First Maker Series -- Journeying together towards Pesach

The thrill of an unexpected discovery, the frustration of reaching a dead end, the focused energy from working with a chevrutah (study/creation partner), the joy of learning, creating and preparing in personal, tangible ways rooted within the cycle of the Jewish year. These were all on hand last night, as our inaugural cohort gathered for the first meeting of our six part Pesach prep series. 

We're starting a new section on the site called Maker Beit Midrash, where there'll be more in depth info about the sources we're learning during the series and the work we're creating. If you're interested in learning more, or in creating with us from afar, we'd be honored to have you along with us!

For the moment, a couple pics to give a taste...




Friends, exciting times for Beyond Noah's Ark! We had our first community-invited event yesterday, and we're about to be starting our Pesach Prep Maker Series this Tuesday. 

It was an honor and a pleasure to collaborate on this book-talk/learning/chevrutah creation event with Jessica Tamar Deutsch, the creator of The Illustrated Pirkei Avot. Along with the learning we did from Jess's book, I shared some selections from Sun and Moon, Together. We were thrilled to be hosted by Nell and Chaim at Afikomen Judaica, amidst lovely Judaica purchasing people.


As we discussed selections from each work as a group, we compiled a list of the facets of chevrutah we were coming across in the texts. 


And then we broke into the art materials and got to work, inspired by the presence of Ezra, age 5, who had, in point of fact, been tinkering and creating the whole time. The basic prompt we offered was to create a wire mobile to remind us of the various modes or opportunities available within Chevrutah work. Some people took this in a pretty straightforward direction (ok, that was actually just me) but others spun the basic idea off into a new direction. Some worked in a huddled, intensely focused chevrutah pair, while others shared ideas for direction and inspiration, but created separately. 


Andrea and Baruch developed a concept for a multi-tiered world mobile, with two pairs of chevrutas, and a central hebrew letter vav, all together representing the word zug (pair).


Lior created a wire hourglass, with sun and moon radiating from each side.


Jess designed a modern ner tamid (eternal flame) with many hands as the supportive base.


Do you have a study or creation partner -- a Tversky to your Kahneman, A Gauguin to your Van Gogh, A Miro to your Calder? Do you relate more to the aspects of chevrutah study that nurture a shared sense of purpose, or the more tension driven elements? What opportunities have your best chevrutot/study/creation partners brought to your life? 

of Retronyms and Makerspaces

From   The Art of Tinkering  , by Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich

From The Art of Tinkering, by Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich

Retronym. It's one of my father's favorite words, possibly edging out eschew and obfuscation. It refers to words that have to be retrofitted with a modifier to distinguish the original meaning from newer more widespread usage. Examples include acoustic guitar (to distinguish from an electric guitar) and cloth diaper (diaper nowadays would likely be assumed to refer to disposables).

Well, add to that list tangible interactive design. Or high-touch interactive design. Or non-digital interactive design. I'm actually totally unsure of what the appropriate retronym is, but I know there needs to be one. While researching resources for better understanding interactive design (ie, in toys, museum exhibitions, classroom settings etc.) it became clear that this term now almost invariably refers to a purely digital environment.

This is a shame, I think, for a whole host of reasons many of which have been explored by folks thinking about: the societal ills brought about by the industrial revolution; the significance of being able to see the hand of the creator in a designed object; traditional Shabbat observance; non-traditional, yet spiritually oriented Shabbat observance; general interest and educational and spiritual value in interacting with actual things, not screens -- I could go on...

Seriously though, I'm not a luddite -- I promise! I will never be calling for an iphone burning ceremony. But as even the most tech connected insiders tell it (e.g. and e.g.), we really really need to have a broad range of media that we're interfacing with on a daily basis. As absolutely true as this is for adults, it's even more true for kids. 

I get it, I know, I'm likely preaching to the choir here (thanks for being here choir!). But I still feel like we've gotten far enough away from living into this in our day to day lives that we need to reclaim these basic truths over and over again, even by something as small as noticing the ways that our vocabulary is pushing us in a digital consumer/superficially interactive direction. (Yet another disclaimer: This is totally not to say that amazing stuff isn't happening Jewishly in the digital sphere -- BimBam and AlephBeta, I see you there. You are the best. As one friend recently told me, "I never understood Sukkot until I saw the BimBam lego sukkot video." )

Makerspace at the  Lawrence Hall of Science : What will  you  make?

Makerspace at the Lawrence Hall of Science: What will you make?

