Archive for September, 2009

The Book of Life

I’m reposting this from my classroom blog – a note to parents about how I talked with first graders about the Book of Life:

To prepare for Yom Kippur, Kitah Aleph learned the traditional greeting “Chatimah Tovah”, which loosely translates to “a good inscription.” In the liturgy of the high holidays, we speak about a Book of Life, in which God writes, and later seals, our fate for the upcoming year. Or, in the words of Leonard Cohen,

..who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay

As a teacher and parent, I struggle with how to frame the meaning of the greeting “chatimah tova”, and how to introduce the concept of the Book of Life, in a meaningful, age appropriate, and perhaps most importantly, not-terrifying way. Here’s a glimpse of our conversation:

We starting off by talking a little bit during tefillah(prayer) time about the prayer we are currently learning – Adom Olam – which includes the word melekh (king) several times. I asked children if our saying this every day means that we believe that God is actually a king. There was general agreement that God is not, in fact, a King. We then talked about how people have many different ways of imagining God. I explained that there isn’t one right way to imagine God, but almost everyone has a different idea, and that usually our ideas change a lot over the course of our lives. (This led to some lovely reminiscences on the part of the children, often beginning with the phrase, “when I was young I thought God…..”) I told them that the rabbis had an idea that God had a book, in which God wrote down what would happen to everyone in the upcoming year (I didn’t actually use the terms life and death.) The rabbis made up this special greeting “chatimah tovah” as a way of saying we hope lots of good things will happen to everyone.

And with that, I wish you all a chatimah tovah and an easy fast. Jump to 1:54 in the video below for a very special preview of Kol Nidrei.

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….row by row

At the beginning of the summer, I blogged about our garden. I promised an update, both on the harvest and whether I succeeded in using the garden to teach my girls about the agricultural mitzvot.

Some of our crops were bountiful. We had pounds and pounds of purple pole beans, and enough cucumbers to make us all a little sick of cucumbers. We even managed to avoid the tomato blight that decimated tomato crops up and down the east coast; we had lots of cherry tomatoes and a few delicious large tomatoes.

The sunless month of June led some of our crops to never quite get off the ground, so to speak.

This was our largest carrot:IMG_1984.JPG

and this was our only cantalope. Cute, isn’t it?IMG_1999.JPG

Fortunately, other farms in the area had enough produce, and generous enough farmers, to participate in The Gleaning Project of Western MA, a local effort (under the auspices of the Jewish federation) to get fresh produce into the hands of those in need. A few weeks ago my daughters and I joined a small group of volunteers to pick tomatoes.DSCF4838It was hot. They kvetched. And kvetched some more. We only managed to pick for less than an hour. But we were part of an effort to take thousands of pounds of a bumper crop of tomatoes to several local pantries, and I’m glad we went. Someday, I hope, the girls will be too.

Are you a sucker for John Denver too? (If not, then surely you are a sucker for the Muppets.)

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L’shana Tovah

shofarkidsWishing you joy, peace and harmony in the year to come.

With Love,


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Teaching teshuvah

reprinted from the PJ Library newsletter, September 2008

davidThis past month, my daughter Ella received a copy of The Hardest Word from the PJ Library. In this story, a giant mythical bird called the Ziz accidentally destroys a vegetable garden belonging to a group of children. Unable to fix his mistake, the Ziz flies to Mt. Sinai to ask God what he should do. God sends the Ziz on a mission, to search the world for the hardest word to say. That word turns out to be “sorry.”

When I read the story to Ella, she was puzzled. “‘Sorry’ isn’t hard to say,” she explained. “See, I just said it!” (Five year olds have a tendency to be rather literal.) The word “sorry” does get bandied about by my daughters with some frequency. Sometimes it’s volunteered, and these are the moments that make my heart ache with tenderness for my sweet little girls. But more often, it follows the command “Tell your sister you’re sorry” or “If you don’t say you’re sorry…(insert one of a myriad of consequences here.)  In these cases, I hear one of several lesser versions of sorry, and these are the moments that make my head ache.

