Raising pint-sized ‘People of the Book’
To harried modern parents, few things sound more luxurious than a quiet weekend away — no cell phones, no televisions — with a pile of unread books. To the vast majority of their children, few things sound more torturous. It’s not that modern-day kids don’t enjoy reading. Most do. It’s just that an abyss of high-tech alternatives and jam-packed daily schedules have left them unlikely to discover that reading offers a world of excitement that could put their Xbox 360 to shame.
Nevertheless, as academic demands become increasingly grueling and college admission requirements increasingly stringent, strong reading skills might be more important to kids today than ever before. Studies consistently show better readers get better grades. Reading is, after all, the very heart of education. Reading enriches the imagination, builds vocabulary, teaches grammar and makes students better spellers and writers. If our kids are going to thrive and succeed in our fast-paced, achievement-oriented society, they need to be proficient readers.
So what’s a 21st-century parent to do? Pile on the after-school tutoring? Threaten that the kids will lose their instant messaging privileges if they don’t finish their reading assignments?
Perhaps the philosopher Epictetus put it best: “If you wish to be a good reader, read.”
There never was and never will be any other way.
In celebration of Jewish Book Month, here are some suggestions for fostering critical literacy skills and igniting a lifelong love of reading in your child:
Give Reading a Prime-time Slot
Regardless of how much kids like to read, they won’t read if they haven’t any time to do so. By setting aside twenty minutes or so every day (right before bedtime usually works well), we provide our kids ample reading opportunity while sending the message that it’s an activity worthy of their precious time.
Check the Reading Level
When children take on books beyond their proficiency level, they can become rapidly disheartened. To determine whether a book is too hard for your child, have her read the first page aloud to you.0 If she stumbles over more than five words, put it back on the shelf and help her make another selection.
Seeing a story on the big screen (or a small one) can provide just the spark kids need to pick up the book version. Flicks like “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “Harry Potter,” “Harriet the Spy” and “Stuart Little” are sure to have your little stars hitting the library in no time.
Entice Them With Glossy Pages
Kids needn’t peruse classics to reap the benefits of reading. Magazines that zero -in on children’s passions — from skateboarding to fashion- – can inspire even the most reluctant readers to start flipping pages. Techno-savvy kids can pull up favorite magazines online at sites like Sports Illustrated Kids and Time for Kids.
Create a Library on Wheels
Propensity toward carsickness aside, keeping a supply of books in the car will turn all those idle hours in traffic into valuable reading time.
Turn Them on to Books on Tape
Listening to a book on tape while following along in the real thing gives struggling readers (or those who simply want to tackle a book that’s beyond their reading level) an opportunity to enjoy the story without getting bogged down by difficult words.
In addition to your child’s regular allowance, provide a small allotment exclusively for reading material. Even if all your kid can afford is a paperback book or magazine, you’ve helped your cause.
Start a Parent/Child Book Club
This hot new trend in book clubs offers benefits galore, ranging from heightened reading skills to multigenerational bonding.
It’s in the Bag
Stash some books in a tote bag and pull them out whenever you and your kids get caught in a holding pattern. Whether waiting at the doctor’s office or a restaurant, your children will be thankful to have books to bust their boredom.
Add ‘Book Night’ to Your Chanukah Traditions
Reserve one night of your Festival of Lights this year for family members to exchange hot reads. Spend the rest of the evening enjoying your new books together. Make your gift last all year long by tapping Family Reading Night as a weekly tradition.
Read to Your Kids
For kids who are learning to read — and even those who are old pros! — it’s always a treat to listen to a book. Use expression and intonation as you read to encourage your kids to do so on their own.
Read All About It
The very thought of editors of Jewish publications gathering in an Oxford manor house cries out for a Rodney Dangerfield punch line.
Yarnton Manor was once a holding of the Spencer-Churchill family, as in Princess Diana and Sir Winston. Juxtapose its dark wood-paneled rooms and sweeping Jacobean gardens with a bunch of hunch-shouldered journalists whose profession is rarely accorded much respect inside their communities, much less among landed gentry — you get the picture. It was easy for me to sit in the manor’s 17th-century great room and imagine generations of Spencers and Churchills cartwheeling in their graves.