One recent development here at Beyond Noah's Ark is our adoption of the term makerspace into our description/way of envisioning the vision. The maker movement, while assuredly not totally removed from the digital sphere, has championed and revived an appreciation of the serious value of tinkering. Maker Faire, one of the leaders in this movement, used to have this as their slogan: "If you can't open it you don't own it." I'd say that's a really apt encapsulation of what we're getting at here as well: In religion and spirituality, if you can't open it, you don't own it.

Asking questions collaboratively - b'hevrutah - of our texts and traditions, truly noticing how we individually and collectively interact with those, is at the absolute core of what Judaism is and has always been about. 

On the texture of our days


A pre-post note: I wrote this post a good while before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that was celebrated this past Wednesday night-Friday. And then I fiddled, added a bit, deleted a bit, forgot about it, and generally felt like it wasn't clear enough, or you know, the complete and final word on everything I wanted to say about the thinking behind Beyond Noah's Ark, ever. And so, I'm dedicating this post towards my New-Years commitment to striving for non-perfectionism, and its more important corollary, actually getting stuff done. In a professional sphere, definitely. But in addition, as you'll see I reference below, there's so much swirling in the global sphere that I feel a responsibility to respond to, to not turn a blind eye to the world's incredibly painful realities. I think that's part of being an adult, and one who hopes to convey that sense of responsibility to my kids. But how to respond when there's just so much, and so much that feels way beyond my pay grade. To my current thinking it comes down to acknowledging that we often respond most authentically to the things we feel most connected with. For me, as an ex-pat turned re-pat (ie, moved to Israel, currently in the US), and after having read Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy and a whole bunch of other related books/articles/hearing my friend Dena Weiss's personal reflections about her volunteer work/living in America, working to move us away from our system of mass incarceration of people of color especially is what feels most personally relevant and urgent. How to do that in a real way beyond donating money to (recommended as that is!) as a busy mom, entrepreneur, person with no legal expertise or qualifications, introvert, etc, is the question I'm currently investigating. I'd love your thoughts, suggestions, etc, and I'd love to hear what you've been focusing your brain, heart, and time on. 

And now, on to the post:

I'm starting to think that I should have a series in this blog called Personal Cheerleading Squad (we also have a Tiny Art Director, but that's another story!), in honor of Ariel's many creative cheerleading efforts to support my entrepreneurial journey. Our most recent addition, in response to my concern that I didn't belong at a networking event for already somewhat established ventures: You're not an alien, you're a pupa! (ie, future butterfly!) And an earlier classic, upon my complaining that I work too slowly: You know who wrote slowly? Rabbi Dov Ber Soloveitchick! That's who!

As you can tell, he's really pulling out all the stops with these, which is, for better or worse, often exactly what I need. 

Friends, there's so much going on right now, as no doubt, there always is. Leave-takings from this world of beloved people. Crazy weather patterns that are disastrous for those in their wake. Constant reminders to be vocal in an authentic way for the things we believe in. And of course, blessedly, the Jewish month of Elul, when, as Bubby Nettie a"h used to quote her mother as saying in Yiddish, the leaves start to shiver. They shiver at the first brisk winds of fall -- I'm pleased to say that even here in Berkeley, where September and October are generally hotter than the summer months, I've felt some faint gestures of my beloved autumn -- certain smells, the change in the light, maybe some leaves changing color here and there. And the leaves shiver, of course, because even (especially?) the natural world is awake to the arrival of the High Holy Days season, of the more imminent presence of the Divine in our midst, accompanying us as we walk into the new year.

As Maira Kalman has written (in the context of her personal grief. I hope she wouldn't mind my quoting her here...) I could collapse, thinking about that. But I don't want to talk about that now...

Well, perhaps I want to talk about one very particular aspect of all that, which, as I see it, is a way into the rest. I want to talk about those gentle sensory experiences that accompany this season. The smell of the air and the leaves in autumn, maybe someone is making a fire in their fireplace already. As we enter the High Holiday season we get the sweet tang of the pomegranate, and that shock of sweetness from the apples and honey. The pink stains on our fingers with the stickiness from honey drips. On Yom Kippur, the quiet solemn beauty of stripping away so many sensory inputs. And then sukkot with the incredible lush smells and sights of the schach, the hadassim and etrog.

I also want to talk about Froebel Gifts, Reggio manipulatives and Montessori materials. While each of these had a distinct approach, they were all designed to nurture focused experimentation and learning through play in young children in developmentally appropriate stages and using natural and/or beautifully crafted elements.

What all of these do at their best (although they can certainly be pigeonholed into much less) is provide children with something in between toys and pure (narrowly focused) educational materials. Something in between total freedom to interact (or not) with whatever is around and rigid rules that prescribe particular actions. That something, that sweet spot in the middle, is then ideally a resource for deep personal and intellectual development.  

