Celebrating at the Trees’ Party

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Tu B'Shvat begins a new arc of the year, which leads us back to the beginning, to Rosh Hashanah, the New Year for the world (as celebrated in Judaism). By learning more about the tree-ness, and the celebration of the New Year for trees that is at the center of our Tu B'Shavt observance, we can place ourselves more fully at this juncture in the year and move forward from there in a meaningful way. 

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How do we celebrate tree-ness, and what is the significance of doing so? The parable in Gemara Ta'anit tells of a person considering what blessing to give to a tree, a blessing that would truly be of benefit to the tree. The person takes time to consider what nice qualities the tree already has, and therefore which blessings would be redundant. Considered and rejected options: Sweet fruit? Pleasant shade? A stream of fresh water nearby? These things the tree already has. Finally the person settles on a blessing that all saplings grown from this tree should be like the tree. In essence, the person is saying, in order to be able to truly bless you, I had to really be present to what you're all about, who you really are and what gifts and blessings you already have. And when I found that you are essentially perfectly yourself, with no need of any improvement, I know I should bless you that your saplings be like you. Really, the true blessing, and the true relationship upon which the blessing is based, arises from the time and care and attention taken to see the other, to truly take them in, with no preconceived notions or requirements.

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In the workshop, we tried to do that for the trees by choosing one tree from a selection of photographs of Berkeley and Seattle trees, and creating that tree in paper form, and then reflecting on what we perceived or noticed through that act of seeing through making.

We’re so like trees in some ways and so different in other ways. Through verses in the Torah we see how much we aspire to be like trees and are also called to be stewards of the trees who are in some sense defenseless against humans. Trees have their own umwelt, (a term coined by Jakob von Uexküll, which I learned through the amazing book The View from the Oak), their own unique context through which they experience the world By showing up as guests at the trees’ party, we exercise our ability to be present to those who are both so like ourselves and also so other (whether trees, humans, or anything else) in a way that celebrates connection and true distinctions as the same time.

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And then by decentralizing ourselves as humans at the New Year for the trees, we are better positioned to progress more meaningfully towards the increasing particularity - as humans and as a Jewish people - of Purim, and Passover, and Shavuot, and Tisha B’Av and eventually towards the next arc of the year at Rosh Hashanah.

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This workshop, and Tu B’shvat itself, coincided with MLK day this year. While I didn't make the explicit connection to MLK day (I’m always hoping people will arrive at these and other connections organically, but should probably be more direct about it) I think there’s a lot here regarding the humility, patience, and attention required to be a diverse healthy community, where our experiences, even our umwelts are often overlapping but also have areas that are quite distinct.

Tinkering and Making at Edah

One incredibly exciting direction Atiq has taken this year is our collaborations with other local Jewish organizations. Rabbi Yoshi Fenton is the Executive Director of Studio 70 - A Learning Laboratory, the org that runs the Edah afterschool program, among other Jewish education related activities, and is always on the lookout for ways to expand and deepen the ways that Edah invites learners into Jewish tradition. So when Yoshi called us at Atiq to suggest that perhaps we could adapt our typical program (multi-age geared towards ages 10-adult; around 3 hrs per workshop), to work within their framework (multi-age kindergarten-6th grade; rotating groups of students who may be with us anywhere from 15-30 minutes at a time; 2 days a week every week), I knew we were in for experimenting within a space of mystery. And so, amidst weeks interwoven with holiday after holiday, we dove in, and began to tinker.

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Our first arc of learning tracked beginnings - the first actions of creation, as well as the start of the new year. Week 1/Creation: We explored the first verse in the Torah which speaks of dividing (and implicitly, of connecting) as one of the first motions of creation, and so we ourselves divided with scissors or tearing, and connected things with various forms of glue and tape. We used a small selection of basic materials - glue, paper, scissors, tape - to really put the focus firmly on attending to what we were noticing, learning from the materials themselves. We asked the materials, what are you capable of, what do you want to do or be, or would you rather not do or be? What can I do with you?

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Second week which also coincided with the week of Rosh Hashanah: a forsaken grand piano became the landscape for exploring the New Year, and RHs other names of Kesah (eg hidden, the holiday that occurs when the moon is completely hidden), Yom Hadin (day of judgement) and Yom Hazikaron (day of remembering). We explored those concepts as we thought of ourselves as individuals entering the new year by asking as we tinkered with the piano: what does this contain? How might we dismantle this without breaking it, in order to possibly build it back up in a new way?

Our third week, as we approach Yom Kippur, brought us to the topic of collaboration: Who can we be with someone else that we couldn’t be ourselves? Edahnicks (ie program participants) were tasked with creating a contraption that could only work with two people (eg like those tin can walkie-talkies).

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Sukkot took us into exploring what it looks like to work on a collaborative project designed to create a space for sacred gathering as a community.

Can’t wait for new adventures in the weeks ahead. Post-chagim we will be tinkering and creating within longer thematic arcs - looking forward to sharing more when we dive into that! 

Blessing each other into the new year

Our pre-Yom Kippur workshop, generously hosted at Studio 70 (which houses the Edah afterschool prorgam) was a sweet window of creative spiritual preparation in an otherwise incredibly busy and potentially hectic feeling time of year. It was also our first workshop inhabiting our new name - Atiq: Jewish Maker Institute, and an experiment with fulfilling one of our meta-goals at Atiq - multi-generational contexts where people of all ages and all stages of life can all feel included and valued, in learning and creating and playing together (in this instance we had makers ages 7-ish and up, while younger participants were mostly in the on-site babysitting, except when they toddled over to contribute their own artistic experiments, or an occasional cry for a parent's attention). 

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This workshop focused on the power of blessing and in particular, a really special blessing whose arrival I eagerly await each year, but is not especially well known.