But a decade ago, the house was purchased by a Jewish family who turned it over to the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. The American Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) International Centre for Community Development chose it as a convenient midway point for a first-ever gathering of 13 editors and publishers of Jewish publications from North America, Europe and Israel.
The early September meeting was the brainchild of Alberto Senderey, the JDC’s director of international community development. Senderey is a model Jewish professional, and not just because he invited me as one of five Americans included for the four-day symposium in beautiful Oxford.
An energetic, optimistic burst of Argentine energy, he recognized that Jewish media have a unique and underappreciated perspective on Jewish communal life. In increasingly dispersed and diverse communities, Jewish newspapers and magazines can serve as virtual community centers, a place where all voices can be heard and where, in the best of circumstances, all a community’s important issues and problems examined.
Jews have a complicated relationship with the Jews who write about them. On the one hand, they want us to do the stuff of journalism — gather and present news accurately without fear or bias, hold leaders and institutions accountable and present a diversity of opinions, regardless of their popularity.
On the other hand, they want us to do all this without offending them, attacking them, upsetting their fundraising or giving press to points of view they despise. The relationship is often rocky and inherently uncomfortable. We are outsiders writing about outsiders — the Jews of the Jews.
But the JDC, which works with endangered and emergent Jewish communities from South America to Siberia, understands that for many Jews, the local Jewish press is their first or even main connection to Jewish life. In a time when traditional forms of Jewish expression — synagogues, JCCs, federations — have struggled to retain the loyalty of a new generation, Jewish papers and magazines continue to thrive.
Consider this nugget mined from the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey: For the majority of Jews in the vaunted 35-44 age range — the ones whose child-rearing will set a new generation on the path toward Jewish life — the No. 1 nonreligious Jewish activity in which they engage is reading a Jewish periodical.
In this age group, 47 percent of Jews belong to a synagogue, 45 percent contribute to nonfederation Jewish charities, 25 percent contribute to their local federation. But these numbers are easily surpassed by the 68 percent who read a Jewish newspaper or magazine.
To some degree, this statistic reflects the general promise of niche publications in an increasingly fractured media market. New Times’ multimillion dollar purchase this week of former rival LA Weekly’s parent company, Village Voice Media Inc., is but one example.
But another possible explanation for this astonishing statistic — how likely is it that 68 percent of Jews would agree on anything? — is that newspapers and periodicals offer a low barrier of entry to Jewish life. There’s no membership, no dress code, no judging. In some cases, as with this paper, there is zero cost, as well. That means people who want to affirm or explore their connection to Judaism can do so easily, every week, at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.
The fact that young people aren’t joining Jewish organizations doesn’t mean they’re dropping out, said conference participant Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week in New York. “They’re looking for new ways to identify.”
For a new generation of Jews, the Holocaust and even the Six-Day War are ancient history. The touchstones of Jewishness have shifted, and media outlets, which can change content monthly, weekly or, on the Internet, hourly, are poised to adapt more quickly than synagogues or large organizations. That makes these long-undervalued participants in Jewish communal life more important than ever.
Not surprisingly, Joshua Newman, the editor of the controversial, youth-skewed Heeb, was one of the editors invited. His magazine has successfully explored the intersection of Jewish and secular culture, and has attracted a large audience of the even more elusive 18- to 35-year-old Jews. It has done so, in part, by tweaking or ignoring coverage that traditional Jewish magazines emphasize: Israel, the Holocaust, organized Jewish life.
One thing we editors agreed on was that the nature of our profession is, like much in the Jewish world, changing.
In the not-so-recent past, much of what we wrote about, even as exposes, was parochial compared to the general press: which Jewish organization did what to whom, the latest from Israel, the most notable Jew of the week (astronaut, movie star, baseball player — you name it).
But beginning with the front-page news of the Oslo accords, Jewish news became international news. Certainly after the election of George W. Bush and the terror attack of 9/11, the coverage of faith, ethnic identity and how they dovetail with the world at large took on a vital importance.
“The Jewish story became the national story,” said J.J. Goldberg, editor of The Forward. “Religion reporting became central to all reporting.”
