Steven Waldman pulled his kids from Hebrew school and is trying to teach them Judaism himself. This is his "homeschooling diary."

Judaism vs. Jediism

Sunday was the big day. Perhaps the most important day in eight-year-old Gordon's life. The day for which he's been mentally preparing for many months. The day he got to see "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith."

I had intended to spend Sunday's Hebrew school trip to Toomey's Diner on the subject of envy. Joe had just had his eleventh birthday party and was working through some materialism issues.

But as it became clear how important "Star Wars" was in Gordon's cosmology, I felt it would be useful to compare and contrast.

"Is the Force like God?"

"No," said Gordon clearly. "The force is like the source of energy. So saying 'may the Force be with you' is like saying 'break a leg' but in a really serious way."

"What are the differences between Jedi faith and Judaism?"

They both involve supernatural theatrics. "Judaism has some magic to it," Gor explained, citing Moses parting the Red Sea and creating blood in the Nile by sticking in his staff. "Jedi has a little more magic. You can make stuff fly toward you."

The differences between the two traditions were far more numerous, the boys argued. "The Force does just whatever the Jedi does," Gordon said. "It doesn't have a mind of its own. It's sort of like a slave."

Joe agreed. "In the Bible stories, God does things. In "Star Wars," the Force doesn't have a brain. Other people USE the force. It's not good or evil. In the Bible, God only does things for good."

Gordon disagreed with the last point. "Not always. What about Jericho?" He was noting that God caused the walls of Jericho to fall down, killing thousands of innocent people.

Despite the moments of divine amorality, we agreed that by and large Yahweh was more likely to live and rule by an ethical code than was the Force.

Then we talked about the afterlife. The boys liked the Jewish conception-which theoretically allows for all people to live in the spirit world-more than the Jedi view, which seems to provide an afterlife only for that small number of people with Jedi powers. Jediism is far more elitist, we agreed, than Judaism.

The Golden Commandment?

My older son, Joe, has taken an interest in the Middle Ages (knights, castles, plagues, catapults, war elephants etc). So I figured I'd exploit that interest to teach Jewish history. We discussed Maimonides, the great 12th-century Jewish sage who, among other things codified the 613 Commandments said to be in the Torah.

"What was wrong with the Ten Commandments?" Joe asked. Good question. As a Reform Jew, I didn't quite know how to handle that, because we never really studied the other 603, and, upon recent inspection, I don't much like some of them ("to slay the inhabitants of a city that has become idolatrous and burn that city."(Deut. 13:16-17)

But it's worth looking at the 613, for some are both wise and routinely flouted. ("Not to demand from a poor man repayment of his debt, when the creditor knows that he cannot pay, nor press him.") It got interesting when I asked Joe what other commandments God should have put in. "What about the golden rule?"

Now that's another awfully good question. If Hillel's advice is to be taken-that the essence of Judaism is the command in Leviticus (19:18) that "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself"-why didn't that rank in the top 10?

The Messiah & The Gossip

It seems that every other time I find some interesting Jewish educational resource online it's been put there by an Orthodox group. A new Jewish Children's Museum opened up recently near us in Brooklyn. It was created by the Lubavitcher Hasidim, the ultra-Orthodox group formerly led by the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, whom many Lubavichers regard as the Messiah. Wearing black fedoras, dark suits, and beards, the Lubavitchers are easily identifiable (and common) in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

I used to get annoyed by how aggressive the Lubavitchers seem to be in pushing their literature and their teachings. They prosyletize, sending vans, known as "mitzvah tanks," throughout New York City, as well as to train stations in suburbs with Jewish populations, and they somehow came off as "real Jews" there to teach the fake Jews a thing or two about their faith.

In any event, they did a nice job with this museum, which includes a miniature golf course depicting the phases of a Jewish life. A humorous exhibit on gossip--known in Hebrew as lashon harah, which literally means evil tongue--explained that the practice was bad not only for the victims of the gossip and those maliciously spreading the information-but also those who hear it. We discussed this some but were mostly stumped. Perhaps it was because by hearing the gossip, the recipient is an accessory to a moral crime? Joe suggested that the person was then in an awkward position-having to decide whether to keep the secret or pass it on.

Do Reform Jews Practice Judaism Lite?

The trip to the Lubavitcher children's museum reminds me of an argument we had during the Passover seder. The rabbi at my fathers' Reform temple on Long Island apparently has been campaigning against the recent decision of some Reform congregations to include the tashlich ceremony as part of their Rosh HaShanah observance.

Tashlich-Hebrew for "you will cast away"-is a ceremony on the first day of Rosh Hashanah when Jews gather at a body of water, recite verses from the biblical books of Micah and Psalms, and throw breadcrumbs, symbolizing their sins, into the water. I always liked the ceremony, but my father's rabbi proudly declared that this was exactly the sort of superstition that the Reform movement has cast away.

It made me realize how much Reform Judaism has come to be viewed-by Reform Jews and observant Jews alike-as a lesser form of Judaism. The popular perception is that Reform Jews practice Judaism Lite-creaming a few simple, easy-to-understand and not-too-arduous principles and ignoring the rest. I've also heard several conservative Christians rhapsodize about Sen. Joseph Lieberman, in part on the grounds that he's a "real Jew"-i.e., observant-and dismissive of Reform Judaism as little more than a liberal political movement.

I confess some ignorance about the origins of the Reform movement. Some elements paralleled the attitudes of the Protestant Reformation toward the Catholic Church-a rejection of ritual for ritual sake and the corruption of the clerical class. It also paralleled Vatican II reforms of the Catholic Church in its introduction of the vernacular into services, rather than just Hebrew.

I'm not sure whether this is accurate, but as a child I was also taught, or at least came to believe, that Reform Jews were more likely to care about the obligation toward repairing the world (known in Hebrew as tikkun olam) and helping the poor or the exploited. They lived their Judaism through their social activism, rather than their observance of ritual.

But these days, it seems to me that Reform Jews have lost their sense of pride and have internalized the notion that they are merely superficial Jews. Is that perception unfair?

Top 10 Moments From the Waldman Family Seder

10) The traditional Pesach argument over whether Philip Roth's work is anti-Semitic.

9) Gordon (age eight) reading the Four Questions in English and transliterated Hebrew for the first time. He did fabulously well. He was beaming with pride, as were we.

8) After hiding the afikomen, my brother giving the kids a clue--"Some day, all of this will be yours"--and Joe (age 10) getting it! (Search for "curtains" if you don't.)

7) Cousin Ben (age 11) playing "Dayenu" on the portable electric piano. He chose the "pipe organ" setting (as opposed to trumpet or marimba) in deference to Amy's Presbyterian heritage.

6) The surprise revelation of the secret ingredient in Aunt Liz's brisket. (Pepsi).

5) Teaching Gordon and Joe the ancient Hebraic art of using the Cuisinart to chop the ingredients for the charoset.

4) Amy reading Hebrew for the fist time! (Transliteration.) And making awesome matzah ball soup, as usual.

3) The kids describing what people around the world were still not free. (They mentioned Africa, Sudan, Middle East, and China. One of the adults mischievously added, "Palestine." Interesting discussion ensued.)

2) Uncle Mike and I showing the kids our collection of 45s, revealing vast differences between Daddy's adolescent tastes (Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves") and Uncle Mike's (The Clash and Ramones).

1) Traditional family discussion of why we're not allowed to eat charoset-and-horse-radish all year long.

In Every Waldman Generation

Years ago, my mother created her Haggadah for our family's Passover seder. She cobbled together passages from various published Haggadahs she'd found here and there, and then added her own personal philosophy.

Each year, she always threw in a few lines about the Yankees or some school or professional triumph of one of her children, as well as a passage from the "Diary of Anne Frank" and other reflections of her theological and ethical perspectives. This may strike some as sacrilegious, but it definitely made the kids very attentive to the readings. We always looked forward to seeing how she'd manage to weave in some dig at the NRA, or a celebration of some personal development.

We joke about it, but this family Haggadah is one of the most precious Waldman family traditions. It is an expression of my mother's values and her sense of what Judaism really meant to our family.

Here it is. Feel free to copy any parts you like. More important, please send me any special passages from your own Haggadah, or post them on the message board next to this article.

Brotherly Love Is Boring

Whenever I've failed to prepare a coherent lesson plan, I crack open a book of Jewish stories. This weekend I used one titled " Lights Among the Path: Jewish Folklore Through the Grades."

I imagine that observant Jews would view this book as a mixed blessing. On one hand, it includes not only Torah stories but contributions from the Talmud and the Mishna. On the other hand, it's all under the label "folklore."

As a Reform Jew growing up on Long Island, I don't remember ever being introduced to the Talmud. It struck me: in the past, Reform Jews ignored the Talmud and Mishna, rejecting the idea that the "oral tradition" was all that important. But since many (most?) Reform Jews now view the Torah as largely metaphorical too, there's really no point in excluding the oral tradition. It's all folkore.

We read a very sweet story called "The Two Brothers," identified as an "aggadah parable of a midrash from ancient Palestine." A childless brother feels sad that his brother who has a wife and kids struggles so much to make ends meet. He decides to bring him a few sheaves of grain. The other man meanwhile feels sad that his brother wont have anyone to take care of him in his old age, so he also sneaks over at night with a few sheaves. Each wakes up to find out that his stock of grain has mysteriously not changed. This happens a few more times until they finally bump into each other during the night, realizing how much the other cares.

"Brotherly love is boring!" Joe declared.

"Yeah!" Gordon echoed.

At least they were smiling when they said that.

Solomon the Not-So-Wise

We also read "King Solomon and Ashmodai," a Talmudic story about how Solomon became so cocky and arrogant as king that God made him wander for several years as a beggar. I love this story because it connects wisdom and goodness, showing that intelligence won't get you anything without compassion.

Then we read a "Fortune for Chelm," a story about the foolishness of the Wise Men of Chelm. There's a whole genre of Chelm stories, set in 19th-century Eastern Europe. They're very funny, not only for their slapstick plotlines but also for puncturing the sense of self-importance that the Wise Men invariably have. I need to research more about the history of the Chelm stories. Are they strictly Jewish?

The three stories were well rendered in this book of "folklore."

Purim Cross-Dressing

We celebrated Purim this weekend by wearing our underwear on the outside of our clothes. This was an idea we got from the "The Jewish Family Fun Book", published by Jewish Lights. Well, the authors didn't exactly cite rabbinical scholars about the underwear idea, but they did suggest making Purim a "backwards" day to symbolize the ways in which the tables got turned on the bad guys in the Purim story.

This was a great twist, because my kids were getting tired of the traditional dressing-up-in-costumes approach. But when we turned up in the dining room wearing our clothes inside out, they got into the spirit. Gordon turned all his clothes around and started talking about putting Mom and Dad to bed. They read us bedtime stories, kissed us goodnight, and turned out the lights.

We also did a re-enactment of the Purim story, including a story which, according to the "The Jewish Holidays", by Michael Strassfeld, was actually in the Mishnah: Apparently, the villain Haman's wife inadvertently emptied her bedpan on her husband's head, mistaking him for Mordechai, the Jewish hero. The Mishnaic rabbis sound like a much bigger group of cut-ups than I imagined.

And Then There's the Jewish Butchery Part

To prepare, I actually read the Book of Esther in its entirety for the first time. I now understand why most kids' books just offer the highlights and gloss over some of the story's details. For one thing, there's the fact that this particular interfaith marriage--yes, Queen Esther is Jewish and her husband Ahasuerus, the Persian king, isn't--resulted from Esther winning a beauty pageant held after Ahasuerus's first wife, Queen Vashti, refused to parade before the king's drunken pals. The kids thought Vashti got a raw deal for standing up for herself. But there's second and even more potent part of the story that's left out of most accounts for kids: After Queen Esther saves the Jews from Haman, who had conspired to kill them all, they turn the tables, going on a vengeful rampage and slaughtering more than 75,000 Persians.

Perhaps someone can explain to me how Purim became the happy-go-lucky "fun holiday," rather than a commemoration that forces us to understand how it is possible to lose the moral high ground by slaughtering the enemy at the first opportunity of domination.