So here's what I've been pondering lately: What would that look like in a religious context, when we're talking about tools and resources to nurture a deeply personal path within Judaism, one that has an awareness of formal constraints but also is vibrant with a sense of experimentation, play, and ongoing exploration? How do we locate the incredible pure sensory experiences of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes of the holidays in a slightly more constructed learning context to provoke inquiry and fruitful connections? 

Child-centered or constructivist learning environments (as the three I mentioned above are often categorized) can be present in a classroom or in the home, but we most readily associate them with a school setting. So too in our assumption of where the bulk of religious education is happening. Other than in traditionally observant families (and not always then either) religious education is quite often presumed to be mostly the purview of some sort of organizational context, whether Hebrew school, Jewish early childhood program, Synagogue groups, summer camp. What would we gain by having the tools, the basic building blocks of religious life within which to experiment, investigate, play located first and foremost in our homes? How might our religious journeys be rooted and allowed to flourish in more vital ways if our homes were the foundation of those religious adventures, not bracketed out of them, due to supposed lack of fluency in the vocabulary and answers of our religion?

These ponderings, they are winding their way towards clarity through sensory experiences and creation b'chevrutah (learning/creation pairs) -- building blocks in what Beyond Noah's Ark is working on, what we are becoming. At the core of it all is the goal of making two things more manifest in this world: A framework for creation of Jewish experiential items (Judaica? Craft? We interestingly have no great word for this...) by collaborative pairs/teams of makers in a mode that is rooted in a spirit of deep authentic inquiry and creative play, and for those items to enable families to feel that they are in the driver's seat of their religious journey.

I'll leave you for the moment with a poem that Krista Tippet, host of the ever-inspiring podcast OnBeing, recently sent out, that speaks in other words to what we generally don't or can't get in school but (I assert) is such a sphere of possibility and opportunity within our homes. Sending you all, dear readers, so many blessings for a sweet year, at school, at home, and everywhere you travel!

What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade
by Brad Aaron Modlin

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.

After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s

voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—

something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted

Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.

The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,

and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person

add up to something.

Shavuot, and Isaac going shluffy on the rocks

Well, it's been a while. There are exciting developments underfoot both personal and, more importantly around here, organizational. On the personal front, most of our worldly possessions are Berkeley bound at this moment, and we will soon be making that journey. On the organizational front, we have this shiny new website (welcome!) and a suuuuper fantastic announcement that will go out in the next month or so, along with a more detailed manifesto of sorts around what Beyond Noah's Ark is all about. If you're an artist, maker, educator, or want to be any of those things, keep your eyes tuned to this channel!

In the meanwhile, I figured I'd check back in with a short word about Shavuot, the holiday we celebrated a few weeks back, which is significant both in an agricultural cycle, and as a high point following the Jewish people's redemption from slavery in Egypt on Passover, coalescing in receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai on Shavuot. The traditional observance involves learning Torah all night to be ready to receive the Torah anew in the early morning, and eating dairy foods. If you remember, we had lamented the very few kid-friendly angles besides ice cream, cheesecake, and blintzes. That post led to a wonderful suggestion by Shoshana Kordova (you are now rivalling Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire for the frequent mention award here on the blog, Shoshana!) of including the kids in Shavuot prep by learning some Torah in the lead up to the holiday, and then having them participate in a siyum (a small party to celebrate the completion of some portion of Torah learning).

Did you know that in Hasidic thought the spiritual preparation for a mitzvah is considered to be almost as significant as performance of the mitzvah itself? While I have learned this many times, it has always felt hard to make good on this, especially once I was out of a Jewish educational context that structured this in to the lead up to each holiday. The notion of preparing for a siyum with my kids gave me the motivation to finally take the time for them and myself. 

We chose as our text the Illustrated Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) by Jessica Tamar Deutsch, published by Print-O-Craft, which has gotten some nice press already, and deservedly so! Insofar as it is aesthetically beautiful and clearly has intense amounts of thought given to the precision and clarity of the content, it definitely gets the Beyond Noah's Ark seal of approval. The illustrations are engaging and fun, but not so detailed or specific as to distract by pointing to one particular sort of community or other. They are also black and white, which allows the book to have both a coloring book and graphic novel feel, thereby inviting the interest of a wide range of ages. One small point for improvement in future printings is the thickness and quality of the paper -- markers bled through fairly easily to the backs of pages, which resulted in lower readability, and gave a feeling of shorter lifespan to the colored on sections. The book or sefer, as the illustrator encourages you to think of it (sefer = holy book for sacred study) is quite useful for visual learners. Someone I was speaking with happened to refer to one of the sections in Pirkei Avot that I had learned in the illustrated version, and at their description of the text, the corresponding images and words in the book floated before my eyes. 