The intifada and the subsequent vilification of Israel in much of the mainstream press only upped the ante for Jewish papers. “We became a source for more accurate reporting,” said Meir Waintroter, who edits L’Arche, a Parisian-based monthly.
In fact, the reality of anti-Semitism in our daily professional life was one glaring difference between the American editors at the conference and their European and Eastern European counterparts. We Americans rarely look over our shoulders to see which non-Jewish enemies will take issue with what we print. For some of our colleagues, such trepidation is a fact of life.
When it comes to such issues as Israel and anti-Semitism, Jewish papers are able to provide depth and context that mainstream papers sometimes overlook.
But here’s the balancing act. Just as we recognize our unique role in providing deeper coverage of issues Jews care about, including unsavory aspects of our own communities, there’s also an element of outreach to our mission. If we define “Jewish” too narrowly, we risk alienating large segments of our current and potential readership.
“If we narrow ourselves to issues that are only Jewish defined,” said one editor, “we fail to appeal to readers who feel that Jews have a universal message. We end up creating a Jewish community where most Jews don’t belong.”
And there are not just a few of those Jews. Originally the youth-oriented magazine Heeb sought to “speak to an alienated voice” of disassociated and disconnected young Jews, said Heeb editor Newman. In so doing, the magazine effectively created a new Jewish community.
That, ultimately, is the threefold power of the Jewish press: to strengthen Jewish community through the practice of journalism, to extend the opportunity of Jewish communal life to as many people as possible and, not incidentally, to provide a first draft of Jewish history itself.
Or, as my fellow Yarnton Manor pal Winston Churchill once said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”
On the holiday of Sukkot, it is customary to read Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, written by King Solomon. The following “updated” version of Kohelet is written by Judy Gruen, with major apologies to King Solomon.
“Futility of futilities,” Sarah Rivkah bas Leah Rochel said. “All is futile.”
What profit does a balabusta have for all her labor, which she toils in the supermarket and in the kitchen?
A table of guests comes and a table of guests goes, but Yom Tov endures almost forever. And the sun rises and the sun sets — then it is Yom Tov again. All the guests flow into the sukkah, yet the sukkah is not full until we invite the ushpizin (seven souls). (Could have fooled me; there is hardly room to put the soup.)
All meals become wearying; one becomes speechless, except for my youngest child, who won’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise. Whatever has been cooked is what will be served, and whatever was forgotten in the back of the refrigerator will not be served. There are no new recipes beneath the sun (except at Susan’s house — she has more than 100 cookbooks, and even uses them). Sometimes there is a salad of which one says, “Look! This is new!” Yet it is simply arugula with mustard vinaigrette, and it has already existed in the ages before us.
I, a balabusta, am queen over my kitchen in Pico-Robertson, so why do I feel like a galley slave? I applied my mind and body to creatively prepare for two-dozen Yom Tov meals — it is a task that God has given to the daughters of Israel with which to be concerned. But I have seen all I want to see of the aisles of the kosher store this week, and behold, finding parking becomes a vexation of the spirit. A car twisted into taking two parking spots cannot be made to fit in one parking spot if you don’t have the keys; and what I will spend in the market cannot be numbered.
Then I looked at all the things that I had done and the energy I had expended in doing them; it was clear that was all madness and folly, since the fly-catcher I had hung in the sukkah fell down and went splat on the ground and a great stink rose in the sukkah. This, too, was a vexation of the spirit and caused much grief, as she who even inadvertently creates a stink in the sukkah increases pain.
Everything has its season, and there is a time for everything under the heavens:
A time to plan menus, and a time to shop.
A time to cook, and a time to set the table.
A time to put children in time out, and a time to heal.
A time to bake cakes and a time to eat.
A time to shop again, and a time to pray for parking.
A time to chop vegetables, and a time to borrow two onions from your neighbor.
A time to serve guests, and a time to clean up.
A time to feel exhausted … is a good time to stay silent.
