Thursday, May 31, 2012

Short Parsha Riddles: Nasso / נָשֹׂא

בְּמִדְבַּר / Bamidbar / Numbers 4:21-7:89

Click for printable PDF version.

And don’t forget to read the poem and parsha overview for Parshas Nasso.  Plus… copywork and parsha activities – something for every week of the year!

image [1]

Last week in the parsha we learned several ages
Of Jews who all counted, through different stages;
But though all these numbers might sound kind of shifty
Levi’im, we learn, served from thirty to __________!


Three families of Levi, born one, two and three
But their tasks were not given out naturally;
You might think the best job would go to the first,
But instead, went to __________, so their luck was reversed.


A wife who was not the most modest and pure
Was brought before everyone just to make sure
She drank water drawn from this vessel of copper –
A reminder (how?) of ways far more proper.


The Nazir was one who would solemnly vow
To live for Hashem no-matter, no-how;
And while it lasted, wherever he’d traipse,
He’d never eat anything made out of __________!

[5] BONUS!

The root of this parsha, and climax indeed –
Raising up all of us who from Egypt were freed;
The marriage, the princes, the blessing-spread hand –
All flow from this shoresh, the wise understand.  What is it?


STUMPED?? Here are some answers: 
[ 1 ] Fifty
[ 2 ] Kehas, from the second son, gets the indisputably better job of carrying the holiest objects, while Gershon, the oldest, shleps the curtains.  The Kli Yakar says regardless of birth order, we can all attain spiritual greatness.
[ 3 ] Water from the kiyor was a reminder (Rashi 5:17) of the righteous women who gave up their mirrors.
[ 4 ] Grapes!
[ 5 ] The parsha’s name contains the shoresh (root) נשא/nasa, meaning “lift up.” It’s used for a census, but it’s also the root of marriage (nissuin/נישואין, recalled with the sotah), nesias kapayim/נשיאת כפיים (birkas kohanim) and nasi/נָשִׂיא (one of the 12 who brought their gifts here).

Once upon a time, with cereal…

A few thoughts mulled over a late-night bowl of cereal…

One time, maybe about ten years ago, my brother and I were squatting at my parents’ house for the evening – I think my parents were away camping and I was staying there with the little kids who would later become the big kids, mostly because my parents had cable.and a VCR, both things I did not have at the time.  I think we also walked to the shul-that-would-become-our-shul over Shabbos, which I only remember because YM left the water running in the bathroom sink and we returned from shul to find thousands of dollars of water damage – eek.

But anyway, Eli and I were sitting around and a commercial came on TV that showed a woman relaxing at the end of her long day with a bowl of Special K.  And it said, “not just for breakfast.”  And he and I looked at each other and pretty much simultaneously said, “people eat cereal for breakfast???” 

For both of us, cereal was always more of a comfort food than a wake-up food, though on some days in my life, and undoubtedly his, it has served both functions quite nicely, at both ends of the day.

We LOVED cereal, growing up… and by “growing up,” I mean well into our twenties.  But more than loving cereal, we loved each other, and each other’s company.  There was nobody I would rather sit quietly with, perhaps at opposite ends of the kitchen table, than my brother, munching cereal, ignoring each other except when one or the other of us needed to speak. 

Of course, there were also the opposite moods: when you want to build that little fortress out of cereal boxes and make the whole entire world go away.  Usually those moods would align: I’d build one, and so would he.  One fortress isn’t enough in the cereal-box arms race.  But heaven help you if you wanted to read something on the back of the other person’s cereal box.  Definitely grounds for murder.

The other day, I noticed – and I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me sooner – that nothing comes in cereal boxes anymore.  Well, except cereal, and that was kind of the least of it when I was a kid.  These days, they’re more likely to print a coupon code on the box than throw that randomly-selected colourful punch-out plastic thing into the mix.  And the coupon codes aren’t always for something really good, either – I noticed one you can redeem for FRUIT, presumably to go with the cereal.

imagePerhaps they got sued by someone biting down on a plastic bitty-bit, or perhaps kids today (boy, do I sound like an Old Person when I say that) are so used to being catered-to, to having every experience in life personalized, that they could not possibly be happy with one of six action figures or spinners or rocket launchers or decoder rings.

In which case, I don’t even know WHAT it says about kids that there are so few of those “save-up-the-wrappers” (or box tops) type of premium “giveaway” today.  Take this attractive Rocky & Bullwinkle Cheerios plate, for example.  We had these (not my picture; ours are long gone), but just in case you were thinking we saved up for them back in some more gratification-delayed era, the happy news is that my FATHER did all the legwork for us. 

He collected box tops – I imagine this happened during the brief time he was a single parent, when I was about 3 or 4 – gathered them up and mailed them in to the nice Cheerios people, perhaps along with postage, and in return received a couple of cheerful melamine kiddie plates.

And, because people never change, more than twenty years later, he was still at it, this time saving up the box tops to earn for his grandchildren three sets of these delightful pre-Chinese lead paint scare Thomas the Tank Engine Cheerios train sets (they still probably had the lead paint, we just didn’t know or worry about it in those days!).


Oh, there’s still Box Tops for Education (in the States).  But what kid are you EVER going to convince that that is a wonderful concept?  “Sure, this cereal is awesome, but THIS cereal will help us be part of a community dedicated to education!”

Yup, few comfort foods are quite as loaded with emotional baggage, with memories, with meanings deep, deep beyond the fairly unchanging, grain-sweetener-BHT-and-riboflavin ingredient lists on the side of the box. 

And you’d better hope that if a particular cereal IS a comfort food, that it’s a popular one, and stays that way. 

Some people campaign for orphan drugs – I’d love to campaign for orphan cereals, those flavours we will never taste again:  Team Flakes was my favourite of all time ever, and it came and went for a while before going belly-up, or whichever way a cereal brand goes when it dies. 

I also remember my summer in LA, 18 years old and thousands of miles from home, freer than I would ever be again, and going absolutely nuts over something called Morning Funnies, a cartoon-themed cereal which featured “funny faces of wild fruit taste” and the endorsement of such comical luminaries as Dennis the Menace.