Learning sessions generally involved my son coloring the pictures, while I or my husband read from the accompanying words, kiddo asking questions that lead to many interesting conversations, tangents, and eventually getting distracted by other things and putting the book away until the next snatch of time presented itself. The illustrated aspect of this Pirkei Avot did make for some some awkward moments. When we got to the listing of the ten tests that our forefather Abraham withstood (Section 5, Mishnah 3), and more specifically the image illustrating Number 9 -- God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac -- my astute 4 year old inquired, pressing forward in the face of my delay in explaining the word sacrifice, "Mama, why is Isaac tied up and going shluffy on those stones? And why is Abraham holding a sword over him?!? Why Mama?!?" So yaaaaahhhh, didn't anticipate covering that episode at so young an age. It's an interesting quandary in general, here at Beyond Noah's Ark, since any time one is really engaging in a truthful way with the traditional canon you bump up against things that can quickly feel like they've spiralled way beyond a G rating (an even earlier example is our eponymous Noah's Ark).

I muddled forward with some sort of answer (Hmmm, it does look like that doesn't it!) that I can only hope will be more spiritually pedagogically sound next time around. We ended up doing our siyum on the first 8 mishnayot (sections) of the fifth chapter which is pretty nontraditional as far as siyums go, since that is a smaller unit than is typically celebrated. Nevertheless, it seemed a wholly appropriate unit for celebration with a 4 year old, and we were all quite delighted to have the opportunity. 

We actually ended up doing our siyum at a kiddush (pre-lunch toast) the shabbat after Shavuot since the chief celebrant was asleep by the time the traditional post-meal nighttime learning rolled around, and we never found the time after that. The kiddo passed out ice cream bars to all who wanted, taught a bit of what we learned while holding up the pictures, and I said a short improvised blessing based on the original in which I prayed that we merit to begin more sections of learning together, and complete them. As far as we could tell an inspired time was had by all, and I think it kicked off semi-focused parent and child Jewish learning in the home on the right foot.

Pesach Post-game

In the overview of the Jewish year, Pesach really has a leg up re: kid-friendly angles. Sure, Purim has costumes, graggers and mishloach manot but then there's the tough issue of keeping everyone quiet through the whole megillah reading. Chanukah has candle lighting and presents, but in our family both of those involve some amount of angst (for the former, maintaining appropriate fire safety, the latter, managing the grumpy weirdness that comes from somewhat gratuitous gift-getting). Pesach has the benefit of being rabbinically designed to be focused on children. So many of the details of the seder are there "so that the children should ask." Add to that the host of items people have designed to extend the involvement even further -- bag-o-plagues, a plethora of children's haggadot, afikoman cover and pillowcase crafts -- and Pesach is definitely far at the front of the pack.

At the other extreme is Shavuot. This past year my husband and I noted that Shavuot has the fewest readily obvious handles for engaging children. Staying up to learn all night? That no longer works well for any of us, least of all the kiddos. So family-wise we're left with cheescake, blintzes (granted, those are delicious), and the vague notion that this is when we received the Torah.

That said, even Pesach still feels like it's in need of more Beyond Noah's Ark magic (by which I mean, items that truly engage children of all ages in deeper questions of meaning and spiritual growth). The seder table matching game and seder plate puzzle that we were very kindly gifted by one guest were cute, and moderately engaging, but not terribly spiritually meaningful.

One new acquisition this year that definitely gets the Beyond Noah's Ark seal of approval was the Ayeka Haggadah, titled "Hearing Your Own Voice," by Rabbi Aryeh Ben David. I bought it, along with a graphic novel about leaving Egypt (thanks for having these in stock Israel Book Shop!), hoping to engage my 4 year old in some meaningful Pesach prep. I was a bit dubious about how he'd relate to the Ayeka haggadah given that it has very few illustrations -- even thought it is explicitly aimed to include children in its broad target audience. At any rate, the fears were unfounded. A little while into working on it together my son actually exclaimed "Mama! This is so fun!"

Among the elements that contributed to this:

- The haggadah got me to take 20 minutes out of pre-pesach hububb to sit and do a focused activity with my kid

- Mama was actually listening attentively to child's answers to deep, open-ended questions, and even writing them down

- Kiddo was being allowed to write and draw in a real book that was not a coloring or sketch book

One discussion that this process-oriented mama particularly loved was prompted by the Yachatz question which asks: What was the risk you took in the past year (or years) on your journey? What was the missing piece you fond for last year's journey? What is risky about the next step on your journey?

