Archive for May, 2009

Inch by inch

garden1This past week, our family planted a vegetable garden in our backyard. It was a day of dirty knees, even dirtier fingernails, and lots of shoveling. By the time bedtime rolled around, everyone was exhausted. But of course, not too exhausted for a story.

Coincidentally, we had just received a copy of The Brothers’ Promise, by Frances Harber, a folktale about a family of vegetable farmers. My daughters were delighted by the illustrations of the father teaching the sons to dig up the soil and plant seeds – “just like us, Mama!” They tried to identify all of the vegetables in the wheelbarrow (clearly they have not had sufficient exposure to cabbage in their short lives) and compared the brothers’ crops to our own. (Yes to carrots, but like the Obamas, no to beets.) As the story unfolds, the father makes a dying wish that the brothers continue his farm, and always care for one another. And when a poor harvest strikes the farm, the young men do just that – they sneak wheelbarrows full of food into one another’s cellar, each believing his brother’s needs to be greater than his own.

 The Brother’s Promise is a story of tzedakah, not gardening. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder whether there’s something about growing vegetables that inherently teaches children about giving. Many times, when children work hard on something, they are, shall we say…. a little hesitant to share. But in a good year, a garden almost forces us to give to others, lest we watch our lovingly tended squash and tomatoes go to waste. My daughters have grown accustomed to weekly deliveries from our next-door neighbor, an eighty-five year old man who lives alone but keeps a garden almost as large as when his children were young, and last summer they sent all their play-dates home with a parting gift of cucumbers.

garden2I think there is an even deeper lesson about tzedakah in the act of gardening – one that goes beyond surplus crops. There’s a little bit of magic involved in growing vegetables. And although I struggle with how to define it for my children, for me, this magic is some of the strongest evidence I have of God’s presence. While we worked hard, surely we did not work alone. Some years, we are blessed with God’s gifts of sun and rain in all of the right proportions, and some years we are not. In gardens, as in life, when we are blessed, we should share. When we are not, we can only hope that others will share with us.

Indeed, Judaism teaches us that to farm is to share, in a biblical tradition that’s lost to most of us. The Torah mandates that we leave the corners of our fields unharvested, and that we should not pick up fallen fruits and sheaves of wheat. Instead, these are to be left for the poor and the stranger, who do not have their own land to till and tend. Technically, these laws, known as pe’ah and leket, only apply in the land of Israel, but I’ve tried to use our tiny agricultural plot, in a toy-filled backyard, on a busy street in a small New England city, to teach my daughters the values embedded in this tradition. Not only should we give our time and money to the local food bank, but we should invite others to take some of what we grow.

Last year, we posted an ad on the local Freecycle board inviting others to pick from our three apple trees. Granted, this was a painless kind of sharing – our trees dump way more apples than we could ever to use– and we put no effort whatsoever into the crop. But this year, I’d like to take it one step further and figure out a way to share what comes out of our garden not just with friends, but with those in need. Check the blog later in the summer, and I’ll post updates as to whether we’ve succeeded in growing tzedakah in our garden.

originally published in the PJ Library e-newsletter


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Baruch Dayan Emet

treeI’m leaving today for my aunt’s funeral. It’ll be a quick trip to my mother’s place in Baltimore, and then back just  in time for Shavuot (if I’m lucky.) I’m picking up cheesecake for the family at Trader Joe’s before I leave, just in case I’m not back for dinner.

I struggled with the decision of whether or not to take my daughters, 4 and 5, on the trip with me. They had only met my aunt a few times, but had they come, we could have stayed in Baltimore with Bubbe for Shavuot. On the other hand, had they come, they would have needed to attend the graveside funeral with me.

I decided against taking them. I think there is something very powerful, in a good way, about the Jewish ritual of participating in the mitzvah of burial, and tossing a shovelful of dirt in the grave. But I have delayed mentioning the whole concept of burials, and this might not be the most, shall we say, gentle introduction. I’ve explained the neighborhood cemetery as somewhere  to “remember people who have died” and kaddish as a prayer for doing the same thing. That’s about all I’ve said about death. They know it happens, of course. They know which of our relatives have died, and they frequently (perhaps too frequently?) integrate death into their dramatic play. And like any Annie-loving little girls, they totally wish they were orphans.

To me watching a coffin be lowered underground and covered with dirt is potentially terrifying – the stuff of which nightmares are made. But maybe, if they are exposed to this at an early age, they’ll integrate the experience into their world view in a natural, untroubling way. So maybe I’m making a mistake.

What do you think? When, and how much, did you tell your children about death?

