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Archive for January, 2010

Sydney Taylor

The world of Jewish literature has changed enormously since I was a child. If there were any shiny, beautifully illustrated picture books, the kind that the PJ LIbrary sends out by the thousands each month, I never saw them. I did, however, have a small shelf of chapter books with Jewish themes. There were, of course, Bible stories. Then there were the K’tonton books, the Alef-Bet Story, and a series about two little girls (sisters, maybe?) celebrating the Jewish holidays whose title I can’t remember. (Anyone?) But my very favorites were the All of a Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor. I read each book in the series over and over – I loved them almost as much as my daughters love the Ramona books (which I think they know by heart. All eight of them.)

It happened that my next door neighbor at that time worked at a summer camp each year with Sydney Taylor, and agreed to deliver a fan letter for me. This began a correspondence that began when I was just about my daughter Ella’s age, and continued for several years. I have a small stack of typed letters from Sydney Taylor, on personalized stationary with matching envelopes in my dresser drawer.  While she never wrote more than a few sentences, her willingness to pay attention to a 6 year old girl in Baltimore was a treasured gift. I can’t say for sure that I became a writer because of Sydney Taylor, but I know for sure that if I ever am so lucky as to get a fan letter from a child, I will reply. Maybe I’ll even get personalized stationary made up for the occasion.

After Sydney Taylor died, her husband established the Sydney Taylor book awards, which are given each year to outstanding Jewish children’s books. This year’s winners were announced a few weeks ago, and a blog tour is beginning tomorrow. Here’s a link to a list of “stops”, where you’ll find interviews with the winning authors and illustrators, as well as a list of all the winners.

My own relationship with Sydney Taylor has continued into my adulthood. Not only do I read her books to my students, and will soon to my own daughters (I now have my own Ella, one of the characters in the series), but A Mezuzah on the Door was named a Sydney Taylor notable book in 2008. Best of all, no matter when I check on the sales ratings of my book on Amazon, All of a Kind Family is always, always listed as #1 in “Books > Children’s Books > Religions > Fiction > Jewish” and I feel as if she is smiling down on me from the top of the list.

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The last re-run

Unseasonal, but probably my favorite post ever. From way back when I had time to be creative.

Leads to Mixed Dancing

My mother sent my girls an early Purim present – a Haman punching bag.hamanAccording to the description, “the punching bag is filled with an ugly picture of Haman and the words ‘Down with Haman.’ The adults will love punching Haman as much as the kids!” (Actually, it is filled with breath. Mine.)

May I present to you, Our Friend Haman – a cautionary tale in four short acts.

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I'm gonna knock your head off, Mr. Haman

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Come to think of it, you're actually kind of cute....

Wanna kiss?

Sneaking a kiss

no comment

no comment

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Re-runs, almost over

And the seasons, they go ’round and ’round
From August 24, 2009

written for the The PJ Library® September e-newsletter

There are some indisputable signs that Autumn is coming – the lettuce has bolted, the broccoli has gone to seed, the Perseid meteorites have showered down in the night sky, and the back to school sales have begun. Both teachers, my husband and I mourn the end of summer vacation’s long, lazy days more than many parents. Of course there’s some general enthusiasm about the start of another school year for each member of our family, but it’s always tempered by a hint of anxiety and a wistfulness for all of the summer plans we never quite got to. We are resigned to Fall’s arrival, we do not celebrate it.

Looking over the PJ Library books for September, I discovered another harbinger of autumn – books about Sukkot appearing at our doorstep before we’ve even had a chance to vacuum all of the sand out of the car. As I spread the titles out on my kitchen table, I learned that the youngest members of my family have a very different relationship to the Fall equinox, thanks to the holiday of Sukkot.

Looking at the pile of books, Ella and Zoe brimmed with enthusiasm. “Can we sleep in the sukkah this year?” asked Zoe as she glanced at the cover of Night Lights. “The whole night,” added Ella, who remembered last year’s thwarted attempt. “And can we have another sukkah party for my class?” she added, staring at the children sharing a snack on the cover of It’s Sukkah Time.

painting the sukkah walls, and a few other things for good measure

painting the sukkah walls, and a few other things for good measure

If I were to stage a family-wide election for favorite holiday, I am certain that Sukkot would come out on top. Of course my children love the costumes of Purim, I love the rituals of the Passover seder, and my husband waits all year to wolf down plates of latkes. But as family unit, Sukkot wins, because it’s the one holiday that every member of the family is actively involved in preparing for and celebrating. This is particularly important for us, because my husband is not Jewish; despite his desire to play an active role in our daughter’s Jewish upbringing, it’s often hard for him to figure out his role in our Jewish home. But at sukkot, Papa is front and central, organizing the annual construction of the sukkah in our backyard. The girls are in charge of interior design – we hand over acrylic paints (along with smocks and lots of newspaper) and set them to work on decorating the walls. I’m in charge of the schach, rustling up bundles of corn stalks and heaving them onto the roof, and of course, the meals (there seems to be no sharing of this responsibility in sight.)