Have Torah, Will Travel

When I asked you for nominations of the best Jewish movie for kids, the biggest surprise was that several of you mentioned "The Frisco Kid" with Gene Wilder. I had never seen the movie and figured it was some third-generation "Blazing Saddles" spin-off. We finally saw it this weekend, and I agree it should be near the top of the list.

It's a charming comedy about a humble but likeable rabbi from Poland send to America in 1850 to lead a new congregation in San Francisco. The movie is about his exploits crossing the West: teaching Native Americans how to dance the horah, bandits how to say 'oy' instead of sh-t, refusing to ride his "horsie" even when being chased by people trying to kill him.

For purposes of Hebrew school, the two most teachable moments involved a conversation that Rebbe Avram has with an Indian who is impressed by his willingness to die to protect his Torah and curious about the white man's God. The chief demands to know why, if God is all-powerful, He won't respond to the tribe's prayers for rain. Avram is halfway done explaining that God is way too busy to deal with things like that when it starts to pour. Avram looks up with a whimsical expression and says, "But sometimes He changes his mind."

The most thought-provoking moment occurs during a showdown between some bad guys and Avram and his new best friend-a deep-down-good bank robber named Tommy Lillard, played by a young Harrison Ford. The scalawags throw Avram's Torah into the fire, and he rescues it instead of helping Tommy. Avram is then forced to shoot and kill one of the robbers out of self-defense. He comes away from the scene profoundly depressed and later declares he's no longer fit to be a rabbi. Tommy-and my family-assumed that Avram meant that he could no longer be a rabbi because he'd murdered a man. No, Avram explains, it's because he chose to rescue the Torah instead of a friend. Though he has spent much of the movie risking his life to protect the Torah, he declares that it is ultimately a piece of parchment and valuing the life of a friend is more important.

The lesson for my kids from this movie, like the one I extracted from my experience a few months ago with Orthodox Jews who wanted to exterminate Arabs, was that being a good Jew relates primarily to how you treat others.

Why Toomey's Diner Is the Ideal Place for Hebrew School

We often have our Hebrew school sessions in a booth at Toomey's diner. Gordon orders Belgian waffles, Joe corned beef hash with hot sauce. Plus hot chocolates. But while I'm fond of Toomey's food--best reubens in Brooklyn, I maintain--I find it is the peer support that makes it an excellent venue for religious education. Pretty much every time we've done Hebrew school there, someone from a nearby booth will stop by and say something like, "You're doing a wonderful thing! Keep it up!"

This past week Joe was looking very grumpy about having to do Hebrew school and the waitress actually challenged him: "Ok, if you don't need this, tell me what the principles of the Bible are?"

"Um, kindness?"

"Uh huh. What else?"


"Yup. What else?"


"That's it? Well, then, I guess you're not quite ready to stop your education, are you?" she said with a wink.

Of course I suspect that if I were in a diner in Park Slope, which is more of a white, yuppie enclave, we wouldn't get quite so much positive reinforcement. Because Toomey's is located in a black neighborhood--and, in fact, on Sunday many of our fellow diners have just come from church--we get a lot of moral support.

Torah Pictionary

The kids were indeed ornery. They didn't want to hear my planned lesson and were intent on drawing funny illustrations on the back of the paper placemats. So I switched gears and started a game of Torah Pictionary. They each had to draw a Bible scene quickly and we had three chances to guess what it was. Joe drew Nebuchadnezzar destroying the Temple in Jerusalem. Gordon drew Moses parting the Red Sea. I drew Rabbi Hillel standing on one foot. (I know, it's not technically a Torah story, but it comes from the tale about the gentile who challenged Hillel to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, to which he replied, "Love thy neighbor as thyself. All the rest is commentary").

Was Samson a Suicide Bomber?

While we sat in the diner, I also read the kids the story of Samson and Delilah from the Book of Judges. We all had questions about this tale: Why did Samson continue to trust Delilah after she tied him up three times? In fact, when I asked the kids what the lesson of the story was, they offered, "Don't be so dumb?" Well, there's that, I said, but it's also that Samson got his real strength from his relationship with God, so that when his hair--the sign of Samson's love for God--was cut, so too was his spiritual lifeline. Good enough.

All of us were quite struck, though, that when Samson's hair (and strength) grew back, he knocked the pillars of the arena down, crushing himself and every man and women inside it, even those who weren't teasing him. (Come to think of it, is murder an appropriate response to teasing?) Samson sacrificed his own life for the noble principle of wiping out every person in the arena.

Queen Esther, Interfaith Heroine!

I've been showered with corrections each time I have attempted to suggest that some of our greatest Torah heroes were in interfaith marriages. Moses married a non-Jewess, I said. But she undoubtedly converted to Judaism, scholars and traditional Jews argued back. Abraham married a non-Jew; she converted as well, it was said. David married Bathsheba; well, she was probably Jewish in the first place, it was argued in response. Solomon clearly married a non-Jew; well, that was just for political reasons.

Ok, riddle me this: How do you explain the great Jewish heroine Esther? She clearly was married to a non-Jew, King Ahasuerus of Persia. I await the scholarly verdict on why this wasn't a shameful thing. Perhaps it will be argued that because she was selected by the Persian king to be his bride, she had no choice; but there's no record of her resisting. Or perhaps it will be argued that marrying a non-Jew was permissible in this case because it helped to save the Jewish people, although there's no indication that Esther understood her heroic role when she got hitched.

In other words, the moral of these stories is that interfaith marriage is a horrible thing--unless there are extenuating circumstances. In the case of Esther, it was to help the Jewish people. In the case of Solomon, there were geopolitical justifications.

If it's OK for Jews to marry non-Jews in the Bible for a greater cause, why can't we similarly make the argument that in modern times it's fine for Jews to marry non-Jews if there are other compelling reasons--like perhaps that two people love each other very much and pledge to raise their kids as Jews and spiritually attuned people? Come to think of it, if Esther helped the Jews by bringing them under the protection of the Persian king, why isn't it good for Jews today to marry people of the dominant religion so that their gentile extended families come to have a stake in Jewish survival as well. Ahasuerus was inclined to protect the Jews because his wife was a Jew. Perhaps my father-in-law has more tolerance for Jews than he might otherwise have because his wife married one.

Tu B'shvat

Am I blowing my homeschooling project? I might be. I missed three weeks' worth of lessons. That wouldn't have happened if my kids were in real Hebrew school. I was out of town for a week, and when I got back I dreaded monopolizing their free time. They're so scheduled during the week, and have so much homework, I feel bad about taking away their downtime, especially for more school.

In fact, the most common answer I get when I ask other Jews why they've taken their kids out of Hebrew school is: "two days a week." Most Hebrew schools require kids to attend two days a week by fourth grade, in part to allow enough time to teach even rudimentary Hebrew.

Sigh. I completely missed Tu B'shvat, which was in January. So I decided to teach it today, two weeks late. These printable worksheets from Aklah.com helped.

The kids enjoyed the quiz. "Did the gardeners of Eden retire, quit, or get fired?" (Adam and Eve got fired, apparently, a concept that can only make one wonder how things would have played out had they been unionized.)

We then explored why there would be a whole holiday just for trees, as opposed to rocks or water, by listing all the different things that can be made with trees:

Homes for animals
Battering rams
Catapults (boys will be boys)

The boys loved the idea that you could plant a tree in your name in Israel, but were discouraged by the price tag they'd heard at Hebrew school, $500 per tree. We read about the tradition of using wood from the personal trees of the bride and groom to create a wedding canopy.

We talked about how in the desert, trees must have seemed particularly precious. But, damn, I forgot to tie this to broader points about preserving the environment and God's creation, etc. Gordon saved me, though, by describing how the American Indians prayed over the buffalo before they ate them, and endeavored to put every speck of the animal to good use--a sign of respect for the animal that, Gordon believed, was akin to our requisite approach to the earth.

What's So Good About Jacob?

I know we're supposed to honor our patriarchs, but what are we to make of Jacob? He tricks his father into giving him his brother Esau's inheritance by dressing up in fur to impersonate his hairy brother and thereby gains a deathbed blessing from the blind-and-a-tad-too-gullible father, Isaac. Jacob then runs away and settles in the town with a fellow named Laban, who, in turn, plays a nasty practical joke on Jacob. Jacob says he'll work for seven years to earn the right to wed Laban's beautiful daughter Rachel. On the night they are to wed, Laban sneaks into Jacob's tent and substitutes his "plain" daughter, Leah. Having accidentally made whoopee with Leah, Jacob is stuck with her as a wife. Laban then squeezes another seven years' labor out of Jacob before he lets him wed Rachel.

Once he's married to both women, according to our children's Bible, Jacob makes his preferences quite clear to the sisters, illustrating one of the downsides of polygamy.

Perhaps as divine punishment, Jacob has six kids with the second-string Leah and one son, Joseph, with the much-coveted Rachel. (He also has two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, who bear him other children.) Having shown blatant favoritism in wives, Jacob continues the questionable role-modeling by openly favoring Joseph over the children-of-the-lesser-wife and the concubines. Reading the full soap opera makes it easier to understand why Joseph's 11 brothers eventually would conspire to throw him into a ditch and sell him into slavery.

Joseph's behavior stimulated a lively discussion between the kids. First, each contemplated under what conditions they would sell the other into slavery. They agreed that it wasn't Joseph's fault he was having dreams that reflected badly on his brothers, like the one about their sheaves of wheat bowing down to Joseph's sheaf. But why did he have to tell everyone about his dreams? Wouldn't it have been more sensitive to just keep them to himself? Then, when Joseph made it big, he strung along his struggling brothers for a while before doing right by them and loading them up with wheat.

I know we're supposed to be proud of Joseph for triumphing over adversity in a strange land and rising to the position of Pharaoh's top adviser, but is becoming the Karl Rove of his time proof that he is a truly good man?

What I'm getting at here is that most of these early Bible figures are not great men. Even Joseph, though clearly more noble than Jacob, was not unambigious. I'm having a hard time understanding why Jacob is great at all. While this doesn't make me less impressed with or enamored of the Torah, it does mean that the Bible "heroes" are important not as role models but as provocations for thought. The Torah teaches moral lessons akin to the kind you get from watching "Survivor" or "Dynasty": They make you think about what you would or should do.

Now I must be sounding a bit sacrilegious. This material has been studied by many learned rabbis over the centuries, and perhaps some of you will write in to help straighten me out: Why should I consider Jacob a great man?

"Exterminate Them"

For Shabbos dinner I went to the house of an Orthodox friend. He had a little service before hand and some of his friends from the neighborhood came by. Chanting Hebrew prayers at breakneck speed, they seemed impressive and pious.

When the service was over, the men gathered in the hallway and began discussing the Mideast conflict. One of the well-dressed professionals whose piety I had so admired moments before gave his solution, "You take that wall the Israelis are building around the West Bank and instead you build it around all the Arab nations. Then you take all their oil and pour it on them. And then you light a match." He also suggested dropping a nuclear bomb on Mecca.

A soft-spoken Israeli fellow standing nearby nodded and offered a few Hebrew words, which were translated for me as his approach to dealing with Muslims: "Exterminate them."

This visit was supposed to be part of my homeshuling for the week--seeing how observant Jews celebrate Sabbath. Instead, it became grist for a more meaningful conversation with the kids on the ride home. They hadn't heard the discussion, so I filled them in. First, I told them, it's clear that devotion to religious ritual doesn't make you a good Jew let alone a good person.

But more important, Daddy had failed in his responsibilities. I've always felt that if you witness or hear bigotry you have to say something. But when these men said the most bigoted and grotesque things I'd ever heard, I was tongue-tied. I said nothing. I chickened out. I told my kids, I had failed and we discussed what I might have done differently. Still, kids learn from parental actions more than parental words.

Counter Genocide

I still can't get that Shabbos conversation out of my mind. How could Jews, of all people, advocate the extermination of anyone? I know some Orthodox believe the Torah sanctions the elimination of enemies, but my assumption has always been that as victims of persecution, Jews would always be extremely sensitive in their treatment of others. This idea was a source of hope. It is because of our sad history that we are destined to be leaders in the world's efforts to become more humane, I figured.