Ezra drew a picture and proclaimed "This is me on that giant rock in Dean Rd. park!" So I asked, "And you felt proud because you got to the top?" To which Ezra countered, "No, I felt proud because I climbed, mostly by myself."

That was just one of a number of wonderful/interesting/unexpected conversations that the haggadah helped bring about. All of which also got me thinking about what goes into crafting the sort of open ended questions, prompts, or items that spark real thoughtful contemplation, and could provoke new responses every time they're considered. There's a lot out there earnestly attempting such simple grandeur that unfortunately falls short, into the realm of getting asked, answered quickly if at all, and promptly forgotten. I'd love to get Rabbi Ben David's perspective on how he considered (and in my opinion, succeeded in) walking this path when crafting the haggadah.

At any rate, here's a cheer for the Ayeka Haggadah! (I am certainly not an affiliate, but if you're interested you can get a copy here for next year, or probably at your local Judaica store.) Did you discover any exciting additions to your family's seder this year? Looking forward to Shavuot, any ideas you've been imagining for items or activities to add more texture for the 3-13 year old set, either on the holiday, or in preparation?

I hate shul, I wanna go to shul

First sketches towards a Beyond Noah's Ark siddur

First sketches towards a Beyond Noah's Ark siddur

"I hate shul, I wanna go to shul. (Whaaaaaaa!)"

Thus spoke my four year old this past Shabbat morning. I hate Shul -- why should I stop playing only to get dressed in nicer clothes, be forced to walk, and finally, upon arriving, convince you that the only way I will remain calm is if I'm allowed to resume playing, now in the shul playroom with you there. I wanna go to Shul -- but if by staying home you mean that you will be davening, not playing with me or reading books to me, or running around pretending to be an elephant with me, then I take staying home to be, implicitly, a punishment, and I will have none of it.

In a co-written piece called Home, Mosque, and Synagogue: On Parenting and Sacred Spaces, Mom and incredible writer Shoshana Kordova articulated the Shabbat morning with kids experience pretty perfectly:

When you have little kids, taking them to shul on Shabbat can seem like one big errand, and a complicated one at that. Getting out of bed on Saturdays was never a problem for my kids. They’d be up at five or six in the morning, eating screaming fighting playing whining, and just as they’d finally start to settle into the day and there was a chance I might be able to lie down again (day of rest and all that), it would be time to try to pull a shirt over the head of a moving child, to nurse the baby one last time, to find something that still fit me, to make sure I had enough diapers wipes crackers bottles toys to last us through the half hour, maybe, that we’d actually be there.

While this describes our reality most Shabbos mornings, in this instance, I just did not have the energy for all that. So my husband set off with our 2 year old in tow, and I stayed home with the 4 year old and the baby. At which point I proceeded to stick to the plan -- I davened, and (wanting to preserve some hope of getting to shul in future weeks) no-way no-how did not acquiesce to having the time turned into momma play time.

Which, of course, was deeply unsatisfying. I did daven, which is more than I can say for the weeks when we actually all make it to shul, but the whole time was aware that my davening was essentially shutting my son out of an active experience of shabbos morning. And yet, I didn't want to proceed as he would have wanted to, because then it would just be like any standard weekday play time. What I really yearned for was a siddur, a script, a playbook of some kind, that would involve both of us in a genuine davening experience -- educator Amy Meltzer has coined the term "home-shuling" and I think that really reflects what I'm aiming at. Something that, on those shabboses when we just don't make it to shul, would set the time apart and create a focus on being consciously present in gratitude for the day of rest. For my son, and I imagine, many young kids, this would have to include lots of movement, some songs (but not too many), relatable explanations, and most of all, not take too long.

We're definitely fans of the Bim Bam Shabbat songs (including such favorites as "There's a dinosaur knocking at my door...and he wants to spend Shabbat with me") but I'd love some additions that focus on the core spiritual resonances of shabbat, while still being relatable (or even silly! Just maybe a little less silly than the Torah Pokey).

Then there's the question of how a book, in this case the siddur, can really provide the framework for a spirited, engaged experience. While I'm glad that many children's siddurim already exist, those that our family has tried seem to really stay on the page. The illustrations are pretty self-referential -- look! This is what children davening look like! -- and the chosen text is for the most part an abridged version of the traditional service. (The Koren siddur includes questions for thought, but it's not clear to me how often one would come back to these.)

I'm imagining illustrations that are evocative as opposed to proscriptive. I'm imagining content that draws from traditional sources, but focuses on embodied components of prayer, and is not devoutly tied to the standard flow of the service. There will be plenty of time for that once these youngins grow up and can actually sit in shul, which will only happen if they have positive associations with davening in the first place!