May Aunt Thelma’s memory be a blessing.

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josephHere’s a newsflash – I’ve been thinking a lot about the economy recently. It’s hard not to, of course. Who hasn’t been touched by the recession in one way or another, and who isn’t at least a little worried?

As with many things I worry about, I haven’t broached the topic with my children. If I’m anxious about something, I’m pretty certain that I’ll make my children anxious when we discuss it, even if I smile brightly and sound as if I’m ending every sentence with three exclamation points. Plus, they are still a little vague about how money works. Zoe, my three year old, considers it something to savor on her tongue like a truffle, while Ella has a slightly more sophisticated understanding of commerce. She thinks she should pay me to give her chores to do.

While I absolutely don’t want my children to worry about money, I do want them to develop a sense of how blessed we are, and that although we don’t have much, we have plenty. When my husband, a high school teacher, and I decided that I would give up full-time work for our daughters’ early years, we knew our finances would be tight. While I’ve never said aloud to my children “We don’t have the money for that,” they do see evidence of thrift in our day to day lives – that I will shlep to a grocery store the next town over to stock up on a good deal; that many of their clothes are “handy-downs”; that leftover rice goes into rice pudding or fried rice, not the disposal (or even the compost pile); that Hanukkah does not mean towering piles of presents. I’ve never really considered to what degree these choices have shaped their own emerging values, but last week, I had an opportunity to find out.

I was reading the girls one of my very favorite PJ Library selections, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, by Simms Taback. In the story, as Joseph’s coat wears out, he recycles the fabric into increasingly smaller items – a vest, a tie, a button, and so on, until there is nothing left but a story. Any adult will deduce from the richly detailed (and utterly gorgeous) illustrations that the story takes place in the shtetl, where such frugality was no game, but an urgent survival strategy. Yet there is no hint of sadness here – each new version of the garment is worn with pride to festive celebrations, community gatherings, and quiet meals. I asked Ella why she thought Joseph didn’t get rid of the coat after it got “old and worn.” I think she would have rolled her eyes if she knew how, so obvious was the answer.

 “Because, Mama,” she explained, only a little bit patiently, “That would be wasting. It’s not right to waste. You shouldn’t waste food, or clothes, or anything.”

“But why?” I persisted.

Ella considered my question for a few moments. “If he doesn’t want the coat,” she finally replied, “he should give it to someone else who needs it. Like we sometimes give away clothes, you know, because we have so much.”

For one brief moment, I couldn’t resist just a tiny bit of self-congratulations. I’ve done something right! Admittedly, we can’t take full credit for imparting these values to our children. There’s our preschool, which introduced our children to the local Survival Center when they were three, and the day school, where tikkun olam is woven into the curriculum from day one. There’s her bubbe, so committed to volunteerism that she served a meal at our local soup kitchen while visiting us from Baltimore, and my husband’s family, who changed their annual Christmas gift swap to a shared collection for a women’s shelter. Add to that our many friends who have devoted their careers to social justice. And of course, the Jewish tradition of saying brachot, which reminds us to be grateful for every bite. It takes a village to raise a child, and my husband and I are lucky to have so many like-minded people in ours.

When I was a child, teachers often asked, “What’s the moral of this story?” It seems as if many children’s books no longer lend themselves to this question. Perhaps one of the many reasons I love Joseph is that it is an unabashed fable, with an old-fashioned moral, imparted without an ounce of didacticism. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, whether your finances are secure or devastated by a Ponzi scheme, whether you live in the shtetl or a New England college town – everything has value and nothing should be wasted. What message could be more timely yet more ageless?

originally published in the PJ Library e-newsletter

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Jewish Mommy Meme

I’m discovering a whole world of Jewish mommy bloggers, and I’m fantasizing about having one giant shabbat dinner together…..or maybe even a shabbaton? But for now a virtual shabbat will have to do. So here’s my shabbat meme, otherwise known as a shmeme. (Someone has to make these up, right?)

1. Challah – home baked or bought?

We used to bake our own, but the mom of my daughter’s best friend starting a baking business, makes delicious challah, and delivers right to school. So, home baked, but not by us….

2. Favorite shabbat meal:

Friday night is almost always chicken. I was a vegetarian for over 20 years, until the middle of my second pregnancy, and now I almost feel obliged to catch up on all the delicious chicken I missed. What I make depends on the selection at Trader Joe’s, since we don’t have a kosher butcher. 

3. Any creative shabbat rituals?

No, not really. I’m hoping to get inspired by some of the other responses.