These men made me realize that a history of persecution could have the opposite effect. The fact that Jews had been the victims of genocide seemed to give them permission to imagine counter-genocide. Because they tried to do us in, we're allowed to reciprocate.

I'm speechless again.

Jewish MLK Day

A Jewish MLK Day

One thing I always liked about our old synagogue was that they treated Martin Luther King Day as a major Jewish holiday. If you believe, as I do, that social justice is an important part of Judaism, this is perhaps the biggest holiday of the year--the one specifically honoring a social justice activist.

I figured one way to introduce this value into our studies would be to discuss the Jewish heroes of the civil rights movement. Curiously, when I tried to search for information online about Jews' role in the civil-rights movement, I had a difficult time. One site listed heroes like Meir Kahane (the anti-Arab founder of the Jewish Defense League). Another listed Jewish astronaut Judith Resnick. But I couldn't find any that discussed Andrew Goodman or Michael Schwerner, the Jewish men who were killed along with James Chaney fighting for civil rights in the South in 1964.

What became clear is that a lot of the best Jewish Web sites--the ones that teach Hebrew and Torah and the holidays in a creative and energetic fashion-- are created by Orthodox or Conservative Jews. They simply do not view liberal social activism as being an important part of Judaism.

Finally, I found information about Rabbi Marc Schneider's book Common Dreams, about Jewish involvement in the civil-rights movement. According to this book, fully one half of the whites who came to Mississippi for Freedom Summer to help register blacks to vote were Jewish. What an amazing statistic!

I have to say, in the several months I've been home schooling my kids in Judaism, nothing made me more proud to be Jewish than that fact, and I told my son Joe.

Klezmer to the Rescue

This weekend was one of those times that made me doubt whether I should be doing this Hebrew home schooling. I was just too busy and tired to prepare much. Last year, I would have just dropped off my kids at Hebrew school and gone on about my business, not even talking to them about Jewish things. When this weekend came I had no plan, other than talking about the Jewish role in the civil rights movement. I couldn't find anything written for kids about that subject, I couldn't find a volunteering activity near our home.

What I did find was a Klezmer concert at the Brooklyn Art Museum. So desperate was I to fill out my curriculum for the weekend, that we took them straight from the ice-skating rink to the concert.

Was this a lazy way out? Yeah, probably. But maybe there's some good in this too. Before, I wouldn't have even noticed the listing in the newspaper for a Klezmer concert. Now, I think, Oh! This can count as Hebrew school! At least we went.

The Flood

I really hadn't intended to teach them the Noah's ark story this week. I certainly didn't want to imply that I thought the tsunami was God punishing the world. But when I picked up the Bible and saw the flood story, well, I just got curious what the kids would say.

I didn't mention the tsunami at all. I just gave them two questions about the Torah passage: What do you think Noah should have done differently? What should God have done differently?

Gordon, the eight year old, thought Noah should have argued with God, urged him to find other people worthy of being saved--as Abraham had. Gor also wondered why God had given the people of Nineveh second chances in the Jonah story but didn't in this case, and he noted that in the drawing in our illustrated Bible, the animals were drowning too. "Hey--they didn't do anything wrong!"

The fact that God promised not to do it again--and offered a rainbow as a reminder--drove home the point that He seemed to have concluded that He'd made a mistake.

The next day I asked Joe (the 10 year old) the same questions and got virtually the same answers. God could have made Noah a prophet and given him the power to travel the world, performing miracles and preaching the word of God so more people shed their evil ways and be saved. Joe, too, noted the slaughter of the animals as proving the indiscriminate nature of the flood.

Finally, Joe asked, if God promised never to do it again, why did he do the tsunami this week? I pointed out that God had merely promised not to wipe out the entire population, but I didn't go any deeper than that. I toyed with launching a "Where Was God?" discussion but, to be honest, I really hadn't let the kids see much of the TV coverage and wasn't eager to explore the cosmic injustice of this tragedy.

One of the undercurrents of both conversations was that it was OK to argue with God, and so it's certainly OK to resist temporal authority that's doing something unjust. I told Joe that there would likely come a time in his life when he might be told by a higher-up to do something he knows is wrong, and in that case, he still has to follow his conscience. He mentioned the man who blew the whistle on the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal. That took real guts, we both concluded.

I didn't mean for these sessions to come out quite so anti-God, but the Noah story really doesn't present God as particularly evolved. Joe put it in perspective, though. "He's a young God," Joe explained. "He hasn't learned all his God skills yet."

Good Resources

My long search for "printables"--activity sheets suitable for my eight year old--finally bore fruit. I found some via the vast network of homeschoolers: like this list of Bible-related "printables". I also fell in love with this little site that has trivia, songs, a Hebrew poster-writer and word search.

By the way, I've looked at many different Jewish story books and by far the best is a low-key volume from a British publisher: "Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another." Joe literally begs me to read him Jewish stories at night!

Singing & Editing the Hymns

My wife, who is Christian, took us to Old First Reformed Church in Park Slope, Brooklyn for a Christmas Eve service. It's a beautiful old arts-and-crafts style sanctuary. As a Jew, when I go to church services I have the minor dilemma of which words in the hyms, prayers and carols to utter. My first internal conflict came with "O Come All Ye Faithful," one of my favorites. I sang full-throatedly through "joyful and triumphant", and then hummed when I got to "Christ the Lord."

I usually do this kind of line editing without any self-consciousness. Around here, most Christians will not resent me skipping a few phrases and appreciate me trying at all. But this time my kids were with me. I felt like if I sang words that I didn't believe they would think I viewed them as meaningless. But I also didn't want to make a big statement antagonistic to Amy, who was standing next to me and singing all the lyrics.

As I was going through this internal debate, something occurred to me about the recent controversies over "Merry Christmas" and what kinds of Christian music should be in public schools and settings. Part of the argument for why Christian music and symbols (like Christmas trees) should be allowed is that they've become universal. "Come All Ye Faithful" is so ubiquitous that I could almost sing it as I do any popular tune, i.e. without thinking much about its meaning. But is this really a victory for Christians, to get Christmas music so prevalent that it takes on the status of Rudoph the Red Nose Reindeer? Isn't it possible that the more Christmas music we have in the public square, the more it will be diluted?

The Real December Dilemma for Interfaith Families

Too many presents! We had presents for eight nights of Hannukah. Then Christmas. We tried to regulate it by having some Hannukah nights geared toward charity but I'm not sure we got the balance quite right yet.


We watched the Simpsons Christmas DVD, which has a classic Bart line: "Sometimes I think we're forgetting the real meaning of Christmas - Santa's birthday." Well, last year the kids found out that Santa wasn't real (and they were mighty furious). So this year we focused more on Jesus.

As part of Christianity week in Hebrew school, we've been reading a book called "Parables: Stories Jesus Told." The editor, Mary Hoffman, skillfully explains what a parable is and how challenging the messages are. The story of the Good Samaritan went over well, and reinforced Judaism nicely.

It was the story of the workers in the vineyard that tripped me up. The idea that someone who worked all day got paid the same total as someone who came for the last hour seemed unfair. It makes sense as a metaphor for salvation: those who come late to belief in God should be allowed in the Kingdom just as much as those who have believed for a while. But the more literal meaning runs against two Jewish impulses. One is that the primary way to heaven is leading a good life. In Judaism, serial murderers who accept God on their deathbed don't get to go. In Protestantism, on the other hand, faith trumps all else. (I'm a bit unclear, frankly, on the Catholic approach to this faith vs. works mix). The story about the workers in the vineyard seems to cut against the work-hard-do-good-and-you-will-be-rewarded idea.

On the other hand, kids have a hyper-developed sense of fairness. ("He has 5 Jello cubes and I only have four! No fair!") I found it useful to introduce the concept of "having enough." It doesn't matter whether you have less; you have plenty.

Why Can't We All Get Along, Part 92

I often get the sense that religious conservatives or orthodox people of any faith view liberals of the same faith as phony. They're not real Christians if they don't take the Bible literally or vote Republican. When Jim Wallis, a liberal evangelical was on TV during the campaign saying that Christians should pay more attention to the poor, Rev. Jerry Falwell said "you're about as evangelical as an oak tree." In other words, Wallis wasn't just wrong; he wasn't really Christian.

So there we were in a liberal Congregationalist church in Brooklyn. The minister gave a strong anti-war riff that could have come straight out of "Fahrenheit 9/11." So the rest of the package should have been all about how Jesus was a just a great "teacher" and not divine, right? Instead, the minister declared point blank: "Everything you hear tonight is true."

Gee, seems like that lefty pastor actually believes this Christianity stuff. Who knew?

Oh Holy Elvis

By the way, best Christmas album of all time: "Elvis Sings the wonderful World of Christmas." No kidding.

Taking the Christ Out of "Christmas Carol"

The whole family watched at least two different versions of "A Christmas Carol"--one starring George C. Scott and the other starring Donald Duck (featuring, inexplicably, a Scottish accent). Ever notice that the Christmas Carol never mentions Jesus? It mentions God--"God bless each and everyone"--and obviously angels and spirits, so it is a faith-based not Santa-based tale. Yet no mention of Jesus. (A a nice Christianity today piece about the staying power of "A Christmas Carol.")p> I think this is worth remembering in this Season of Giving Hell to Each Other. For public venues, there is something in between Jesus-focused and secular. The Christmas Carol (and the Grinch in its own way) are deeply spiritual, capturing the "spirit of Christmas" and of Christ's message but in a way that it is inviting to all.

Torah Titans and Their Non-Jewish Wives, Cont'd

I got several letters from Orthodox Jews explaining that:

  • "Jewish tradition" says Solomon's non-Jewish wife converted to Judaism
  • "Jewish tradition" says that Moses' wife also converted and anyway there was no such thing as a Jew before the giving of the Torah. (Really? I thought Abraham was the first Jew).
  • David never married a non-Jew and that Bathsheba was "definitely Jewish."
  • I await further comment from experts in the field on this topic.

    Torah Shiksas

    "How can the blind teach the blind! Get yourself a real education, Steve! When your kids bring home shiksa, Steve, how will you tell them, it's ok, Dadddy was a hypocrite too and broke the chain?"

    This was a note I recently got from someone who thinks I've harmed Judaism by marrying a Christian, even though my kids are Jewish. I think I'm taking pretty seriously the idea of raising them Jewish, and most of the mail I've gotten has supportive (by the way, thank you to those who've written and to whom I haven't had a chance to respond personally).

    But this note prompts me to mention something I've been dying to float for sometime--a peculiarity not discussed in the literature about interfaith marriages destroying Judaism: many of the greatest Jewish biblical heroes seem to have been married to non-Jews!

    And I'm not talking about minor figures making cameo appearances. I'm talking about the Torah Superstars. For instance, we are told that Moses married Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, a "priest of Midian." Later she is referred to as "the Ethiopian woman" raising the possibility that she was not only a non Jew but also black.

    King David married Bathsheba "wife of Uriah the Hittite," a non Jew. It doesn't specifically say if she was a Hittite but, in the absence of information to the contrary, it seems safe to assume she wasn't a Hebrew either. Since it was Bathsheba (as opposed to one of David's other wives) who gave birth to Solomon, then according to the oft-cited matrilineal Jewish law, Solomon wasn't Jewish either.

    Then Solomon himself married at least one non-Jew--the daughter of the Pharoh of Egypt.

    Yes, Moses, David and Solomon seem to be married to non-Jews. You serious Torah scholars out there, am I missing something? I'm genuinely curious and hope someone out there might be able to help: why does the Torah seem to offer no negative commentary about these figures having married non-Jews and dilluted the bloodline?

    Jesus, the Hebrew School Way

    Since their mom is Christian, we've been determined to figure out healthy ways of teaching the boys about Christianity. With Christmas upon us, we decided to devote this weekend and next to Jesus.

