Archive for July, 2009


written for The PJ Library August e-newsletter

One of the challenges of parenting is getting to know our children as individuals, and giving them what they really need, as opposed to what we think they need, or what their friends need. When we get it right, we get to see the very best of our children emerge. I was reminded of this challenge recently, while planning my daughter Ella’s sixth birthday party. Fortunately, a preview copy of the PJ Library book The World’s Birthday arrived just in time to offer some much-needed guidance.

Ella’s birthday falls at the end of July, and since she turned 2, we’ve celebrated her birthday by sharing a Carvel cake with family at my mother’s beach house. During preschool, birthday parties were pretty much off her radar. This changed when Ella started kindergarten; suddenly invitations began pouring in. There were monthly, and sometimes weekly, celebrations at swim clubs, rock climbing gyms and children’s museums. One month into the school year, Ella was reevaluating her birthday tradition, and asking whether she, too, might have a party for her next birthday. “Whatever you want,” I told her, “it’s your birthday.” By November, she was already drawing up guest lists, and speculating about possible venues. (I ruled out inviting the entire class to the Delaware shore.)

Halfway through the year, however, the thrill of birthday parties began to wear off a little bit. Ella is shy by nature, and most at ease playing with her sister or one or two close friends. When I asked her if she would mind missing one of her classmate’s parties to come pick up her bubbe at the airport, she said, in a relieved voice, “Mind? I didn’t even want to go!”

 I, too, had mixed feelings about these grand events. While I was enormously grateful to the parents who made sure to exclude no one by inviting the whole class, I wasn’t entirely at ease with the idea of 5 and 6 year olds getting showered with, and often tearing through, piles and piles of presents. Nor did I love the tradition of the obligatory goodie-bag, which resulted in Ella’s returning home with foods that we don’t usually permit, or made-in-China plastic toys that self-destruct and wind up in the landfill. (And yes, I am fully aware that I sound like the birthday version of Scrooge.) So when Ella’s talk of her own party tapered off for a while, I was relieved.

But as her July birthday approached, the conversation emerged once again, and we began to talk more seriously about her party. “Maybe we should invite the whole class,” I offered, “so no one feels left out.” “And if we are,” I added, “we’ll really need to go somewhere bigger than our house – would you like to go to the town reservoir? The Y?” Ella shook her head. “I just don’t know what I want,” she said, exasperated.

At just about this time, we read a copy of The World’s Birthday, by Barbara Diamond Goldin. It’s the story of a little boy named Daniel who decides to throw a birthday party for the world on Rosh Hashanah. While at first he isn’t sure how to plan a suitable party for such a big and important guest of honor, by the end of the story he settles on a perfect celebration. A cake, some candles, and a handmade card. Ella’s eyes lingered on the closing illustration of Daniel and his family gathered under a tree in the backyard, singing happy birthday. “This is a really nice party,” she sighed.

kebI realized that just as Daniel struggled to make a party that was fitting for the earth, we needed to plan a party that was “just right” for Ella and our family. After careful discussion, Ella determined that she did not want a large crowd, but something cozy and intimate, right at home. We settled on six guests (the same number as her age) and three of her favorite activities – baking cookies, doing an art project, and going to the playground across the street. I made a terribly flat chocolate cake that she and her sister decorated, and we sat on picnic blankets, singing “Happy Birthday” and opening presents – all things she loved, because they were all from close friends who knew her well.

Moments before the party ended, Ella assessed the goodie bags (which consisted of the 2 projects – cookie necklaces and sparkly collages – and 3 organic lollipops) and said, “they need something else.” Before I had a chance to launch into my speech about junk food, Ella continued “I want to write a little note for every one.” She sat down and quickly scribbed six personalized notes, telling each friend (including her little sister) that she loved them.ellaparty

And believe it or not (I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t been there) when the guests had left, and we were cleaning up, Ella looked upat me and said “You know what’s the best part of a birthday party?”

 “What?” I asked.

 “Being with good friends.”

 I know I have many mistakes left to make as a mother, but this time, I think I got it right.

(r) cmyk PJ Library logo with tagline and pieces

The PJ Library™ program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to families with children through age seven. Created by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The PJ Library is funded nationally in partnership with The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local philanthropists/organizations.  To learn more, go to www.pjlibrary.org

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We’re off to the beach. Don’t expect to hear much from me until August.