The biggest hardship of my two mornings in Israel – I know, free trip to Israel and I still find a way to whine! – was that the breakfast cereal was inordinately expensive.  When I was called back unexpectedly, I was just getting my head wrapped around the idea that, if we were staying longer, I would have to wean myself off the cereal and onto something – well, more Israeli for breakfast.  And somehow, the pillowy-sweet indigenous offerings had (and still have, when I see them here) almost zero appeal.

So – just as I will miss French when I leave Canada, I will probably also find myself missing cereal:  cereals of the past, cereals of the present and eventually, cereals of the future that will be a novelty to me, in the same way that I sometimes notice chains like Subway and McDonald’s have items on their menu that are foreign and new to me because they were introduced after I stopped eating in those places.

As with any comfort food, I suspect it’s not really the cereal I’ll be missing, anyway.

Previous thoughts on cereal, family, life, meaning and the Great Big Everything:

Is breakfast cereal one of your special things in life, or am I the only one???

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Trumped-Up-Word Tuesday: Visioning

image Who knew…???  “Visioning” is an actual, official word, useable by political officials and laypeople alike.

I say this in the wake of a lively local park meeting in which various stakeholders got together to forge a vision statement for the park.  Now, rationally, I can understand the importance of this – a central vision as opposed to willy-nilly projects here and there throughout the park with no consultation or process.  Fer sure.

But there is a lesser, reptile part of my brain, deep, deep down inside (I promise I kept it subdued!) that just sat there, growling and snarling, as people passionately discussed the values the park embodies in their lives.  It should be green, for instance, in every possible way.  The park should be safe, and traffic-free

image(It seems to me that if you start letting in cars, it can no longer be defined as a park, but one group apparently felt the need to specify:  “TRAFFIC FREE ZONE.”)

Another group, paradoxically, listed both “access to wild nature” and “development of wild nature.”  Lots of people were excited about the wildness and indigenousness of the park, which I find intriguing because it seems they don’t know that the whole thing was clear-cut to make way for a planned expressway in the 1970s.  Most of the trees these folks cherish are younger than their eyebrows… indeed, I remember the year they cluttered up all the good toboggan hills with trees.  “Wild nature” – harrumph.  Plus, to be fair, you cannot simultaneously access the wild nature AND develop the wild nature, if by develop, you mean, “add playgrounds and water parks and other conveniences that make the park nice and fun for human people to occupy,” thus destroying the “wild” nature that previously inhabited that spot.

(By the way, the word Dogs is crossed out in the poster at the top not because dogs are not welcome in the park – O! indeed they are, and don’t even think about taking away their sacred right to park access for fear of yet another Democratic Process!) but because “Dogs” is not, as such, a value.)

imageFollowing the visioning / brainstorming process, we were each issued five “dots” in order to cast our “dot-mocracy” votes (yet another fake word to obsess over???).  Just as in a silent auction, you can cast all five dots for the SAME value, or spread them around on different values – like if you want the park to be green AND include children AND old people.  Oh, AND be vast.  I think we all agreed that vastness is a value we can really get behind, in a park.  Vastness and greenness and friendliness to the old.  And traffic-free.

But wait:  All this cynicism doesn’t mean I don’t laud efforts by the city to turn over park stewardship to people who actually live near and use the park in question.  I think it’s fabulous.  I hope the city is finally releasing its dictatorial stranglehold over parks – though I still hold out some feeble hope for enforcement of leashed-dog laws in the aforementioned park.  The dogs, apparently, cannot yet read the wordless signs that indicate iconically they must remain on-leash at all times.  Perhaps the dogs merely lack vision… or is that visioning?

Review: We Choose Virtues… and a fun GIVEAWAY!


I raved on here a few months ago when we began using We Choose Virtues, a “middos” (character traits) program developed by a Christian company which can be used in Christian or secular settings.  It’s interesting – I wasn’t exactly shopping around for a program like this, but now that I’ve found it, I’m thrilled and intend to keep cycling through the 12 “Kids of Virtueville” for as long as it takes for the messages to start sinking in with my kids (and – gasp – me.…)

In any event, since I wrote that review, I requested and received review copies a few extra components that are very helpful add-ons to the core program.  And at the end of this review, I will let you know what you can do to win some for your very ownself!

NOTE:  I did receive free materials in return for a review.  However, the content of the review is solely my own opinion and has not been influenced or dictated in any way.

flash-cards.jpgFirst of all, an overview of the program:  I was immediately struck (not literally!) by the versatility of this program, in that you can do as little of it as you want… or extend it, even, perhaps, across the curriculum. 

At its core is a stack of Virtue flash cards.  One side depicts a cute kid with an “accessory”… on the reverse is a brief slogan, an “antonym” (ie the behaviour you hope to transform!), and, if you choose the faith-based (ie Christian) option, there’s a Biblical quote as well.  For our family, we’re going through the cards at the rate of one a week… you might want to go faster, or slower, but one a week feels about right to me.

Something to like right off the bat:  the virtues are all in the first person - “I am…” followed by an affirmation of a positive character trait.  The overall theme of the program is that you are using these affirmations to transform your kids’ (or students’) ugly “caterpillars” into beautiful “butterflies” of virtue.

For example, this week’s middah (I use the Hebrew term because it just seems more natural; we haven’t really ever used the term “virtue” around here) is “I am Self-Controlled.”  The catchphrase to go along with this is, “I make myself do the right thing.”  The negative description is “I am NOT wild, rowdy or disorderly, and I don’t expect others to control me.”  Oh, and the character for this week is Stop Sign Madeline, who is happy to try to control everybody ELSE, telling them all the rules but losing control of herself.  (When I drew it this morning, I sort of went “ouch” because of Naomi Rivka’s tendencies to boss everybody else around while not paying attention to her own flaws in the least… oh, and did I mention – ugh – my own???)

Here’s what the flash cards look like:


In any event, the virtues may be tough, but the cards are very cute and we all began enjoying them right away.  Now, the cards themselves aren’t cheap, but they are indeed a fairly self-contained, self-explanatory program for any homeschooling parent or teacher with a little imagination. 