First, a bit of background: On Friday nights, around the Shabbat table, some parents have the custom to bless their children. "May you be blessed like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah (for a girl)/ May you be blessed like Ephraim and Menashe (for a boy); May God bless and protect you, may God's radiant face shine upon you and regard you with favor, may God turn God's face towards you and grant you peace."


As Yom Kippur approaches there is also a custom for parents to bless their kids, and the traditional blessing begins with the same format as the version on Shabbat. On Yom Kippur, though, the blessing continues in rich detail, with prayers for all sorts of spiritual and physical aspirations for the year ahead.


Every year, at some point in the afternoon before Yom Kippur, I receive this blessing from my parents (ok, really from my dad, but my mom is for sure included in spirit, even while she is actually cooking the pre-fast meal). There are some years where this happens in person, and some years that I listen to the blessing over the phone. Either way, once I've received my pre-Yom Kippur blessing, I feel that I'm standing a bit taller, I have a greater sense of focused energy with which to enter the inspiring but also arduous hours of Yom Kippur. In fact, it often feels like the energy I receive from the one minute pause in the rush of a day preparing everything before the fast reverberates to carry me through the entire year ahead.

How, I've been wondering, can one blessing carry with it so much energy-giving power? When I reflected on what text I might share in our workshop, it was the words of this blessing that stood out in my memory, more than any others that we say in the liturgy of Yom Kippur (beautiful as those are). Why?

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This workshop was a sustained reflection on those questions. Rabbi Nehemia Polen (my dad, a professor at Hebrew College, but more relevant for this purpose, Atiq's Director of Content), has noted that "blessing is not the time to impose our desires and expectations. So what is being conveyed? Acknowledgement, regard, a sense that I value you, I trust you, I put the future in your hands, I see an abundance of great possibilities for you."


While the special "Children's blessing" before Yom Kippur is generally recited by parents to the children in their nuclear family, we broadened our focus to include anyone in the role of parent or child, or really anyone who wishes to access the power of blessing -- either as a giver or a receiver. Our tradition teaches (see, eg. the Piacetzner Rebbe, Eish Kodesh parshat Hukat) that a parent is anyone who teaches Torah or something of value to another person, and a child is someone who continues the legacy or project of someone who could not complete it themselves. In a sense we are all trading off these roles all the time.

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Working in hevrutah pairs, we learned through the text of the blessing, and each person highlighted words that they felt particularly drawn to as yearnings for the new year, or added words or prayers that resonated more personally.

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Hevrutah partners then swapped pages, such that now my hevrutah had my page of highlighted words, and I had theirs. The prompt for creating: weave those resonant words, those specific points of focus into a visual blessing for your hevrutah that they will then carry with them into the year.
And so we dropped into an hour of thinking, and tinkering, investigating textures and smells (I've begun to include a selection of spices in our materials for workshops), and interviewing/asking refining questions of our hevrutas ("when you said 'facing what's really there' I noticed you used the word appreciation a lot..."), and pausing for the occasional puzzle making with younger siblings. 

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By the end we had created 10 specially designed blessing-gifts to share with our hevrutah partners, and say (whether explicitly or implicitly) something along the lines of: I appreciate you, I wish for you the best that your heart imagines and even more, the world needs your unique contributions, and you are truly valuable!

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A quick overview of the creations: A lot of people highlighted the words Yehi Mekorcha/Mekorech Baruch - May your source be blessed, and reflected on when what's at the source is blessed, then everything that follows from that is also blessed.

Daniel created a sign for Elijah, incorporating Elijah's favorite navy blue color.

Daniel created a sign for Elijah, incorporating Elijah's favorite navy blue color.

Elijah created a contraption with a colorful sphere that moves and is attached by a string to a watercolor painted disk at the top. This one really reminded me of a Hasidic story about a Rebbe that was slipping down an ice-covered mountain in Russia as he was trying to get down to dunk in the mikvah (maybe before Yom Kippur). When he returned unscathed his followers asked him how he hadn't gotten injured in the fall, and he responded, when you're holding on to the rope that's connected up above, you don't slip (ie, when you're connected to God, you aren't impacted in the same way by physical "realities").

Elijah created a contraption with a colorful sphere that moves and is attached by a string to a watercolor painted disk at the top. This one really reminded me of a Hasidic story about a Rebbe that was slipping down an ice-covered mountain in Russia as he was trying to get down to dunk in the mikvah (maybe before Yom Kippur). When he returned unscathed his followers asked him how he hadn't gotten injured in the fall, and he responded, when you're holding on to the rope that's connected up above, you don't slip (ie, when you're connected to God, you aren't impacted in the same way by physical "realities").

Liora's chosen words included a prayer for income security and Asher thoughtfully created a structure that she could metaphorically stand in, where he imagined that from that vantage point she could receive what she was praying for. Which felt so insightful, and reminded me of this notion that we need the kli, the appropriate vessel before we can truly receive a blessing.

Liora's chosen words included a prayer for income security and Asher thoughtfully created a structure that she could metaphorically stand in, where he imagined that from that vantage point she could receive what she was praying for. Which felt so insightful, and reminded me of this notion that we need the kli, the appropriate vessel before we can truly receive a blessing.

Asher's words (inspired by the Children's blessing, and with some of his own) were "desire for Torah and Mitzvot...and time to play!" so Liora created him an amazing clock with components representing all of those elements.

Asher's words (inspired by the Children's blessing, and with some of his own) were "desire for Torah and Mitzvot...and time to play!" so Liora created him an amazing clock with components representing all of those elements.

Raizy created an interpretation of the many positive directions that can develop out of being blessed at the source, and included little bags of spices along with each of those metaphorical blessings on this interactive wall hanging, with a blue background evoking water.

Raizy created an interpretation of the many positive directions that can develop out of being blessed at the source, and included little bags of spices along with each of those metaphorical blessings on this interactive wall hanging, with a blue background evoking water.

