Like the MamaLand Empire!

Have you joined the MamaLand Empire?
      ... and join my mailing list for biweekly Jewish parenting ideas - no spam, no ads, just me!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why you need to join my mailing list and take over the world (a manifesto).


Don’t cringe. 

I know the phrase “mailing list” sounds so 1998, but this post is my appeal to you to sign up for my mailing list.  I’ll tell you why in a minute.  But first, I want to tell you who I think you are and why we have this connection.

(I’ll get to taking over the world in a minute.)

Who this blog is for

If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming a few things about you.

  • You are Jewish, or interested in Judaism.
  • You have kids, or are interested in education. (or both!)
  • You don’t take much for granted.
  • You believe both in lifelong learning and in questioning the status quo.

This blog, my first and still very close to my heart, has always dwelt at the intersection of Judaism and family life. 

True, it has changed over the years.  But I don’t like to think of it as changing, but rather, evolving with me and my kids.  Whether through cloth-diapering and attachment parenting, or homeschooling, or cooking weekday suppers, week in and week out, or dealing with family losses, it has always revolved around those two themes:  Judaism and family life.

Many of you have stuck with me for a good long while.

As I’ve branched out in new directions – like making aliyah and writing kids’ books – some of you have stayed with me.  But most of you haven’t, and that’s okay.  If you look at that list above, it doesn’t say anything about making aliyah or writing children’s books.  It doesn’t hurt my feelings that you’re not over there on those other blogs.

But I still want to stay in touch.

Partly for selfish reasons – I want to be able to let you know when I have a new children’s book coming out so you can help me promote it like crazy (and maybe even write a review or two).

Partly to help others – one of my most popular posts of all time is the eulogy for my brother, because so many people are suffering through similar things with mental illness in their families.

Partly for fun – it’s cool to bounce ideas off folks and to hear back from people who have enjoyed something I’ve written.

Mainly because… all those things in that list of “who you are” up above?  That’s still me, and I hope that’s still you.

Say No! to Digital Sharecropping

So why a mailing list?

There’s a new(ish) term bouncing around the internet:  Digital Sharecroppers.  A few smart writers have noticed that we are overly dependent on one or two services to help us stay in touch with the people who matter.  That’s you – blog readers.

To put it bluntly:  because this blog is hosted by Google, if Google tanks tomorrow, that’s the end of our relationship. 

That’s bad.  (Okay, the Tanking of Google is the end of a lot of things… let’s not think about it.)

Now that I see it so clearly, I know I don’t want to be that digital sharecropper.  I want to be the one who in control, so I don’t have to depend on Google and keep all my eggs in one basket.  And that means I want to “meet” you – well, your email address – and maybe even get to know you a little better. 

That’s why I’m asking you to sign up for my mailing list.  No spam, no ads – just me.

What do you get out of it?

  • A short note from me with Jewish parenting and family insights.  Every other week (or so), with nothing in between.
  • The chance to read and review my new children’s books free, before they come out.
  • Discounts and special offers, maybe even freebies, on existing books.
  • Umm… I could draw this list out even longer if I wanted.
  • Maybe even add a couple of empty bullet points filled out to make it look super-substantial.
  • Oops.  You figured out my trick.  I have nothing to say here.

If you’re here, reading this, I’m counting on the fact that you think a little like me, and that together, we can take over the world, or at least, make it a really interesting place to be Jewish and raise our families.

See?  I got around to the bit about taking over the world – at last.

I’m not going to stop blogging, either here or elsewhere.  It’s still part of my empire-building plan for global domination, don’t worry.

But I probably won’t blog as much as I have been.  It’s basic math:  I’ve only got so many words in me each day, and if those words are going into blogs, they’re not going into books.  If books is what I want to be doing, then blogging has got to take a backseat.

I really hope that having an easy, direct way to stay in touch with you will help us stay together wherever I may find myself in the future.

Here’s the signup form you’ll be seeing on some of my posts from here on out.  I hope you’ll consider filling it out.

Jewish parenting insights? Yes, please!

(Not too many... you’ll get a short personal note every other week or so. No spam, no ads; I promise.)
* indicates required

If you don't like it, you can always unsubscribe.  But I really appreciate your taking a second to sign up now.

For those fanatics out there who happen to adore every single thing I do (hi, mom!), I have two other lists you can join as well:

Did I say thank you?  THANK YOU!

[cool robot world domination photo credit:  Phil Plait via flickr]

Sunday, July 13, 2014

New kids’ siddurs from Koren give Artscroll a run for its money.


If there’s one thing that causes hand-wringing and hair-pulling in the Torah homeschooling world, it’s choosing a siddur.

It makes sense, doesn’t it?

  • We’re passionate about educating our kids,
  • We’re passionate about Judaism,
  • Tefillah (prayer) is an important cornerstone of Judaism.  Therefore…
  • The siddur we choose is critical.

Hence the hair-pulling.  (or tichel-pulling, as the case may be)

Complicating things is the fact that many homeschooling parents are baalei teshuvah (newly-observant) or geirim (converts), who may not know the text or its meaning and might feel insecure about sharing these things with their kids.

Since my own personal favourite grown-up siddur is my Koren / Sacks siddur, I was thrilled to receive review copies of two new kids’ siddurs from Koren Publishers.  One, the Koren Children’s Siddur, is for young kids, the other, Ani Tefillah, is aimed more at middle grades and high schoolers. 

The distinctive Koren fonts and layout have been incorporated into their junior versions – yay!  With their slick look and obvious quality, these exciting new entries in this under-populated niche will certainly challenge established children’s siddurs.

Both are intended for English-speaking kids, though the children’s siddur doesn’t include translations; these can be found in the accompanying Educator’s Companion, which I’ll look at in a minute.  And both are beautiful siddurs with a lot of attention to design and details.


Koren’s Ani Tefillah Youth Siddur

Let’s look at the “big kids” model first – Ani Tefillah, which seems to be aimed at middle grades and up into high school.

What I liked about this siddur:

  • Distinctive Koren layout & fonts
  • Sensible translation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
  • Thought-provoking commentary by educator Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz
  • Co-sponsorship and/or imprimatur and/or hashkafa of Yeshiva University

This siddur would make a great accompaniment to a course in tefillah. 