    Yesterday we went to a performance of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" at a sweet little opera house in Manhattan called the Amato. Amahl was an opera created for network TV in the 1950s. (Yes, that's right, network TV executives back then thought it part of their job to create operas.) It's the story of a crippled boy whose poor famly was visited by the magi on the way to baby Jesus. With its message of hope for the poor and crippled, it was a nice contrast to Left Behind message of Jesus as slayer of unbelievers.

    Today, we read Jesus's birth story. What might a Hebrew school version of Christmas emphasize?

    First, as we sat in a quiet Thai restaurant, we talked about how Jesus, Mary and Joseph were Jewish. We talked about the great hope that Jewish peasants had for someone like Jesus because they felt oppressed by the Romans and wanted a savior to help them get freedom. We talked about how he wanted to reform the parts of Judaism that had become corrupted, like the financial monkey business taking place in the temple. Joe was particularly interested that the angel Gabriel was the one who told Mary about her new baby since he also makes appearances in the Torah and Qur'an.

    Second, we talked about Jesus's messages. I realize this is material people spend 10 years in Sunday school learning but we tried to cover the highlights in 45 mintues. "Love thy neighbor is one of Jesus's most important teachings," I said, "and that comes straight form Jewish tradition." I reminded them of the Hillel quote about all of the Torah being summarized as "Treat your neighbor has you what have them treat you."

    One awkward moment came when I talked about Jesus' promise that the meek shall inherit the earth. After explaining what a hopeful and radical message this was from Jesus, given that heretofore, only the rich had any power, Gordon asked simply, "Well, did the meek inherit the earth?" At first I started down the murky road of talking about the meek coming to power in the afterlife but he interrupted and asked, "So they only get power after they're dead?" I felt like I wasn't quite conveying the power of Jesus' message, so I tried a different tack and said that, in fact, relative to the way things were then, the meek are doing much better--because of the spread of democracy.

    Finally, we talked about what it means to turn the other cheek. Not surprisingly, the kids thought that meant that they should let bullies beat them up. Amy reminded them that if they're being teased, we tell them they shouldn't tease back because that makes matters worse and lowers them to the aggressor's level. "It's reverse psychology!" Gordon declared. Yes!

    It became even more clear when we talked about Martin Luther King and Gandhi, the two people in modern times who most exemplified that non-violence carries awesome power for change. King and Gandhi, the kids had to admit, were no wimps.

    And then the check came and we were off to see "Series of Unfortunate Events."

    The truth is, Christmas is really not that hard to explain to Jewish kids because almost all of Jesus' teachings are complimentary with Judaism. Maybe I'm kidding myself, but the children seem to have no difficulty holding in their heads both the idea of Jesus's greatness and their pride in Judaism. Perhaps Easter will be trickier--but we have several months before we have to figure out what to say about that.

    Is Fievel The Best Jewish Kids Movie of All Time?

    Could it be that An American Tale--the Steven Spielberg animated feature about the Mousekovitz's journey from Russia to the United States--is the best Jewish children's film? Chased out by Catsacks in 1885 this mouse family came to America, where "the streets are paved with cheese"--and there are no cats.

    It actually counts as a Hanukkah movie because little mouse Feivel is given a cap as a Hanukkah present in the beginning of the film. He gets separated from his family, which assumes him to be dead. The movie introduces anti-Semitism, depicts the Jewish immigrant experience and champions the freedom Jews have discovered in the United States.

    Better than Yentl. Sweeter than Prince of Egypt. What's better?

    Maybe Miracle on 34th Street?

    Ok, I know what you're thinking: this guy's religious identity is so muddled that he thinks a Christmas movie is Jewish. But the point of this old classic starring a very young Natalie Wood is believing, having faith, and not listening too hard to ultra-rationalists as represented by the Macy's executive who teaches her child to disregard fairy tales as unrealistic, and by the grotesque Macy's psychiatrist who has Chris Kringle committed to a mental hospital. Aren't they sort of like the modern day Hellenizers? Isn't Hanukkah today about the power of miracles in a rational, scientific world? Isn't that the point of Miracle on 34th Street?

    Spiritual Schizophrenia

    I just got back from a lovely Hanukkah party thrown by my brother-in-law's family, most of whom come from the Lubuvicher branch of Orthodox Judaism. We sang songs, played a special Hanukkah version of pictionary and in general had a wonderful time. I did not get even a whiff of disapproval that we are Reform or that my wife is Christian.

    And that reminds me: I'd like to respond directly to some of the posts about the perils of interfaith marriages:

    12/7/04 1:24:04 PM
    Most people say that when you bring children up in two faiths, the one they choose most frequently is None."

    I think the cruelest thing about intermarriage is the effects it has on the kids. Two Jewish parents are the ideal way to raise Jewish kids."

    I understand the fear embedded in these comments. There certainly are many interfaith marriages that have spawned secular or aimless kids. But then again there are many orthodox families that have spawned kids rebelling from religious rigidity and many reform families that have produced barely Jewish kids. I guess I'll never know for sure, but I'm pretty confident that had I married another person from my strain of Judaism my kids would be getting less Jewishness in their lives than they're getting now. Why? Because being in an interfaith marriage makes me hyper-attuned to these issues-I work much harder at imparting Jewish identity than I otherwise would have.

    I do wonder whether they'll feel they were forced to choose one parent over the other. That's part of why we took away the choice early on by converting them to Judaism as infants and stating flatly that they are Jewish kids with a Christian mother.

    Now I'm going to say something that could potentially anger both Jews and Christians: it's not actually that hard to find the commonalities between Judaism and Christianity if you're looking for them. An orthodox Rabbi at our Hanukkah party tonight repeated the famous story about Rabbi Hillel who was challenged to summarize the Torah standing on one leg. He said, "Treat others as you would have them treat you. That is the essence of the Torah. The rest is just commentary." How different is that from the teachings of Jesus?

    Obviously to avoid conflict we don't push the view that Jesus was the Messiah or that salvation can only be gained through accepting him as savior. And for Christians that's a rather big thing to leave out, so I'm not saying that these two religions are really the same. My kids are Jewish. What I am saying is that by focusing on the 90% of the two faiths' teachings that are similar, you can raise kids without spiritual schizophrenia.

    Would Judah Maccabee Slit My Throat?

    I had just finished telling Joe about the Maccabees' fight against those villainous "Hellenized" Jews who had put pagan rituals into the temple when my Christian wife said, "Is it ok if we decorate the Christmas tree tonight?"

    So here I am building a Jewish home, teaching about Hanukkah--while taking occasional breaks to put little styrofoam angels on our aluminum conifer.

    I wonder: Am I worthy of Hanukkah? Would Judah Maccabee tolerate me - or slit my throat?

    For the kids, we focus on the miracle of the oil lasting 8 days instead of one, which always struck me as rather puny as miracles go. I once had a quart of half-and-half that was still good two full weeks after the expiration date and I didn't create any holidays around it. But I get the idea that it's a miracle symbolic of all miracles and accentuating the importance of light in these dark times.

    It's the story of the Maccabees that leaves me wondering how American Jews should teach about Hanukkah.

    The Maccabeean Jihad

    Hanukkah revolves around a guerrilla war the Maccabees conducted against Antiochus, the oppressive Greekified Syrian. The first strike was not against a Syrian but rather against another Jew--a "reformer" who was helping to officiate at a sacrilegious ceremony in the Temple. He was slaughtered by Matthias Hasmon, head of the priestly family we now know as the Maccabees.

    Who were these "reformers" and why did the Maccabees hate them so much? According to "A History of the Jews" by Paul Johnson, the "reform party" wanted to accelerate the pace of Hellenization, in part so Jews could be accepted into the ruling elite, but also to break down the rigidity of Torah-based Judaism. "The reformers found the Torah full of fables and impossible demands and prohibitions," and preferred to emphasize the universal message about monotheism. "Seers said, 'Cursed be the man who rears a pig and cursed be those who instruct their sons in Greek wisdom.' The reformers did not want to abolish the Law completely but to purge it of those elements which forbade participation in Greek culture--for instance, the ban on nudity, which kept pious Jews out of the gymnasium and stadium--and reduce it to its ethical core, so universalizing it."

    As someone who eats pork and teaches my kids "Greek wisdom" like the value of democracy, I didn't find these "reformers" to be quite as loathsome as my Hanukkah books had implied.

    Unfortunately, the reformers ended up in league with an occupying regime that didn't just want to expose Jews to Greek culture but to desecrate the temple and prohibit the free practice of religion. So the Maccabees were correct to resist Antiochus, and their exploits seem heroic.

    But what actually resulted from their victory? Johnson writes, "The zeal and intensity of the assault on the Law aroused a corresponding zeal for the Law, narrowing the vision of the Jewish leadership and pushing them ever more deeply into a Torah-centered religion. With their failure, the reformers discredited the notion of reform itself, or even any discussion of the nature and direction of the Jewish religion. Such talk was henceforth denounced in all the official texts as nothing less than total apostasy and collaboration with foreign oppression, so that it became difficult for moderates of any kind, or internationally minded preachers who looked beyond the narrow enclave of Orthodox Judaism, to get a hearing. The Hasmoneans [a.k.a. Maccabees] spoke for a deeply reactionary spirit within Judaism."

    "Against this background of intellectual terror by the religious mob, the secular spirit and intellectual freedom which flourished in the Greek gymnasia and academies was banished from Jewish centres of learning."

    As rulers, the Hasmoneans were far from model Jews. John Hyrcanus, a son of one of the Maccabee brothers, ruled from 134-104 BC. He forcibly conquered Samaria and Scythopolis. "John's wars of fire and sword were marked by massacres of city populations whose only crime was that they were Greek-speaking. The province of Idumea was conquered and the inhabitants of its two main cities, Adora and Mariss, were forcibly converted to Judaism or slaughtered if they refused."

    Hyracanus was succeeded by his son, Alexander Jannaeus. When some pious Jews pelted him with lemons, Jannaeus's response, according to the historian Josephus, was terroristic: "He was in a rage, and slew of them about six thousand." After taking back Jerusalem he "did one of the most barbarous actions in the world.for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes."

    So, Happy Hanukkah!

    You can see why I have problems with celebrating the Maccabees, despite their courage and specific victory over the oppressive rule of Antiochus. I suspect that Judah and his offspring would not likely tolerate the existence of modern day Reform Jews--who make up the vast majority of Jews in America today (most of whom do not keep kosher or follow orthodox interpretations of the Torah). And I shudder to think of what Judah and his ancestors would make of a Jew married to a Christian.

    So let's keep the focus on that long-burning, high quality lamp oil.

    December Dilemma: Too Many Presents

    For Americans like me in Jewish-Christian marriages, December has always been a great month for kids and a challenging one for parents. The children of this particular interfaith marriage benefit wildly by getting presents for both Hanukkah and Christmas. Their Christian grandparents, in particular, always wanted to make sure their tradition got the proper emphasis, which takes the form of aggressive gifting. The Jewish side has the advantage of an eight-day holiday with tradition holding that the children get a gift on each night. Twentieth century Jews have increased the importance of Hanukkah as a way of creating a rough equality with Christmas, which is silly because the event it marks plays an infinitely smaller role in Jewish theology and history than Christmas does in Christianity.

    But this is also the season when The Question tends to arise, and this year's variations were quite pointed:

    "My teacher says I'm not technically Jewish," Joe reported, "because my mother is Christian." Well, actually, you are technically Jewish, we explain, because we had a conversion ceremony when you were an infant, dipping you in a ritual mikvah, and committed to raising you Jewish.

    Joe continued, "What I usually say is 'I'm half Christian and half Jew in an ethnic sense but Jewish in a religious sense.'" I thought about that. Not bad. Except then I remembered that unlike any other religious group, Jews are also an ethnic group. As a practical matter, someone who is half a Jew is usually considered ethnically a Jew, in the way someone who is half-black is paradoxically considered both "a black person" and also "half black, half white" at the same time.

    Then I uttered the words I had promised myself I would forever avoid: "When Hitler killed the Jews, he viewed people like you as just regular Jews." I hate defining our faith in terms of the actions of Hitler or anti-Semites. But it came jumping out of my mouth as the handiest way of explaining how he could possibly be, ethnically, half-and-half and yet just plain Jewish at the same time.