However, if you want a little more hand-holding, the program does extend quite nicely in a few interesting ways, whether you’re dealing with a classroom or just your own kids.  For instance, a Teacher’s Manual and various posters and sticker charts (including a 100-day chart with corresponding butterfly stickers) are available to go along with the cards.

After a few weeks, I took the plunge (more expensive) and bought the Parenting Cards, which at the time came with a free download of the Colouring Book which goes along with the program.  I like the parenting cards because they give us a little more insight into the “kid” being featured each week – the flash cards alone are cute, but the kid is featured in close-up and it’s sometimes not easy to tell what their accessory is or what it means (“Why does the ‘I am Content’ card feature a boy sitting with a cake?”  Turns out that’s Cake Jake, who has a hard time getting his “wanter” under control…). 

The parenting cards also include a challenge – this week’s challenge, for self-control, is “the entire family should choose to do something that you usually get in trouble for not doing!”  This is one of the more obscure ones; others, slightly more helpful, include, for “I am Content,” “the entire family should try to go the whole day without saying ‘I want’ or ‘I’m bored.’”  There are also tips for finding teachable moments with that virtue, plus suggestions for helping create apologies that are appropriate to the offense in question.  In truth, I haven’t used either of these sections much.

Here’s what the parenting cards look like:


The cards are very sturdy and attractively designed and as I said, they have a great deal of kid-appeal.  Unlike the flash cards, the parenting cards are NOT available in a secular version, so you may want to gloss over the verse or paste a corresponding verse of your choice over the Christian scriptural excerpts.  Of the twelve cards, ten feature selections from the Jewish Bible, which I have pretty much read as-is; the two I put off ‘till the end (as you can see here, including this week’s) feature Christian scriptural verses, which I have just omitted when I read the card.

Since I’ve been using We Choose Virtues, I have often found myself wishing there was an analogous Jewish product, but so far haven’t found anything.  I thought I was close at the Torah Home Education Conference when I saw a product called “Keyboard Town Pals: Let’s Lead!” which is a character-based program designed by religious Jews but secular in nature so it can be used in public schools.  However, their program, while it’s very cute and features adorable puppets, is a $35 add-on to their core product, which is essentially a typing program.  Drat!  Here’s the poster for that product though… you can see it’s very cute and professionally done.  They even have a funky USB bracelet for kids to store their work on.

In any event, I like the range of materials available in WCV reinforcement products, and two new ones joined our family today, sent to me free and also available as part of the fabulous giveaway!  They are the Virtue Clues and the Kids Virtue Poster.

The Virtue Clues are essentially the same as the flashcards but smaller, in a self-contained little pouch which has a handy magnet for sticking it to the fridge, a file cabinet, or anywhere you want around your home.  There’s not as much information on these cards, so they might not be great as a standalone… but maybe a good intro to the program, and the price is right!  The virtue clues include the same reinforcement tip as the parenting card on the reverse – there is no scriptural reference on these, making them a good choice for anyone who wants to avoid the Christian references.  Ditto for the poster, which is a great way to meet all the kids, their virtues and antonyms, all at a single glance, laid out attractively against a rainbow background.


In general, there’s a lot to love about this program: the cartoon mascots with their concrete accessories, the colourful, well-thought-out design, and – most of all – the concept that these middos (aka virtues!) are well within the grasp of an ordinary kid (or mom).  I can easily see these activities fitting in any family or homeschool, Jewish, Christian, secular or otherwise, where parents want to call attention to and reinforce positive character traits without wallowing in negativity and giving kids plenty of opportunities to see themselves succeeding..

So here’s the deal with the giveaway… oh, but first, a couple of special deals:

These once-a-year specials are available from the We Choose Virtues website for a couple more days:
• Free shipping-no promo code needed
• 25% off our Homeschool Kit- click here to shop and enter HOMESCHOOL25 or
• 30% off our Parenting Cards-SPRING30

And now… the giveaway!  Winner will receive BOTH the Poster and Virtue Clues cards (shown above) to get you started in a fun, easy way.  These will be mailed directly from the (hopefully) good folks at We Choose Virtues.

Contest will close Monday, June 4, 2012 at midnight.  Because I want to do something a little more personal than some contests, you can enter as many times as you want… but each entry must include an example of your child’s virtues (middos, character traits, any way you want to translate it!) at either their best or WORST.  So let’s hear it, and you could win!

****  Entries will be judged by my family and anyone else around our table over Shabbos (Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath), June 9th and 10th, with the winner announced here on or before Sunday, June 10th.  Just to let you know – I have pretty slapstick teenagers, so the more hilarious your example, the better your odds of winning.  ;-)

Nasso / נָשֹׂא Parsha Overview: Very bad, extra good, and… gifts for Hashem’s party???

Welcome to the longest parsha of the Torah!  (Read on to find out why it’s so long!)
But first... remember in parshas Tazria and Metzora, when we read about tzara’as (צָרָעַת), a reminder Hashem would send when bnei Yisrael were doing something wrong?  Now, we hear about tzara’as again: Hashem finishes explaining how bnei Yisrael should arrange themselves around the Mishkan, and reminds Moshe that a person with tzara’as can’t come inside until they’re healed.

image There were other ways people behaved badly.
Sometimes, a man might suspect his wife had told another man she would marry him.  Jealousy can ruin a marriage and make many people unhappy, so the husband could bring his wife to the kohein, who asked her to drink a bitter liquid.  If she had behaved badly, she would die [parents: I have deliberately left out the actual means of her death here – too grisly for littles, but by all means include it if your kids are interested and it’s appropriate – just leave out the soda pop/”sotah pop” jokes].  But if she had been loyal, not only was her husband’s jealousy gone, they would have a new baby and a stronger family.
Remember: this is something that happened only in those days!
Many amazing things happened in those times... someday, we’ll understand them all better.

image Though people could behave badly, some wanted to be extra-good!
This kind of person was called a nazir (נָזִיר), a man or a woman who promised any amount of time  – a month or a year or fifteen years... or forever – to be extra holy.  (Do you remember what “holy” means?  Special to Hashem!)  A nazir had many rules:  they couldn’t eat anything made of grapes:  raisins, grape juice, wine or vinegar.  They couldn’t cut their hair or go near dead people.  When the time was up, they’d bring a korban to show they were ready for ordinary life again.