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How good I have it


what to make when life doesn't even give you lemons

Like many parents, I overthink a lot of decisions, and worry about things that probably don’t matter a whole lot in the final analysis. Can I buy the cheap No-Ad sunscreen, or must I spent $37 an ounce for the oxybenzone-free stuff? Should I say yes to that third tv show of the day? What about the horrid Country Time “lemonade” they insist on serving at kiddush – allow a cup? More?

Even though we lost just about our entire savings this week selling an “investment” property, sometimes I’m reminded of just how good we have it. To wit, read this brilliant and touching piece by Israeli author Etgar Keret  in today’s issue of Tablet. High Fructose Corn Syrup, indeed.

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The Tushy Book

tushyPerhaps the best part of my visit to Camp Ramah last week was getting to meet Fran Manushkin and scoring a review copy of The Tushy Book. To say may daughters love this book would be a profound understatement.To paraphrase Alvy Singer, they luuurve it…they loave it…. they luff it. Who wouldn’t love a book with sparkly underpants on the cover? I’d say more, but better you should watch this video. And then, of course, buy the book.

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Goodnight Shma

shmaWhen my daughters were babies, I really knew how to sleep them.  I put them to bed early (and I do mean early) and on a consistent schedule. They slept for 12 (or more!) uninterrupted hours, and napped regularly. I established and followed through on bedtime routines. I successfully encouraged the girls to put themselves to sleep and to stay put in their own beds. Consequently we made it through the early years quite well-rested. Our friends hated us.

Things have changed. Our 4 and almost-6 year old daughters still share the bedroom that Zoe moved into at 6 months, when she left our bedside. But slowly – almost imperceptibly – the art of bedtime has slipped away from me. And now, the peaceful oasis, with its gentle pink nightlight, the whomp-whomp of humpback whales playing softly in the background, and the two children drifting into slumber at an hour when families sit down to dinner, is long gone. Now at 8 pm, after stories and “lights out”, the room transforms a cross between a circus (the beds are in perfect  jumping distance of one another) and an orphanage (not a real one, but the one in the movie version of Annie .) There are calls for water, hollers for cuddles, demands for more and more piles of books, and so many trips to the bathroom that the ensuing bedwetting is a true marvel of nature. (Tonight on the Discovery Channel – Bladders that Cannot Empty until after Midnight!)

Where have I strayed? My former bible, Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child, is of little help these days. I’m still doing everything “right”; unfortunately Ella and Zoe seem to have their own bible Defying Bedtime Habits, Crazy Mommy.  On most nights, I resort to yelling. This works wonders for lulling children to sleep.

So when I recently took a copy of the PJ Library selection Goodnight Sh’ma off the shelf, I thought, maybe – just maybe – in this simple board book lies the secret to restoring peace to our evenings. Maybe the problem is just that we don’t consistently say the shma. Why would that matter? I had a couple of theories. Maybe God is punishing for my lapse by giving my daughters a severe case of jack-in-the-box-itis. (It’s better than smiting me.) Or maybe the shma has a magical, soporiphic effect that cannot be attained by bedtime stories alone. (Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that The Amazing Bone hasn’t exactly settled them down for the night.)

So after the books, the pottying, the brushing of the teeth, the turning out the lights, the tucking in were over, I came into my daughters’ room with Goodnight, Shma. I read them the simple poem that culminates with the first line of the shma, which we sang together. They were quiet. I showed them the sweet illustrations. They were still quiet. And then I tiptoed out of the room. The quiet continued. For about three seconds. And then I heard a clunk. I went back in the room.  My daughters were playing catch with Goodnight, Shma.

Just because saying the Shma isn’t magical, doesn’t mean I’m giving up on the bedtime shma. It’s still something I believe in (or that I’d really, really like to believe in) and having a book like Goodnight Shma is a helpful reminder. But tonight I’ll take the book with me when I leave the room.

ps – Did you know that Homeshuling has moved? Check out my shiny new website. I hope my kids don’t break it, like they do all the rest of my new stuff.

(r) cmyk PJ Library logo with tagline and piecesThe PJ Library® program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to families with children through age eight. Created by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The PJ Library is funded nationally in partnership with The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local philanthropists/organizations.

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moshI had the wonderful opportunity to spend the last two days (without my kids!) at Camp Ramah of New England with a group of authors. The trip was organized by the PJ Library, with the goal of inspiring us to create children’s literature that takes place in Jewish overnight camps, another passion PJ Library’s founder, Harold Grinspoon.