However, in practice, the format occasionally gets clunky; as with many haggadahs, there’s sometimes a lot more commentary than text on the page.  In daily use, kids would probably skim over most of the commentary, and indeed, have to flip pages pretty quickly to keep up with whoever’s leading the davening.


I wouldn’t just hand kids a book like this and expect them to be moved to new heights of spirituality.

Instead, to get the most out of this book with its terrific material for reading & reflection, a parent or teacher should prepare ahead of time, then go through the book with kids in sections, ie shema, weekday shemona esrei, etc.

The Koren Children’s Siddur

Moving right along… to the Koren Children’s Siddur, available in Ashkenaz and Sefardi models (they are almost identical).

What I liked about this siddur:

  • Distinctive Koren layout & fonts
  • Richly textured illustrations by Rinat Gilboa
  • Thought-provoking questions and commentary
  • Co-sponsorship and/or imprimatur and/or hashkafa of Yeshiva University
  • Light weight will appeal to little kids and travel easily to shul, school, etc
  • Includes both boys and girls, both in illustrations and in text variations for male / female (modeh / modah ani etc)
  • Shema and some other tefillos are complete (but some are not; see below)
  • Krias shema at the very end for convenience.

This is a beautiful book that is ideal for first explorations of tefillah with very young children.  The illustrations really make this book, as you can see here.  Lots more pictures below.


Homeschooling parents, especially BTs and geirim, will be very interested in the Educator’s Companion… especially because there is no integrated translation in the siddur itself.

The Educator’s Companion (also available in Ashkenaz and Sefardi versions) is keyed to the siddur precisely, with full-page illustrations so you can be sure you’re (literally) on the same page as your kids (click to see bigger versions).


Every page provides translation, along with other great features.  The illustration is examined in detail for its symbols and meaning relative to the tefillah in question.  Also, each siddur page usually offers two “kavannot” (reflections on the meaning of the tefillah), and the Educator’s Companion offers discussion possibilities and clues for each one.

There’s a lot to look at in this siddur, and I think it would make a great starting point for any family just beginning to incorporate regular davening into the daily routine. 

Koren Children’s Siddur – drawbacks

I wanted to love this siddur for so many reasons.  Most significantly, I don’t believe one company or hashkafa should have a monopoly on Jewish thought and quality texts in the English-speaking world.  I also want to support a company that has put so much obvious care and thought into this project.

There are a few things, however, that might diminish from this siddur’s appeal to homeschoolers:

  • No included translation (it’s in the Educator’s Companion; see above)
  • Incomplete tefillos, including shemona esrei and Ashrei
  • Symbols at the bottom of pages may be distracting (they’re meant as a navigation guide)
  • Highly stylized illustrations may feel “babyish” and date easily
  • Order of tefillah is different from Artscroll and many generic Ashkenazi siddurim (however, this is true for all Koren siddurs; it’s not wrong, just different)
  • No bentching or food-related brachos (that I noticed)

When you create a kids’ siddur, by definition, you can’t cram everything in… or you’d be back to a long, boring adult siddur.  You have to leave some stuff out – and what gets left out is mainly an editorial decision.  (Or a decision by parents and educators as to what we’ll buy for our kids.) 

In the Koren Children’s Siddur, for example, Yigdal is entire included, but Ashrei and Aleinu are truncated; I’m not sure how decisions like this are made, but I would have kept all three, since they are all very commonly used with children (the other two at least as often as Yigdal, if not more so, in my experience).

What’s worked for us so far?

My siddur of choice for years has been the classic Artscroll children’s siddur.  This is probably the reigning champion in the kids’ siddur world. 

It suffers from many of the same problems – indeed, the artwork in this late-90s favourite is already looking a little dated, in my opinion; there are also incomplete tefillos, though not as many.  Overall, it seems far more complete, though it’s not an overly large volume:  it includes the entire weekday shemona esrei, though not the Shabbos one, along with the complete bentching, along with Al Hamichya and brachos for other occasions.  It also includes the complete Ashrei and Aleinu.

IMG_00004892        imageimage

With our move to Israel, we are starting to transition to Hebrew-only siddurs. 

So I was excited to see the Koren Mibereishit Siddur (סידור קורן מבראשית) at the Jewish Book Fair last year in Jerusalem.  Even without a lot of Hebrew, I have been enjoying the parsha sheets from MiBereishit (“from Genesis”) for years.  The parsha sheets are fun, well-drawn and lively, and I hoped the siddur would offer more of the same.

At first glance, it does. 

image image image

What I like best about the MiBereshit siddur is that the kids just look… like kids.  Ordinary kids, not dressed up, running around, having a good time. (Artscroll’s kids tend to look very dressed up – probably well-suited to their target audience, but a little weird for my kids, who can spend entire weeks in their pyjamas if given the opportunity.) 

Unfortunately, this siddur, too, suffers from the same incompleteness and we didn’t start to use it on a regular basis.

What we will probably end up using are the siddurs the kids brought home from school at the end of the year.  Naomi Rivka’s is a problem – it’s a real siddur, but it’s totally Sefardi, so I plan to gently transition her back to Ashkenaz somehow.  Gavriel Zev, meanwhile, is utterly in love with his gan siddur, and since it’s Ashkenaz, there’s no reason not to keep using it. 

IMG_00004907 IMG_00004908 IMG_00004909 \

The illustrations are not my style – they’re a little on the hokey side and star beloved singer Dudu Fisher (yes, “doodoo” is a name here!), but like I said, he loves it.  There’s a lot in here, although it, too, falls short in the shemona esrei department.  I guess that’s just not a priority for children’s siddurs, but I think that’s a shame.

The Bottom Line:  Should you buy it?

In my ideal world, illustrated siddurs would include a little more, including at least one full shemonah esrei, and ideally, no partial tefillos (ie if you include it, put in the whole thing).  But this ain’t an ideal world, and we’ve all got to choose a siddur for our kids.

