Thursday, July 31, 2014

What we’re doing for school this summer.

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So did I mention we’re homeschooling again?

At least for the summer.  Does that make me the kind of wannabe / poseur I hate?  Or an earnest parent trying hard to make something work during weird, transitional times…

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I thought I’d share a quick update on how things are going this summer with our “homeschooling / summerschooling” plans. 

(It was originally going to be quick – sorry!!)

IMG_00004866It remains to be seen whether we’re going to do this long-term.  But the truth is, it feels very good.  Very, very good.

In some areas, we’re picking up exactly where we left off.  But mostly, things slipped a lot during the year.  The only area in which both kids are further ahead (besides Hebrew!) is math.

I had a few clear criteria before we started:

Friday, July 25, 2014

The thing I didn’t expect (the thing you’re hiding).

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NOTE: One year after my brother Eli's death in 2014, I published a book about the intertwining of our lives and his struggle with schizophrenia. This post and many other writings are included, in slightly different form, in that book.
Please wait until the ride has come to a full and complete stop is now available in print and Kindle editions.


Through laughter and tears, I invite you to come share my final journey with my brother.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Know what I didn’t expect?

When I stood up a month and a bit ago to give my eulogy for my brother, and shared it with you online, I didn’t know so many other people, so many other families, were suffering, too.

Look, I’m a writer:  a shy, prickly, private person, who relates better to a keyboard than to other human beings and their eyeballs.

But after that eulogy, it was non-stop eyeballs.

Do you know how many people came up to me afterwards to tell me that they, too, had a mentally ill family member?  I don’t either.  Some were people I’d known for years.  Normal people; productive, happy, busy, hardworking, everyday kinds of people.

The thing I didn't expect (but should have) is that almost everybody has a story like this somewhere in their immediate family. Family members who were broken in the same way or a similar way to my brother Eli.

These are stories that must be told.

Stories that are hidden.

My mother took my dvar Torah for his shloshim and read it out at a ladies' meeting she's been going to for years (like, 30 years or more).

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why you need to join my mailing list and take over the world (a manifesto).

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Don’t cringe. 

I know the phrase “mailing list” sounds so 1998, but this post is my appeal to you to sign up for my mailing list.  I’ll tell you why in a minute.  But first, I want to tell you who I think you are and why we have this connection.

(I’ll get to taking over the world in a minute.)

Who this blog is for

If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming a few things about you.

  • You are Jewish, or interested in Judaism.
  • You have kids, or are interested in education. (or both!)
  • You don’t take much for granted.
  • You believe both in lifelong learning and in questioning the status quo.

This blog, my first and still very close to my heart, has always dwelt at the intersection of Judaism and family life. 

True, it has changed over the years.  But I don’t like to think of it as changing, but rather, evolving with me and my kids.  Whether through cloth-diapering and attachment parenting, or homeschooling, or cooking weekday suppers, week in and week out, or dealing with family losses, it has always revolved around those two themes:  Judaism and family life.

Many of you have stuck with me for a good long while.

As I’ve branched out in new directions – like making aliyah and writing kids’ books – some of you have stayed with me.  But most of you haven’t, and that’s okay.  If you look at that list above, it doesn’t say anything about making aliyah or writing children’s books.  It doesn’t hurt my feelings that you’re not over there on those other blogs.

But I still want to stay in touch.

Partly for selfish reasons – I want to be able to let you know when I have a new children’s book coming out so you can help me promote it like crazy (and maybe even write a review or two).

Partly to help others – one of my most popular posts of all time is the eulogy for my brother, because so many people are suffering through similar things with mental illness in their families.

Partly for fun – it’s cool to bounce ideas off folks and to hear back from people who have enjoyed something I’ve written.

Mainly because… all those things in that list of “who you are” up above?  That’s still me, and I hope that’s still you.

Say No! to Digital Sharecropping

So why a mailing list?

There’s a new(ish) term bouncing around the internet:  Digital Sharecroppers.  A few smart writers have noticed that we are overly dependent on one or two services to help us stay in touch with the people who matter.  That’s you – blog readers.

To put it bluntly:  because this blog is hosted by Google, if Google tanks tomorrow, that’s the end of our relationship. 

That’s bad.  (Okay, the Tanking of Google is the end of a lot of things… let’s not think about it.)

Now that I see it so clearly, I know I don’t want to be that digital sharecropper.  I want to be the one who in control, so I don’t have to depend on Google and keep all my eggs in one basket.  And that means I want to “meet” you – well, your email address – and maybe even get to know you a little better. 