While I was visiting as a writer of children’s books, it was hard not to view camp primarily through the eyes of a parent  (and a blogging parent to boot.) I began to consider what choices we might make down the road. Will we send out daughters to overnight camp? And if so, will we send them to Jewish overnight camp? And if the answer is still yes, what kind of Jewish overnight camp? 

As a child, I attended Habonim Camp Moshava (aka Mosh, with a long o), a labor zionist overnight camp in Maryland.  I was there in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and at that time, there was no one on staff over the age of 24. A majority of the counselors had spent a year living on kibbutz and, although most were from affluent families, they were what I would now politely refer to as dirty long haired hippies. But really nice dirty long haired hippies. I worshipped them all, and wanted to be just like the girls (ok, women, but now that I’m in my 40’s it’s really hard to say that with a straight face) with peasant skirts and long hair and unshaven legs. We sang songs about communism and boogers after meals, performed an hour of labor before breakfast, watched Norma Rae on “Yom Union” and were so anti-authority that once a summer the campers and CIT’s staged a revolution when we kicked the counselors out of camp for 24 hours. We had a no boats, no water skiing, no ropes course, no advanced arts or sports, and not a lot of supervision. It was a wonderful, wonderful place.

Camp Ramah is also, clearly, a wonderful place. The campers we met and observed were just as blissfully happy as I remember being back in 1979. But the culture of the camp is a world apart from Mosh. First, and most noticeable to me, was the number of grownups. There were lots of them, many of them even over the age of (gasp) 30. Also, Ramah is not just a Jewish camp, it’s a religious camp. As part of the conservative movement, the campers pray for half an hour every weekly morning, and for two hours on shabbat morning. They say blessings before and after they eat, and at bedtime, and there were torah scrolls and tallits all over the place. (The only time we saw these at Mosh was when we watched Fiddler on the Roof.) They have a gorgeous waterfront with a floating trampoline and climbing wall, beautiful cabins, movie making, Rick Recht concerts and, Yom Foam. (Don’t ask, but it involves the fire department, and trust me, it’s nothing like Yom Union.)

Sleepaway camp is one of the first places kids can define themselves away from the constant gaze of their parents. They try out new ways of eating, bathing, speaking and being. And at Jewish summer camp, they can start to think about what kinds of Jews they want to be. So, it seems to me that the Jewish summer camp we choose might make a huge difference in the Jewish lives our children lead as adults. What kinds of role models do I want them surrounded by for 4 or 8 weeks every summer? Rabbis, professional teachers, and clean-cut young men and women who pray and observe kashrut and shabbat? Or a bunch of pot-smoking lefties who fancy themselves socialists (albeit with very nice houses) and plan to change the world?

I think I know the answer, but I’m not telling.

author’s note: i’ve edited this piece slightly from the original after some well-deserved whomping from my Mosh friends. To put my comments into perspective, know that I married a (not-so dirty) long haired hippie. Feel free to consider the line about pot-smoking a metaphor.

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taken by our nifty oven-cam

Until recently, I was buying my challah from a parent of one of Ella’s classmates. Not only are her challot delicious and inexpensive, but she delivered. For free. Not surprisingly, the little business grew and grew. Unlike the pushcart to department store stories of my ancestors, in this case she decided the businesses was too big, and shut down altogether. So, at least for today, I’m back to baking my own. When I go back to work in the Fall, or when the weather goes back to normal? Not so much.

Here’s a link to my favorite challah recipe, from the inestimable Smitten Kitchen. I typically halve the recipe, and still have enough dough to make two loaves (I don’t do the fancy 6-strand braid. Way too ungepatchke for me.) This week I’m trying it with half white, half white-wheat flour. I added a pinch of extra yeast to counter the  heft of the whole grain flour. There are heaps of other great recipes to discover there as well.

And while I’m mentioning favorite websites, check out  Tablet, the great new online Jewish magazine, if you haven’t already. It’s truly riveting in a way that I didn’t think online media could be. (Does that makes sense?)

And lastly, a truly riveting anecdote. I picked Ella, my almost-6 year old from camp today, which runs from 9-2:30. Today was the fifth (and final) day and she still didn’t know where the bathroom was

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Fourth of July!

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