Thursday, September 13, 2007

Apples and Honey and Aleph and Bet

Back when the Mermaid Girl had her infant conversion-- I think I've written about this before--I promised to give her a Jewish education. It's not that the Bet Din [rabbinic court] from back in Seattle is going to come after me if I slack off for a year or two, but that promise is, among other things, a good excuse for making sure I at least think about MG's Jewish education and make some kind of provision for it every year, at least until she's 12 or 13.

The New Groovy Shul we're joining in Vancouver is tiny, and has little children's programming of any kind, much less a formal weekly religious school. MG is used to a pretty laid-back religious-school setting anyway, which is what she had back in the Old Groovy Shul. So, rather than dump her into yet another brand-new environment by signing her up for Hebrew school at one of the huge-o mainstream synagogues in town, I made the executive decision that MG would be homeschooling for Hebrew school this year.

I noodled around on the Web, looking at supplementary-school curricula at various synagogues around the continent, and determined that:

1) Despite the aforementioned laid-back religious school background, MG is well on-track for the expectations of most supplementary schools (i.e. meeting after school or on Sunday mornings, as opposed to full-time Jewish day schools) for kids entering 2nd grade: she's familiar with major Jewish holidays, many Bible stories (thanks in large part to The Kids' Cartoon Bible), and some basic prayers. She has a solid sense of her Jewish identity, has her own ideas about God (which are quite different from mine and also from the Renaissance Woman's), and even knows a fair bit about what we call "Jewish rules that we don't follow," like keeping kosher and following various restrictions on Shabbat.

2) Hebrew school curriculum is all over the map in 2nd grade: some schools do a lot about Israel, some focus on prayers, others do more Bible stuff or more Jewish holidays. But the main thing that just about everyone seems to focus on in 2nd grade is beginning Hebrew reading: learning the Hebrew letters and their sounds, and starting to sound out basic words.

Now, my Hebrew is no great shakes, but I've more or less got the alphabet (or rather, aleph-bet, for the first 2 letters in the Hebrew alphabet) down. I figured I could order a couple of workbooks and teach MG the letters in a half-hour or so each week. And the New Groovy Shul does have monthly family-education gatherings, so we could go to those.

Then, I thought we'd do...something else. I whiled away a long evening this summer, when I should've been packing, compiling a list of topics we could work on together: reading more Bible stories, or learning about Mitzvot (doing good deeds and/or fulfilling commandments), or on Tikkun Olam ("repairing the world" or social action) or even some kind of Jewish environmental project, since MG (influenced by the movie version of "Hoot", which she's viewed repeatedly) has shown a lot of interest lately in saving the manatees.

I got pretty excited about the list, but I didn't show it to MG when I put this home-Hebrew-school proposal to her. Instead, I asked her if there was anything she'd like to focus on: anything at all, as long as it was Jewish in some way.

Her answer was immediate, definite, and so much better than anything I'd thought of that I was dumbstruck. "Making treats," she said.

So we hammered out our plan: every Monday (my day off), after school, we'll cook something out of the Jewish tradition. Not necessarily a treat, but sometimes. While it's cooking, or baking, or chilling, or whatever it needs to do, MG will learn a Hebrew letter and practice reading and writing it for a bit. And if we have more time, I'll read her a Jewish-themed book aloud. We called it JCSH: Jewish Cooking, Stories, and Hebrew. (MG also calls it Home Hebrew School.)

We had our first JCSH session this Monday. To celebrate, we made cookies and cut them out with the Aleph-Bet cookie cutters that Savta sent for MG's birthday. (We photographed the cookies and I'd show them here, but I don't know where the camera cable is packed). MG recognized some of the letters, including the four on the dreidel and the three that make up her Hebrew name, and I learned that my knowledge of Hebrew alphabetical order (especially those tricky final letters) isn't as good as I thought. I'll be glad when those workbooks arrive. (We also weathered the not-entirely-unexpected tantrum when something (I forget what) wasn't going MG's way, and she pulled it together under threat of scrapping the project and being sent to regular Hebrew school. )

My favorite moment: MG, considering which of her two aprons to wear over the leotard in which she likes to swan around the house, asking me: "Which one do you think is more traditional?"