That’s why I’m asking you to sign up for my mailing list.  No spam, no ads – just me.

What do you get out of it?

  • A short note from me with Jewish parenting and family insights.  Every other week (or so), with nothing in between.
  • The chance to read and review my new children’s books free, before they come out.
  • Discounts and special offers, maybe even freebies, on existing books.
  • Umm… I could draw this list out even longer if I wanted.
  • Maybe even add a couple of empty bullet points filled out to make it look super-substantial.
  • Oops.  You figured out my trick.  I have nothing to say here.

If you’re here, reading this, I’m counting on the fact that you think a little like me, and that together, we can take over the world, or at least, make it a really interesting place to be Jewish and raise our families.

See?  I got around to the bit about taking over the world – at last.

I’m not going to stop blogging, either here or elsewhere.  It’s still part of my empire-building plan for global domination, don’t worry.

But I probably won’t blog as much as I have been.  It’s basic math:  I’ve only got so many words in me each day, and if those words are going into blogs, they’re not going into books.  If books is what I want to be doing, then blogging has got to take a backseat.

I really hope that having an easy, direct way to stay in touch with you will help us stay together wherever I may find myself in the future.

Here’s the signup form you’ll be seeing on some of my posts from here on out.  I hope you’ll consider filling it out.

Jewish parenting insights? Yes, please!

(Not too many... you’ll get a short personal note every other week or so. No spam, no ads; I promise.)
* indicates required

If you don't like it, you can always unsubscribe.  But I really appreciate your taking a second to sign up now.

For those fanatics out there who happen to adore every single thing I do (hi, mom!), I have two other lists you can join as well:

Did I say thank you?  THANK YOU!

[cool robot world domination photo credit:  Phil Plait via flickr]

Sunday, July 13, 2014

New kids’ siddurs from Koren give Artscroll a run for its money.

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If there’s one thing that causes hand-wringing and hair-pulling in the Torah homeschooling world, it’s choosing a siddur.

It makes sense, doesn’t it?

  • We’re passionate about educating our kids,
  • We’re passionate about Judaism,
  • Tefillah (prayer) is an important cornerstone of Judaism.  Therefore…
  • The siddur we choose is critical.

Hence the hair-pulling.  (or tichel-pulling, as the case may be)

Complicating things is the fact that many homeschooling parents are baalei teshuvah (newly-observant) or geirim (converts), who may not know the text or its meaning and might feel insecure about sharing these things with their kids.

Since my own personal favourite grown-up siddur is my Koren / Sacks siddur, I was thrilled to receive review copies of two new kids’ siddurs from Koren Publishers.  One, the Koren Children’s Siddur, is for young kids, the other, Ani Tefillah, is aimed more at middle grades and high schoolers. 

The distinctive Koren fonts and layout have been incorporated into their junior versions – yay!  With their slick look and obvious quality, these exciting new entries in this under-populated niche will certainly challenge established children’s siddurs.

Both are intended for English-speaking kids, though the children’s siddur doesn’t include translations; these can be found in the accompanying Educator’s Companion, which I’ll look at in a minute.  And both are beautiful siddurs with a lot of attention to design and details.

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Koren’s Ani Tefillah Youth Siddur

Let’s look at the “big kids” model first – Ani Tefillah, which seems to be aimed at middle grades and up into high school.

What I liked about this siddur:

  • Distinctive Koren layout & fonts
  • Sensible translation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
  • Thought-provoking commentary by educator Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz
  • Co-sponsorship and/or imprimatur and/or hashkafa of Yeshiva University

This siddur would make a great accompaniment to a course in tefillah. 

However, in practice, the format occasionally gets clunky; as with many haggadahs, there’s sometimes a lot more commentary than text on the page.  In daily use, kids would probably skim over most of the commentary, and indeed, have to flip pages pretty quickly to keep up with whoever’s leading the davening.

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I wouldn’t just hand kids a book like this and expect them to be moved to new heights of spirituality.

Instead, to get the most out of this book with its terrific material for reading & reflection, a parent or teacher should prepare ahead of time, then go through the book with kids in sections, ie shema, weekday shemona esrei, etc.

The Koren Children’s Siddur

Moving right along… to the Koren Children’s Siddur, available in Ashkenaz and Sefardi models (they are almost identical).