4. Shul? With or without the kids? (yes, I know some of you are rabbis)

Rarely. Sometimes with the kids, when there is a child-friendly program, or once in a while when I read Torah or have to say kaddish or go to a bar-mitzvah.

5. Traditionally shomer shabbat? If not, what’s your definition/style?

Used to be, before I got married. Now it’s a work in progress. I find it hard to define shomer shabbat in any way other than Orthodox, but that’s not going to work for my family. Or probably for me anymore. I’d like to be both creative and consistent, but living in a community with very few shomer shabbat families, and with a non-Jewish spouse, it’s really a challenge. One I hope to rise to, however.

6. Favorite shabbat story/book

Friday Nights of Nana. Love this one! I do have a Shabbat book of my own coming out in Fall, 2011, but it’s not as good as Nana…

7. no seventh question – time to rest.

I’m tagging Ima on the Bima, Frume Sarah, Bible Belt Balabusta, Yo YentaAshi and Rami, and Dreamy Reads. (Is tagging enough? How do these meme things work, anyhow?) I hope they’ll keep it growing…..

Feel free to participate, even if I didn’t tag you. You can post your answers in the comments section below, or leave a link to your blog.

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godYesterday I received an email from Artscroll, an Orthodox publishing house, with a prayer to be recited over one’s children on Erev Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the evening before the new month of Sivan begins. The email explains that since the Jews received the Torah in the month of Sivan, and thus became God’s children, this is an appropriate time to pray to God for “good and upright children.”

 The the text of the prayer  is terrifically long – three pages in single spaced, small font. (I think I would first have to pray for the time to recite such a long prayer….) Not surprisingly, there are quite a few sections that don’t quite align with my deepest hopes for my children. Artscroll has never really been my cup of tea. First of all, their translations always refer to God as Hashem, which I can no longer read without recalling the time a non-Jewish friend mispronounced it as hash-em, as in “What would you like me to do with these potatoes?” Their children’s books tend to be a stunning combination of didactic text and unattractive pictures, with titles that seem like they are from another era altogether – When Moshiach Comes, Donny and Deeny Kteeny, and Mitzvos We Can Do! (We’re definitely more of a Jewish Lights kind of family, collecting up all of their warmly illustrated, completely groovy, rabbinically penned but nearly ecumenical, books about God.)

First of all, the Artscroll prayer for children contains several references to their “mates.” While I do hope that my children will grow to find life partners and create families, the word “mate” conjours up images of dogs humping. Or Australians. But definitely not my four and five year old daughters. 

The prayer goes on to ask of God (I mean, Hashem): “May they serve you with love, and true, internalized fear of heaven, not merely apparent fear.” Agreed, yirat hashamayim, or fear of God, is probably a good thing. I’m sure it would be of particular value come adolescence. But when I think about nurturing my young daughters’ emerging relationships with the Divine, fear (and REAL fear, not pretend fear, damn it) is not the top quality I’m aiming for. Instead, I’m working on some combination of intimacy, wonder, and gratitude, with a touch of duty for good measure.

On some days, I think we’re getting close. There was the time Ella started whispering out the car window, and later reported that she was asking God to please make her big enough to take ballet lessons, or Zoe’s stock answer to the question “who made you so cute?” But there are other days, when we’re doing an errand on shabbat, or when we neglect to say brachot before eating, that  I think I’d be doing a much better job at this whole home-shuling thing if I were a little more Artscroll, and a little less Jewish Lights.

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Rebecca! confetti

Thanks to random.org for selecting the winner of the Nicole Engblom mezuzah.

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You might be familiar with the book The Shabbat Box, by Lesley Simpson. It’s a sweet story about a little boy whose preschool teacher sends home a special shabbat box with a different student each Friday. On his week, he loses the box in the snow and decides to make his own hand-crafted version to replace the original (which is, of course, found by the teacher.)

My daughter’s kindergarten teacher was probably inspired by this book, and about halfway through the year adopted the same tradition. However, there are now only three weeks of school left, and I’m fairly certain that there are more than three children who haven’t taken home the shabbat box. So, I’ve been trying to prepare Ella for the possibility that she may not get a turn. (I guess there’s a life lesson in this, and I will bend over backwards to pretend it’s ok if she doesn’t get a shot at the box. But deep down? I’ll be pi**ed.)

In preparation for the no-box possibility, I brightly suggested that we make our own. Luckily, Ella bought into the idea 100%. (“Maybe I can have a playdate every Friday, and send it home with a different friend each week!”) She decorated a box last night, and tonight, we set up a small challah cover factory in the backyard.cover1

cover2I guess I can’t stay angry at a teacher who has inspired my daughter to love shabbat this much….

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