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Sunday, July 13, 2014

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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!

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3 comments:

sweetcrunchyjewy said...

I have a soft spot for Siddureinu (edited by Greenberg and Silverman.) There are very few illustrations, but the text is large and clear, and the tefillot that are included are complete. Where the tefillot differ from other siddurim (birkot hashachar, for example) they include a footnote at the bottom that states what the original tefillah said. There is some commentary and explanation that I remember being able to read and understand around age 8 or 9. It could be nostalgia, or familiarity (this is the siddur I davened with for six years, before they made us buy something more grown-up for middle school,) but I really like this siddur.

Adam Hopkins said...

I have the Koren MiBereishit siddur for my oldest (3.5 years). He loves it. I love it. Pictures are awesome, and he is learning a lot from it. Great typography, etc, etc. My only qualm is that while it attempts to follow Shachris, and does a pretty good job, one or two more prayers from Psukei D'Zimra would alleviate some of the "this page again Abba" questions as he tries following along with me.

Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod said...

@Adam, I love that. I think with any kids' siddur you're bound to get a lot of repeated pages. Even Artscroll doesn't bother with Pesukei d'Zimra, for the most part.

@sweetcrunchyjewy, haven't seen that one. I wonder, if you use a siddur every day for 6 years, if you absorb the footnotes, a little at a time. My theory has been that you overlook them more and more, so that they become completely invisible over time. But perhaps, as your experience shows, that is not the case.