Hebrew books to help Israeli-Americans preserve their heritage

Naomi Western, who works with the Jewish Agency for Israel, worries that her two young children may lose the connection to their Israeli heritage once they start attending local public schools.

Joining more than 2,000 other families nationwide, Western has enrolled her family in Sifriyat Pijama B’America to keep her children connected to the Hebrew-speaking culture she grew up with.

“I want my children to feel connected to something bigger than themselves,” she said. “Jewish culture is very rich and full of good values.”

The Sifriyat Pijama program, modeled after PJ Library, mails one Hebrew-language children’s book, or sometimes a music CD, per month to families with at least one Hebrew-speaking parent or guardian. The books and CDs are intended for children between the ages of 3 and 6. The program is free, and the families keep the books.

Sifriyat Pijama B’America is sponsored by the Israeli-American Leadership Council, the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation.

In the past months, Sifriyat Pijama B’America began a new initiative to add readings and book-related activities to its program. These events will take place at Jewish schools and are meant to get families more involved in the schools through the reading program. The “school initiative” will continue next year, and the program founders hope to reach 6,000 families in the 2012-2013 school year with the help of the new initiative.

In late May, Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos and Kadima Day School in West Hills each hosted registration events for families to enroll in the program. More such events will be occurring over the next month at various Jewish Days schools in Southern California; all are open to members of the wider community or by signing up online at sp-ba.org.

Sifriyat Pijama B’America is inspired by the Sifriyat Pijama Program in Israel, through which children are given free books at school. That program, in turn, was based upon the PJ Library program in Boston begun by Harold Grinspoon, which mails English-language books with Jewish themes to Jewish families once a month. While PJ Library is aimed at American Jewish families, Sifriyat Pijama B’America founder Adam Milstein is targeting Israeli families living in the United States whose children are in danger of losing their Jewish heritage. Although the program is for Israeli-Americans, Milstein said in an e-mail that the books the program sends are not about Israel, but about Jewish values such as “appreciation, courage, dignity, freedom, justice, friendship, cherishing the elderly, hope and humility.”

Sharon Barkan, who was born in Israel, speaks Hebrew at home with her children, ages 4 and 2, and wants them to be connected with the food, music, culture and language of her homeland.

“How am I supposed to live in a house where I am part of one world, and my children are not at all connected to that world?” she said.

Barkan read about Sifriyat Pajama B’America in an Israeli newspaper and enrolled about a year ago. She says it has been an amazing experience, and that the books are a great way to keep her language and culture in her children’s lives.

Families interested in the program can register online or at the events at Jewish day schools. The school events, which include readings from the books and other children’s activities, are meant to entice families to become more active in the Jewish community.

“In order to be Jewish, you have to be proactive,” Milstein said. “You cannot be passive and be Jewish.”

The next event takes place at Kadima Day School in West Hills on June 26. For more information, visit sp-ba.org.

Scottish municipality bans Israeli books

A Scottish municipality has banned from its libraries books by Israeli authors and that were printed or published in Israel.

The West Dunbartonshire Council, consisting of towns and villages west of Glasgow, ordered new books by Israeli authors to be banned from the council’s libraries, according to reports.

The ban reportedly was ordered after last year’s raid by Israeli commandoes on a ship attempting to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza that led to the death of nine Turkish nationals. The ban followed a decision made 2 1/2 years ago following the Gaza war to boycott goods produced in Israel. According to that law, the council and all its public bodies are forbidden to sell goods that originated from Israel.

A West Dunbartonshire Council spokesman told the UK Express over the weekend that the boycott is not retrospective and that no books have been removed from libraries.

The council told the Express that 10 other councils had agreed to join the boycott.

The Scottish city Dundee also issued a recommendation to boycott goods produced in Israel, but it was set aside after city legal advisers said it was likely illegal under European Union law. The city instead will distribute posters throughout the city asking its residents not to buy Israeli goods and place a special sticker on products that are made in Israel.

“A place that boycotts books is not far from a place that burns them,” Israel’s ambassador to the U.K., Ron Prosor, told Ynet Tuesday.

European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor called the banning of Israeli books and the marking of Israeli products in Scotland “eerily reminiscent of darker times and perhaps there is a level of hatred that connects them.”

“While those behind the boycott will claim that this is not anti-Semitic, targeting the only Jewish state, a democracy, while ignoring serial human-rights abusing nations tells us that this is indeed anti-Semitic in intent and in effect,” Kantor said in a statement released Tuesday. “This demonstrates how far ‘respectable anti-Semitism’ has come. Clearly it has become acceptable to boycott and discriminate against Jews, as long as there is a thin veneer of anti-Zionism which purportedly covers the hateful act.”

He called on Britain and Scotland to pronounce the boycott illegal.

Get ready to sing . . . Hatikvah!

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May Days!