Andrea, woking with the same theme, created a mug coaster, that was filled with hidden and revealed spices, which would waft out fragrance when the were warmed when a mug of tea or coffee was placed on them.

Andrea, woking with the same theme, created a mug coaster, that was filled with hidden and revealed spices, which would waft out fragrance when the were warmed when a mug of tea or coffee was placed on them.

Ezra's words included time learning MIshnah (he and Ariel have recently started that), an elephant and just enjoying creating and being alive, so Ariel created a diorama including a six petaled flower, representing the six books of mishnah, with spices at the center which you encounter when the petals of the flower open, and two trees that can also be seen as one, representing the Torah as the tree of life (which in Hasidic thought is also seen as ultimately the same as the tree of knowledge)...and of course an elephant at the center because of course.

Ezra's words included time learning MIshnah (he and Ariel have recently started that), an elephant and just enjoying creating and being alive, so Ariel created a diorama including a six petaled flower, representing the six books of mishnah, with spices at the center which you encounter when the petals of the flower open, and two trees that can also be seen as one, representing the Torah as the tree of life (which in Hasidic thought is also seen as ultimately the same as the tree of knowledge)...and of course an elephant at the center because of course.

(As a side note, this was the first time that Ariel, our Rabbi-in-Residence at Atiq, and also by day a professor at Stanford, participated in the creating component of Atiq. This was a source of great delight for me, and he noted "I'll never forget the power of creating a tangible blessing for someone I love.")

(As a side note, this was the first time that Ariel, our Rabbi-in-Residence at Atiq, and also by day a professor at Stanford, participated in the creating component of Atiq. This was a source of great delight for me, and he noted "I'll never forget the power of creating a tangible blessing for someone I love.")

Ezra made Ariel a drawing that represented "all the worlds".

I noted to Aliza my feeling of connection to the words "Einayich l'nochach yabitu/ May your eyes always perceive what's in front of you/be able to look straight ahead," and my hope to better appreciate all the blessings that are right in front of me in the coming year, and to generate income from my work that allows me to keep doing it and allows it to grow and flourish.

I noted to Aliza my feeling of connection to the words "Einayich l'nochach yabitu/ May your eyes always perceive what's in front of you/be able to look straight ahead," and my hope to better appreciate all the blessings that are right in front of me in the coming year, and to generate income from my work that allows me to keep doing it and allows it to grow and flourish.

So Aliza created a viewfinder that can also serve as a bookmark for the machzor during Yom Kippur services, and an additional piece with two parts - the purple ball represents prosperity/financial stability, so that ultimately one can turn their attention to what really matters, what you see right in front of you (represented by the mini viewfinder).

So Aliza created a viewfinder that can also serve as a bookmark for the machzor during Yom Kippur services, and an additional piece with two parts - the purple ball represents prosperity/financial stability, so that ultimately one can turn their attention to what really matters, what you see right in front of you (represented by the mini viewfinder).

For her words, Aliza had reflected on wanting to find more ways to connect with things that would nourish her intellectually and spiritually, during otherwise very busy days attending to family, etc. So I created something that ended up looking like a fancy magnifying glass, to help her remember to focus in on interesting books or podcasts even in small windows of time, and little clips that she could hang her top 3 things to turn to on.

For her words, Aliza had reflected on wanting to find more ways to connect with things that would nourish her intellectually and spiritually, during otherwise very busy days attending to family, etc. So I created something that ended up looking like a fancy magnifying glass, to help her remember to focus in on interesting books or podcasts even in small windows of time, and little clips that she could hang her top 3 things to turn to on.

Speaking for myself, I was truly relieved and gratified that someone with Aliza's discerning eye for design and beauty liked the object I made for her, and I was incredibly moved to receive her interpretation of my words, and look forward to using it on Yom Kippur.


As we reflected on the process of creating, some noted that it felt freeing and especially fun to create something for someone else. For others it felt a bit nerve-wracking, and some perhaps felt a tiny twinge of loss in giving away their creation. While we didn't reflect on it quite as directly, my sense is that everyone felt gratitude and joy upon receiving their partner's blessing-object. But there can sometimes be a bit challenge there as well - perhaps a deeper layer felt missed, unseen. My hope is that through this process, the complexity and amazing power of how we give and receive blessings was appreciated and experienced in a really visceral way. As we approach Yom Kippur, as individuals and collective, may we accept the gift of being connected with those around us enough that we can both give and receive blessings for living with a greater sense of purpose, vitality, presence, joy, and connection in the year ahead. 

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Thank you to all who joined for this workshop, to Rabbi Nehemia Polen, Ariel Mayse, and Aliza Weiss (our talented Program Manager) for insights into sources and structure (as always) and to all of you readers for joining from afar (and for any thoughts or reflections you might care to share, especially on privileged objects or blessings from parents or friends that have been a source of positive energy for you). And one more shoutout: Immense gratitude to Atiq mentor and advisory board member Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire. When I reached out to him on Friday before the Sunday of the event to say, I still can't figure out how to manifest the learning in the prompt for making, he said "call me! I'm only writing sermons!," and proceeded to pause his sermon writing for an hour long chat about spiritual meaning making through making. Inspired by his example, another blessing to walk into Yom Kippur with: May this be a year in which we have wise teachers, mentors, family and friends whom we know we can reach out to for counsel, and may we have the patience, time, and thoughtfulness to pause when friends reach out for our help.


May we all be sealed in the book of life for a sweet new year! Shana tova!

New Year, New Name - Beyond Noah's Ark becomes Atiq: Jewish Maker Institute

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Beyond Noah's Ark is now Atiq: Jewish Maker Institute.

A bit more about the name, and what we're up to around here: Atiq means Ancient in Hebrew/Aramaic, and in Kabbalistic terminology is a term that refers to the source from which all creativity springs (also known as Keter, one of the Sefirot).