I have observed that God put an enigma in our minds so that we cannot comprehend why He wants us to do so much cooking and serving. Thus I have perceived that I may as well rejoice and cook more meals before the next dozen guests sidle into the sukkah. Indeed most men and women who eat and drink will find satisfaction in all my labor — it is a gift from God (and since Yom Tov is not yet over I hope it is a gift that will keep on giving).
Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a glad heart, since I put it all on the Visa and the store merchant approved my credit. Take care lest you spill dark grape juice on my white tablecloth, or I may be tempted to anoint your head with oil.
The race to the bakery is indeed won by the swift and the grocery shopping achieved by the strong, and this is a good thing since weeks of Yom Tov will happen to us all. Like fish caught in a net, like birds seized in a snare, so are women caught in a moment of disaster when Yom Tov falls upon them suddenly. This, too, I have observed personally, and it affected me profoundly.
The balabusta seeks to rejoice under the “clouds of glory,” no matter how many three-day Yom Tovs there are, and feed her guests without comparing her menu to that of her neighbor, who has been baking since before Labor Day, since that would be a vexation of the spirit. Home-baked challah will also be digested in the same way as store-bought challah. After all, a feast is made for laughter and wine gladdens life, so let your heart cheer you in the days of Yom Tov, especially if you have not spent most of the previous month in the kitchen. Wear sensible shoes in the kitchen, for you will stand there for a long time.
The sum of the matter, when all is considered: Fear God and keep His commandments, and remember to stock up on Shabbas candles and extra canned goods that can quickly be made into a salad in case you leave a dish on the stove for too long. This is not a balabusta’s whole duty, but it sure is a big part of it during Yom Tov.
Judy Gruen is the mother of four kids and humor writer. Read more of her columns and order copies of her award-winning humor books on www.judygruen.com.
The Fight for Freedom
In last week’s Torah Portion, the Israelites sat back and watched as God brought seven plagues upon the Egyptians. This week, in Parshat Bo, we read of the last three plagues. All of a sudden, the Israelites are told that they must help God in the last plague by smearing the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their houses. This was so that God will know not to strike those houses with the plague of the first-born and would “pass over” those houses. But didn’t God know which homes were Jewish?
God decides it is now time for the Israelites to become a nation, and to do that they must take action and learn about right and wrong. So God says: you must participate in your release from slavery. You will become free – and with freedom comes responsibility.
All About Egypt
This is the last week the Israelites will spend in Egypt. Have you ever been to Egypt? Do you know where it is? Unscramble the words to discover what continent it is on and which countries border
Turning The Pages of Childhood
"Mommy, will you read to me?"
My 10-year-old daughter asks me this question every night. Even if I’m exhausted, or just want some time to myself, I almost always say yes. Before I turn around, she’ll be 11, then 12, then a teenager.
She will no longer need her reading fix with Mommy. "Time will not be ours forever," as Ben Jonson wrote back in 1607, when the printed word was still a new invention. I want to make this time with my daughter last.
My husband and I also have three sons who are older than Yael, which means I have clocked 15 solid years of reading aloud to our children. Because we have worked to instill a love for the written word in them, Yael’s requests to have me read to her make me feel that we have succeeded.
I take special delight in being asked to read to a child who has already read on her own for several years. (And her brothers all did the same thing.) Admittedly, if we allowed them to watch TV or play computer games for hours on end, the children may well have preferred to experience some frenetic galactic explosions on the screen to having me read to them. But we didn’t, and we have been rewarded richly for it. Over the years we have enjoyed countless delicious reading experiences together: Roald Dahl’s magical "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"; E.B. White’s timelessly charming "Charlotte’s Web"; Beverly Cleary’s series about the irrepressible Ramona and Henry Huggins; and so many more.
I also take particular delight in reading to my children when they are already independent readers because I missed this kind of quiet growing up. Memories of my childhood are filled with the theme song to "Bonanza" bouncing out from one bedroom where my father watched, competing with the canned laugh track of "The Odd Couple" in the den, where my Mom and I watched. We watched others live imaginary lives more than we talked about our own real ones, and sat passively more than we engaged with one another.