Do you know what the Haftorah is?
Many years ago, cruel leaders forbid us to learn Torah.  So rabbis found other readings that were NOT from the Torah – stories and lessons from our nevi’im.  These were called “haftorahs” – it sounds like “Torah,” but just means “extra” parshas.  The haftorah always reminds us of the real Torah parsha!  These days, we still learn them, and this week’s haftorah tells about Shimshon HaGibor, who was born a nazir.  Keeping nazir-rules, like not cutting hair, made him strong (for a while!).

After all these rules, it was time for a party!
At last, the Mishkan was assembled and the kohanim were almost ready to start working in it.  But what’s a party without gifts?  Imagine it’s your birthday and your twelve best friends show up... and they all bring you the SAME present.  How would you feel?  Probably disappointed.  Even if it’s something great, you probably don’t need twelve of anything exactly the same.

And what about Hashem, who doesn’t need presents at all?
Hashem asks the nesi’im, the leaders of the shevatim, to bring gifts for the Mishkan, and each nasi brings the same things: some silver bowls, flour for a korban minchah, ketores (incense burned for its smell), and several animals.  Hashem also asked the nesi’im to come one each day for twelve days.  That’s one reason this parsha is so long: it lists the same gifts over and over, twelve days in a row!

This is a very strange way to bring gifts to Hashem.
Back in parshas Vayakhel, when bnei Yisrael were giving gifts to help build the Mishkan, Hashem wanted them to come all at once, and bring whatever different things they wanted to give: gold, wood, copper, animal skins.  (Remember?  They brought too much, and Moshe had to cry out, “Stop!”)  But now, they have to wait their turn...and they’re all bringing the same stuff.

Were the gifts really all the same???
Imagine you have money in your wallet or a piggy bank; maybe $7.  Clarence has $20 saved up, and he wants to go buy ice cream for $5.  If Clarence spends $5, he’ll still have $15 – lots of money!  But if you spend $5, you won’t have much left.   It’s the same $5, but it feels harder for you to spend it! It’s the same with the nesi’im. Some of the gifts were easy for some of them; others were harder.  Each gift felt different for each and every nassi.  (Some people also think they had different ideas in mind.)

So what actually happened in the Mishkan?  We’ll find out next week!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Short Parsha Riddles: Bamidbar / בְּמִדְבַּר

בְּמִדְבַּר / Bamidbar / Numbers 1:1-4:20

Click for printable PDF version .

And don’t forget to read last year’s poem and parsha overview.  Plus… copywork and parsha activities – something for every week of the year!

Welcome to the Book of Numbers… a special Quiz that’s all about Counting!

image [1a]

Count the soldiers, Hashem asks,
Be sure our side has plenty,
But do not count the youngest men
Whose age is less than __________!


The parsha gives us helpful counts
Each shevet’s soldiers, large amounts,
But one thing’s still not clear in sight –
How old are those too old to fight???


Now while we’re counting, don’t you forget
If you don’t know the number yet,
You can’t just point and number Jews;
So how to count and know who’s whose?


Here’s a question to ask at your seudah,
The biggest shevet was Shevet Yehudah,
But who’s the second-biggest one?
You’d guess right if you said… __________!


Think we’re done counting?  Just hold up a bit
Read through those names again lickety-split;
We’ve learned all the names, but if you check the list,
Two new names appear here from one that’s dismissed!  Who are they?

[5] – BONUS!

Shevet Levi’s set aside, marked for greater things,
So different rules for Levi our weekly parsha brings
Count not just the grown-ups, but little babies, too;
This woman’s birth so long ago shows us why it’s true.  Who is she?

STUMPED?? Here are some answers: 
[ 1a ] Twenty
[ 1b ] Bamidbar Rabba, the Ralbag (Gershonides) and the Ramban (Nachmanides) concur that the upper age for army service was sixty.
[ 2 ] Rashi (1:2) says that just like in Shemos, they were counted by giving half-shekel coins.  As it says in Hosheya 10:1, “bnei Yisrael… shall neither be measured or counted.”
[ 3 ] Dan.
[ 4 ] Efrayim and Menasheh appear instead of Yosef, bringing the count back to 12 shevatim after Levi has been removed and counted separately.
[ 5 ] Yocheved.  Rashi (3:15) says that she (a member of Shevet Levi) was counted just moments after birth among the 70 Jews who descended into Mitzrayim.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

3-day Shavuos Menu

Very streamlined indeed, what with being out for both the lunches of Yom Tov and all.  It’s weird; I was kvetching on here about not being invited out enough, and yet we’ve been invited out for both Shabbos lunches since we got back from Washington, plus one of the lunches of Yom Tov.  Never rains but it pours, I guess.

Anyway, here’s the plan, very similar to last year’s, with a few shufflings-around, plus an additional day for Shabbos!









Sushi (fake crab)


Lunch – out at Ds

Herb parmesan bread

Lunch - Mommy

Neapolitan cake





Ch soup

Briskety thing


Pareve Desserts

Chocolate Babka

Something Jello-y and strawberry-y



Herb parmesan bread

Jar g fish

Soup – leeky tato


(not pesto & peas)

Beets & carrots, roasted

Dairy Desserts

Espresso Cheesecake (Ted)

Gulab Jamun



Herb parmesan bread

Jar g fish

Soup – leek tato

Squash kugel


Avivah’s Butternut Squash Casserole?

Salmon en Croute

KBD carrots and/or Corn

Dairy Desserts


Garden-variety capitalism

DSC03141A friend’s “capitalism-themed” birthday party – complete with a little bank and market – on Sunday inspired Naomi Rivka to set up her own “seed sale” in our driveway yesterday.  She even made a little “teaser” sign for the end of the driveway, to entice customers to venture as far as the front steps to see all the seeds she had on display.