Our central aim at Atiq is to use art and object making and Jewish text learning as a means of giving people of all ages and backgrounds a sense of vibrant personal connection to the depth and richness present in our ancient sources. The process of learning and creating is meaningful in its own right and also produces a sacred material culture that can ground our personal practice and be shared with family and friends. When we weave together our contemporary voices and perspectives with the our most ancient traditions, we succeed in crafting individual lives and communities of living Torah.

There's a lot that we have in the works for this year, and lots more that we're planning in the long term. A quick overview of things we're already doing, mixed in with some dreamy visions for the future: Atiq currently features community maker programming and makerspace + Jewish maker consulting/workshops for various orgs. And when we’re daydreaming, we dream of a maker yeshiva (aka, Pardes for makers, aka maker institute) where mid and post-college folks and any stage of life folks can learn Torah, collaboratively create things, and also participate in programming with the other amazing East Bay experiential Judaism and arts orgs + funded maker fellowship at the heart of the Institute where artists and educators can make things that will be sent into the world.

(Whew.)

I do wonder how all of this will come into being, but as dear friend and Atiq Creative Director Rachel Bickel affirmed last night, it's already being created, in a heimish punk rock sort of way. In the coming year I'll plan on sharing both what is materializing in real time, as well as a bit of behind the scenes re: how the pieces are being woven together. Whether you're interested in vibrant Jewish material culture as a source for meaning making, or whether you're just looking for some inspiration for getting your own dream project up and running, we'd love to have you along.

Shavuot and Revelation (for everyone)

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Let's be honest: Shavuot is sort of a mysterious holiday. In contrast to Sukkot and Pesach where there are very clear guidelines regarding what we're required to do, on Shavuot we have options and tasty food, but none of it is required/a mitzvah on the level of dwelling in the sukkah or having a seder and eating matzah.

As Ezra (4 years old at the time of this story) once asked me, Mama, is Shavuot actually about anything? 

At our recent Shavuot prep event with Oakland Hebrew Day School for parents and children we tried to get a handle on some of that mystery through our learning and tinkering.

We grounded our investigation by learning b'chevrutah (in pairs) the original account of Matan Torah in Shmot/Exodus 19:1-20:18, the giving/receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, an event which is traditionally and calendrically linked to Shavuot. We also looked at two Hasidic reflections on the Jewish people's experience of this event.

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The giving/receiving of the Torah can also be described more broadly as Revelation -- becoming aware of God's presence, and of our personal relationship with God. The Torah can then be understood as a framework for scaffolding or giving structure to that personal relationship.

Shavuot, like every Jewish holiday, returns us to a singular moment in our history and invites us to reenact that in some way. It also provides the opportunity for reawakening to the continuous re-occurrence on a spiritual plane of that singular event. On Shavuot we received the Torah way back in the desert, but our tradition teaches us that that giving of the Torah happens anew (or continuously) all the time. (The source for this got bumped from our source sheet, but take a look at Devarim/Deuteronomy 5:19 and accompanying Rashi if you're interested!)

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As we learned the Matan Torah biblical text, each chevrutah reflected on the following question: What are three central elements that contributed to the experience of Revelation at Mount Sinai?

One parent noted that initially the introductory text to the Ten Commandments felt confusing. "There's so much going on, smoke, people being told to do this and that, and everyone is just waiting to hear the ten commandments."

To which I say, exactly! What is the story with all that smoke, the loud shofar blasts, the very specific choreography and instructions? 

Another person noted that we were there alone. On our own as individuals? No, alone together. 

Everyone arrived at their own nuances in answering the question of what three components were central to the Revelation experience. Torah, community, majesty of nature. Fear, Torah, Commitment/relationship.

We also wove into this the insights from the Maor V'Shemesh (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Epstein of Krakow) and the Derech Hamelech (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, great-grandson of the Maor V'Shemesh). Each of these Rebbes reflect on how how our access to revelation arrived (and continues to arrive) through each other.

From that foundation we dove into making, with the goal of creating items that reflected our personal understanding of revelation. Ways we access that awareness already, and ways that we'd like to be more receptive to it. Reflecting on the singular event of Matan Torah, and the ongoing continuous revelation. 

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And then...after some mysterious alchemy involving lots of hot glue guns working over-time; delicious smelling cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and assorted greenery; many colors of clay and paper and tape; with an increasingly Master Chef level of energy; and especially, with some amazing conversations happening...we were suddenly in the presence of a whole host of wonderfully rich and unique 3D reflections of Shavuot and revelation.

A newly beloved book in our household (Beekle, by Dan Santat) concludes: And together, they did the unimaginable. 

To which Ezra (now 5.5 years old) asked, what does the unimaginable mean?

While I came up with some answer at the time, these creations would have been the prefect means of explanation, as they were literally unimaginable. I could never have dreamed up what each chevrutah arrived at, and neither, I believe could they have before actually just rolling up their sleeves and getting to work, learning and creating with hands heart and brain all together.

All of which feels quite fitting for Shavuot. The great mystery remains, the impossibility of totally understanding how we are in relationship with God, even the fact that the Torah is on some level unimaginable. And yet being aware of the access points through Community, Nature and Torah, or whatever components of revelation most speak to you, allows us to walk into Shavuot and the mystery of revelation with the excitement and energy of an explorer, as we each search for the doorways that speak to us in this moment, and connected through history.

And with that, I'm just about to send you on your way into the last few days of the omer. But I can't leave you without giving a few notes on each of the creations, because they were not only unimaginable, they were also totally fabulous in ways that a single photo can only begin to convey.

Juliet and Leif: We're on our way to Shavuot, always striving to get ever closer. The contents of the baskets represent the 7 species of the land of Israel that would have been brought as bikkurim. The elements above the box represent the 10 plagues that finally touched off our leaving Egypt, and walking towards receiving the Torah and entering the land of Israel.