Still I'm not sure what can actually be accomplished through a even the most thoughtfully crafted siddur. Does the book itself create a cognitive dissonance with really engaging in an experience of prayer? What else might work that could be self explanatory (ie, not require a facilitator) for parents and children?

As always, I'm just gonna push myself to create something and we'll see what happens next time we home-shul. I will report back. In the meanwhile, I'd love to hear -- what are your experiences with Kiddie Siddurs, Tot Shabbat, Tefillat Yeladim, Mini Minyan, home-shuling etc?

Soul, spirit, and the potential of play

Vayishlach sketches

Vayishlach sketches

I'd like to dedicate this blog as a whole to the memory of two educators: Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmaish Shapiro and Janusz Korczak, both of blessed memory. In so many ways, they each worked to ensure respect and true consideration for children as the valuable and whole human beings they are. While Rabbi Shapiro and Dr. Korczak's lives were brutally cut short in the Holocaust, educators and parents continue to be inspired and energized by their example. Today's post is a reflection surrounding a teaching from Rabbi Shapiro, and I hope to have a post devoted to some aspect of Dr. Korczak's work at some point in the future.

This past Shabbat I experienced a miracle. A minor, personal miracle. But a miracle nonetheless. We were at my parents house -- me, my husband and our three delicious, energetic young kiddos. Every Shabbat morning that my parents are in town my father leads a learning session in their dining room for any community folk who want to join. Usually, when we're visiting them, my husband and I are both occupied by feeding, playing, defusing tantrums, cleaning food splatters, changing diapers, etc. and can only manage a few wistful glances towards the learning happening in the other room. Somehow, this Shabbat, the baby had gone back to sleep, my husband kept the older kids entertained, and I, cautiously, quietly, took a seat in the dining room and settled into the learning.

Much of the week that had preceded that moment felt to me like sand slipping through my desperately grasping fingers. During the first half of the week I attended a conference that I had been looking forward to, and had a really helpful phone conversation with a professional contact whose advice I had been seeking. Both of these were focused on issues relating to the Beyond Noah's Ark project, and I was hoping to be able to channel the inspiration and momentum from them into writing and concretizing my ideas. But every time I sat down to write, I found myself inexplicably drawn into distractions -- distractions about Very Important Things, to be sure: the impending Trump presidency, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, emails from the social justice group I signed up for (SURJ) requesting IMMEDIATE ACTION, any number of other critical issues that friends and friends of friends were posting about on Facebook.

I have always known that my ability to be unhelpfully distracted by Facebook is strong, and my relationship with it therefore needs to be quite limited. But I had gotten the word out about this blog by posting the link in my status, and was encouraged by the comments, and I might as well scroll through my timeline, and oh this looks VERY IMPORTANT, and suddenly my brain was a Facebook timeline scroll, #NoDAPL Aleppo TrumpLies! Women'sMarchonWashington Recount Electors BlackLivesMatter #NoDAPL Aleppo morecrazythingsTrumpsaid...

And so I stayed up late too many nights in a row, trying to push through, trying to get some work done, hardly ever succeeding in convincing myself to focus, and by Friday I was so tired, the world was looking so dark, my brain was totally fried, and I had written almost nothing new.

Which brings us back to the dining room this past Shabbos, where I sat quiet, grateful to be present within the community of dear family friends, grateful to be listening. And my father began reading a teaching from the Derech Hamelech (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro, also known as the Piaseczner Rebbe, and eventually the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto). The teaching was about a verse in Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18), which was not even that week's parshah (weekly Torah portion), but which seemed to speak directly to so much of what I had been struggling with, trying to get on top of and sinking again and again.

The Piaseczner Rebbe teaches that everything in this world has a certain unique energy that it transmits, a vital presence that can impact anything with which it comes into contact. He refers to this as the נפש nefesh, or spirit of that thing. In addition, each person has a נשמה neshamah, a soul, that uniquely human trait. This soul is rooted in God's Self, and desires always to be aligned with its source. When we move through the world we are influenced by the nefesh of each object, experience, story, or person that we encounter. Good, bad or neutral, in the absence of any specific filter, we can be distracted and influenced by it all. Think of the effect of scrolling down your Facebook timeline -- how many news stories, cute baby pictures, calls to action, random corners of the internet, etc, suddenly enter your consciousness and ask, all at once, for your attention?!

Many of these things are, of course, very important. But being superficially distracted by a constant stream of data and stimuli tends to dull our ability to proceed toward the work we need to do -- the unique work that each person, each neshamah, is here to do -- and dulls our ability to do very much at all that is truly meaningful.