Here’s the bottom line:

  • Who should buy the Koren “Ani Tefillah” Youth Siddur?  Don’t give it as a bar mitzvah gift.  With a parent or teacher for guidance through the learning selections, the Koren “Ani Tefillah” Youth Siddur is a wonderful choice for learning about tefillah with middle-grade kids and high-schoolers.  Especially useful if you’re planning to transition into the adult Koren/Sacks siddurim.  Click here to buy.
  • Who should buy the Koren Children’s Siddur?  With the Educator’s Companion, this is a good first siddur for families starting out, assuming they can read some Hebrew, or for almost any type of Hebrew school.  The discussion points in the Educator’s Companion make this a complete tefillah course for younger grades, especially for BT parents curious about the background and meaning behind tefillah.  Also terrific for very young children – the illustrations and conversation questions are sure to spur many wonderful discussions.  Click here to buy or click here for the Educator’s Companion.
  • Who should buy the Artscroll Children’s Siddur?  This siddur offers full translation and a more complete tefillah experience in a single colourful volume.  I think it’s probably better for FFB families and those more on the chareidi side who want to see children dressed up, boys and girls not interacting, and bearded Torah scholars.  Also, if you plan to transition into Artscroll or generic yeshivish siddurs in the middle grades, this book will teach the same order for most tefillos.  Click here to buy.
  • Are there any other options?  One good choice if you’re learning Hebrew might be Rabbi Chaim Alevsky’s “My Siddur” prayerbook (I’ve already reviewed his Tefillah Trax here – I’m a fan).  No pictures, no translations, but the Hebrew and transliteration are clear and easy to read.  He has a few different versions available, along with audio to help you learn and get comfortable with tefillah tunes… so email him to find out which one will meet your needs best.  Click here for more information.


I’d love to hear about your experiences, and perhaps even review more siddurim at some point.  Let me know what has worked (or not) for your family or class!

Jewish parenting insights? Yes, please!

(Not too many... you’ll get a short personal note every other week or so. No spam, no ads; I promise.)
* indicates required

Sunday, July 06, 2014

“Water, water”: Insanity and Torah Thought (for the shloshim of my brother Eli)

Saul Tries to Kill David, by von Carolsfeld

Think mental illness is something new?

It’s not; it’s always been with us.

We may believe our understanding has come a long way, but throughout Jewish history, we’ve wrestled with questions of what causes mental illnesses, and how to treat people among us who suffer from them.

In Jewish law, a person who is insane is referred to as a shoteh, and there are very specific guidelines as to how we should treat them. But let’s look at the definition first.

What is a shoteh?

The Talmud conveniently provides not a translation, but a definition, in masechet Chagigah. The shoteh is:

  • · he who goes out alone at night,
  • · he who spends the night in a cemetery, and
  • · he who tears his clothes.
  • · Later, a second baraita adds a fourth criterion: he who destroys all that is given to him

While this probably wouldn’t satisfy a modern psychiatrist, it’s not a bad start.

More important is the broader picture: setting out a definition helps us not merely define the disease, but attempt to create a compassionate situation where both the shoteh and his community are protected from its ravages.

One other beautiful idea encapsulated in the halachic approach: this status is not irreversible.

Nobody is declared a shoteh for life. Instead, there is hope, right until the final hour.

Reb Moshe Feinstein ruled that a person who had been considered a shoteh and ate matzah while in his delusional state must repeat the act a second time once he enters a period of remission (presumably, if it’s still Pesach).


Any of us, at any time

A shoteh is not who you are. It’s something you’re living with at any given moment.

There are parallels in the modern mental health system (though they don’t always work as well as they should), which take away a person’s decision-making power – and the extent to which he’s held responsible – during times when he’s relapsing into illness, and returning it to him when he’s in a period of remission.

I say “him,” when I should really say “us.”

In halachic terms, as in medical terms, mental illness is not something that only happens to others. It can happen to any one of us, at any time, and that’s why the halacha treads so carefully, and with so much compassion.

In terms of protecting the people around the shoteh, the Talmud (Ketubot 48a) says that a beit din (rabbinical court) is allowed to take away his property and use it to support his wife and children on the grounds that, if he was sane, he would surely want to take care of this responsibility himself.

And when we talk about protecting the shoteh, we have the gemara in Yevamot (112b), which says that a husband may not divorce his wife while she’s insane.

A person with a mental illness is considered a choleh she-yesh bo sakanah, one who is sick and whose life is in danger, to the extent that Shabbat observance can be suspended to help them get treatment or take medications.

And in that, the halacha shows a deep understanding that even many of us “enlightened” and “accepting” members of society don’t fully grasp:

Mental illness is a deadly disease.

With this disease, death doesn’t come through the body’s withering or fading, but the withering and fading of the mind. As the mind loses its grasp on reality, it slips away. Over 40% of people with schizophrenia try to kill themselves; 10-15% eventually succeed.

Many of the rest die from accidents related to their disease: fires they have set themselves, substances they have eaten or drunk, fights they have picked with others, or simply freezing to death from misjudging the weather conditions.

Schizophrenia and other mental illnesses can kill, just as surely and brutally as any other disease.


Madness in the Tanach

David HaMelech had a deep, deep understanding of Hashem’s creation. Yet even he admitted in a midrash (1 Shmuel 26) that there were three things whose point he’d never understood:

  • · The web-spinning spider
  • · The stinging wasp, and
  • · The madman

This midrash goes on:

“When a man walks in the market and he drools over his clothes and children run after him and the people make fun of him; this is beautiful before You?” The Holy One blessed be He said to David: “You complain about the injustice of insanity; by your life you will regret this and you will pray for it until I give it to you.”

Later, David HaMelech was convinced of the “benefits” of madness when he had to escape from King Achish of Gat. He begged Hashem to make him insane, acting so abhorrently that Achish saw no choice but to send him away.

We have to understand this a little more closely. Although it says in Tehillim (34) that David “disguised his sanity,” only true madness would have made the great king drool and act like a crazy person in a way that seemed fully authentic.

And then, just as with the shoteh, it was gone.

 David and Saul, by Marc ChagallNot only was David HaMelech back in control of his senses, his vision was clearer and sharper than ever; some of his greatest words of wisdom are encapsulated in Tehillim 34, written at the blessed return of his own sanity.

This wasn’t the first time David HaMelech had encountered madness.