The other reason we love Sukkot so much is that it’s the one time of year we can comfortably entertain. We live in a 1,100 square foot home with no dining room, and it’s a tight squeeze for us to host even one other family for a festive meal. On Sukkot, we take advantage of the open space (the sukkah is only required to have 3 walls, allowing for comfortable spillover of excess guests.) I’m fairly certain that we host more guests over the one week of sukkot than the rest of the year combined. It’s like turbo-hachnassat orchim, the mitzvah of home hospitality.sukkah2

So let those school supply flyers flood our mailbox and corn and tomatoes harvests wane. Yes, we’ll shed a few tears as we haul the beach umbrella up to the attic for hibernation, but while we’re up there we’ll catch a glance of our beloved sukkah kit waiting to be unpacked, and the girls will begin counting the days until the next favorite-time-of-year rolls along. Thanks to a calendar rich with celebrations, when the sukkah comes down, there will be yet another festival on the not so distant horizon. And then another, and another. Before we know it, it will be time to make a new list of summer plans that we’ll never quite get to.

(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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Re-runs, #4

Speaking of re-runs, is it almost time for a new season of Mad Men? Please?

From July 13, 2009

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 – the stinky Disney version.) 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 received a copy of Goodnight Sh’ma from my friends at Kar-Ben Pubishing, 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.

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Re-runs, #3

In the midst of winter, I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer….

from May 31, 2009

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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Re-runs, Day #2

Not only did I love this little book, but the post reminds me how much difference a year makes in the life of an early reader/writer.

from April 1, 2009

Why I send my daughter to a Jewish Day School – part 1

Here’s an excerpt of a 12 page book my daughter created during her free time at Kindergarten yesterday.

the cover

the cover

love matzah

love matzah

love haggadah

love haggadah

love afikoman

love afikoman

love netillat yadayim (go figure)

love netillat yadayim (go figure)

love baby moses

love baby moses

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A week of re-runs

I’ve been writing this blog for close to a year. While I’m no Finslippy (heck, I’m not even an Ima on the Bima), my readership seems to be slowly increasing. For all of you who are new to my blog, I though I would re-post some of my personal favorites over the course of this week. (Does this have anything to do with having to send home 23 progress reports this week? You bet it does!)

Here’s the post that’s probably closest to my heart, and I’m not saying that just because it’s about my breasts. Or maybe I am.

from March 19, 2009

Something Jewish About Breastfeeding

I spent the afternoon with my friend Tanya today, who writes a fantastic breastfeeding blog for Motherwear. I promised I would write “something Jewish about breastfeeding” for her.

“The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast.” Genesis 21:8-21

It might be hard to imagine throwing a feast to celebrate weaning. Many of my peers breastfed their children into toddlerhood, and even then had palpable ambivalence about ending the nursing relationship. But when I came across this passage in the Torah, shortly after my daughter Ella stopped nursing, I was struck by the idea. If only I had celebrated reaching this milestone rather than apologizing for it!

not my baby, not my breast

My first daughter Ella and I had a very rough start with breastfeeding. She came into the world jaundiced, and consequently, very sleepy. With no lactation support, I didn’t know that I should pump during this time in order to build up a strong milk supply, and at a few weeks old she was diagnosed with failure to thrive. I was deeply committed to exclusively breastfeeding, and met with the lactation consultant at the local hospital (who had been on vacation during our extended hospital stay) as well as every La Leche leader in Southern Oregon. I tried every recommendation, but because of our late start, nothing made a difference. Ultimately, and with a broken heart, I gave into her doctor’s insistence that we supplement with formula. Even then, I continued to seek solutions, and after another month of pumping every three hours, day and night, with a hospital grade pump, I was able to increase my supply to the point where my daughter began refusing the formula.

I share this to say that I fought hard for the privilege of breastfeeding my daughter. But, on her first birthday, when she refused the breast, I breathed a sigh of relief. While I probably wasn’t ready to initiate the weaning process, I was really, truly ready to stop breastfeeding. Despite all the progress I had made, I never stopped being anxious about breastfeeding. I never stopped worrying about how much milk she was getting, and I never really gained confidence as a nursing mom. So when she refused the breast, with the stubbornness that she now displays as a kindergartener, I comfortably glided into “don’t offer, don’t refuse” mode. She never reached for the breast again.

I poured my attention and energy into other forms of care-giving. I felt liberated, confident, and ready to try to get pregnant again. But I also felt self-conscious, just as I did in those early weeks of her life, when I would take out a bottle of supplemental formula. I worried other mothers thought I wasn’t quite committed enough to giving my daughter “the best.” I delivered long explanations about self-weaning to anyone who would listen, and they felt an awful lot like excuses.

Instead, we could have thrown a party, as Abraham did for Issac. Dear friends, let’s celebrate this child who has grown and thrived despite impossible odds (according to the Torah, Sarah was 90 when she conceived.) While at first I questioned why Abraham held the party instead of Sarah, I realized that party must have been meant to honor her as well. Loved ones gathered to celebrate a mother who found joy late in life, and would probably not live to bear another child. Yet, she was allowing her son to move on with grace to the next of many stages of increasing independence.

Zoe was born 10 months later. Determined to do a better job, I pulled out my Medela pump at the first sign of jaundice and had her weighed several times a week until we were convinced that all was well. I was jubilant and for the first time, felt great about breastfeeding. But at her six-month checkup, when she was still nursing exclusively and on demand (and refusing any kind of bottle with a now familiar stubbornness), we discovered she had actually lost weight over the last two months. All my anxieties returned, and once again, I became a slave to the baby scale.

I didn’t have a party when Zoe weaned, either. But I learned something from Sarah and Abraham. Weaning didn’t need to be a time of mourning, but instead of time of celebration. I gave myself permission to initiate the “don’t offer, don’t refuse” process as Zoe approached one year. When she quickly weaned, I didn’t make excuses and I didn’t feel remorse. I was proud of the obstacles I had overcome to raise two beautiful, healthy daughters and was pleased to take a tiny step back to watch them grow.

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