Juliet and Leif: We're on our way to Shavuot, always striving to get ever closer. The contents of the baskets represent the 7 species of the land of Israel that would have been brought as bikkurim. The elements above the box represent the 10 plagues that finally touched off our leaving Egypt, and walking towards receiving the Torah and entering the land of Israel.

Tania and Daniel: (Quoting from Tania's Facebook post, because she'll say it best:) "We learned the text about Matan Torah, then chose three essential elements of Revelation and represented these concepts in our collaborative 3D triptych. The first window shows the beginnings of a clay vessel, just emerging from the earth/slavery/wilderness. The second window features a formed vessel in the fire, in a state of awe. The final window’s vessel is adorned, colorful, ready to engage in holy relationship/mitzvot.

Tania and Daniel: (Quoting from Tania's Facebook post, because she'll say it best:) "We learned the text about Matan Torah, then chose three essential elements of Revelation and represented these concepts in our collaborative 3D triptych. The first window shows the beginnings of a clay vessel, just emerging from the earth/slavery/wilderness. The second window features a formed vessel in the fire, in a state of awe. The final window’s vessel is adorned, colorful, ready to engage in holy relationship/mitzvot.

Ruth and Sara: A tree of Torah, with many doorways and access points in. There's even a person parachuting in!

Ruth and Sara: A tree of Torah, with many doorways and access points in. There's even a person parachuting in!

Vered and Be'eri: Vered noted that for her the most powerful component of Shavuot is the extra time learning Torah. But one also wants to feel that fire of a communal experience. So Vered and Be'eri depicted that as arising from the sefer, the holy book, where one arises from the other. They had originally hoped to do a pop-up book, but decided to do this version to make something that could be accomplished within the time we had.

Vered and Be'eri: Vered noted that for her the most powerful component of Shavuot is the extra time learning Torah. But one also wants to feel that fire of a communal experience. So Vered and Be'eri depicted that as arising from the sefer, the holy book, where one arises from the other. They had originally hoped to do a pop-up book, but decided to do this version to make something that could be accomplished within the time we had.

Vered and Tamar created a personal image of Mount Sinai.

Vered and Tamar created a personal image of Mount Sinai.

Pilippa, Jakub and Aidan: When we were all reflecting together, I asked, what surprised you in the process of creating? Jakub said he was surprised that their creation centered around the story of the golden calf.

Pilippa, Jakub and Aidan: When we were all reflecting together, I asked, what surprised you in the process of creating? Jakub said he was surprised that their creation centered around the story of the golden calf.

Naama, Melia, Chana Ella and Dovid: The mountain has a mechanism in the back that causes it to shake, which reflects the midrash. The luchot at the top of arch represent our ketubah/marriage contract with God that is the Torah. The bottom section is an interactive 10 commandments that you can scroll through,

Naama, Melia, Chana Ella and Dovid: The mountain has a mechanism in the back that causes it to shake, which reflects the midrash. The luchot at the top of arch represent our ketubah/marriage contract with God that is the Torah. The bottom section is an interactive 10 commandments that you can scroll through,

Nechama, Adi and Ori created an image of standing at sinai, where everyone is an individual, but collectively make up Yisrael, the people of Israel dancing together.

Nechama, Adi and Ori created an image of standing at sinai, where everyone is an individual, but collectively make up Yisrael, the people of Israel dancing together.

Judah, Jacob and Zach: An image of mount sinai, surrounded by greenery and the names of this item's creators. the Moshe figure has a mechanism in the back that allows him to move up and down the mountain. Pretty awesome.

Judah, Jacob and Zach: An image of mount sinai, surrounded by greenery and the names of this item's creators. the Moshe figure has a mechanism in the back that allows him to move up and down the mountain. Pretty awesome.

Imagine, create, share, play

Hey dear readers! As promised, we wanted to share some of the fruits of our work during the Pesach Prep Maker Beit Midrash series. Immense gratitude to the adventurous and creative makers who comprised this first BNA Maker Beit Midrash Cohort. Their work and willingness to experiment was incredibly inspiring!

To start us off, we're so excited to share this video we produced with talented filmmaker Ellie Lobovits, which takes you inside our process at the Maker Beit Midrash.

We're also really excited to highlight two projects that you can help us test out and develop further! To that end we have two printables for you. Print them, cut out, tape or staple together and use at your seder. If you do we would LOVE so much to hear your feedback -- what worked, what didn't, how did you extend the basic idea?

Ok, to the projects... One theme we discussed in this cohort: dualities.  The big one we started with: we're supposed to inhabit an experience of leaving Egypt, and yet it's also clear that we're supposed to be seeing that experience from a birds-eye-view. 

Two chevrutot really took up the dualities theme and designed ways to actively engage with the various haggadah dualities during the seder. 

Eliezah and Andrea designed these little lift-the-flap windows that can be passed around the table, and serve as discussion prompts, either as a group or amongst seat neighbors.

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The basic framing questions: What's the connection between these things? How are they similar? How are they different? What relationship do I have with this duality?

They created felt and glitter versions, designed to be durable and fun. Your paper and staples print out version will be a bit more modest, but feel quite encouraged to color them in, add drawings, etc.

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Ariel and Aliza created duality themed mobius strips. They had initially considered linking them all, having a chain where seder participants could hold each hold a link. In the end they created individual elements that could be placed throughout the seder table. The dualities they chose are: exile/redemption; slavery/freedom; future/past; pain/praise; nation/broader world; celebration/mourning; cleaning/mess; biblical/historical; structure/flexibility.

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These mobius strips can invite seder participants to reflect together on the creative tension embedded in the seder and throughout Pesach. What is being asked of us when we're called to hold these dualities in our sights at once?