There are a lot of holidays this month, and your school or synagogue probably has special activities for them. We’ve listed them below … but we’ve taken out the vowels. See if you can fill in the blanks and then match the holiday to the date we celebrate it on. Scroll down and see if you have the right answers.

1) L_G b’_M_R
2) M_M_R__L D_Y
3) M_TH_R’S D_Y
4) R_SH CH_D_SH _Y_R
5) Y_M H_SH__H
a) May 1
b) May 5
c) May 11
d) May 23
e) May 26

A Time to Celebrate

Israel turns 60 on May 14. Which, of course, means it is party time! On May 18, Los Angeles is having an all-day bash in the park. From 10 a.m.-10 p.m. at Woodley Park (between Burbank and Victory boulevards) in Encino, hear music, watch a fashion show, enjoy tons of food, play games, enjoy rides, buy Israeli products and wish the Jewish state a happy birthday.

The Jewish Journal will be there with our friend, Anne Marie Balia Asner, author of the Matzah Ball Books series, including “Shmutzy Girl” and “Noshy Boy.” Anne Marie will be signing her latest book, “Klutzy Boy,” so be sure to stop by our Readers Lounge and take a break from the heat. Yom Hooledet Sameach Yisrael!

For more information, visit

The Other Sides

There are weeks when history is written, and there are weeks, like this past one, when it is rewritten.

On Thursday, July 26, The New York Times carried a two-page investigation into the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Three days later, the Los Angeles Times ran its own story, “Blame for Camp David Talks’ Failure Takes a Twist.”

These stories reverberated in magazines, op-ed sections and, to a lesser extent, on television. They portrayed a much more complicated narrative — or multiple, conflicting narratives — contradicting the party line promoted since September by Jewish leaders and organizations. That narrative goes something like this: The Palestinians are to blame. Period. End of story.

The July 26 account, by Deborah Sontag, asserted that U.S. mediators, then-President Bill Clinton, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat made “political and diplomatic miscalculations” that sank the talks.

Clinton, facing the end of his presidency, pushed forward to Camp David despite indications that the parties were unprepared. Barak rode roughshod over Palestinian concerns and failed to develop rapport with his partner, Arafat. Arafat and the Palestinian team rejected Barak’s historic final offer, but failed to present counter-proposals that might have broken the impasse.

In a later editorial in The New York Times, Barak lashed out at the Palestinian spin, and stressed again that Arafat’s intransigence, combined with his propensity to resort to violence as a negotiating tool, caused the current cyclone of death and destruction.

But even Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was Israel’s foreign minister at the time, argued the Palestinians made significant concessions at Camp David: “They agreed to Israeli sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem,” he told Sontag. “They agreed to the idea that three blocs of settlements they so oppose could remain in place and that the Western Wall and Jewish Quarter could be under Israeli sovereignty.”

U.S. negotiators, as well as Israelis like Yossi Beilin, apportion blame to the Israelis for continuing settlement expansion and land confiscation, and to the Palestinians for continuing to foment hate against Israel. “If the fundamental equation had to be land for peace,” former National Security Council Middle East expert Rob Malley told Sontag, “how can it have any meaning and any relevance when, on the one hand, land was being taken away on a daily basis and, on the other hand, the peace was being maligned on a daily basis?”

But what’s as telling as Sontag’s piece is the Jewish communal over-reaction to it.

The Times’ William Safire derided his paper’s report as a whitewash of Arafat’s guilt, but it wasn’t.

Sequestered in his cabin, jealous of attention paid more able lieutenants, rejecting Barak’s proposals without offering his own, Arafat’s behavior leads me to suspect that peace will come only over his dead body.

But if Arafat has no new ideas, neither do those who have dismissed Sontag’s piece as pro-Oslo propaganda. As negotiator Dennis Ross told an audience of the Jewish Community Relations Committee here last month, it is not Sontag, The Times, the international media, the peaceniks or altruism that has led every Israeli government, Labor, Likud or unity, to pursue negotiations with the Palestinians. Israeli prime ministers don’t need Bill Safire or American Jewish boosters to tell them that the ultimate aim of the Palestinians is an end to the Jewish state. They know there may be no short-term diplomatic solutions to Palestinian violence, but neither are there any long-term military solutions to Israeli occupation. Thus, Oslo.

Given the death toll of this past week, such nuanced, retrospective reporting as Sontag’s seems like a luxury, but it is a critical step toward understanding how to go forward. As Sontag reveals, between the Camp David meetings and Israeli and Palestinian negotiations in Taba, Egypt, six months later, “remarkable progress was made in narrowing differences between the two sides.” When the violence wears itself out, such progress can be the basis for a return to the inevitable peace talks.

In the meantime, it’s time for Jewish leaders and organizations to stop oversimplifying the complex equation that must eventually work itself out in the Middle East.