The choices were:  “trees 25¢” “dandeylions 5¢” and “grasses 10¢.”  I think a lesson has been learned here about the relative value of these things, and I must say, each seed-type was attractively arrayed in an appropriate vessel. 

No idea if the price is per SEED or for some other unit.  She apparently made $1, which I suspect was from Ted and Elisheva dropping quarters into her dish and not taking any seeds.  However, she was disappointed that these impressive first-day sales didn’t continue today.


Nature Study, age 4



= mint leaf… he wrote it all by himself, insisting he did not need help.

On Contentment

Naomi Rivka: “Nobody is too old for colouring, bubbles or Silly Putty.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bamidbar / בְּמִדְבַּר Parsha Overview: Counting, Counting, then a Swap!

Welcome to a brand new Sefer of the Chumash!

Bamidbar means “in the desert” or “in the wilderness.” We were there for a long time: forty years. (we'll learn why in parshas Shelach!) Remember that Vayikra has another name, Toras Kohanim (Torah for the Kohanim)? Bamidbar also has one: Chumash HaPekudim, the Chumash for counting.

In English, it's called the Book of Numbers. Let's find out why!

Do you remember reading a few months ago about Hashem counting bnei Yisrael. Now, He counts them again! Why does Hashem count us so often in the Chumash? Well, what kinds of things do you count, and when? Maybe you want a lot of something – like strawberries or a collection of toys.

But sometimes, we count for a sad reason.

Imagine you had a bag of marbles – shiny and glittery and colourful – and they all spilled! You'd round them up, of course, and then probably count to make sure they were all there. You’d be sad if some were missing – rolled under the sofa, or maybe gone for good. Here, Hashem counts bnei Yisrael because many of them were lost – they died after the egel hazahav. This was very sad.

Do you remember who the Shevatim were?

The parsha lists the names of the shevatim (Can you sing them all?). These were families born from the sons of Yaakov - Avraham's great-grandsons! They died, but their shevatim had grown into big families with new leaders. The parsha lists the leaders’ names because even though so many were lost, Am Yisrael Chai – our tzaddikim help bnei Yisrael keep right on going - forever!

Some of the shevatim had MANY more people than others!

image Yehudah, the biggest, had 74,600 adult men. But listen: Dan only had one son, but his shevet has grown HUGE – 62,700 men. Binyamin, who had ten sons, is now one of the smallest: 35,400 men. This is very surprising! If you start with two rabbits, they have babies and in a few years, you have thousands of rabbits. The more rabbits you start with, the more rabbits you get! That's nature. But bnei Yisrael are NOT like rabbits.

Only Hashem, not nature, knows which shevatim deserve to grow.

image  There were so many of bnei Yisrael! But they would need to fight on their way to eretz Yisrael, and having many people doesn’t help you win unless you’re organized. Hashem arranged the shevatim with the Mishkan in the very middle so everybody could be close to it and remember why they were fighting.

But one shevet still hadn’t been counted: Shevet Levi.

Moshe counted them personally. Some people say that he stood outside their tents and a voice called out how many people lived in each tent. That way, their private life stayed private! There were 22,000 levi'im. We still know who their descendents are today – the Kohanim and Levi'im in our shul!

Now that Levi was counted, it was time for a gigantic swap!

Hashem originally wanted firstborn men to work in the Mishkan, but when they did the cheit ha'egel (remember that?), they lost their chance. The only ones who didn’t help make the egel were the Levi’im. So each firstborn had to pay 5 shekels to “trade” with a Levi, who would work in the Mishkan. We still do this today: we “redeem” a firstborn son at a Pidyon HaBen when he's 30 days old.

This week's parsha ends with an interesting problem:

When the Mishkan travelled, one group of Levi'im, bnei Kehas, had to carry the menorah, aron, and other important keilim. But only the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, could touch those things; anyone else would die! Luckily, Hashem told Moshe the solution: the Kohanim could go in first and wrap up the keilim very well. Once they were covered, bnei Kehas could take them away!

Bnei Yisrael travelled many times. We'll learn more about that as we read Sefer Bamidbar!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Walking with Israel, with Jews for Judaism

DSC03109I think this event used to be called Walk for Israel, but they changed the name a while back to Walk WITH Israel, and this year was apparently the 45th (I think) Walk held in Toronto.  This year, I volunteered to walk with Jews for Judaism, a counter-missionary organization that also works hard to educate Jews about Judaism – and why Christian claims about the “Jewishness” of Jesus are completely false. 

The missionary organizations love getting a foot in the door of communal acceptability by maintaining a presence at these events, and Jews for Judaism (the good guys, though everybody gets the name mixed up!) tries to have more counter-missionaries just standing by peacefully, offering information if anyone is curious, and making sure the missionaries know they’re being watched.  For the most part, they are probably just plain nice people who care deeply about Jewish souls.  Luckily, Jews for Judaism are as well.  There were 3 or 4 missionary groups down there today, depending on what you mean by group, because some of the people knew each other but weren’t walking together.

Each Jews for Judaism group was assigned to one missionary group to “tail” throughout the walk.  We were advised to stay 6 feet away and to remain friendly at all times.  Easy enough; none of the groups were militant or even particularly well-educated about Judaism at all.

The ones my group was assigned to had shirts that read, in the front, “lechaim” (in Hebrew letters) and on the back, “ask me about my rabbi.”  A few people wandered past, interested, but most quickly realized and steered clear.  A few people muttered derisive remarks – one called them “beheimas” (animals).


(I spent a lot of time watching these shirts)

The thing of it is that, as peaceful and buddy-buddy as the whole event was (the missionaries were shaking hands with, no, practically HUGGING the people in charge of Jews for Judaism – they are well-acquainted from previous events), these guys HATED having me standing so close to them, in my prominent t-shirt and flyer bag.  At several points, the leader would take off at a sprint to try to lose me.  I love a challenge, and I was able to catch up every time except near the end, when I decided I was hot and exhausted and wouldn’t bother.  They probably felt like they won.