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A note about creating these mobius strips: You're gonna print them out, cut out each pair (leaving the center line intact), fold and staple. Mobius strips are a bit fiddly to get into position. I checked out this how-to, but ultimately success came just from testing it out a few times.

The other projects were inspired and amazing but slightly less sharable in print-out form. Chana Ella and Desmid created a shadow puppet theater, in which a grandparent tells the Pesach story to a grandchild, by way of shadow puppets. They created all the puppets and wrote out scripts for each scene. One interesting aspect of their work was that the shadow puppets were a lot more intricate and detailed than would be typical for that form. Desmid's response to my wondering about this: Since Chana Ella will be using this live at her seder, I wanted to really just enjoy the process of creating the components themselves, and putting a lot of care into the details 

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Now let me tell you, shadow puppets are magical, there's no two ways about it. If you feel inspired to whip up your own version, know that even something fairly simple can accomplish a lot. We got some inspiration from this how-to on the Eric Carle museum blog. The blog is worth checking out in any case if you haven't seen it yet. 

Leah was working on what got titled "The Introvert's Haggadah," which is essentially an interactive haggadah that could engage even one person one their own. (I know introverts don't only like spending time on their own. Believe me, I wave my introvert flag high, and I love being around people. Neverthless...) At any rate, the components thus far included some sort of magical decoder ring style layered dvar Torah. It was mid-way towards become manifest when the series ended, so I hope to be able to provide updates post-Pesach.

Mira and Eli were working on a few items, but the one that especially stood out was a woven basket, for people to pass around and share a blessing or wish for future blossoming. One of the themes we had tracked during the series was that some of the seder text is actually from the Bikkurim/first fruits declaration in the Temple. While we bring the first fruits at Shavuot time, we mark of the first flowers of the fruit trees in Nisan, the Jewish month that Pesach occurs in.

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Jonathan created a wire centerpiece that symbolized youth and renewal, but the group also helped him make progress on an incredible multi-layered papercut seder plate he was working on.

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Jonathan notes: These papercut seder plates are available by special order! Email him to hear more details and snag one for yourself at jvlyon@gmail.com.

Each of these projects, in their own ways, are still definitely in process. In so many ways, this is at the heart of the work that we're doing here at Beyond Noah's Ark. Tinker, create, share, tinker some more, etc. etc. etc.

Mitchel Resnick and Natalie Rusk of the MIT Lifelong Learning Kindergarten group have this great diagram in that spirit which they call the Creative Learning Spiral.

Image courtesy of Mitchel Resnick

Image courtesy of Mitchel Resnick

Veering just a bit from their diagram, we've done the imagine and create, and now we're excited to share with you. At the seder we'll play, and then time to reflect, and dive back in to imagining.

See you on the flip side!

I wonder what this could really be?

Friends, it's so great to have you journeying along with us here. To be perfectly forthright, it's been an interesting challenge to play the roles of facilitator, chevrutah partner, and documentor all at once. Then again, how appropriate for a series leading up to Pesach and the Seder, right? Ideally, at the seder we get to be leaders and participants, and in some sense, documentors of our own experience, all in one staged and planned, yet unanticipatable journey. 

We've now been learning and creating together for a few weeks, so at the start of our fourth session we were ready to do a little reflection on where were in our process. Aliza designed a project diagram for us to concretize what we were working on, and we'll use our notes as a guide as we move forward. 

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To start us off, here's a little video, just to give you a sense of the focused energy in the room as we tinker our way into exploring the existential questions within the Pesach experience.

A few of the chevrutot have been exploring the ways that we're both in the story and above the story, almost watching from a bird's-eye view at various points in the seder. We see this in the choice of the Vidui Bikkurim (the concise retelling of the Exodus story when bringing  first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem) as one of the central texts that the Haggadah is spun out from. We might have expected that the whole text of the haggadah would be based around a more present-tense statement of the drama, so it's meaningful that this isn't wholly the case. We also see this in the Talmud's declaration that "בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים" (Psachim 116b), "In every generation one but see themselves as though they themselves had left Egypt." There's a wonderful multiphonic situation being set up here, in which we are enjoined to both see experience being actors in the drama, but also recognize that we are constructing that experience of the drama -- we are tasked with seeing ourselves AS THOUGH we had left Egypt. 

On this basic foundation, Aliza and Ariel have been testing out different prototypes for tangibly illustrating multiphonic themes or dualities that we are asked to hold at once during the seder. They've been playing with the idea of interlocking mobius strips, which might have various dualities written on them, or perhaps related questions. The materials used to make each mobius strip will signify the themes it speaks to in some way. Participants in the seder might hold on to a link in the mobius strip chain, and this could serve as an entry point for conversation -- they're still figuring out how that might work!

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Andrea and Eliezah are working on two projects simultaneously. The first they see as a framed set of prompts that, as above, explore dualities in the seder. They do this by means of little durable framing squares, with a reveled word, and its pair word hidden underneath the flap. Participants hold up the squares, and as a group, guess what the pair word might be. When it is reveled, discussion can ensue as to what the significance of that pair or duality is to our Pesach experience. They've been experimenting with what materials would feel fun and be durable, but would also convey a sense of meaning with regard to the themes they're highlighting, and a sense of beauty. (Also, there's an abiding love for glitter paint in this group, which I initially didn't understand, but am grateful for the opportunity to grow.)

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Andrea and Eliezah's second project is much more open ended. They're constructing a number of objects, each of which highlights a key element of the seder. The objects will be placed along the length of the seder table. Participants can pick up an item, and use it as a prompt for discussion of its possible significance in the seder amongst the group of people sitting near them.