    Gordon, the eight year old, has been answering the question slightly differently: "I'm Jewish but we also celebrate Christmas because my mom is Christian." That sounds pretty good to me.

    Albert Einstein and Cranberry Sauce

    I went to the Beliefnet prayer finder to look for Jewish gratitude prayers as a way of putting a Hebrew school twist on Thanksgiving. The Jewish prayers were quite similar to those from other faiths, which reinforced my impulse to view Thanksgiving as perfectly consistent with Judaism, even if it was invented by Puritan Christians.

    Maybe this makes me an overly assimilated Jew. Or perhaps it grows from being in an interfaith marriage. When I near a holiday of basically Christian origins, my impulse is not to substitute an entirely Jewish version but rather find what's compatible with Judaism.

    With Thanksgiving, that's easy. So much of Jewish ritual is about the giving of thanks, the generation of consciousness about what we are fortunate to have.

    Our particular family Thanksgiving ritual was like that of millions of other Americans. We held hands and each declared what we were grateful for. Grownups cited health. Kids cited dogs and candy. (At first, I was annoyed by this but decided that the most important thing was for the kids to see the adults answering earnestly.)

    The adults then each read one of these Thanksgiving quotes or prayers, gleaned from Beliefnet's ecards or prayer finder (and themselves found from all over the internet).

    To our Friends who have become Family
    And our Family who have become Friends
    May you be blessed with the same
    Love and care you've given us.
    --Mary Maude Daniels

    Earth that gives us all they food,
    Sun that makes it ripe and good
    Dearest Earth and dearest sun,
    We wont forget what you have done
    --Beliefnet member runningonfaith

    For each new morning with its light,
    For rest and shelter of the night,
    For health and food,
    For love and friends,
    For everything Thy goodness sends.
    Father in heaven,
    We thank thee
    --Ralph Waldo Emerson

    If the only prayer you say in your life is "thank you", that would suffice.
    --Meister Eckhert

    "We gather today, Lord of abundant life, as grateful children. Delighted and humbled by our bounty, we celebrate gifts of food and shelter, of colors that dance ad dawn and dusk; we relish the scent of cooking foods, of burning leaves and summer's wet grass, of snowflake, of animal fur. We marvel at the intricacy of spiders' webs and fish bones, newborn babies and lines etched on faces of grandparents come for a visit today. All gifts from Your hand. When our meal is completed, leftovers stashed, and naps taken, we will leave replete, energized, and eager to go generously in the world and share our good fortune.
    --Rev. Lynn James

    A hundred times a day I remind myself
    That my inner and outer life depends
    On the labors of other men,
    Living and dead,
    And that I must exert myself in order
    To give in the measure as I have received
    And am still receiving.
    --Albert Einstein

    Throughout all generations we will render thanks unto Thee
    And declare Thy praise,
    Evening, morning and noon,
    For our lives which are in Thy care,
    For our souls which are in Thy keeping
    For thy miracles which we witness daily,
    And for Thy wondrous deeds and blessings toward us at all times.
    --Traditional Jewish prayer

    Ruby Bridges & The Battle of Hastings

    On the subway car headed into the city this weekend, the kids and I did worksheets from a neat book called A Kid's Mensch Handbook: Step by Step to a Lifetime of Jewish Values. It's one of the few books I've found that deals with everyday ethics as opposed to Jewish history, bible stories or the supremacy of the Almighty. "A mensch is a person who is honest and fair--a person of integrity...a good person."

    The first worksheet (p.11), very willingly completed, asked us to list three menschen, one from school, one from home, and "someone who is famous." As his famous person, Gor chose Ruby Bridges, the young black girl who helped integrate schools as a child in Mississippi. His reason: "because she was brave and she prayed for the white people." They were lucky enough to see her speak at their school this fall, and she told them that when she was being pelted with eggs and insults she asked God to forgive the whites.

    This struck me as a somewhat Christian concept but awesomely impressive. I was proud of Gordon for choosing her. Joe chose Harold Godwinson, who led the Saxons to defeat at the Battle of Hastings. Don't ask.

    The next exercise was the Mensch-o-meter (p.90) which asks, "What qualities do you look for in a friend?" It prompted the kids to rank the importance of different qualities - honesty, sense of humor, common interests, popularity, trustworthiness, kindness, intelligence. Some stark differences emerged between our two kids over the sense of humor. A good discussion ensued.

    Finally, we did the Top 5 ways to "build self-respect muscles" (p.45), which told them to put a check next to statements that most applied. Included were: "I'm careful about treating myself with respect." At first this struck me as psychobabble sneaking into a book about ethics. Why can't things just be right or wrong? But the more I thought about it the more I thought it was an appropriate inclusion for the simple reason that every mensch I've ever known also had self-respect. Perhaps we really can't be good to others without being good to ourselves?

    Baby Snooks Goulash

    Eight year old Gordon loves to cook so I figured some Jewish cooking might help engage him. We went to the bible, Jewish Cooking in America by Joan Nathan, and picked out a recipe for Hungarian Goulash which was, if I'm reading the intro properly, used by famous Yiddish actress Fanny Brice, who, among other things, was the voice of Baby Snooks on the radio. Before cooking, we studied the world map to see how Jews might have made htier way from Ur to Budapest to New York over the millennia, carrying with them a belief in one God, an elaborate ethical system and some tasty recipes.

    Other than conveying a connection to our ancestors - "Just think! Our ancestors used paprika too!" - it was just a peaceful, fun and adorable few hours, chopping and stirring together. Often on Sunday afternoons, Gor's thoughts wander towards the realm of television land, but not today.

    Film Festival Glitch

    A number of you wrote in to nominate "The Chosen" as a good Jewish kids movie. I rented it but ended up taking the kids to see Sponge Bob Squarepants instead. It wasn't exactly Jewish--but Spongebob is a real mensch.

    Yentl -- Two Stars

    I asked friends for the names of the best Jewish movies of all time. Many of the titles nominated, such as "Schindler's List" and "Sophie's Choice," were not appropriate for kids of this age.

    Tonight we watched the Barbra Streisand movie, "Yentl," which I'd never seen. Based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, it's about a girl in turn-of-the-century Eastern Europe who pretends she's a boy so she can study Torah in a Yeshiva. But much of the movie is really about the sexual tension that arises when Yentl (looking like boy but really girl) falls in love with Mandy Patinkin (always a boy) who has fallen in love with Amy Irving (a girl). Indeed, as a favor to Patinkin's character, Yentl actually marries Irving. Yentl manages to avoid wedding night consummation by getting Irving drunk -- not a message we particularly wanted the kids to get -- and then pouring red wine on the sheet to trick the parents into thinking grandchildren will be on the way before long. We didn't attempt to explain that detail.

    On the positive side, it shows people who would do just about anything to learn Torah, Talmud, and the Midrash. The ethical lessons, however, are dubious. So desperate is Yentl a) to learn and b) to please Mandy, she deceives everyone, including her hapless bride, for much of the movie. And while Barbra's voice is like buttah, the songs were tedious.

    All in all, we gave it only two stars, which was better than this guy who prepared a list of 300 movies with Jewish themes.

    What Jewish movies would you say are best for kids? Please post alongside or write to me at helpsteve@staff.beliefnet.com.

    And Then There's Fred, the Lazy God

    Joseph and Gordon both explained today that they experience God as the good spirit inside their heads. He lives there in a colorful community of other spirits, some noble, some bad, and some just peculiar.

    Gordon's spirit personalities:

    First, there's Bob. "He's always depressed," Gordon reports. "He's always saying, `No. Don't do it! We're all going to die.'" Tinky is the mischievous spirit. "Oh, do it! It's Ok! It's not so bad." He, according to Gor, is hot tempered and has an Australian accent. Finally, there's Fred. "He pretty much sleeps all the time, and says, `Whatever. Just do it.'"

    Joe's spirit personalities:

    Angel, the paragon of virtue, who says, "I'm really, really good. I have no flaws at all." Stinky is amoral. "I can go either way," he says. Dinky is a follower. "He's sort of in a gang with Stinky." And then there's Joseph, "He's sort of the leader-the most like myself. And very hot tempered and crazy."

    It was interesting to me that they viewed God as all good but not even close to all-powerful.

    Hebrew Misinformation

    We then tried to practice Hebrew by spelling Stinky and Dinky and Bob using Hebrew letters. My source material: a laminated place mat we'd picked up somewhere. But it didn't have the proper punctuation so we misspelled a few words.

    Next time I'm going to use this website run by Behrman House, a terrific publisher of Jewish books and educational materials.

    Two other home Hebrew tutorials I've found online so far:

  • Babaganewz: Zoons, a Hebrew letter matching game
  • The Jewish Children's Learning Network: Aklah (not as snazzy as Berhman House)
  • Have any of you used websites, software you found particularly good at teaching Hebrew? What about books?

    Are Jews Like Dogs?

    I stumbled across a copy of a "Treasury of Sholom Aleichem Children's Stories." Perfect, I thought, a whimsical, entertaining way of bringing Jewish stories into my children's lives, from the man who inspired "Fiddler On the Roof." At bedtime, I read one called "Robchik (A Jewish Dog)," which was basically about a dog who was abused, starved, shunned by other dogs, doused with scalding water and otherwise tortured by cruel humans in the village. But at the end, the poor dog is...well...still tortured and abused and shunned. The end.

    "That wasn't a very good story," my sons said.

    The next morning we tried to figure out what it meant. Gordon thought it was a story about goodness because the dog never bit anyone despite being abused. That was an excellent and optimistic interpretation, though it raised the question of whether Aleichem believed this was the essence of the Jewish character: nice and pitiful. I explained that life for Jews in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century when Sholom Aleichem was writing was very difficult and maybe the dog was supposed to represent the plight of Jews.

    A few days earlier I had read some passages from "History of the Jews" by Paul Johnson to Joe, my older son, who's very interested in history. It was very hard to find any passages not about Jews being persecuted.

    I have to admit: this part of homeschooling has me stumped. Everywhere I turn-- including my own instincts--is the story of persecution. This is a really important part of Judaism for me. In fact, it's the part I know best. But I know I'm going to have to come up with something better than we were kicked and kicked and kicked, just like Robchik.

    Bible Hero Competition -- Round Two

    By the way, I spoke to a Rabbi the other day who thought our ranking of Noah above Moses was loopy because Noah showed no apparent sadness over the annihilation of humanity. It appears that Beliefnet visitors agree.

    Today was time for Bible Hero Showdown Round Two, featuring: Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Esau, and Rebekah.

    One surprise was the workmanlike-but-far-from-extraordinary performance of Abraham, founder of the Jewish people and Isaac, his son. Despite his accomplishments, the judges (my kids) faulted Abraham for his somewhat cowardly approach to Sarah's demands that he expel Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.

    Sarah was deemed cruel, losing points in both goodness and wisdom, despite the passage explaining that once she became pregnant with Abraham's child, she had become conceited and disrespectful of Hagar. "You're supposed to treat people the way you like to be treated," said Joe. "Sarah basically was acting like if someone is treating you badly, you should treat them worse." Joe also wondered about Abraham sending to Ur to get a wife because Canaanites apparently weren't good enough. Struck us as a bit snobby.

    Isaac edged out his own dad, largely on the strength of his guts under the sacrificial knife. But both my boys thought it appalling that Isaac would express open preference for one of his children (Esau) over another (Jacob). No amount of explaining that things were different back then could convince my kids that that wasn't just plain bad parenting. (Hadn't the Torah writers even heard of T. Berry Brazelton?) Isaac also lost points in the "wisdom" category for his gullibility in giving Jacob the inheritance-determining blessing. (Jacob dons a sheep's fur to trick blind old dad into believing it's actually Esau, who apparently had a bit of an overgrowth problem). He really believed it was Esau just because Jacob seemed furry?

    We found nothing redeeming about Rebekah, who coached Jacob on how to trick Isaac. Our sympathy for Esau was strong but he suffered from a low wisdom score stemming from his decision to trade his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. Especially lentil soup.

