. One more book I wanted to mention--What Makes Someone a Jew--I like how it shows the diversity of the Jewish people. Evan can see images of people, Jews that look like him--fair, light and blue eyes.

Q: How many Jewish books did you have in your home before you joined The PJ Library?

David: Not very many, maybe half a dozen.

Q: Are you going to celebrate Passover this year?

David: Yes, we are going to have a seder at my parent's house in Bronxville. My sister is also intermarried, but we are all raising Jewish children. The non-Jews--I think you need fresh people to revive your interest in Judaism. It helps you stop and think about what you're doing as opposed to just falling into it. Marrying someone Jewish, you may just keep doing without thinking, just go through the motions.

Q: As an example, let me ask you, why do you celebrate Shabbat?

Shelly: I like doing Shabbat--it gives us time to reflect as a family. We do eat dinner together every night, so it's not the eating together, but it is a time for us to make it a little bit more special, and we take time to reflect on what was our special part of the week. Shabbat has become a stepping stone for Dave and me to think about where we want to go with this. Especially when we have had Shabbat with other people and we see how they celebrate. At times I feel that we are just at the tip of the iceberg with it. We don't sing the songs, I don't know them myself. The question is how far do we want to go.

Another thing about Shabbat that I like is that it happens every week, and in that way it is forgiving. Not that we celebrate every week, but if one week we don't have wine, we say, oh, we'll get that next week. A pause for reflection, forgiving, and the ritual.

David: I like the way Shabbat sets aside the weekend and makes it a real distinct break. I look forward to that a lot. A drink, a glass of wine, and I know that I'm not going to do any work that night. Most nights I'm doing work.

Q: What kind of work do you do?

David: I teach high school chemistry and biology in Enfield, Conn., Enrico Fermi High School. I'm also doing work most nights. But on Friday night, it's nice to have a long dinner and know I'm not going to get up from the table, and there's dessert. Truthfully, before we did Shabbat I didn't work on Friday nights but now I have a real excuse! Now I know I won't feel guilty about not working.

Shelly: I'm the director at two different programs that support grieving families: The Garden: A Center for Grieving Children and Teens in Northampton, Mass., and a much newer program called Rick's Place in Wilbraham, Mass. We provide bereavement support to families with young children who have experienced the death of a close family member.

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

David: We really like getting the books. Another thing that we really liked was the video. That was really cool. I really liked the movie, it was quirky and really well done. I like weird movies, anything that keeps me strung along.

Shelly: The CDs have been good too.

Q: Thank you for a lovely conversation! Have a happy Passover.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Simple musical instrument made from a ram's horn that is blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as each morning after daily services during the Hebrew month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Hebrew for "circumciser" (Yiddish term is "moyel"), the person who performs a ritual circumcision. The feminine form is "mohelet." Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Judi Wisch

Judi Wisch is the Community Outreach Consultant for The PJ Library supporting PJ Program Professionals across the continent. A long time community organizer of Jews on the edge, Judi has built two Jewish education programs from the ground up and is a former director of the Conference on Judaism in Rural New England

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