We read about this in Shmuel Alef. Remember how, as a boy, he came with his harp to play for Shaul? That’s because the great king had temporarily gone crazy. Hashem’s spirit was suddenly gone, and an “evil spirit” has replaced it.

וְרוּחַ ה סָרָה, מֵעִם שָׁאוּל; וּבִעֲתַתּוּ רוּחַ-רָעָה, מֵאֵת ה.

Now the spirit of Hashem had departed from Shaul,

and an evil spirit from Hashem terrified him.

Very odd: Hashem’s spirit is “gone,” and then a different spirit comes upon Shaul, also from Hashem.

Madness isn’t something external or foreign, as we’ll see. It’s just as much from Hashem as the “sane spirit” that overtakes Shaul in his better moments.

How can something so ugly be from Hashem? That is the eternal question, and one I can’t really answer here.


Rabbi Akiva, from the Mantua Haggadah Madness in traditional Jewish understanding

The classic story of insanity in Jewish tradition comes to us in Chagiga (14b):

Four men descended to the “Pardes” (orchard of Torah learning): Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher [Elisha ben Avuya] and Rabbi Akiva.

Ben Azzai went in, saw what was there, and died.

Ben Zoma went in, saw what was there, and went mad.

Acher went in, saw what was there, and left the life of Torah.

Rabbi Akiva, it’s said, entered in peace and left in peace.

Every one of these is a complete story in itself, but Ben Zoma is our question right now. What did he see? And how did it make him go mad? Great questions… and again, questions I really can’t answer here. I don’t know if anyone knows.

First of all, Ben Zoma, like King Shaul, was no ordinary mind. This was the man who, in Pirkei Avot, taught us the secret of wisdom: “Who is wise? The one who learns from all men.”

How could someone so great fall so low, so fast?

That is the essence of the shoteh; it can happen to any one of us, at any time. The spirit of madness, as with Shaul, also comes from Hashem.

However, every source I looked at tried to blame Ben Zoma, or at least find in him spiritual failings that would cause his mind to shatter so easily. Blaming the victim, then as now, is something all-too-common in every type of mental illness.


Two dangerous ideas

We’ve all probably come across two harsh and counterproductive ideas that are examples of how we, as Jews, are not supposed to think. Yet they have been, perhaps, the two most pervasive misconceptions throughout our history:

  • · One, that mental illness is a phenomenon like a dybbuk, where a person is “possessed,” and
  • · Two, that mental illness is in some way a punishment.

I asked Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner, Rosh Kollel of Toronto’s tiny YU branch, because he has a strong background in medical issues and slightly off-the-beaten-path halacha, for some guidance on these two points.

His answers were very helpful to me. These days, we may roll our eyes at the dybbuk thing, but at various times in our history, one of the most common ways to “cure” mental illness was through exorcism.

Here’s what Rabbi Torczyner told me:

The idea that this is a dybbuk stems from an old idea that a soul might return to Earth and enter someone's body. It's an ancient idea, not necessarily originating in Judaism at all, but some are ardent believers in it, and they will use it to explain phenomena that they observe. In the 10th century, Rav Saadia Gaon wrote that some people see an animal that exhibits behaviours similar to their deceased relatives, and they conclude that this is a new incarnation of the relative; he was not impressed.

Neither am I.

But if it sounds like the idea of a dybbuk is something out of the 18th century, think about some of the ways we talk today.

Have you ever said “I’m not myself today”?

What about, “I don’t know what got into me?”

Dybbuks may not be in the forefront of our minds, but this idea, that an ordinary person is in the grip of something extraordinary or supernatural is an astonishingly pervasive one, even in our modern “scientific” culture.

(not really true) But by far the more harmful myth about mental illness is that it is in some way a punishment. This is what Rabbi Torczyner had to say about that:

The idea that this is a punishment is horrific and repulsive, but I can see how people get there. They start out with the concept that reward and punishment exist in this world - an idea that may be wrong (indeed, some passages of gemara contradict it), but is not beyond the pale of Judaism (other passages of gemara support it). They then confront a case of someone suffering, and they cannot believe that Gd would permit this, unless the person deserved it. So they conclude that it is punishment for something. This is seen in the narratives of Iyov's friends, who try in various ways to get him to accept that his suffering must be punishment for his sins. Ultimately, Gd comes and blows them out of the water, but it takes a few dozen chapters to get there.

Rabbi Torczyner’s responses reflect the compassionate ideas rooted in the halachic understanding of the shoteh.


Dividing the waters

Rather than blaming Ben Zoma, then, let’s look at his own words, right after the Pardes experience, when asked by another rabbi where he’d been:

“I was contemplating the mysteries of creation. I learned that between the upper waters and the lower waters there are but three finger-breadths.”

Hearing this, the rabbi told his students, “Ben Zoma is gone.”

The “upper and lower waters” are described in the story of Creation, back in Bereishit. On the second day, Hashem divides between the two types of waters, mayim and sha-mayim.

Rabbi Yissocher Frand says neither water was more or less “valid.” This wasn’t a case of good and evil, or true and false. In separating these waters, Hashem has drawn an arbitrary distinction between two equal things.

And here we see the very essence of sanity.

Sometimes (my thoughts, not Rav Frand’s), we need these arbitrary distinctions in the world; toeing this line is what marks us as “sane” in ordinary society.

When the distinctions begin to blur, as they did for Ben Zoma, when the upper waters start to seem like they’re the same as the lower waters – or at least, only three finger-breadths apart – then our sanity is in trouble.

One line often left out of the Pardes story is Rabbi Akiva’s exhortation to the other three before they ascend to see whatever it is that they end up seeing. He says, “When you get there, don’t say ‘water, water!’… for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes' (Psalms 101:7).”

Although there is really no distinction between water and water, keeping the ideas separate is crucial enough for Rabbi Akiva to call this blurring a fundamental “untruth.”

My brother Eli lived the last part of his life, twenty years or more, in a world of untruth Rabbi Akiva could easily have recognized.

Schizophrenia is a world of lies.

With this disease, your senses fail, not in the ordinary way, of deafness and blindness. You can see and hear, alright. But what you see may or may not be real. What you hear may or may not be the truth. Friends and family can start to look like enemies, or at least, conspirators.