    What's So Great About Greatness?

    I've been thinking about the fact that David is outpolling Noah in our poll. I don't get it. David was strong and brave, but he was a skunk of a person. Cruel and immoral. It made me realize: victory seduces people into abandoning one's basic assessments of human decency. The triumphant are almost always by definition the good. As a society, we hold losers in low esteem - even if they lost for moral reasons.

    I suppose this is one of the appealing aspects of Christianity for me - an entire religion of hope built on a degrading execution.

    Perhaps I need to think about the aforementioned Jewish focus on persecution with that question in mind: how has persecution made us a greater people - or, more accurately, a more good people?

    Our talley for Round Two:

    Name Courage Wisdom Goodness Total
    Sarah 21 8 13 42
    Hagar 21 15 17 53
    Abraham 27 17 20 64
    Isaac 25 16 24 65
    Esau 20 10 23 53
    Rebekah 15 13 3 31

    Sh'ma Kelev

    I took the kids to a Bar Mitzvah this weekend. This was of great interest to Joe who is 10 and starting to wonder what this is all about. The Bar Mitzvah boy, Jake, turned in a flawless performance.

    He did it just as I had 29 years earlier: by learning what sounds the Hebrew letters made and phonetically memorizing the prayers and melody. Most people I know did it this way.

    It's a tremendous sense of accomplishment. And yet most of us who prepared for our Bar or Bat Mitzvahs using this method didn't actually understand the English meaning of any particular word. Yes, we read an English version of the passage too, so we got the gist, but if you pointed to any given Hebrew word on the scroll, we couldn't tell you what it meant. Imagine if you were studying French and the final exam involved delivering a speech in French with proper pronunciation but without actually understanding the specific words.

    This brings me to a big dilemma: the role of Hebrew in Hebrew school. In my Hebrew school and the one my kids used to attend, the focus was on learning the alphabet and then applying it to learning modern Hebrew words -- like "dog" or "cat." And yet dogs and cats don't appear that often in the prayer book or Torah. So in worship services, equipped with our new Hebrew training, we could articulate the sounds of the Hebrew letters stacked against each other but we didn't understand what we were chanting.

    This has never made much sense to me. Why don't they teach Hebrew so that it actually helps us to understand the prayers? Can someone out there help explain this to me?

    For what it's worth, we're experimenting with teaching Hebrew by picking out key prayers and learning the words one by one. I'll report back soon on whether this is any better.

    Community of Strangers

    On the other hand, Jake's Bar Mitzvah reminded me of a point that has been made to me by some of you who have written in to chastise me for homeschooling my kids: I'm removing them from "the Jewish community." It's possible to over-romanticize this concept. Most synagogues, like most churches, are made up of the same broad mix of people -- some noble, some not -- that we find at the office or in any other part of life.

    But at the Bar Mitzvah this weekend, my wife and I were both touched by the sense of community -- not just the friends and family who gathered but the strangers who turn up each Saturday to celebrate this major life event of a new family each week (even that strange guy who danced in the aisle and then hectored people in the bathroom about the importance of voting for Bush). I've experienced this same feeling when visiting Protestant churches with my wife - and I've witnessed it on Beliefnet's prayer circles: the sense that even those who don't know you are pulling for you. I find that inexplicably powerful. Perhaps because it is so unconditional?

    Noah Edges Moses for the Gold

    I was planning to have our Bible Hero Smackdown as part of Simchat Torah, the holiday celebrating the Torah and marking the start of a new cycle of Torah readings, but I didn't quite have my act together in time. So I started this weekend.

    The idea was simple. I would read Bible stories to the kids, who would give the characters scores from 1-10 based on three traits:

    1. Courage
    2. Wisdom
    3. Goodness

    The opening round featured the following contestants: Moses, Noah, Joshua, Adam, Eve, David, Jonah, Jonathan, Michal (David's first wife) and King Saul.

    There were some startling upsets--most notably the triumph of Noah over Moses for the gold and the appallingly poor showings of both David and Joshua.

    The final results here:

    Name Courage Wisdom Goodness Total
    Noah 30 30 30 90
    Moses 30 27 20 77
    Michal 29 19 26 74
    Jonathan 27 14 28 69
    David 29 13 5 47
    Adam 8 23 16 47
    Eve 8 23 16 47
    Joshua 19 10 11 40
    Saul 12 11 7 30
    Jonah 11 10 8 29

    The most interesting debates:

    Noah vs. Moses: Battle For the Gold -- In the battle between Noah and Moses for top honors, Moses lost precious points not only for killing an Egyptian guard (Gordon, my eight-year-old, forgave him for that) but for his decision to slaughter civilians who weren't following his orders. ("Now go through the camp and with your swords put to death every man you see. For this is the will of God.") Noah, on the other hand, got a perfect score on all counts.

    Joshua & David: Highly Overrated -- Despite being viewed as two of the great heroes of Jewish history, King David and Joshua barely edged out the insane King Saul. It was the story of David and Bathsheeba that most alienated the judges. (David sent Uriah to his death in battle so he could then get his wife Bathsheeba, who he had already knocked up).

    The biggest dispute among the judges arose over Joshua. My 10-year-old, Joe, had it in for Joshua because of what he did at Jericho. Joe's brief: there were already people living in Jericho. The Jews had no right to take it over just because they decided it was part of their promised land. And if they were going to attack, they shouldn't have done so in a way that killed almost every man, woman and child.

    Gordon argued that Joshua shouldn't be blamed since he was following God's orders and that he at least had kept his word and not slaughtered the Jericho woman Rahab, who had harbored Joshua's spies.

    But Joe held his ground, maintaining that Joshua could have at least pleaded with God to take the city through more humane means. Not only would that have been "good," Joe argued, it also would have been wise. By showing mercy in conquest, Joshua could have earned the loyalty of the Jericho residents "and had all those citizens to pay allegiance to him." He didn't even give Joshua points for bravery since it was done for a bad cause. "It's like giving a burglar $1,000 because he was courageous enough to rob your house."

    Adam & Eve: A Bum Rap? -- We were all confused on how to score these two. At first, Eve was penalized for giving Adam the apple until we looked at the picture in the Bible (DK's Illustrated Jewish Bible for Children) and saw Adam standing right at the tree. That answered Gordon's key question of whether Adam thought it was just a regular harmless apple (in which case he was deceived by Eve) or he had realized it was the forbidden fruit.

    Gordon gave Adam and Eve decent scores on "wisdom," however, because by eating the apple, "they got wisdom." Much interesting discussion ensued when I claimed that if Adam and Eve hadn't been bad, we wouldn't be alive today. Joe disputed that, saying that they still could have had babies in Eden. Just because they didn't have "shame," he said, didn't mean they couldn't do "you know what." Gordon was non-committal on the you-know-what issue but did ask, somewhat irately, "Why did God create Adam and Eve if he didn't want other children to come too?"

    Unheralded Heroes -- The most surprising showings were for Jonathan and Michal, both of whom helped save David's life by protecting him from the wrath of King Saul. It took real guts to face down the King to help David. They were good friends. And they scored just as high as some of the titans of Jewish history.

    I loved this whole discussion because it debunked the myth that the "heroes" of the Jewish Bible were all saints (to mix religious metaphors). The characters of the Jewish Bible are interesting not because they are all role models but because they illustrate important characteristics--good and bad.

    One thing I may have done wrong. I didn't have a category for "faith & obedience to God." In that sense, I stacked the deck against those who did bad things at God's behest. Was that wrong?

    A idea for any of you out there with kids: have them do the tournament, too, and I'll pull it all together.

    Leonard Nimoy's Golem

    My younger son, Gordon, is enthralled by superheroes. So when I learned that early editions of Superman and Batman had featured golems, an ancient Jewish superhero made of mud, I figured this would be a perfect way to engage him in Hebrew folklore.

    I bought from jewishmusic.com a copy of The Mysterious Golem, narrated by Leonard Nimoy. It occupied us for the full 45 minutes it took to drive to the Bronx Zoo.

    Gordon was captivated by the tale of a Prague rabbi in the 16th century who fashioned the mute superhero out of clay by saying mysterious prayers dictated by God. The story provides a colorful, child-friendly way of conveying the idea that God protects Jews from injustice.

    What I'd forgotten was that the Golem was specifically created in order to combat the Blood Libel, the rumor repeatedly spread in that era that Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood to make Passover matzoh. This was difficult to explain to Gordon, who has yet to learn about the Holocaust and had only barely come to understand the history of persecution against Jews.

    I never heard of the Golem when I was a kid. I wonder if reform Jews of my childhood years steered clear of it because of its Kabbalistic supernaturalism. (Can any reform rabbis out there explain?)

    So I recommend the Nimoy tape with this caveat: it's a bit gruesome; the bad guys, who inexplicably speak with a cockney accent, talk about slitting throats. And be ready to talk to your child about the blood libel.

    Other resources about the golem:

  • One version of the Golem legend
  • Good overview of the Golem legends
  • Golem in literature
  • Quirky variation: The day the Golem learned to have fun
  • Rodger Kamenetz, a self-described Golemologist, reports from Prague
  • Bankshots for Yahweh

    After striking out with my first batch of CD-based software, I eventually landed on Babaganews.com. It has an extensive section of online games. We tried several. In "Hope Hoops," you shoot baskets into a moving hoop. "What's Jewish about this?" Gordon asked. A good question. With each basket you earned a letter which eventually spelled a Hebrew word. Sort of lame.

    Gordon doesn't like trivia games so we skipped Jewpardy . We did have fun building a virtual Sukkah, which taught the basic elements and messages of the holiday. We played "Shimon," patterned after the popular game Simon. Shimon helps you learn the High Holy Day Shofar sounds. That was fun too.

    But the biggest success was Zoons, a game in which you have to match Hebrew letters that are placed in certain patterns on the screen. When you succeed in making a match, the computer pronounces the sound of the letters, so it was a great way to remind us of our Hebrew alphabet. Gordon, who used to resist spending more than 10 minutes on Hebrew, sat there with me for two hours.

    Lousy Software

    I bought four packages of educational software from www.Jewishsoftware.com. Three of them don't work at all (Avner & Brachot, Avner Travels in Time, and Mitzvah Man). Very disappointing. Can anyone out there recommend some that work well?

    Kung Pao Etrog?

    Sukkot has me in a panic. We're supposed to build a Sukkah, and sleep in it and eat meals there. But I don't know how to hammer together the wood slabs so they'll actually stand up. This holiday cuts against two natural tendencies of urban Jewry: incompetence in farming and carpentry.

    We thought briefly of setting up our L.L. Bean tent in the backyard, but that seemed blasphemous on multiple counts.

    We did go over to the house of a friend who had built an elaborate and impressive Sukkah. We helped decorate and then engaged in the ritual eating of the Chinese take out, a tradition as durable in these parts as the shaking of the lulav.

    What's the point of this holiday? Beliefnet's clip-and-save chart says it's the "commemoration of temporary huts Israelites dwelled in during 40-year desert trek." According to Irving Greenberg, whose book, "The Jewish Way," has become indispensable to me, it's a perfect modern American holiday because it celebrates (and asks us to appreciate) bounty, a sort of Jewish thanksgiving. Rodger Kamanetz, on the other hand, shows how it can be a celebration of peace and breaking down of walls. And David Klinghoffer delightfully argues that the holiday represents an ancient Jewish pining for the apocalypse.

    But since I never really celebrated Sukkot as a child , I found myself caught unprepared and didn't instill much meaning beyond the "our ancestors-used-to-be-nomadic-farmers" point and the soon-to-follow "aren't-you-glad-we-aren't?" point.

    Two books did have projects for mini-sukkahs for those of us incapable of building the real thing.

    The shoebox version comes from the excellent "Jewish Family Fun Book" (published by Jewish Lights, one of the publishers that was kind enough to flood me with excellent books to help with my homeschooling adventure):


  • Shoebox without lid
  • Twigs with leaves, preferably evergreen
  • Old magazines with pictures of fruit
  • Tempera paints
  • Scissors
  • Paintbrushes
  • Glue

    How it's done:
  • Draw a door on one side of the box, and cut it out. Or, you can completely cut off one side of the box, because a Sukkah only has to have three walls.

