Beyond Puppets and Cookies

Eleven-year-old Katie Zeisl, who attends Hebrew School at Adat Ari El, knows that the High Holidays are a time to “tell God I’m really sorry and I’ll try not to do it again.” But she’s skeptical about making promises she may not be able to keep, and she has little use for her synagogue’s youth services, which feature, as she says, “a really babyish puppet show that I’m too old for.” Still, though she loves the singing of the choir at her synagogue’s adult service, she generally opts for the kids’ program, where her friends congregate and the cookies are tasty. Katie is at that in-between age: too grown-up for puppet shows and too young for the fasting and praying that are central to the traditional High Holy Day observance.

It’s undeniable that the High Holidays, unlike Purim and Pesach, are geared toward adults. The level of self-scrutiny that Yom Kippur requires of Jews does not come naturally to children and teens, even those raised in observant Jewish homes. But Jewish educators believe parents and teachers can introduce High Holiday motifs in a way that youngsters can grasp.

Joel Grishaver, a national Jewish educator and Covenant Award winner, emphasizes that the holidays’ themes of repentance and forgiveness need to be taught on a year-round basis. Parents and teachers can serve as models both by demonstrating how to forgive and by asking for forgiveness when they themselves are wrong.

Grishaver asks: “If I have no experience with real forgiveness in the world, how can I have a concept of divine forgiveness?”

As the High Holidays approach, classroom educators work to reinforce religious themes and symbols in an age-appropriate manner. Experienced teachers guide older students into thinking about the problems in their own lives (such as siblings) and how they can change their own behavior to improve matters.

Bill Cohen, incoming principal of Los Angeles Hebrew High School, encourages teens to compare Rosh Hashanah to the American New Year. Jan. 1, of course, is known as “a time to let out your aggressions” through parties and wild behavior. The Jewish New Year, by contrast, represents “a time to go deep inside of yourself” and take stock of your spiritual condition.

Younger children respond well to the holidays’ chief symbols, which include apples, honey and (most essentially) the shofar. Kids love to imitate the shofar’s ritual blasts, so some teachers provide kazoos for that purpose. The youngsters can learn about the call of the ram’s horn as a sort of ancient alarm clock that awakens the Jewish people to a period of serious encounter with God.

Efrat Yakobi-Gafni, recipient of the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Cotsen-Pepper Master Teacher Award for 1999-2001, also prepares her fourth- and fifth-graders by teaching some of the basic prayers and melodies they’ll encounter at their families’ High Holiday services. At the same time, she frankly acknowledges to her students that “you might not feel part of this. It’s something that you have to grow into.”

Ron Wolfson, vice president and director of the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future of the University of Judaism, notes a recent phenomenon at many synagogues: the rise of family High Holiday services in which parents and children can worship together in an environment tailored to their different needs.

But Wolfson’s focus is on home celebration. He points to High Holiday meals as times for families to “take traditional rituals and infuse them with your own meaning.” In his home, the tradition of eating “new fruit” at the New Year has evolved into an annual search of the supermarket aisles for some exotic new delicacy to grace the holiday table.

Tashlich, the ceremony of throwing bread into a moving body of water to symbolize the casting-off of sins, marks an opportunity for creative family interaction. When their children were young, the Wolfsons used tubes of cake frosting to write their personal New Year’s resolutions — “No hitting!” “No screaming!” — onto the bread they would later toss into the Pacific Ocean.

The breaking of the fast can be another special family time. Wolfson advocates a few quiet moments in which to share some favorite snack (it’s orange juice at his house) before everyone goes off to the usual post-Yom Kippur feast. For him, this makes an appropriate bookend to the lighting of yahrtzeit candles as a family before Kol Nidre.

Says Wolfson: “Where a lot of parents miss the boat is that kids are deeply spiritual. They want to talk about God.”

A good book can help in opening that conversation. Educators mention many effective texts from Behrman House and Joel Grishaver’s own Torah Aura Prods.

Abigail Yasgur, director of the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, will speak on Wednesday evening, Sept. 8, at the Beverly Hills Public Library on the topic of “Finding God in the Stacks” through children’s books.

Yasgur’s idea of starting a conversation with God is something that Katie Zeisl would probably find attractive. Having lost two grandmothers in one week a few years back, she uses this season as a time to slip in a few prayers on their behalf, telling God “to please check on them.” So she has at least an inkling of what the holidays are all about. But if she were in charge of High Holiday observance, she’d make one big change: “The older kids would not have to go to the puppet show if they didn’t want to.”

For information on Yasgur’s talk, geared to parents of children and preteens, call (323) 761-8644.