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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