Water that is above can start to look a lot like water that is below.


Sanity and Jewish responsibility

No wonder the rabbi told his students “Ben Zoma is gone.” Without rationality, the ability to see these distinctions, he couldn’t really function anymore, either as a rabbi or as a Jew.

That’s because although Hashem created the world originally, it is our job to partner with him in its ongoing operation. It’s an important job, and it’s one that falls only to those whose sanity, whose perception of these arbitrary distinctions, remains intact.

As Jews, we exercise our power of discernment every week after Shabbat, when we praise Hashem for distinguishing between light and darkness, holy and profane, Jews and non-Jews.

But perhaps the best example of this responsibility comes with Rosh Chodesh. In the time when the Sanhedrin sat in Yerushalayim, the new month couldn’t begin until the moon was sighted by two witnesses. These witnesses had to travel to the Sanhedrin to tell the rabbis all about it.

They didn’t get off easily, either.

The rabbis would interrogate them: “At what angle did you see the moon? In what position? What did it look like?”

Here’s the thing: The rabbis of the Sanhedrin knew the answers already.

Even in those days, trained astronomers could predict when and where and how the moon would be sighted each month. Nevertheless, until it was seen by a reliable witness, it basically hadn’t happened yet. The arbitrary distinction between truth and falsehood lay solely in the accuracy of the witnesses’ perception.

Their sanity, in other words.

This isn’t just any old mitzvah. Rosh Chodesh is the very first mitzvah Hashem gave to the Jewish people, to keep time and mark the months, and here it is, so very contingent on our rationality.

Happily for Ben Zoma, perhaps, he died soon after the Pardes story took place.

In real life, people live for years with insanity. And those of us around them, those of us in society, have to wrap our own minds around how and why something like this could happen.

Unless we look the other way, ignore them, describe what they’re going through as “emotional disturbances.” Saying, “he’s a little… off.” Not calling it what it really is.

A miserable life, with a deadly disease.

Schizophrenia doesn’t always kill its victims, but then, neither does cancer. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously. It kills often enough that we all ought to pay attention.


Suicide and Jewish burial

You may have heard that a person who kills himself can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Perhaps that’s true if they do it with full intention, in their right mind. But as the halachas of the shoteh show, even before the modern era, Judaism had a full and rich understanding of what it means to be in one’s right mind – and why we must exempt those who aren’t.

When I heard that we’d be holding my brothers’ burial at his graveside, rather than in comfortable seats at the funeral chapel, I had one main concern: that people would think he was less worth honouring; that we were burying him surreptitiously because of the way he died.

Because of his disease.

I was comforted by the many friends and family members who turned out on that sunny Tuesday afternoon, but more than that, I was comforted by the words of one of the rabbis from our shul who explained that when a person suffers as much as Eli did, they are not responsible for any of their actions – right up until the end.

Not only not responsible: Such a person is to be held on the level of a tzaddik, as one who fought an honourable battle, bravely and to the extent of his abilities, and who will be welcomed with open arms in shamayim, immediately.

I cannot imagine what Eli was battling all those years. Yet, as this rabbi pointed out, he never once tried to hurt any of us, or anyone else; he always spoke kindly to the children and brought them weird little gifts.

That was his true character shining through a very hazy windowpane; his inner strength and character that shows us it was not that a dybbuk had taken hold of him, but just his own mind, terribly, terribly twisted.


The gift of Eli

My mother also reminded us that, thirty years ago, he refused to attend his own bar mitzvah if my parents held a big celebration in the shul; you know, the kind of shindig mine had been two years before. So they made a small party at home and Eli was happy.

His funeral, then, was the equivalent of a small party at home. I like to think he was happy that nobody had to get dressed up or sit through a long, boring service.

Beyond a better understanding of his disease, the greatest gift of the past month has been getting Eli back.

Am I allowed to call it a gift?

Unshadowed by the gloomy, shouting, anti-social presence he’d become, the brother I knew has surfaced again through photographs, through stories. We have finally been allowed to enjoy him once again.

It’s the opposite of what we saw with King Shaul. The “evil spirit” has departed from Eli… and he is back where he belongs, in the glow of the shechina, in the world of truth once more.

Yet even as we’re grateful for the gift of having him in our midst again for this short time, we also have to let him go: brother, uncle, son, childhood companion and friend.

The stages of mourning in Jewish life teach us the pattern of gradually letting go.

At the end of the shiva period, we got up and walked with Eli out of the house. Not with anger, not amid shouting, as happened a few times in his life. With peace and love and memories.

Now, at the end of this shloshim period, we give him one last hug and send him even farther than we can possibly go yet ourselves. We promise him the journey will be wonderful, the wisdom infinite, the light and truth a fountain for his weary soul.

As David HaMelech wrote after he was delivered, alive, from his own battle with insanity:

צָעֲקוּ, וַה שָׁמֵעַ; וּמִכָּל-צָרוֹתָם, הִצִּילָם.

They cried, and Hashem heard,

and delivered them out of all their troubles.

There is nothing new here. History repeats itself, and will keep on repeating itself. Water, water, everywhere, and the distinctions sometimes so hard to see.

And yet every individual, every story, is unique, and my brother’s soul is stronger than ever now, unburdened from its disease. May Eli’s neshama help those who still suffer; may his bright spirit and gifted mind intervene to ease the pain of others.

May the shining light of the World of Truth continue to comfort him, and the knowledge that he is surely there already continue to comfort us as well.

# # #

[public-domain images:  Saul Tries to Kill David, by von Carolsfeld; David and Saul, by Marc Chagall, Rabbi Akiva, from the Mantua Haggadah]

Friday, July 04, 2014

Come meet the king of creepy Jewish kids’ books.



Sorry, but that’s what comes to my mind when I think of Eric Kimmel. 

Creepy, as in the very best kind of creepy Jewish books:  ghosts, ghouls, goblins and all things paranormal. 

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins kind of creepy.

Gershon’s Monster kind of creepy. 

Jack and the Giant Barbecue kind of creepy.

Huh?  Jack and the… giant… barbecue?