There’s the “sorry” growled between clenched teeth. Or, the more elaborate but equally remorseless, “Sorry, but I didn’t do anything and anyway she started it.”  Or, the painfully honest “I SAID ‘Sorry’. Now can I watch a show?” In other words, Ella is right. Sorry isn’t hard to say. Sorry is hard to mean.

With the High Holidays approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to introduce the concept of teshuvah, or repentance, to my children in a meaningful and developmentally appropriate way.  According to tradition (or at least Aish.com’s explanation of tradition), the Medieval scholar Maimonides outlined four steps to doing teshuvah.

Step 1. Stop the offending action.

Step 2. Feel regret for what you’ve done.

Step 3. Verbalize your regret to the appropriate party.

Step 4. Come up with a plan for not repeating the mistake.

I think what was confusing about “The Hardest Word”, at least for my children, was that the Ziz felt sorry from the moment he accidentally destroyed the garden. This story was focused on step 3, articulating your regret, and frankly, we’re just not there yet. We’re still working on Step 2, feeling regret, because as every parent knows, without regret, an apology rings hollow, at best.

I’m not sure it’s possible to teach regret. I’m not even sure at what age children are capable of this kind of self-reflection. But I do think we can teach children to own up to their actions, a necessary precursor to actual regret. And if, like me, you’re looking for a book that does a brilliant job of teaching this aspect of Teshuvah, check out David Gets in Trouble, by David Shannon. No, it’s not a Jewish book, but what Jewish child wouldn’t identify with the impish star of No, David as he denies his way through page after page of mischief? “No, it’s not my fault!” he shouts, followed by “It was an accident!” and “But she likes it!” After exhausting his excuses, David wakes up in the middle of the night, awash with guilt. And prompted by no one – not Mom, not Dad, not God – he announces aloud “Yes! It was me! I’m sorry. I love you, Mom.”

I’m sure David Shannon never intended his book to be a lesson on teshuvah, but don’t you think Maimonides would approve?

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Are you looking for a wonderful apple cake recipe? I was going to post my mom’s, but it turns out that smitten kitchen and I have the same mom. Or at least the same recipe. Her write-up is a lot better than mine would be. I mean, just look at it:cake

It’s not burnt at all. So, just go there. Here‘s the link. We don’t use walnuts, and we slice our apples, not chunk them, but who am I to quibble with smitten kitchen? This cake is unbelievable.

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I’ve been a little underwhelmed thus far by my new (if you consider something from good-will new) bread machine. The bread smells great but it looks funny and has an odd texture. I’ve come up with one recipe, however, that I love. I won’t post a picture, because that might dissuade you from trying it.

Cornmeal Wheat Bread

1.5 tsp yeast

1 c white flour

1 c whole wheat flour

1 c stone ground corn meal

1 tsp salt

1 c warm water

1/4 c oil

1 egg

2 T molasses (I use blackstrap)

follow the directions on your machine…..I add 2 T of gluten if I’m not using bread flour.

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apples and pomegranatesAlthough I’ve hardly had time to think about it, Rosh Hashanah is, in fact, just over a week away. We have a couple of new-ish family traditions (we’re a new-ish family after all); I make my mother’s Jewish apple cake with the apples from the trees in our yard, and we have a picnic at the park on the second day with a few other families. I lead the tot service at our shul, and sometimes that’s as much shul as I attend, and while I’m not complaining about that per se, I can’t say I’ve replaced adult synagogue attendance with anything particularly meaningful.

This year, we are trying something different. Inspired by the book Apples and Pomegranates, published by Kar-Ben, we’re going to have a Rosh Hashanah seder. What’s that? Well, like a Passover seder, it involves ritual foods, some singing, and some story telling. (Thankfully, there’s no matzah or sponge “cake.”)  Instead, the symbolic foods include pomegranates, dates, green beans, pumpkins, leeks and of course, apples and honey. The book includes stories related to the foods, some of which are suitable for my 4 and 6 year old, and some we’ll skip. Although a list of the foods and blessings can be found in most traditional prayer books, I’m happy to have this “haggadah” to help spark our creativity.

Many people include the head of a fish on their rosh hashanah table, but I’m thinking it would spoil my daughters’ appetites. But I am looking for creative recipes using some of the other foods – anyone have any great (and easy) pumpkin bread or leek soup?

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