What did they get out of running ahead?  (or back – at one point, they sprinted BACK a block and a half to lose me)  I guess the opportunity to stand on a street corner and smile, looking friendly, let their t-shirts speak for themselves for a minute, without interference.  And, of course, the goal of Jews for Judaism is also a strange one – it is, in part, to boost morale in the community, make the community aware that there IS a Jewish response, that we know who the missionaries are and what their strategies are as well.  That Judaism, not some watered-down, Hebraicized Christianity, is the answer to just about any Jewish question.

Still – it was all pretty buddy-buddy.  Here is everybody at a rest stop where – by the way – I had just missed seeing Ted and the kids.  They came for a little while, but started after the beginning, ducking out after the end.  I actually did see them further on, but even shrieking Ted’s name violently from across a park failed to catch his attention.

Anyway, here’s everybody at a rest stop.  Pale blue shirts are Jews for Judaism (the good guys); the woman in the grey shirt is a missionary; her shirt reads, in Hebrew, “they call him Yeshua.”  Because privacy laws are not in effect during a parade (which the Walk With Israel officially is), you can take pictures of anyone you like, and they cannot really object.  At one point, the missionaries were taking pictures of the Jews for Judaism group taking pictures of them… and vice versa, everyone with smiles on their faces.

 DSC03112 DSC03115

Not quite so buddy-buddy was the END of the walk, which featured this chillul Hashem display of clashing ideologies between Neturei Karta and the Jewish Defense League… two loopy organizations going head-to-head at last.  Luckily, the police arrived first and erected this strange yet effective barrier of bicycles between the Neturei Karta drones (they were, literally, droning) and everybody else.

 DSC03123 DSC03125 DSC03128 

Listen to the excitement!

But after walking for 3 hours, even a nice controlled riot couldn’t keep me downtown when what I was really longing for was…

DSC03131 DSC03132 DSC03133

Ah!  The water was freezing, the shade was dappled; it’s good to be home – if only for a few hours.  Fireworks tonight – yay!

RESOLVED! Cranky Complaints-Lady takes on Ms Frizzle

*** Happy UPDATE!  Within 24 hours of my emailing this company (The Young Scientists Club), I received an email asking for clarification (I sent along the photo) and promising a replacement in the mail ASAP.  I also got a phone call from somebody who saw the blog post and wanted to make sure everything was resolved to my satisfaction.  I haven’t received the replacement supplies yet, but I’m sure they will be here any day and I am very excited to try out this kit after yom tov.  Talk about excellent customer service… (and I promised I would update the blog post accordingly, since I’m very pleased, and I don’t mind saying so).  Another win for The Friz!!! ***

The kids are going through a major phase of adoration for the Magic School Bus, so when the Homeschool Buyers Co-op had a major sale last month for a Magic-School-Bus-branded monthly science kit program, costing a bit more than I would normally have paid, I figured it might be worth it.

Well, the first montly kit arrived on Friday, and we pulled it open with squeals of excitement, only to discover that one component of the kit (dishwashing soap) had – speaking of volcanoes – almost literally exploded over everything else in the kit.

Here is my email of Very Not Pleased to the folks who make this kit:

DSC03105 May's “volcanoes” kit arrived on Friday and my kids were super-excited to see it in the mailbox.  Unfortunately, on opening the envelope, we discovered that the dish liquid vial was crushed in transit and the liquid escaped not only in the ziploc bag that was meant to contain it, but it has gotten everywhere inside the outer bag. 

The paintbrush, dry paint, pumice, magnifying glass and other components are soggy and perhaps ruined.  The paper stayed dry, so we were able to read about the activities, but I am nevertheless very disappointed by this poor packaging. 

This series was a major investment, and I was hoping the kids' high interest in Magic School Bus would help justify the cost.  Certainly, for the price, there should have been better effort spent on packing the materials so they wouldn't be ruined in transit.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Interview with a Jewish Homeschooler: Rachel

This is Part 2 in an occasional series.  Please see Part 1, where I interview the indomitable Yael Aldrich, over here.

imageI’m so happy to introduce Rachel!  She is that rare bird, an “IRL homeschooly friend.”  She is also a rarity in that she is a second-generation homeschooler – an unschooled high-school grad, accomplished birth doula, and all-round great (but humble) person. 

I had the very good luck of meeting Rachel when she and her husband, a rabbi and teacher, arrived here from Vancouver a couple of years ago.  Before that, they were living in Israel, where their daughter Nechama was born.  They now have two children, Nechama, 4, and Shlomit, hmm… she’s a very sweet baby of some very cute baby age.  (don’t tell her I forgot!)

I have been looking forward to sharing some of Rachel’s wisdom with the rest of the world because I think that she offers a long-range perspective on education that would be very valuable to those of us at the beginning or in the middle of our homeschool journey.

What was best for you about growing up as a homeschooler?

The best part about growing up as a homeschooler was my ability to live a full life all the time. I noticed this as an adult as my school-in-a-building friends only seemed to have had life experiences in the year before college or as they call it, “gap year.” A good friend told me to live my life with no regrets. I was able to attend births when I was 11, go to midwifery school at 16, write books, travel the world (by myself at 18) and attend real live court cases to learn! My favourite quote, which really holds true, is by Albert Einstein, “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”

Were there things you missed (or thought you missed) about going to school?

To be a homeschooler you have to let go of fear. If you ask me what I felt I missed out on because of my education, my answer would be nothing.

People seem so afraid that someone is going to “miss out” on a life experience because they do this or that, but when I was homeschooling (more like unschool – more on this later!), I didn't miss anything that I wanted to be a part of.

There are two reasons why. First, schools seemed like a form of prison to me. I actually went to school in a building until second grade when my family took me out. I also went back for one month, count it, ONE (that’s how long I could stand it!) in high school.

Secondly, that fear of “getting it all in,” “covering all subjects,” etc., only make sense if one believes that learning is from kindergarten to high school, then some university and that’s it – it’s all over. This is not normal to me. Learning begins when you are born and ends (in a sense) when you die.

Once my mother was able to let go of this box of time in which everyone considers it crucial to learn “everything,” cramming it all in over 12 years, she was able to truly educate us. The best thing that my mother taught me was how to find out information for myself.