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Jonathan (and, when she graces us with her presence, Rena) describes his project at this stage like this "Minimalistic Baby Face with one piece of wire symbolizing unlimited potential, interest, experimentation, and Freedom - getting ready for Passover with “Reishit”." We had a few minutes last session to ask each other questions about our projects (which remained unanswered, thus far, by design), and the questions Jonathan was asked included, "How will this be used at the seder? Do participants engage with it in tangible ways? Or is it intended to be looked at and discussed?" and "This seems like a very fragile piece. Is that intentional, and have you considered exploring what might happen by making it more durable in some way?"

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Eli and Mira are have been in serious tinkering mode, starting from a real enjoyment of testing out what various materials might shape up to be, and from that foundation considering exactly how those speak to the themes they'd like to explore. They're still investigating what exactly the box with semi-translucent paper is and how it will be used. Eli was experimenting with watercolor painting on the tracing paper, while Mira was weaving a bikkurim basket out of wire and cardboard. Can't wait to see what comes of all this tinkering!

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Desmid and Chana Ella started with a really clear idea early on, and they've been building the components ever since. They're working on a shadow puppet theater, which will tell the story of one family's journey across generations and places, but in a way that strips away certain details in order to highlight universal themes. 

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Laya and I have the least to show since our chevrutah formed a bit late in the game, but we are excited to begin creating on the basis of our learning and discussion this past week. We've been discussing how we process the Mitzrayim/Egypt experience as one which is described as
אנוס על פי הדיבור, forced by way of Divine command. How do we process experiences that we seem destined to go through, but that we also need to get something out of, and to have some sense of agency in the experience. What did we need to get out of the MItzrayim experience? How do we gain access to that through our experience of the seder, and what might help us do that?

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And so here we are. I'm super excited to be continuing to bring these projects to clarity, and just generally be asking big questions by way of cardboard and hot glue guns with these beautiful makers. 

Let us know what you're working on, what you're thinking about in advance of the seder, or wanting to change or keep from seders past. We'll check back in soon with more updates.

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...

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It's alive!

What a thrill to experience this dream of study and chevrutah creation within a community of makers come to life! 

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This Maker Beit Midrash section will be a place where you can get an in depth look at what we're learning and working on as the Pesach Prep series progresses. We're also hoping some folks might join us in creating from afar -- convince a friend to be your maker hevrutah (creative partner), learn the texts, and get to tinkering! If you do please share picture of your work with us! Send any images and explanations to bnacollaborative@gmail.com, or share on our Facebook page!

We kicked off the first session of our 6 session Pesach Prep maker series with introductions from cohort participants (such shining wonderfully interesting people, all!), and an overview of Beyond Noah's Ark's mission and values

We then broke into hevrutah pairs to study our central text for the evening, and the central biblical text that the Pesach Haggadah is based around. Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:1-11 is a concise retelling of the story of redemption from Egypt and the first Passover. It is also the Biblical formula to be recited by a farmer bringing first fruits (Bikkurim) to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem on the holiday of Shavuot.

Why, we wondered, was this the text chosen for the central Maggid section of the seder? What's the significance of drawing upon a collection of verses that are located in future from the perspective of the seder, as opposed to those from Exodus/Sh'mot, that present a more present-tense version of the story.

We also took a quick look at the Mishnah in Pesachim 116b, which we'll look at in greater depth during the second session. This Mishna contains the central spiritual posture of the seder -- that we are each enjoined to see ourselves as having personally left Egypt. What resources or experiences might help to further our ability to feel that we are, in this generation, at this time, in our lives, leaving Egypt?

After some really interesting discussion as a group, we were ready to turn to the art and tinkering portion of the evening. Unlike how the other sessions will be, everyone was invited to work on one specific type of interactive object, the cardboard automata, as a foundation for creating and following a thread of inquiry b'hevrutah (paired/in a creation team). This provided a shared and hopefully fairly comfortable project to begin experimenting from.  

The Exploratorium just closed an exhibit on the most wondrous intricately crafted automata.

They developed a do-it-yourself explanation sheet for creating cardboard automata, and we used that as a roadmap to help guide us. 

All that having been said, a number of hevrutas ended up interpreting the prompt in quite diverse ways. Eliezah was hard at work on a complex system of automata levers out of which she was constructing an opening and closing red sea. Desmid was following the thread of personal history by creating an enclosed Torah scroll, upon which she handwrote her father's life journey.

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Mira and Jonathan followed the straightforward automata path to arrive at a poignant encapsulation of the Jewish people's cycles of redemption and exile.

Andrea and Laya, and Aliza and Sarah were in the midst of constructing some very interesting looking contraptions when we paused our work until the next session. 

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When we pick up at session two we'll hear a recap of what everyone worked on last session, and meet the handful of new people that are joining the group. We'll learn some more text together as a group and b'hevrutah and we'll match up into the hevrutah pairs that we'll hope to stay in for the next five sessions. The main task set before each hevrutah is to choose a thread of inquiry, a particular question they'd like to explore with regard to Pesach, and then investigate how to bring those explorations to life in visual, accessible form. 

As we begin our tinkering we'll consider a variety of possibilities for interactive objects, interesting storytelling devices, etc. as potential frames for creating.

Some on the list so far:

Kavaad: A traditional Indian unfolding storytelling box

This is a modern adaptation of the form, a version by artist Bruce Handelsman, which will be on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in their exhibit "Contraption." Image courtesy of the  Contemporary Jewish Museum .

This is a modern adaptation of the form, a version by artist Bruce Handelsman, which will be on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in their exhibit "Contraption." Image courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Shadow puppet theater

Zig-zag 

Photo of a work by Lynn Avedenka which was on view at the YU Museum

Photo of a work by Lynn Avedenka which was on view at the YU Museum

Zig Zag books at the Eric Carle Museum

Zig Zag books at the Eric Carle Museum

Interactive Scroll

Purim story scroll created by Tammy Edell Gottstein and her kids

Purim story scroll created by Tammy Edell Gottstein and her kids

Story Boxes

Steve Light/ Guidcraft storyboxes. This is Hansel and Gretel

Steve Light/ Guidcraft storyboxes. This is Hansel and Gretel

Another Steve Light storybox, The Girl Who Loved Danger

Another Steve Light storybox, The Girl Who Loved Danger

Illuminated storybox

These are by artist  Karishma Chugani Nankani . Images courtesy of the artist's website.