I’m secretly happy that my kids complain — not about wanting to watch TV — but about a lack of books in the house. This, despite the groaning weight of books, often double-stacked, on every inch of bookshelf space we have in every room in the house. Their reading appetites are insatiable. Even when I read to Yael, one or two of her older brothers sometimes drift in to the room and take a seat. After all, who could resist this exchange between Charlotte and Wilbur — no doubt the most endearing spider and pig to ever grace the pages of a children’s book:
"Why did you do all this for me?" Wilbur asked. "I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you."
"You have been my friend," Charlotte replied. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that."
Who could ever tire of reading exquisite children’s writing like this, with elegant philosophy thrown in?
My husband and I may have fostered our kids’ love of the written word by reading to them when they were small, but they have continued to develop the passion on their own. Sure, it may partly owe to a Nintendo-deprived existence, but so what? In learning to love to read, they have also learned to love learning for its own sake. They have made this gift their own, and it will enhance their lives for as long as God grants them time on this earth.
As much as their reading thrills me, sometimes, even I have to pry their faces out from behind of a book. Even reading, taken to extremes, can become an isolating activity. I can’t always stop them from reading in the car, under the kitchen table, in the bathroom and, of course, under the blanket late at night, but there are a lot worse problems a parent can have.
When our kids are all grown up, I hope that their memories of our reading together, snuggling on the couch or in bed, will be among the most meaningful of their childhoods. I know that they already are for me. If I’m lucky, Yael will continue to ask me to read to her for many chapters yet to come.
Judy Gruen is an award-winning humorist and columnist for Religion News
Service. More of her columns can be found at www.judygruen.com.
If you thought Hebrew school was just for bar and bat mitzvah students, think again. This fall, tens of thousands of Jews around the United States and Canada are learning to read and write Hebrew through Read Hebrew America/Canada. The campaign, which is made possible by the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP), a New York-based organization that provides Jewish educational opportunities, is now offering its annual free Hebrew crash course in Los Angeles and other cities across the country during the month of November.
“Hebrew is the language of the Jewish people, yet in America we don’t know if more than 20 or 25 percent of Jews can read it,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, NJOP’s program director.
The organization created Read Hebrew America/Canada 16 years ago with hopes of combating this trend and helping Jews feel more connected to Judaism and Israel.
Classes are taught by volunteers, rabbis and Jewish educators and are being offered at more than 30 different locations around the Southland. The Level One Hebrew Reading Crash Course consists of five 60- to 90-minute classes. Each student receives a free textbook and is encouraged to practice at home for 15-20 minutes each day. Teachers use simple tactics like mnemonic devices to help readers memorize letters and sounds.
Additional Read Hebrew America/Canada classes include the Level Two Hebrew Reading Crash Course, the One-Day Review and the Hebrew Writing Crash Course.
“The idea is that this will make people feel better about themselves and more comfortable in synagogue,” Rosenbaum said. “If you can’t read Hebrew, you feel closed off from it.”
For information on local Read Hebrew America/Canada
classes and locations, call (800) 444-3273 or visit www.njop.org .
Secrets of the Cryptic Scripture
Is the Torah an ancient set of laws or a divinely coded document that, if read correctly, provides clues to all major historical events? That’s the question the History Channel documentary “The Bible Code: Predicting Armageddon” wants to answer.
While many might think of the codes as a modern phenomenon, people have been searching for codes in the Torah since the 12th century.
In the late 20th century, Bible code scholars counted letters at various intervals to see what words appeared, and later, they used computers to lay the text out on a grid, or matrix, and counted some more. Noting when certain words materialized next to each other on the grid, scholars say they found clues to — among other things — the 1929 stock market crash, World War II, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and the L.A. earthquake of 1994.
While most of these clues were found after the fact, Bible code proponents point out that they were able to predict the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin before it happened, and they tried to warn the Israeli government to no avail. (Though presumably, if the Torah is divine, then it is unlikely a little warning would derail God’s plan.) They also predict another major earthquake in Los Angeles in 2010 and Earth’s possible destruction by a comet in 2012.
Opponents of the codes interviewed in the documentary say that they can be found in any text, and point to experiments run on “Moby Dick,” where letters counted at equal distances revealed Princess Diana’s death.