What I liked about this siddur:

  • Distinctive Koren layout & fonts
  • Richly textured illustrations by Rinat Gilboa
  • Thought-provoking questions and commentary
  • Co-sponsorship and/or imprimatur and/or hashkafa of Yeshiva University
  • Light weight will appeal to little kids and travel easily to shul, school, etc
  • Includes both boys and girls, both in illustrations and in text variations for male / female (modeh / modah ani etc)
  • Shema and some other tefillos are complete (but some are not; see below)
  • Krias shema at the very end for convenience.

This is a beautiful book that is ideal for first explorations of tefillah with very young children.  The illustrations really make this book, as you can see here.  Lots more pictures below.

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Homeschooling parents, especially BTs and geirim, will be very interested in the Educator’s Companion… especially because there is no integrated translation in the siddur itself.

The Educator’s Companion (also available in Ashkenaz and Sefardi versions) is keyed to the siddur precisely, with full-page illustrations so you can be sure you’re (literally) on the same page as your kids (click to see bigger versions).

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Every page provides translation, along with other great features.  The illustration is examined in detail for its symbols and meaning relative to the tefillah in question.  Also, each siddur page usually offers two “kavannot” (reflections on the meaning of the tefillah), and the Educator’s Companion offers discussion possibilities and clues for each one.

There’s a lot to look at in this siddur, and I think it would make a great starting point for any family just beginning to incorporate regular davening into the daily routine. 

Koren Children’s Siddur – drawbacks

I wanted to love this siddur for so many reasons.  Most significantly, I don’t believe one company or hashkafa should have a monopoly on Jewish thought and quality texts in the English-speaking world.  I also want to support a company that has put so much obvious care and thought into this project.

There are a few things, however, that might diminish from this siddur’s appeal to homeschoolers:

  • No included translation (it’s in the Educator’s Companion; see above)
  • Incomplete tefillos, including shemona esrei and Ashrei
  • Symbols at the bottom of pages may be distracting (they’re meant as a navigation guide)
  • Highly stylized illustrations may feel “babyish” and date easily
  • Order of tefillah is different from Artscroll and many generic Ashkenazi siddurim (however, this is true for all Koren siddurs; it’s not wrong, just different)
  • No bentching or food-related brachos (that I noticed)

When you create a kids’ siddur, by definition, you can’t cram everything in… or you’d be back to a long, boring adult siddur.  You have to leave some stuff out – and what gets left out is mainly an editorial decision.  (Or a decision by parents and educators as to what we’ll buy for our kids.) 

In the Koren Children’s Siddur, for example, Yigdal is entire included, but Ashrei and Aleinu are truncated; I’m not sure how decisions like this are made, but I would have kept all three, since they are all very commonly used with children (the other two at least as often as Yigdal, if not more so, in my experience).

What’s worked for us so far?

My siddur of choice for years has been the classic Artscroll children’s siddur.  This is probably the reigning champion in the kids’ siddur world. 

It suffers from many of the same problems – indeed, the artwork in this late-90s favourite is already looking a little dated, in my opinion; there are also incomplete tefillos, though not as many.  Overall, it seems far more complete, though it’s not an overly large volume:  it includes the entire weekday shemona esrei, though not the Shabbos one, along with the complete bentching, along with Al Hamichya and brachos for other occasions.  It also includes the complete Ashrei and Aleinu.

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With our move to Israel, we are starting to transition to Hebrew-only siddurs. 

So I was excited to see the Koren Mibereishit Siddur (סידור קורן מבראשית) at the Jewish Book Fair last year in Jerusalem.  Even without a lot of Hebrew, I have been enjoying the parsha sheets from MiBereishit (“from Genesis”) for years.  The parsha sheets are fun, well-drawn and lively, and I hoped the siddur would offer more of the same.

At first glance, it does. 

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What I like best about the MiBereshit siddur is that the kids just look… like kids.  Ordinary kids, not dressed up, running around, having a good time. (Artscroll’s kids tend to look very dressed up – probably well-suited to their target audience, but a little weird for my kids, who can spend entire weeks in their pyjamas if given the opportunity.) 

Unfortunately, this siddur, too, suffers from the same incompleteness and we didn’t start to use it on a regular basis.

What we will probably end up using are the siddurs the kids brought home from school at the end of the year.  Naomi Rivka’s is a problem – it’s a real siddur, but it’s totally Sefardi, so I plan to gently transition her back to Ashkenaz somehow.  Gavriel Zev, meanwhile, is utterly in love with his gan siddur, and since it’s Ashkenaz, there’s no reason not to keep using it. 