Check it out:


Sure, Eric is the undisputed champion of creepy Jewish kidlit, but if that sounds like he’s stuck in a niche, think again.  He’s not just about creepy… or just about Jewish books, as you’ll see.

Read all about Eric A. Kimmel over on my children’s-book writing blog!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

“When you interrupt a girl’s school day” – seen on Facebook


Agree or disagree?  What do you think of this message that’s been floating around for a day or two on facebook:

"When you interrupt a girl’s school day to force her to change clothes or to send her home because her shorts are short, or her bra straps are visible, you are telling her that hiding her body is more important than her education. You are telling her that making sure the boys have a distraction-free learning environment is more important than her education. You are telling her that boys are more entitled to an education than she is.

Doesn’t it depend on what you’re telling the boys? 

And doesn’t this presuppose that there are boys in the school in the first place??

What are you telling the boys?

My daughter went to school for 12 years where she could be sent home if she was inappropriately dressed.  But then again, so did my son (albeit, at the end, to a school with slightly different standards – I have to include this disclaimer in case one of them should come across this post).

In Hebrew, there is a strong difference between the word “haskalah” (הַשׂכָּלָה), which means “education” and the word chinuch (חִנּוּךְ), which means… whoops; “education.”  A school, it is said, provides haskalah, which generally means something more like intellectual enlightenment – the content of what is taught in lessons.  But it should also provide chinuch – the kind of education in civil behaviour into which how we dress – and the message it sends – generally falls.

This message is apparently being shared on facebook as part of something called the “@unslutproject,” which aims to remove stigma and shaming of women who dress or act in certain ways.  I certainly agree that we shouldn’t shame people or treat them badly, no matter what their gender or how they’re dressed.  That’s part of civil behaviour, too.

Who’s more distracted?

It is interesting, by the way, that we assume that the biggest distraction here is to the boys (assuming they are there in the classroom at all).  Have you ever noticed how distracted young girls act when their bodies are on display?

If a girl’s bra strap is showing, did it get that way by accident?  Maybe… or maybe she knows it, planned it that way, and is thinking about it constantly during history or English or whatever class she’s supposed to be concentrating on.

And by the way, if you remove the boys from the classroom, there’s some evidence to suggest that the girls do better, educationally.  Does that mean, since we care so much about their education, that we ought to sequester them in single-sex schools, where they won’t have to fiddle with their bra straps, hemlines, or anything else unless they want to…?

Well, the choice is up to you, but that’s what we did with our daughter.

Neither gender is more or less entitled to an education.  But since their bodies are coursing with well-documented crazy hormones during the years between 13 and 18 (probably longer), it seems to make sense to both set dress codes AND separate them during these years. 

I can’t guarantee distraction-free (see above re crazy hormones).  But yes, it’s fair to say that boys are entitled to a learning-conducive learning environment… and so are girls.  Since each is the other’s biggest distraction, it just makes sense to keep them apart.  And appropriately dressed.

Like, share, comment if you agree.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Wow, I never knew the world cared.


It is almost unbelievable how inured we have become to the “Like” buttons that follow us everywhere these days, begging for our all-important feedback on everything from a drive-thru meal eaten in passing (Like!) to a budget motel (1 star!) to a city (Budapest, 5 stars!) or even a hike (Grand Canyon, 2 stars!).

But the weather??? apparently now lets me vote on the weather.  I didn’t actually click “Love,” by the way.  I was just hovering when I took this screenshot.  I do wonder, though… if enough people click “Ugh!,” what exactly will happen? 

Something like this, maybe:


But really, I don’t think we should mess with the universe quite to that extent…

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Eulogy for my brother Eli


Once upon a time, a family went to Disney World… and the little boy got lost. The father couldn’t find him, and, in the most exciting development of his big sister’s life, actually left without him. Her head spun with all the wonderful possibilities. “No brother!” But, like Hansel, he found his way back to the campground and her hopes were crushed. Life with a brother – what a pain.

Seventeen months apart, we were two halves of the same person.  Curled up under the blanket, we’d pretend we were twins waiting to be born.  We’d switch clothing and try to trick everybody (nobody was ever fooled).  We finished each other’s sentences, read each other’s mind, used deaf-blind sign language to talk to each other silently in shul.  I bragged to my friends about his math, and he bragged to his that I slept with a dictionary beside my bed.

My mother has pictures to prove that I was physically older, but by age 2, he’d caught up … and shot on ahead. I can't remember a time when Eli wasn't the leader — stronger and bigger and smarter.  Defending me from the worms in the garden. Teaching me about the world.  Tutoring me in French so he wouldn't know something I didn't.

As a toddler, he and my mother were standing in front of a toy store window when some people passing by stopped. One of them said, “Look, it’s Mr. Mouth!” And my mother thought, “How do they know Eli?” But no, there in the window was a game called Mr. Mouth.

How could he shut up, where there was so much to say?

My own children never got to see that side of him. Except Jeremy.

Eli was his first babysitter, when Jeremy was 6 weeks old. Kind, attentive… talkative; Eli was also perhaps the reason he spoke so early.  Eli snuggled, sang, kept track of the pacifier, fed him the right stuff, reported minutiae about the baby’s routine, bragged about his progress.

But, of course, Jeremy wasn’t Eli’s first baby. When Sara came along, Eli was the one who told me not to touch her on the head. (As a result, I didn’t touch her head until she was well into her 20s.)

When Sara was a baby, my mother would leave her sleeping in a large antique-style carriage. One day, Eli started rocking the carriage back and forth, shouting “BOOM-boom,” “BOOM-boom!” He had read that the sound of a heartbeat would comfort a baby… and when you’re in the womb, he told me, that heartbeat must be pretty loud.

And when Abigail arrived... he knew she was special.  In Catcher in the Rye, the main character is obsessed with his little sister. Holden buys a record for Phoebe; he reads her diary; he turns to her for advice because she is purer than everybody else in the world. That was Abigail.

Those little girls were his warmth and light in a very, very cold world. Over the last few years, Sara became his best friend. Often, she was his only friend, and a reliable spot to drop in downtown at very strange hours.

My mother also, despite his complicated feelings about her, was always a beacon for him. He knew he could count on her for a meal, for sympathy, for money.