In the process of trying to make sense of and accommodate all of these inputs, something tragic happens: Our soul gets elbowed down, struck out of alignment with what it truly seeks. The Piaseczner Rebbe describes this as living right next door to someone who is terribly distressed, and not even realizing it. While we are swept up, not truly giving anything our total focus and attention, our soul has been so pushed down that we do not feel its pain. We may, though, recognize that we are anxious, ill at ease, yet we feel unable to pinpoint exactly why.

What to do, then, to prepare ourselves for the inevitable daily onslaught of big and small, important and wholly unimportant distractions, that threaten to blindside us, dislodge our souls, ourselves, from we truly seek to achieve?

We must work to live as an integrated self, where the soul is embraced and deeply familiar. Understanding what our soul truly seeks lets us respond to the ever-present call of sanctity and higher purpose in the world (that bears a unique message for each person), and lets us know when we are being purely reactive to the things around us that merely speak to our animal instincts. We are focused and open enough to ask the deepest questions of existential presence in the world, and are then able to proceed with confident action.

How does this all relate to Judaica for children? Maybe not directly, but my intuition tells me that if even some of the things surrounding our children carry the values and depth of our tradition -- in a wavelength that speaks to them -- these will help them maintain and refine the spiritual focus for which all of our souls yearn. Rather than providing entertainment or just yet another stream of content, our Judaica should provide anchors for our children to contemplate and confront their existential limits, to cultivate a relationship with the deepest questions of meaning within the spirit of play.

Your wonderings are welcome here

Torah Godly Play -- Noah's Ark  
(All images courtesy of Jake Belcher and Hebrew College)

This post is dedicated to Rachel, and baby Netta (welcome to the world, sweet friend!), who let me blabber on and on about trying to get to the sweet spot between well edited engaging coherence, and conversational spontaneity. Rachel gave me excellent advice "best not to overthink it!" Words for the wise! we go...

story baskets
Remember the goal we talked about last time -- the goal of children feeling such ownership, such comfort and belonging within the language of their tradition that they can use that language to form a vital and personal relationship with God and to consider questions of ultimate meaning in their lives? I alluded to six elements that Rev. Berryman identifies that can together help nurture that goal. Instead of spelling those out in detail just yet, I'd like to invite you to imagine with me that you are visiting a Torah Godly Play classroom, and we can experience those elements before I describe them.

Ok, ready?

Imagine you are walking into a beautiful sunny room. As you cross the threshold, a doorperson greets you warmly by name. Once inside you are invited to take a seat on the soft carpet, somewhere in the wide semi-circle around the storyteller, who is seated in the center. All around the periphery of the room are sturdy wooden shelves, all within reach of a young child. The shelves along one wall hold story baskets based on Torah portions, Jewish Holidays, and Tamudic stories -- each basket is a kit, containing elements with which to dramatize the biblical or traditional episode. Along another wall is an array of art supplies that will be used to process and respond after the story has been told. On a table in the center of the back of the room sits a mini Aron Kodesh (ark) with a mini Torah inside, two candlesticks and a kiddush cup, and a pushke (charity box) -- ritual objects connected with some of the fundamentals of Judaism.

Once you and all of the other participants are seated, the storyteller removes one of the stories -- the Noah's Ark basket -- from the shelf, and settles in to tell the story. The storyteller seems to be totally engrossed -- looking at the story elements, not asking for input right now -- and we are as well. Finally, after the (wooden) dove has returned to the ark with an olive branch, and the rainbow is stretched across the clear sky (at least in our imaginations), the storyteller looks up, and invites responses to a few questions in turn: I wonder what part of the story you liked best? I wonder which part of the story was the most important? I wonder where you are in the story or what part of the story was about you? I wonder what part of the story we could leave out, and still have all of the story?

art supplies

After a stretch of comments on these and other wonderings about the story, each of us is invited to chose an art medium -- watercolor, tempera, clay, beeswax, and many others -- with which to create a response of some sort to the story (or to anything else that arose in our minds at that moment!). The storyteller circulates around the room, pausing to allow any who want to reflect aloud on what they are creating, not complementing any particular outcome or creation.

Although there's more to a Torah Godly Play class session, I'm going to stop there, since we've covered the key elements that I want to focus on right now.

Let's think about telling the basic story, and then encouraging children to wonder aloud about its meaning, contours and relevance. So many interesting things emerge when we entrust our children with our sacred stories and traditions in this way (and trust those stories to elicit meaningful responses). The individual reflection/creative response time further emphasizes how each child's relationship to the story is valuable. This roots the child's connection to the tradition far more than a focus on memorizing content ever could.