While the cookies were baking, we read The Always Prayer Shawl, by Sheldon Oberman: not because it was particularly topical, but because it was unpacked and I could find it. It turned out to be more germane than I'd thought, with its theme of knowledge and traditions--names, prayer shawls--handed down from generation to generation.

Tonight, for the first time ever in our new home, we had company over for dinner: my cousin and her husband and teenage son, who by happy coincidence are here from the Midwest for a sabbatical year, and have rented an apartment only a couple of miles from us. While my cousin is nominally Jewish, they're completely nonobservant, and it was their first time having apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. MG, RW and I ended up explaining a little bit about the significance of the holiday, and then we ate some of the leftover cookies.

I'd packed the Aleph and Bet cookies for MG in her lunch box today, but she saved them and ate them tonight. It was a good night for it: near the end of a week of firsts, at the start of the Jewish New Year.

L'shanah Tovah to all who are celebrating. I hope it will be a new year like tonight's dessert: sweet, and companionable, and full of beginnings.

8 Comments:

Anonymous ppb said...

You know, this sounds like the type of thing she'll remember for a long time.

Happy New Year.

5:11 AM  
Blogger susan said...

What a wonderful ritual. I'd sign up for your JCHS if I were on the other side of the continent!

There are some interesting adult books for you to read (plus Joan Nathan's Children's Jewish Holiday Kitchen), although of course I can't find the book I want to suggest (and don't even have the excuse that I just moved). Maybe Lora Brody? A book about a year of Jewish cooking, with each chapter a different story and recipe (in which the Passover story, about the year in which she was recuperating and someone else made the matzoh ball soup, ends up sounding not-very-gracious).

A sweet new year and many happy Mondays for all of you. I bet MG will be carrying this year in her heart forever.

7:07 AM  
Blogger nyjlm said...

L'shana Tova to the Elsewhere family!
JCSH sounds like it is going to be a lot of fun! I was not sent to Hebrew school, but I have learned the aleph bet song thanks to Debbie Friedman.
I was almost going to put out an SOS for you because my kids' school scheduled a curriculum/parent night for Thurs night. We did go but it is frustrating that they only think about the majority religion.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Pamelamama said...

Els, this sounds absolutely wonderful. I laughed and cried a little bit when you said MG's first vote was for "snacks".

How did we celebrate RH this year? Away from my family, with no shul we really connect with, with no very close Jewish friends available to spend time with... I made kugel and apple cake and chicken soup and stuffed cabbage so at least the house would smell like holiday. And I think it worked. Sam and Eli are delighted having kugel and apple cake for breakfast and despite the same-old same-old day-off activities of lazing around the house, I think they know it's holiday. Food is at the core of it all.

I miss you!

10:45 AM  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

We would also sign up for Hebrew school with you and MG if we could!

Mr. Blue tried teaching Hebrew last year, but had to stop because LG's kindergarten teacher reported that LG was having trouble remembering in which direction English should be read!

6:43 PM  
Anonymous mcewen said...

Do you have a picture of the cookies for ignoramouses like myself?
Best wishes

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Genevieve said...

Els, I highly recommend "The Bible From Alef to Tav," by Penina Adelman. Each chapter focuses on a Hebrew letter, a story from the Torah, and a few words about that story that start with that Hebrew letter. It's just right for beginners, and even has teacher questions at the end (we usually skip those, but we're not doing home Hebrew School).

Now I think I should get some Alef Bet cookie cutters!

10:37 AM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Genevieve! I had this book in the collection at my old job; I bet I can look for or order it here, too.

I can't find an exact link to the cookie cutters my mom sent us from Israel, but there are other Googleable models available for sure.

12:36 PM  

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