A few years ago, my mother’s Chanukah party was shattered when he wandered in, yelling. He was full-on crazy, smelly, and bedraggled. Ted slammed the door in his face and locked it, as he continued to shout, while inside, the rest of us tried to carry on celebrating.

He could be scary, but he never hurt anybody.

Sometimes, his gentleness amazed me, given the demons he was wrestling with.  He loved buying jewellery for the kids; he loved finding and bringing gifts – following in my Zeidy’s footsteps with his “found in the trash” treasures.

So no, my brother never hurt anybody… unless you count the family members who had no idea how to keep him safe.

Today, there are no institutions for people like Eli. We try to integrate them into our community instead, through supportive housing, shelters, and the fine arrangement my brother often settled on:  living under a bridge. Except the underside of bridges can get a little cold here in Canada. 

Sometimes, there are happy endings in mental illness, even in schizophrenia.

But Eli's brilliant mind was so very broken.

Zale said something important last night: we have to forgive ourselves for how we treated Eli. Sometimes, there was no "good" way to treat him.  Like the time when, after he’d escaped from the hospital, I helped arrange a police sting to catch him, hating myself for betraying his trust, but also hating him for making us do it over and over and over.

Even when the drugs worked, offering us the relatively good times that passed for normalcy, they made him slow-witted, hitting the disease over the head like a sledgehammer.  While some of us might welcome the release from pain, Eli saw clearly how they obliterated him as well.

He had so much to share, and his mind was so very agile.

So very special.

 eli4 It’s hard to say when I lost my brother. As a person who loved precision, it would probably drive him crazy that we don’t know when he died… and yet, that is the way this disease sometimes takes people: not all at once, at a set date and time, but little by little, breakdown by breakdown, hospitalization by hospitalization, bridge by bridge.

There are few people as desperately in need of peace as Eli was in his last years. We have lost a brother, a son, an uncle, a friend… but he has found peace. And he is teaching us still, through the hands-on lessons in compassion, forgiveness and patience that came with nearly every encounter over these last few years.

Let us remember the giver, the sharer, the teacher. His smile, his shoulders, his hugs. His patient hands patting a baby to sleep; his nimble fingers dancing over the piano keyboard. My brother, Eli.

Feel free to read previous posts about my brother Eli.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Erica and Jeffrey Henderson: CPS abuse poster family or “non-kosher” fraud?


The headlines circulating on facebook are the nightmare of every homeschooling family: “A homebirthing, homeschooling, non vacinating, kosher family ripped apart by Local Law Enforcement and CPS without lawful charges.”  Eep. That’s bad, right???

But something in that term “kosher family” prompted me to dig a little. What does that mean, a “kosher family?”  Were Erica Michelle Henderson and Jeffrey Henderson actually hiding something?

The Hendersons’ own appeal-for-money-and-sympathy website says her breast milk must be tested for alchohol as " she drinks on Shabbat, a Jewish religious day." Another site, discussing the family’s first visit with their kids in 2 years, says, “The announcement of the visit was made on Friday, to which Mrs. Henderson said, “Baruch Hashem!” which in Hebrew means “Blessed be the name of the Lord!” Today began the Jewish festival of Passover, celebrated to mark the release of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.”

Why doesn’t it just come out and say they’re Jewish?

image Things looked sketchier and sketcher as I poked deeper into this. At one point, after a court trial, mother Erica Michelle Henderson apparently tweeted that "we really felt the Holy Spirit there." Not to mention that that post also shows the father sitting in court wearing a tallis - a little odd, to say the least. (I have known about a bazillion frum lawyers, none of whom have EVER worn a tallis in court.)

They have repeated begged for money in various online forums, drawing on Jewish sympathy, I'm sure, but there is no indication anywhere that they are actually Jewish themselves.

And those appeals for money have been somewhat successful, raising at the very least thousands of dollars for a cause any one of us can get behind.  Or can we?

Here’s what I turned up. According to this post, "For background, the Hendersons are proponents of homeschooling, home birthing, no vaccines, and are Messianic Jewish by faith."

Why do I have a problem with that? Who cares what their religion is?

Here’s the problem: “Messianic Judaism “ is, by definition, a lie. And to be very blunt, if they’re lying about their religion, what else are they lying to us about…?

image I’m sure it’s true some so-called Messianic Jews truly believe they’re following the right path, and honestly think they are Jewish. But I wonder how they think it’s possible to join themselves to a thousands-of-years-old faith just by wrapping themselves in a tallis, drinking Kiddush wine on Shabbat, or saying “Yeshua” instead of you-know-what?

As I’ve said here many times before, the truth as I see it is that American Protestants are sick of the way their faith has been gutted of its symbolism, depth and beauty. Not to mention its history. They’re looking for something older, deeper and more “authentic.” And for many, Judaism – in a bastardized, ripped-off Messianic form, is it.

Actually, I later did find another reference – accompanied by a picture of a seder table – saying that the first 2 days of Pesach “were high holy days for the Hendersons, who are Jewish.”

Lying about your religion isn’t a crime. And I’m sure there are lots of nice people who belong to Hebrew-Christian “messianic” organizations, acting like Jews and teaching their kids all about their odd hybrid religion. Again, it’s not right, but it’s not a crime, either.

What rubs me the wrong way here is that their appeal was being circulated in a Jewish context. Somebody told somebody they were Orthodox Jews, perhaps even “very Orthodox,” that mythical beast that everybody imagines existing in some black-hat enclave somewhere.

They certainly never objected to being thought of as Jewish… and presumably soaked up the Jewish sympathy right along with the PayPal dollars that came with it.

image I also discovered more background on the Hendersons and their battles with authority in the form of an L.A. Times article that goes waaay back to 2005. "They're a very interesting couple. Let's put it that way," said the U.S. Forest Service Ranger who reported that the couple had circumcised their baby themselves at home under non-sterile conditions: a backwoods cabin with no running water. There were also allegations of violence against the father, Jeffrey Henderson, although at that time, they were given back their children (despite the backwoods bris!).

I’ll be honest:  I believe people like this prey on the good intentions of folks like you and me.  There’s nothing wrong with asking for money.  I have given to online appeals for various families, and even organized one myself, collecting and forwarding donations for an Israeli homeschooling family who suddenly lost its father a couple of years ago.