    Paint the sides of the box with pictures of fruit, or glue on pictures of fruit that you can cut out of magazines.

    Place twigs with leaves across the open top of the box to complete the mini-Sukkah centerpiece.

    If you want to get really creative, make a mini-table to put inside your mini-Sukkah (and put a mini-mini-Sukkah table centerpiece on it).

    This one, from "Jewish Holidays All Year Round," involves use of modeling clay:

    Make a miniature sukkah to keep in your room or inside the real sukkah. The base of the little sukkah is made from clay and the walls are wooden craft sticks. The roof is twigs.


  • Molding clay
  • Wooden craft sticks
  • Items to decorate the sukkah
  • Twigs, some with leaves
  • Disposable aluminum tray (make on tray for easy mobility)
  • 1. Make three substantial clay strips about one inch tall, two of the same length, about six inches long, and one several inches longer. The longer piece is the base for the back wall of the sukkah. The two shorter pieces are for the side walls. Mold an end of a shorter strip to one end of the longer strip. Do the same with the other short strip.

    2. Push the craft sticks vertically into the clay base at even intervals, leaving a small space between sticks. Press sticks in tightly.

    3. Decorate the inside of the sukkah with dollhouse furniture or items you make yourself, such as tiny dried flowers or berry bouquets. Draw small pictures for the walls and hang with tacks. Cut rugs out of pieces of material.

    4. Use the twigs to make the roof of the sukkah. Lay the twigs in the spaces between the craft sticks.

    My Shawn Green Moment

    I had my own Shawn Green moment this morning. (Shawn Green is the LA Dodgers player who decided to sit out one key game in observance of Yom Kippur.) I was planning to take my family to a friend's house to build a sukkah--when Fox News called to see if I could appear on TV for a few minutes to talk about the role of religion in the presidential campaign.

    On the one hand, I could join my family in a memorable spiritual moment, building a structure akin to those used by the ancient Israelites when they harvested their crops. It's a key part of Sukkot, a joyful holiday celebrating our blessings.

    On the other hand, I could be on Fox News for 45 seconds.

    So...did you catch me on Fox News?

    This actually raises a serious point that I'm sure will come up over and over throughout the year. The real threat to Judaism is not atheism or Christianity. It's soccer. It's the competition from all the other things you and your family might be doing on a Saturday or Sunday. (This is true for people of other faiths, too). Parents face their own Shawn Green moments nearly every week. Which will you choose, your faith or some other value?

    Obviously, I'm no role model on this point. I have my rationalizations: my kids are still building the sukkah, and I can talk to them about the holiday later in the week. By going on Fox I can get more publicity for Beliefnet, which is maybe indirectly good for religion. The role of religion in this campaign is important. But those are all just clutch rationalizations. Fact is, I chose a minute on TV over building a Sukkah.

    Starving Your Kids as Religious Ritual

    My ten-year-old, Joe, said he wanted to fast this year. He and I fasted and went to the adult services together. The Yom Kippur services go all day and I was very impressed that Joe got through two full hours. I used two techniques to help. First, we kept a "stomach growls" chart, tracking the protests of our respective tummies. He beat me 9 to 3. It was fun but also made him conscious of just how uncomfortable this was making him. He really seemed to get how horrible it must be to suffer from real hunger.

    I also said he could draw during services if he illustrated something from the prayer book. He did an elaborate depiction of the Gates of Heaven, with a prayer flying through pulling a little banner saying "Please Make Me Better." This worked well, except for when the woman behind us disapprovingly pointed out that the angel standing at the gate looked a lot like Jesus.

    After two hours we went to Starbucks and had herbal tea. I guess that breaks the rules. We also forgot to wear sneakers instead of leather shoes. Baby steps. I went over the declaration of sins, focusing this time on some of the most difficult ones:

    "Evil means we employ to accomplish good ends." That led to some discussion about the war and the terrorists.

    "Withholding love to control those we claim to love."

    I tried: "That would be like if daddy didn't kiss mommy good bye because she wouldn't cook a particular meal for him." Tough one to explain.

    "That would be mean!"

    The one that prompted the most interesting discussion, though was: "By giving way to hostile impulses." It was useful for him to see that the fundamental challenge of childhood and tweenhood--the struggle to control one's emotions-- doesn't go away when you're an adult.

    Communal Sinning

    The youth leader at the children's service we attended had kids yell out things they'd done wrong--and then had the entire audience repeat it unison.

    "I hit my brother!"

    I hit my brother!

    "I was mean to mommy."

    I was mean to mommy!

    I found this quite powerful, reinforcing the idea that we all sin, we all need help in improving ourselves, and the whole community has responsibility. Later I did this with my kids. I asked each member of the family to say one thing he or she has done wrong and then had all of us repeat them. It was interesting how each one took on a slightly different meaning when repeated by all.

    Gordon, the 8 year old, apologized for the time when, in the middle of a tantrum, he bolted across a highly trafficked street and hid.

    "I'm sorry I ran away."

    "I'm sorry I ran away," we all said. For us grownups it had an entirely different meaning, a pledge not to run away from our problems or ignore our demons.

    The Sin of Gluttony

    We broke our fast at Juniors of Brooklyn, home of the best cheesecake in the world (scientifically proven fact). Within minutes we'd violated our Yom Kippur pledge against gluttony. Tongue. Mozzarella sticks. Ribs. I don't keep Kosher, but should I feel bad about breaking the fast with ribs?

    Another mistake: I tried doing the parental blessing over the children at Juniors instead of at home, and the arrival of the onion soup ruined the moment. This was a prayer I'd first heard at Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's house two years ago. He turned to his children and said, "May you be a light upon the world." Parents are accustomed to hugging, kissing or praising their children. There was something about blessing your own child that was quite moving.

    I found another version in a book called "1001 Questions and Answers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur":

    "May it be the will of our Father in heaven to implant within your heart the love and fear of Him, so that His reverence will be before you all your life. May your desire be to study Torah and fulfill His mitzvot. May your mouth ever utter wise words; may your heart frame appropriate plans, and your hands to worthy acts; and may your feet run to fulfill the will of your Father in heaven. May your future partner be a source of blessing, and may God bestow upon you righteous sons and daughters who will occcupy themselves with Torah and good deeds all their days. May He enable you to secure your livelihood in a noble way, with ease and in abundance, from His bountiful Hand, and may you have no need of the gifts of flesh and blood. May your livelihood enable you to be free to devote yourself to the service of God; and may you be inscribed and sealed for a long and good life, among all the righteous of Israel. Amen."

    Some of this went over my kids' heads. "Frame appropriate plans"? Has anyone out there seen other versions of this prayer?

    The Kugel of Our Forefathers

    One book said that a common food used to break the fast is Kugel, a noodle and cheese concoction of German origins. This gave us an opportunity to engage our younger son, Gordon, who loves to cook. He cracked the eggs, folded the cottage cheese and sour cream into the noodles, and sprinkled in lemon rind shavings. I told him that this was a dish that our ancestors made but that was about the only explicitly religious content.

    I sometimes make the mistake of thinking that every Jewish thing we do has to have explicit theological content. Maybe it's ok to just create traditions connecting the kids to their Jewish ancestors. We basically added chopped apples and lemon zest (pulverized lemon peel) to this recipe from Joan Nathan's Jewish Holiday Cookbook:

    Serves 4-6.

    8 ounces broad noodles
    4 large eggs, separated
    1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
    1/2 pound cottage cheese
    1/2 pint sour cream
    1/2 cup sugar
    1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs

    1. Cook the noodles according to the directions on the package. Drain.
    2. Preheat the over to 350 degrees.
    3. Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Combine the remaining ingredients, except the crumbs, and fold in the egg whites.
    4. Transfer to a greased 1-quart round baking dish and sprinkle with graham cracker crumbs.
    5. Bake 45 minutes, or until golden brown

    Christian Yom Kippur Prep

    Can Christian materials help Jews prepare for Yom Kippur? Judging from kids' reaction to the Veggie Tales "Jonah" movie, I'd say the answer is yes. For those of you unfamiliar with Veggie Tales, it's a kids video series that uses witty talking vegetables to act out Bible stories. It was started by a group of committed Christians, but they mostly do stories from the Old Testament, a.k.a the Jewish Bible.

    Their first feature length movie was "Jonah," based on the book of Jonah, which happens to be read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Jonah is played by a monocle-wearing, upper-crusty asparagus who, in addition to encountering the whale and nasty Ninevites, crosses paths with "the pirates who don't do anything" and a charming caterpillar named Khalil, who's addicted to self-help tapes.

    Is the Christian interpretation of Jonah different from that of Jews? Not that I could tell. They emphasized that God is compassionate and merciful and so humans should be too. Seems Jewish to me.

    The only Christianish moment occurs in the belly of the whale when a self-pitying Jonah is roused by an angelic gospel choir sent by the Lord. Although the lyrics are neutral, these vegetables definitely have more soul than your typical temple choir.

    My kids loved it.

    Time to Play Truth, Half-Truth or Lie!

    "One of the things I like most about Judaism is that wonderful list of sins," said my Christian wife, Amy. It might sound like somewhat twisted thing to like about a religion, but I knew what she meant. At Yom Kippur services, we were always moved by the psychological nuance in the sins for which Jews are supposed to ask forgiveness on Yom Kippur. The transgressions we were asked to contemplate were not just the obvious ones covered by the Ten Commandments and city ordinances; they were the subtle and confusing ones.

    I decided to build Sunday's lesson for my sons, aged 8 and 10, around some of the more challenging goof-ups. I asked them each to cite examples for:

    "Passing judgment without knowledge of the facts, and for distorting facts to fit our theories."

    That led to a discussion about what it feels like to be falsely accused of doing something--like starting a fight with your brother when you were hit first.

    "Deceiving ourselves and others with half-truths."

    This prompted us to play a game called "truth, half-truth, or lie!" - a sort of game show in which the contestant has to declare the nature of a particular fishy statement.

    "Condemning in our children the faults we tolerate in ourselves."

    They enjoyed this one. "Like when you yell at us for yelling!"

    "Pretending to emotions we do not feel."

    Joe suggested that he sometimes pretended to be happier about a birthday present than he actually was. That had me stumped. Is that really a sin? I filibustered on answering that because my inclination was that the sin of giving a false impression was outweighed by the desire to avoid hurting someone else's feelings.

    Gordon came up with an example that must be familiar to children around the world: "Like when you're hurt a little bit, but you pretend that you're hurt a lot."

    And why is that a sin?

    Gordon: "Because it makes the other person feel really bad."

    Joe: "And it's kind of like lying."

    And what about the sin of "keeping the poor in the chains of poverty, and turning a deaf ear to the cry of the oppressed"?

    They thought that referred to the President, an idea that led to an important conversation about the obligations of citizens and the concept that sins can involve not doing things in addition to doing things.

    We just got started going through the list--and I wasn't all that formal about making them write down their examples--but I thought it worked pretty well. In resources below, I give the full list of sins culled from various parts of the new Union prayer book.

    Sorry 'bout that
    I also asked the kids to think about people they've hurt and how they might apologize. They wrote out little "sorry" notes as I explained my recent attempt to make amends to someone. I find that they're actually better than the parents at the unqualified apology. We tend to do the. "I'm sorry..it's just that you were such a jerk." or "I'm sorry that you're so sensitive."

    Resources: A captivating list of sins

    Here's a list of "sins" to discuss:

    For passing judgment without knowledge of the facts, and for distorting facts to fit our theories.

    For deceiving ourselves an others with half-truths, and for pretending to emotions we do not feel.

    For using the sins of others to excuse our own, and for denying responsibility for our own misfortunes.

    For condemning in our children the faults we tolerate in ourselves, and for condemning in our parents the faults we tolerate in ourselves.

    For keeping the poor in the chains of poverty, and turning a deaf ear to the cry of the oppressed.