Matthew Asner and Danny Gold, the two Reform Jews who wrote, directed and produced the documentary, say that while they don’t necessarily believe in the codes, they find them interesting.
“If you totally believe in the codes you’re a fool, but if you dismiss them completely then you’re a fool, too,” Asner said. “But let’s just say that in the last part of 2009, I will be getting earthquake insurance.”
“The Bible Code” premieres on The History Channel,
Sun.,’ Sept. 7 at 9 p.m. www.historychannel.com .
Thanksgiving’s Jewish Roots
The Pilgrims of New Salem, Mass., were so moved by the stories of the ancient Israelites that they thought of America as their Zion and New Salem as their Jerusalem. They based their first Thanksgiving celebration on the pilgrimages the Jews were commanded to make to Jerusalem on Sukkot. There, the Israelites offered the first wheat and barley of their fall harvest to the Temple.
A Different Pilgrim
Here’s another idea of something to do during your Thanksgiving break — read the story or watch the video of “Molly’s Pilgrim.” It is based on the children’s book by Barbara Cohen (Lothrop Lee & Shepard) and winner of a 1985 Academy Award. It tells the story of a young Russian Jewish immigrant who comes to America with her parents to escape religious persecution. Instead of acceptance, Molly finds a group of insensitive classmates who make fun of her. A lesson is learned that “it takes all kinds of pilgrims to make a Thanksgiving.”
The Downside to Literacy
I honestly thought my daughter, Bruria, would never learn how to read. My nieces learned how when they were 3, and so I assumed that if I got in early, say around 2, Bruria would be in full swing by 3.
So I dutifully started with letters and sounds, labeling every item in the house, in a constant education mode. Nothing happened. Bruria loved listening to stories, but when I paused before a word to see if she could work it out herself, there was just silence.
By the time Bruria was 3 1Â¼2, and there wasn’t an inkling of literacy, I decided to take her to a nationally reputed reading expert. It was a whole operation to get her there — with my husband and me, our nanny and new baby in tow — and by the time we arrived, Bruria was hungry, and restless and about to have a tantrum.
After the interview, the specialist told us gently that there really wasn’t any need to start with testing when a child was 3. But she did find that Bruria had phonemic awareness problems. I gasped — a diagnosis! Now there was a project for me to jump right into.
No, no, no, the specialist assured us, there was nothing to do, just keep reading to her, morning and night, and come back if there was still a problem when she was 6.
“What on earth are you doing to the girl?” one friend asked me — the one who had been reading when she was an infant, “She has such a wonderful ego, you’re destroying it because of some ridiculous notion of yours that she has to be up to Tolstoy in kindergarten.”
Suddenly, I came to my senses: self-esteem was in fact my goal. I wanted her to have the time to get through the literature I had forfeited when I became obsessed with school and grades. But this wasn’t getting Bruria where I wanted her to go; in fact, she was just becoming nervous and unhappy around books. What a nightmare!
So we laid off for many years. She didn’t come to the preschool interview leafing through “Jane Eyre,” and — to my great shock — she was still admitted.
Last week, at age 7, Bruria finished her first novel, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” by Roald Dahl. I wanted to say “Shehecheyanu,” the blessing we recite for new festivals or fruit (my husband explained the blessing is really only for tangible things). There are a very few milestones in life that really land you on a different plain, perhaps: taking your first step, childbirth, death — and reading your first novel. There is no experience like it, each time you enter a completely imaginary universe and the writer takes you on a fantastical journey through places and things you could never experience or know — and when you land back home, you’re still on the living room couch. It links you with other eras and places and puts you right in the breathtaking center of the vast human dialogue.
Well it’s all very nice, but now we’re drowning in books. There are piles in the toilet, and next to the bath and on the kitchen table. Most of the time I’m asking Bruria to return the old ones to the shelf before getting out new ones, but she thinks that is ridiculous. How can you only be reading one book at a time? There have to be at least three different adventures progressing at every place she may be sitting at that moment.
I still read to her. And I am rediscovering all the wonderful worlds of words I lost so long ago when I decided I had to turn my precious literature into something economically productive. Thankfully, my daughter has no notion that her joy in books has any purpose other than pure enjoyment.
May it always be so.