Here’s an analogy that you may have heard before, but I’ll use it in a different way. “You give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach him to fish, he eats for life.” This is the approach that I believe homeschool brings.

How did homeschooling affect your Jewish life?

My education had a huge impact on my Jewish identity and my life. Again, one can force someone to be religious and stuff it down their throat. I remember from my school days the principal coming into our classes and using fear tactics with us. He used to threaten that we would go to Gehinnom [hell] if we were chutzpadik [mouthy or rude]. Coercion and “frummer [more religious]- than-thou” behaviour was everywhere where I grew up.

My father imparted to me, by example, honesty and doing what is right – even if it is hard. He converted to Judaism because he believed in Hashem [God] and he kept the commandments because Hashem gave them. Simple. My mother taught me about relationships, communication and the value of life. These were taught to me by example. I had rebbes that I learned Chumash (Torah), Navi (Prophets), etc, with, but my Jewish identity I got from watching my parents.

Do you or your parents have any big regrets about the way you were educated?

My biggest regret?  Well, I don't really believe in living life with regret. For my parents? As I mentioned, my mother had to work through her fear of me not learning “everything.” You see, parents need to unschool themselves to be able to educate their kids.

The only other regret that comes to mind was pleading my case to my father (he was, shall we say, the principal) when I was really sure I was right. I should have realized that if Mom told me to call my father and explain it, I had already lost!

Do you plan to homeschool your children?

Well, I will take it year by year the same way my parents did. They let us pick if we wanted to go to school in a building or not. Of my three siblings, my eldest brother went to yeshiva and university, I went to midwifery school and trained to be a doula, my little brother was homeschooled all his life, and now he is in the Israeli Army.

Each of us were involved in our own education. I find that one of the big issues for kids is they are given no choice or responsibility for their own leaning. This leads to non-interest and indifference. Because I had an active role in my learning (how, what, when...) I own it.

[MamaLand Editor’s note – I couldn’t resist jumping in here; I love the present tense here; as parents, we have to set an example by continuing to take an active role in our own learning!]

You've mentioned that you were unschooled - do you plan to continue this tradition, or adopt more structure with your own kids?

The nice part about child-led learning is you can adapt to each kid, just like the Torah says, “teach each child in his way.”

I am always watching my kids just as I parent them and adapt as the child responds, grows and changes. This is also my approach to learning. For an example, Nechama likes to ask “why?” all day and all night. I use this developmental phase to learn with her. When she wants to know why (not every single time or it would get annoying for both of us!), I take that opportunity to show her how to find the answer appropriate to her level. 

How is your Jewish life with your kids the same and/or different from the way you were raised?

The difference is my kids are growing up FFB [frum/religious from birth]; I did not. Please G-d, my kids will grow up in Israel. 

What is the secret of homeschooling limudei kodesh?  (is there a secret???)

The secret....are you ready for it!? I believe there is no Limudei Kodesh vs Chol [Jewish vs Secular Studies]. Everything in life has a G-d component. I teach from that perspective only. I live from that perspective and I parent from there.

When we walk by a homeless person on the street I teach about Tzedaka and gratefulness to Hashem, when we watch Barney I talk about chesed and manners when we have guests for Shabbat we learn about sharing what you have. My approach to Torah is holistic.

Your husband is a rabbi in a fairly traditional teaching role - do you feel any pressure from the community to adapt / conform to expectations of a rebbetzin and her family?

Yes, 100 percent, I feel pressure to do things. Rabbi Nivin says that every person needs a “tripod of objectivity.” Imagine the tripod: one foot is a person further along in their life cycle than you (a Rav), the second foot of the tripod is a person who is “behind” you (eg, if you are seasoned mom of a few kids, this might be someone who is just starting to have children), and the third foot/base is a student.

These three grounding people keep you Kosher, growing and on your toes. I am very, very aware that people consider me their Rebbenson and because of this I have to try harder and keep working on myself.

What's the most important thing Jewish parents should know if they're thinking about or just getting started in homeschooling?

The most important things that I think Jewish parents who are just joining the homeschooling world should know:

  • Let go of fear.
  • Sit down and actually look at your child. Who is he/she? Children have a personality from the get-go.
  • Respect your child and involve them in their own education.
  • Know for certain that no one way of schooling is the answer for everything.
  • Life is complex, complicated and ever-changing. Teach your children how to adapt to the waves of life.
  • Teach your children to be empathetic, good and moral people.
  • Never sacrifice your relationship with them.
  • Enjoy the ride!

My last piece of advice is if you are not enjoying the ride, neither are they. 

Hope you found that as fantastically helpful as I did!  Happy Victoria Day to those of us here in Canada!!!

Interesting Hebrew Reading Program – Aleph Champ

The Aleph Champ program has come to my attention a few times in the last year or so, and I am increasingly interested in its approach – though it is one many homeschoolers will disagree with, perhaps violently (I love controversy!).  Like the Yahadus curriculum I looked at in my previous post, this one, too, is from the Chabad mini-empire of worldwide educators.

Working around a “martial arts” model, kids are first introduced to the alef-bais letters, then the vowels, and then they begin a program of timed readings with a goal to mastering fluency in Hebrew reading.  To reflect the martial arts theme, everything is colour-coded, including special colourful medallions and other incentives that can be awarded along the way.

Here’s the official outline of the program’s stages:

  • White Aleph Champion Master the first 18 letters of the Aleph Bet.
  • Red Aleph Champion Master all 32 letters of the Aleph Bet.
  • Orange Aleph Champion Master the first 3 vowels with letter combinations.
  • Yellow Aleph Champion Master the first 6 vowels with letter combinations.
  • Green Aleph Champion Master the first 9 vowels with letter combinations.
  • Blue Aleph Champion Master all the vowels and exceptions to the rules.
  • Purple Aleph Champion Master reading familiar Prayers and Brachot.
  • Brown Aleph Champion Master reading important Tefillot.
  • Grey Aleph Champion Master reading from the Siddur in a timed fashion.
  • Black Aleph Champion Master reading over 100 words in a minute.