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The illustrations are not my style – they’re a little on the hokey side and star beloved singer Dudu Fisher (yes, “doodoo” is a name here!), but like I said, he loves it.  There’s a lot in here, although it, too, falls short in the shemona esrei department.  I guess that’s just not a priority for children’s siddurs, but I think that’s a shame.

The Bottom Line:  Should you buy it?

In my ideal world, illustrated siddurs would include a little more, including at least one full shemonah esrei, and ideally, no partial tefillos (ie if you include it, put in the whole thing).  But this ain’t an ideal world, and we’ve all got to choose a siddur for our kids.

Here’s the bottom line:

  • Who should buy the Koren “Ani Tefillah” Youth Siddur?  Don’t give it as a bar mitzvah gift.  With a parent or teacher for guidance through the learning selections, the Koren “Ani Tefillah” Youth Siddur is a wonderful choice for learning about tefillah with middle-grade kids and high-schoolers.  Especially useful if you’re planning to transition into the adult Koren/Sacks siddurim.  Click here to buy.
  • Who should buy the Koren Children’s Siddur?  With the Educator’s Companion, this is a good first siddur for families starting out, assuming they can read some Hebrew, or for almost any type of Hebrew school.  The discussion points in the Educator’s Companion make this a complete tefillah course for younger grades, especially for BT parents curious about the background and meaning behind tefillah.  Also terrific for very young children – the illustrations and conversation questions are sure to spur many wonderful discussions.  Click here to buy or click here for the Educator’s Companion.
  • Who should buy the Artscroll Children’s Siddur?  This siddur offers full translation and a more complete tefillah experience in a single colourful volume.  I think it’s probably better for FFB families and those more on the chareidi side who want to see children dressed up, boys and girls not interacting, and bearded Torah scholars.  Also, if you plan to transition into Artscroll or generic yeshivish siddurs in the middle grades, this book will teach the same order for most tefillos.  Click here to buy.
  • Are there any other options?  One good choice if you’re learning Hebrew might be Rabbi Chaim Alevsky’s “My Siddur” prayerbook (I’ve already reviewed his Tefillah Trax here – I’m a fan).  No pictures, no translations, but the Hebrew and transliteration are clear and easy to read.  He has a few different versions available, along with audio to help you learn and get comfortable with tefillah tunes… so email him to find out which one will meet your needs best.  Click here for more information.

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I’d love to hear about your experiences, and perhaps even review more siddurim at some point.  Let me know what has worked (or not) for your family or class!

Jewish parenting insights? Yes, please!

(Not too many... you’ll get a short personal note every other week or so. No spam, no ads; I promise.)
* indicates required

Sunday, July 06, 2014

“Water, water”: Insanity and Torah Thought (for the shloshim of my brother Eli)

Saul Tries to Kill David, by von Carolsfeld

NOTE: One year after my brother Eli's death in 2014, I published a book about the intertwining of our lives and his struggle with schizophrenia. This post and many other writings are included, in slightly different form, in that book.
Please wait until the ride has come to a full and complete stop is now available in print and Kindle editions.


Through laughter and tears, I invite you to come share my final journey with my brother.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Think mental illness is something new?

It’s not; it’s always been with us.

We may believe our understanding has come a long way, but throughout Jewish history, we’ve wrestled with questions of what causes mental illnesses, and how to treat people among us who suffer from them.

In Jewish law, a person who is insane is referred to as a shoteh, and there are very specific guidelines as to how we should treat them. But let’s look at the definition first.

What is a shoteh?

The Talmud conveniently provides not a translation, but a definition, in masechet Chagigah. The shoteh is:

  • · he who goes out alone at night,
  • · he who spends the night in a cemetery, and
  • · he who tears his clothes.
  • · Later, a second baraita adds a fourth criterion: he who destroys all that is given to him

Friday, July 04, 2014

Come meet the king of creepy Jewish kids’ books.

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Creepy.

Sorry, but that’s what comes to my mind when I think of Eric Kimmel. 

Creepy, as in the very best kind of creepy Jewish books:  ghosts, ghouls, goblins and all things paranormal. 

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins kind of creepy.

Gershon’s Monster kind of creepy. 

Jack and the Giant Barbecue kind of creepy.

Huh?  Jack and the… giant… barbecue?

Check it out:

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Sure, Eric is the undisputed champion of creepy Jewish kidlit, but if that sounds like he’s stuck in a niche, think again.  He’s not just about creepy… or just about Jewish books, as you’ll see.

Read all about Eric A. Kimmel over on my children’s-book writing blog!