Here’s something you might not know about me. I’m secretly a soft touch: I care about moms and kids, and families of all kinds. And I get mad when any so-called authority steps in to take kids away from the families where they are thriving.

A few years ago, CPS took away our friends' long-term foster son without cause. You can bet that I demonstrated (here’s a picture of me speaking at that event) and wrote letters and organized people and fought as hard as I could to get him back. (Sadly, we failed…!)

image Regardless of religion, I believe the Hendersons' is a story I could seriously get behind... if it was true.  Just as so many others online have adopted them as a cause celebre:  the poster family for discrimination against homeschoolers, home-birthers, no-vax’ers.

But everything that I found online has convinced me: this is not a one-time Bad Thing that happened to Good People. Everything that I have learned about the Hendersons points towards one crucial fact that most of the nice people sharing their story don’t realize – because they’re not sharing the full story:  This is nutty people doing things to their kids that they ought not be doing. And honestly, that's what CPS is for.

If you have seen an appeal for this family online, please share a link to this post so others can find out the truth.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Tough concepts our kids can handle.


I was thinking about The Talk again the other day.  Most of us will probably have not just one but several “talks” with our kids about serious subjects over the years, starting when they’re very little.  And sometimes, we freak out a little.

Usually, The Talk (whichever one it is) is triggered by a question.  How do babies get inside mommies?  Why is that man lying on the sidewalk?  How come Shoshi has a different skin colour from her parents?

Some of us freak out.  We don’t answer… or, worse, we over-answer, giving them not only more information than they can handle at their current stage of development, but letting them know they’ve hit a nerve, shaken you up, freaked you out.

So I thought of a great analogy. 

When you get a question on a tough topic that freaks you out, think about foreign languages.

Imagine your child overheard a parent and child speaking in a foreign language. 

She asks, “How come I can’t understand what they’re saying?”

You say, “Because they’re speaking French.”

Maybe you explain a little more… maybe you even over-explain a little (“French is the language spoken by francophones in France, Quebec, and dozens of other countries worldwide, as a result of 17th- and 18th-century European colonialism.  Can you say bonjour?”), but that’s okay. 

Because the one thing you haven’t done is freaked out.  None of these questions have crossed your mind:  French?  Why is my kid asking about French?  How am I going to tell her the Facts of French?  I knew someone French once, should I mention that, or does that make it sound like speaking French is okay, even a little fun?

I’m not saying your kid will be warped and twisted for life if you do freak out.  But why not arm yourself ahead of time with this analogy… and spend some time planning cool, collected answers.  Answers as neutral as, “Because they’re speaking French.”  Here are some answers I’ve had to give my kids over the years:

  • Alcohol / drugs:  If you drink too much alcohol [or do drugs], it makes you not understand things and behave badly.
  • Homosexuality:  Some men love women; others love other men.
  • Abuse:  Some parents don’t take good care of their children.  (This is a tough one because of Hashem’s role in choosing the parents for each child!  Did Hashem make a mistake?  No!  But the parents He chose made bad decisions.)
  • Adoption:  Some people have babies but cannot raise them, so the babies go live with their real parents.
  • Pregnancy:  Go ask Abba (I’m kidding!)
  • Pregnancy:  A seed from the man joins with an egg inside the woman. (we have a book that covers seeds and eggs in plants, ducks, cats and humans, and I generally try to introduce this science concept before they ask)
  • Pregnancy:  There’s a special room (or space) inside the mother where the baby grows (for older kids, I introduce the word uterus).
  • Childbirth:  There’s a special opening where the baby comes out.  (Most kids naturally visualize this as the belly button, and you don’t have to correct them unless they specifically ask.)

I’m not saying these have to be YOUR answers.  You might hate some of my answers, and that’s okay.  The fact is that I have them.  I didn’t when Kid #1 came along and started asking questions (like, immediately).  But I did – I had them polished and ready! – by the time Kid #4 came along.

Having answers ready may seem like a “canned” approach that lacks some spontaneity… fair enough.  For me, I’d gladly trade spontaneity for the certainty that I probably won’t panic, freeze up or freak out. 

You may also worry that having some answers might make you seem “bossy,” like you have ALL the answers and there’s no room for discussion.  But really, the answers I give are – I hope – just the start of the conversation.  They’re short enough to grasp quickly and give the child something to chew on… so they can come back with the next question.  When they’re learning to eat solid foods, we give them one bite at a time; we should do the same thing as they cope with the Difficult Issues in life. 

And I make a point of letting them see the limits of my knowledge.  When they ask something I’m not sure of, I don’t hesitate to say, “I don’t know,” or “Let’s find out together.”

There’s no final exam in parenting – just a series of pop quizzes along the way.  They’ll come at you with no warning, but the good news is that the topics are pretty clear ahead of time.  So start studying and you’ll be better prepared to ace those pop quizzes.

What are some of the answers you’ve discovered on your own parenting journey???

Monday, May 05, 2014

6th Annual Torah Home Education Conference – May 25, 2014

[IMG_00001437%255B4%255D.jpg]If I weren’t here, I’d be there…

This year, the world’s only homeschool conference geared exclusively to Torah-observant Jewish families (it’s a small world) is happening in a new location in Englewood, NJ on Sunday, May 25, 2014, all day, from 9 am to 6 pm. 

There is tons of excitement planned all day long, including sessions by great home educators (Avivah Werner, Yehudis Eagle, Yael Aldrich and so many more), great topics (workboxes! limudei kodesh!  special needs!  husbands!), a teen panel, rabbinic perspective, and… well, check it out for yourself.

I admit, I really liked the previous Baltimore location, set in a friendly JCC in the midst of a warm community, and I’d definitely miss being able to eat out at David Chu’s China Bistro, where I stopped in after the conference the last 3 years running – the first year with a friend, the second year with the big kids, and last year, with Naomi Rivka.

But it would still be worth the shlep.  So if you’re anywhere nearby… book a bus, a train, a plane, a bike, and head on over to this page to preregister for the 2014 Torah Home Education conference.

Tell them I sent you… and maybe I’ll be watching over the Internet.