    For using violence to maintain our power, and for using violence to bring about change.

    For waging aggressive war, and for the sin of appeasing aggressors.

    For obeying criminal orders, and for the sin of silence and indifferences.

    For poisoning the air, and polluting land and sea, and for all the evil means we employ to accomplish good ends.

    For confusing love with lust, and for pursuing fleeting pleasure at the cost of lasting hurt.

    For using others as a means to gratify our desires, and as stepping-stones to further our ambitions.

    For withholding love to control those we claim to love, and shunting aside those whose youth or age disturbs us.

    For hiding from others behind an armor of mistrust, and for the cynicism which leads us to mistrust the reality of unselfish love.

    The sin we have committed against you

    .by malicious gossip .by sexual immorality
    .by gluttony
    .by narrow-mindedness
    .by fraud and falsehood
    .by hating without cause
    .by our arrogance
    .by our insolence
    .by our irreverence
    .by our hypocrisy
    .by passing judgment on others
    .by exploiting the weak
    .by giving and taking bribes
    .by giving way to our hostile impulses
    .by running to do evil.
    The sins of arrogance, bigotry, and cynicism; of deceit and egotism, flattery and greed, injustice and jealousy.

    Some of us kept grudges, were lustful, malicious, or narrow-minded

    Others were obstinate or possessive, quarrelsome, rancorous, or selfish.

    There was violence, weakness of will, xenophobia.

    We yielded to temptation and showed zeal for bad causes.

    The sin we have committed against You under duress or by choice
    .consciously or unconsciously
    .openly or secretly
    .against you in our thoughts
    .against You with our words
    .against You by the abuse of power
    .against You by hardening our hearts
    .against You by profaning your name
    .against You by disrespect for parents and teachers
    .against You by speaking slander
    .against You by dishonesty in our work
    .against You by hurting others in any way
    For the Jewish people:

    Some have strayed from their ancestral faith and broken the chain of tradition.

    Some have despised their birthright and treated their heritage with contempt.

    Some have dishonored the Sabbath and desecrated the Festive Days.

    Some are deaf to the music of Mitzvot, and they shut their eyes to the beauty of holiness.

    Some have made idols of professional advancement, social status, and material reward.

    Some, while pretending to love humanity, have withheld from their own people the love they deserve.

    Some have forgotten that Judaism calls us to love and to serve others.

    Some, by their wrong actions, or by their failure to act, have brought dishonor upon our people.

    In our communal life needless conflict and groundless hatred destroy the unity of Israel.

    And in the name of unity we sometimes disregard the greater virtue of integrity

    Self-seeking leaves little room for self-sacrifice, and our high-sounding words are rarely translated into action.

    La Tonah Shovah La La (Rosh Hashanah Begins)

    Rosh Hashanah Eve: Wednesday

    Amy went out and bought a big supply of symbolically appropriate foods. We drank pomegranate juice ("May we be as full of good deeds as the pomegranate is full of seeds"), ate round challah bread (because circular things project unity and coming "full circle") and, of course, gobbled apple slices coated in obscene amounts of honey. (Acting on a tip from the book Jewish Family Fun, we carved the center of an apple to make a honey bowl--big hit with the 'kiddlies').

    And then, of course, just as Jewish children have done throughout the millennia, they bounced off the walls, as the honey buzz ran through their veins. I wonder if the ancient Israelites had a kids-run-around-the-block-so-they-don't-smash-golden-calfs-on-each-others-heads tradition.

    I started the evening by confessing to my children that I had a phobia about saying the words, "L'Shana Tovah" or happy new year in Hebrew. I've heard it said hundreds of times but usually respond, ineptly, "You too." That's because, some time back someone said it to me and I responded loudly, "La Tonah Shovah La La." The kids thought this was hysterical. So we practiced saying it five times fast.

    I tried going over that binding of Isaac passage. I had asked Beliefnet columnist Shmuley Boteach what he made of that passage. His emphasis was different from the test-of-faith angle (see below). "For me it was the test to Abraham as to whether he would sacrifice his religion, his tradition (only Isaac could continue it), if G-d commanded it, or, if he was like Osama Bin Laden who puts his religion before the word of G-d which is, in effect, idolatry," Shmuley wrote. I found this to be a fascinating interpretation - pitting God against religion --but in truth I wasn't able to convey it to my kids.

    The rabbi at my parents' temple apparently emphasized that this story is read to show how the Jewish god outlawed child sacrifice. That's a nice thing, but I'm not sure why that's an important selling point for Judaism today.

    Moses' Interfaith Marriage

    Thursday. The kids were home from school. We've been planning to integrate films into this Jewish education experiment but when Amy went to the store the only thing vaguely relevant was The Ten Commandments. Though it's really a Passover movie, we kicked off our Rosh Hashanah by watching the Cecille B. DeMille classic with Charlton Heston as Moses, which I'd never seen. It's a far sillier movie than I'd realized, especially the hilarious insertions of romance and titillation. "Is he handsome???" Zipporah's sexy sisters giggle when a nearly dead Moses is found lying on the ground.

    I'm going to write more about the movie in another essay, but there's one point I wanted to mention now: I'd never realized that Moses' wife Zipporah was in a tribe descended from the Arab branch of Abraham's family. She was not a Hebrew. I suppose, given the other nonsense in the movie, I shouldn't rely on DeMille's interpretation, but I'm definitely going to want to explore the notion that Moses was in an interfaith marriage with an Arab maiden.

    A related topic arose during the children's service at a synagogue we're trying out. While the Torah passage for the second day was the binding of Isaac, the first day's reading was the portion of Genesis in which Abraham's wife Sarah, after giving the okay for Abraham to have a baby with Hagar, his slave, changes her mind and decides to send Hagar and the new baby, Ishmael, out in to the desert with hardly any food. And, amazingly, God says that's fine with Him. The fellow teaching the kids argued that this showed that good things can come out of bad - since what seemed like a cruel act by Abraham, Sarah, and God ended up with the creation of a new religion, Islam. (Other interpretations out there?)

    There was one part of the children's service that might be worth parents trying. In teeing up a song called Avinu Malkenu ("Our Father, Our King"), the guitar-strumming teacher admitted that she didn't much like the image of God as "mother and father" and felt more spiritual when she imagined God as "outer space..because that is so vast and amazing I can't even get my brain around it." She asked the kids to yell out the ways that they perceived or experienced God, and after each one, the group declared Avinu Malkenu. This might be a bit too groovy for some, as it certainly opened the door to some unorthodox interpretations of God, but I found it an effective way of getting the children to think about what God means to them.

    "So what is God like for you?"

    "A protector," one child said. Avinu malkenu.

    "All the good in everybody's heart," my son Joseph said. Avinu malkenu.

    "A babysitter," another child declared. Avinu malkenu.

    "Like a god with no legs but just spirit." Avinu malkenu.

    "Light." Avinu malkenu.

    Biodegradable Sins

    We then walked to Prospect Park, gathered on a bridge over a stream, and began the Tashlich Service. This is an increasingly popular tradition in which you take bread crumbs or lint and throw it in the water to "to `cast away' our accumulated sins and transgressions, to send away our unworthy thoughts, so that we may transform our hearts and our souls as the New Year begins." This is the central theme of Rosh Hashanah - recounting your past sins and committing to doing better in the coming year.

    This ancient tradition had fallen out of favor - in part because anti-Semites had accused Jews during the Middle Ages of spreading the plague this way. Jews of my parents' generation viewed it as a silly superstition left over from the Old Country.

    But I found this to be a very effective ritual, especially for the kids. They imagined that each kernel of popcorn was a different sin and threw it in the water. It was a way of structuring the process of introspection.

    The beauty of the moment was only slightly marred when the women leading this ceremony explained that we were using organic popcorn because it was more biodegradable than bread (silly me: I sort of thought bread already passed the test). "May our sins be biodegradable," she said.

    And a biodegradable New Year to you too.


    A great book called Jewish Family Fun gave us the idea for the hollowed-out-apple-as-honey-bowl and even gave us the special blessing for the pomegranate.

    The Jewish Holidays by Michael Strassfeld and The Jewish Way by Rabbi Irving Greenberg were both excellent resources on the history of the holiday, though they were light on child-friendly activities or ways of explaining.

    Prayers on the handout distributed at the Tashlich service:

    "We come to this river to perform the Tashlich ceremony, seeking symbolically to `cast away' our accumulated sins and transgressions, to send away our unworthy thoughts, so that we may transform our hearts and our souls as the new Year begins.

    "Cast away from yourselves all your transgressions.
    And create within yourselves a new heart and a new spirit"
    --Ezekiel 18:31

    "Who is like You, Adonai, forgiving iniquity and pardoning transgression of the remnant of your people. You do not hold on to Your anger forever, for You delight in lovingkindness. You will again show compassion to us, subdue our inquities, and cast all our sins into the depths of the sea."
    --Micah 7:18-19

    "(Haslichu mei'aleichem et kol pish-eichem asher p'shatem bam. Va'asu lachem leiv chadash v'ru'ach chadashah)"

    They also included a poem by Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg:

    Made of water
    Surrounded and sustained
    By water,
    On the Day of Change
    We walk to the water,
    The place of transformation.

    We gaze into the water
    At our shimmering reflection.

    `Living waters,' we say,
    `May these waters melt
    our hatred and our terror,
    dissolve our despair and our rage
    and cause our lies and our suffering to fade

    May these waters carry to the sea
    The hurts we cause each other.
    May these waters carry to the sea.p> Our tears,
    The tears of our family
    The tears of our neighbors
    The tears of our enemies
    The tears of all Israel."

    There was a moment of silence to think about the transformation we seek in our lives and then we sang: Avinu Malkeinu, chaneinu va-aninu, ke ein banu ma-asim, asei imau tz'dakah vachesed, v'hoshi-einu," which apparently means, "Our Father, Our King, be gracious to us and answer us, for we have little merit; treat us generously and with kindness and be our help."

    We then threw the bread (or popcorn) into the water.

    If God Spoke Directly to Me...

    In some ways, Rosh Hashanah is an easy holiday to celebrate with the kids. There's a tradition involving sweets--apples and honey, honey cake, almost anything sugary. It's meant to symbolize the wish for a sweet new year. It also reminds me the line in the movie "Elf" in which Will Farrell describes the Elves' four basic food groups as Candy, Candy Cane, Candy Corn and Syrup. That's sort of like the Rosh Hashanah nutrition plan.

    We'll go to synagogue Thursday and hopefully get them to send New Year's cards. I figured I could also read my two boys some inspiring Torah passages that would uplift their spirits and make them hopeful for the new year. Unfortunately the official Torah passage for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the story about Abraham preparing to slice the throat of his son--the "binding of Isaac," as it's so discreetly called.

    The question I'm preparing to field in a couple of days when I read them this story is: Daddy, would you do that to me?

    I'll be tempted to answer, "Not if you clean up your room, I won't." But it seriously gets at a rather difficult issue for a modern parent or person in general. We often talk about the need to take a "leap of faith." It's a bit unfair. The people in the Bible rarely had to take leaps of faith--they had very concrete evidence. Parted seas, burning bushes, direct commands from Yahweh. God spoke directly to Abraham. I suppose if God spoke directly to me in exactly that same way, I'd do almost anything.

    I know, we're supposed to read story and be awed by Abraham's faith. But didn't he have more proof than we do? What is the lesson I'm trying to teach my kids from this?

    Even though it's not the official Torah reading, I thought it might be relevant to read them the story of Adam and Eve, since this is a holiday about creation. I did that last night but made the mistake of reading the one based on Genesis 2:21-22 -- where the woman comes from Adam's rib -- rather than Genesis 1:27, in which "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." Man, according to the version I read, was designed to "rule over" the woman. This drew cackles from my kids and forced me to explain that there was another version and I didn't happen to believe the one I'd just read, and it all got very complicated.

    Gordon, the 8 year old, then asked, "Do you believe in God or the Big Bang?"

    "I believe God made the Big Bang," I said. He seemed to like that.

    Back to finding recipes for honey cake.

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