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.