The emphasis of this series is almost entirely on bulk reading, from pages that start out looking like this:


through pages that – by the green level – look like this:


and wind up – by the brown level of the program - looking like this:


The books are simple but not unattractive, and they lack all the cloying illustrations that I so despised about my own Hebrew School texts.

Wow!  It’s pretty impressive… until you realize that with all this reading, the kids still may not understand a single word of Hebrew.  Presumably, some basic Hebrew words will be introduced in the classroom along the way.  And perhaps when kids are reading, teachers may point out a word or two that might have some frame of reference and meaning for the kids.  But that is NOT what they’re focusing on – the goal is pure reading fluency and everything else takes a backseat to that in this program.

Now, the reading books are important, but there is also a workbook component, which again may raise some controversy.  The workbook series is attractive in the same minimalistic way:


I actually find the workbooks MORE appealing than the readers, perhaps because there is less reading-of-gibberish on each page, and they are highly interactive in a way that I think will appeal to kids.  They are also very “tachlis” (goal) oriented, starting with simple exercises that get the kids writing each letter.  From the first book (white):

imageimage image

and winding up, in the purple book, with exercises that have children circle the English-transliterated equivalent of each Hebrew word:


…Which is actually one of my two quibbles with the workbook program.  Or rather, not necessarily MY quibble, but something some (many) parents may disagree with.  These books rely HEAVILY on transliteration.  More so than any other Hebrew program I’ve seen.  Most ignore transliteration altogether, in fact, so these books are a bit surprising in that just about every other page has children write Hebrew word in English letters or vice versa.

The other quibble is about a technique that, in fact, I used myself when I was teaching Hebrew to reluctant and ignorant eighth-graders:  teaching kids “Hebrew” by having them decode English words and sentences in Hebrew characters (and vice versa). 

The very first book starts this off – in my opinion – on the wrong foot, introducing the “fact” that the letter “alef” says “ah.”  Here, children are expected to use the alef-as-ah to fill in various blanks (this is the 2nd page of the first workbook).  This clearly makes more sense for some letters than others and I guess I’m okay with teaching “bais” as in “banana”.   (note: the book uses sefard pronunciations throughout, so bais is known as “bet” etc)


Here are two “Hebrew” examples from the purple workbook.  Some of the “Hebrew” words your kids will learn on the second (“Ship Shape”) sheet are “sofa bed,” “door nob” (with door pronounced to rhyme with poor, for some reason) and “panda beer” (“bear” rhymes with “cheer”, which is something my Brooklyn friend does as well, but in most of the English-speaking world, it is closer to rhyming with “care” and “chair”).

image image 

(In the first one, kids have to “solve” a series of clues in mish-mash Hebrewized-English, to unscramble the letters of the final answer (“homework”))

Anyway, my point is -

This is a great series if you want your kids to READ Hebrew.  I am very impressed with the simplicity of the materials, which would be easy to teach and learn along with your child (you’d want to practice at night alone, probably, if you were a total novice also).

PROS – here’s what I love:

  • Inexpensive books
  • Simple, easy layout
  • Timed readings mean the lesson can be completed within a relatively short period of time
  • Clearer goals than most Hebrew programs offer concrete, measurable progress
  • Workbook exercises are fun and probably reinforce reading activities quite well
  • Incentives, medallions etc might be a fun addition to the program
  • NO prior knowledge of Hebrew reading necessary to teach
  • No vocabulary necessary, for student or teacher
  • No knowledge of Jewish life assumed, for student or teacher
  • Success is almost guaranteed if all levels are completed – success that means kids WILL be able to read a Chumash, Siddur, or anything else you stick in front of them (as long as it has vowels)

Um… some of these pros can also be seen as CONS:

  • Knowledge of Jewish life cannot be attained through this program alone
  • Pages of nonsensical reading might rub some parents the wrong way
  • Pages of transliteration and encoding/“decoding” English words spelled (badly, cornily, kitschily) might make you crazy!
  • Assumes fluent English reading – in some cases, of script writing
  • Even if a student masters the program completely, they will still know ABSOLUTELY ZERO Hebrew, in the sense that they will have no idea how to put together a sentence comprising nouns, verbs, adjectives or anything else.

Here’s what the full program looks like laid out at a teacher’s desk – pretty!

One plus of this curriculum is that it acknowledges the existence of homeschoolers – they even offer a special “home school starter package” for $91.10, which includes one of each reading book, one of each workbook, and one of each set of colour-coded flashcards, along with all the medallions you’ll need and a spiffy timer for speed drills).  If you just want to test the waters, you can presumably buy just the reading book or just the workbook as well – those are only $4.60 each per level (the timer sells separately for $6).  Just make sure you don’t buy the much cheaper “home kit,” which only includes the almanac and some flash cards.  I haven’t looked at what shipping costs on the site – that might make a difference.  There’s also a $15 downloadable Teacher’s Manual, but I haven’t had a look at it yet; it’s probably a worthwhile read to pick up techniques for getting through the reading and also for coordinating reading and workbook activities.

*** Note: Hmm… just noticed that when you go to check out, the website asks for a school name, saying “The Aleph Champ materials are proprietary, created on the Chabad philosophy and methods, and we license them only to our schools who are trained in the program.”  This may or may not cause problems in terms of how homeschool-friendly the program is.

Another option might be finding a Hebrew school near you that offers the Aleph Champ program: it seems to have gone viral in the Chabad world and just about every Chabad house around North America is offering it (it probably wouldn’t work well in many places outside of North America because it’s all in English!).  Aleph Champ-based Hebrew schools around here, which offer once-a-week classes on weeknights or Sundays, seem to run about $700 for the year.  They might also be willing to just sell you the materials if you promise not to abuse them in some heretical way.

In any event, this program seems to integrate the best of several worlds to offer an exciting, religion-neutral option for parents (Jewish or otherwise!), who want to introduce Hebrew but feel less than confident with their own language abilities OR for parents who feel super-confident teaching Hebrew but want to get right in, down-n-dirty, and plow through the Hebrew at a pace limited only by their kids’ interest and abilities.