Now we can consider more explicitly some of the elements that were drawn upon to facilitate this deep engagement. (These are based off of Rev. Berryman's Godly Play objectives, but paraphrased to fit a Jewish context)

  1. Storyteller (teacher) models how to wonder -- how to approach religious vocabulary with a spirit of inquiry and exploration.
  2. Children learn to work in community with the other children -- this happens when they show respect for each other's wonderings out loud, when they are respectful of each other's working space during creative exploration time, and when they work together during creative processing time if they choose.
  3. Children learn how to choose their own creative medium to respond to the lesson, in particular to the aspect that each one found most relevant or compelling.
  4. The space is organized so that the whole religious language system is present for the children to  interact and play with, to walk into and within. 
  5. Permission and encouragement is constantly given to draw connections between the language of tradition, creative response, and the child's own experience of the Divine.
  6. The flow of the class session follows a progression drawn from a traditional religious form: Shabbat, or Tefillah B'tzibbur (communal prayer). (Our imaginings did not cover this aspect here.)
All of these elements combine (hey, Captain Planet!) to indicate just how much the child is a respected, valued owner of and participant in the tradition, bearing both responsibility and privilege. 
The images that accompany this post are from a conference on early childhood education that I was honored to attend at Hebrew College in Boston a few days ago, and within that, a four part series on Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire's Torah Godly Play. I get the sense that this was true for many of the participants in the room, but I will speak for myself: despite the fact that Godly Play is normally used with children, there was something that felt so freeing and important about being invited to wonder aloud about what I might take out of the story and still have it be whole, or about where I am in the encouraged a depth of engagement with a story that I normally just find rather frightening (and confusing in its general use as a cute tale of a zoo boat).

After seeing the value in this rich classroom environment, the question then is: how might we translate aspects of this to a home environment, or any situation where there would not be a skilled facilitator/storyteller, and there would not be such full breadth of elements? Is there a way to have a self contained experience that can be opened up by a parent/caretaker and child -- or even by a child independently -- who may not have any prior exposure to the tradition?

My sense is, of course, that yes, that is most certainly possible! (That's precisely the hypothesis that I'm investigating with much hope here!) For the moment I will leave us with a classic Godly Play wondering: What could we take away from the classroom configuration, or modify, and still have the experience we need?

Hide and seek

Vayetze Sketches

There's something I've been keeping from you. But I don't want it to be under wraps forever.

Before I started this blog I had ideas for four specific kinds of Judaica products that I wanted to make. But during a meeting with Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire, whom I mentioned to you in the previous post -- we'll be hearing lots more about his work soon! -- he confirmed something that I had intuited, but was until that point trying to ignore.

He said, you might make these products. You might apply for and receive funding from some foundation, or run a Kickstarter campaign, and then sit at your desk and create these items and put them out into the world. But (he said) if one of your main goals is the experiential educational existential (any other big e- words we can fit in here?) value behind these objects (as in fact it is, dear reader!) then you'll need much more clarity on exactly what your educational objectives are, and how this might be achieved in toy form, before you begin creating any specific object or other.

Which brings us back to this whole process of discovery that we're doing right here on this blog, together, and for the moment, to Rev. Berryman and Godly Play.

Berryman defines six objectives of the Godly Play approach, that together help children achieve fluency in "the art of using the language of [] tradition to encounter God and find direction for their lives" (Berryman, 1995, p.17) Are we all hearing how revolutionary this is? The goal is not that the children should come to believe certain core beliefs. Nor is it that the children should memorize foundational religious content. The goal is that the children should have such command of the foundational content and language of the religion that they can use it skillfully and confidently to construct meaning that is appropriate for their own lives. Gevald! Amazing!

In the next few posts we'll take a look at the six objectives that Godly Play works with, and consider how these might inform our thoughts around children's Judaica for use in the home.

As for those items that I mentioned, the ones I'm keeping under wraps, I really do hope that I get to share them with you eventually, once this process of distillation and discernment is further along. That too will provide an opportunity for reflection and most importantly, play, as we investigate whether the objects and toys do indeed achieve the goals we set for them. But, since I can't resist getting started already, I'll be posting a sketch -- illustrations from each week's Torah portion, from work on one of the items -- every so often as the header to posts here on the blog. And, lets have a little game to go with: try to identify as many of the scenes as you can, and post your answers in the comments. The most correct answers wins you a coveted congratulations shout-out in the next post. Let the games begin!

Berryman, J. (1995). Teaching Godly play: The Sunday morning handbook. Nashville: Abingdon Press