These are by artist Karishma Chugani Nankani. Images courtesy of the artist's website.

All sorts of other paper engineering storytelling ideas

Image courtesy of Brain Pickings, from Kelli Anderson's This Book is a Planetarium 

Image courtesy of Brain Pickings, from Kelli Anderson's This Book is a Planetarium 

Image courtesy of  Brain Pickings , from Kelli Anderson's This Book is a Planetarium

Image courtesy of Brain Pickings, from Kelli Anderson's This Book is a Planetarium

Whew. And with that, adieu & shalom for now. Can't wait to check back in after tonight's session. Excited and nervous for the hevrutah pairs to solidify. We'll spell out in a bit more detail in the next post why doing this work b'hevrutah is a key component of the vision.

Until then, happy tinkering!

 

 

BNA + JTD

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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).

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

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

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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

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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 EJI.org (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! And...here 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 story...it 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

Berryman: a beginning

There's so much else to talk about: why I still favor non-electronic or digital toys, even above ones that genuinely attract (command) attention, like the singing siddur (prayer book) which I've been hearing about again and again -- I am certainly open to debate on this though. We'll explore examples of toys and objects that accomplish, even to some degree, the sorts of things we're talking about here. Meet artists who are bravely creating these items, even though there doesn't seem to be much of a market for them yet (though I'm hoping this blog will help change that!). Learn from professionals who are working in arts education.

For right now though, I think the next stop is the question of what encouraging a child's natural sense of wonder involves. How do we foster a child's relationship with the spiritual, with God? What objects could invite conversations on the deepest questions of meaning in children's lives, and remind the adults around them to value those questions/conversations and take them seriously. Is it even feasible to have such lofty goals for an object? These aims are so subtly yet profoundly different from those of toys that will merely keep children occupied, or even transmit fundamental facts of religion or tradition. 

Kind of makes your brain hurt, right? Luckily for us there are wise teachers who have explored these questions. They will not mind if we stand on their shoulders. To begin, let us meet Jerome Berryman and Godly Play. 

Reverend Berryman, working within the Montessori educational model, developed the Godly Play method as a way of so fully immersing children in the language of religious tradition that they absorb it, enter into it, and can then use that language to help process their own individual encounter with God. This is then an encounter that is dynamic, a relationship that a child can grow with and into, as opposed to a fixed cache of content that one either believes or rejects. While Godly Play is framed in a Christian context, Berryman encourages the use of his basic ideas as a template for any faith to experiment with and build upon. (We are blessed, in fact, that another intrepid soul has done just that in a Jewish context -- Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire's Torah Godly Play will be discussed in due time!)

Friends, the hour is late, and I wish that I could just quote all of Berryman's words verbatim, they are just that insightful. We deserve a bit more sifting to clarify things for our purposes though, and so I say: more, tomorrow! 

Nursery magic

"The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it." - The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams

I have heard that there are siddurs (prayer books) that sing to you (check it out!). I have enjoyed my share of wonderful G-dcast videos about the parsha (weekly Torah portion). There are no doubt countless apps with Jewish content for children. I am so grateful that these exist. But, like the nursery toys that by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, I cannot help but feel that there is still some timeless quality that is missing in the digital or electronic realm, a lack that prevents these products from attaining the "nursery magic" of the sort we're aiming at. 

Perhaps this is a good time to talk about Maxine Greene, and privileged objects (truly, I really can't wait any longer!). I discovered this amazing thinker here, deep in an old literature review from Avoda Arts. Greene, an educational philosopher, describes what she calls "privileged objects" which can be "paintings, sculptures, poems, novels, plays, musical pieces, and dance performances, with unique capacities to complicate and deepen our experiences in the world and with each other. They have the potential as well to plunge us into adventures of meaning and to open new perspectives on an always problematic world" (Greene, 1990, p.149). These art forms carry within them the ability to transform and heighten our perception, but, Greene emphasizes, that ability must be unlocked by means of our attending to it, by understanding these forms as deserving of our particular attention. In addition, unlike the everyday mundane objects in our surroundings, "the painting is likely to disclose more and more of its qualities or its perceptual attributes the more often and more attentively it is viewed" (Greene, 1991, p.154). I can't remember where at this moment, but I believe I remember reading (and this would make sense) that Greene also includes encounters with nature and natural objects in this category of privileged objects. 

How does all this relate to Judaica for children? (Is there a better word than Judaica? Please tell me if you think of something!) Well, it is my belief that IF the items that we have available for children are more like privileged objects, that invite repeated attention, and disclose more and more of their depth and meaning over time, they will be met with such appreciation, investigation and attention. Along with an aesthetic focus on thoughtful design and craft, the underlying goal of such objects should be open-ended, sustained creative play (with parents or playmates as well as independent activity) that allows children to feel that they have ownership and agency from within the Jewish rituals, traditions and stories instead of just learning about the religious content.

What do you think? Have you encountered any digital media content that you feel does fit these criteria? Are there any favorite items of Judaica for children that you have or that you grew up with that functioned as privileged objects in your world?


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Greene, M. (1990). "Arts education in the humanities: Toward a breaking of the boundaries." In W.J. Moody (Ed.), Artistic intelligences: Implications for education. New York: Teachers College Press

Greene, M. (1991). "Aesthetic literacy." In Ralph A. Smith and Alan Simpson (Ed.), Aesthetics and arts education. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press