Sorting Through the Parent Backpack by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Anna was 11 years old, she asked if I would read “ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to her. Not one to want to miss out, Adam asked if he could also listen to the story.

I was hesitant to read the book to my young children. How would I explain its apparent racism? Were they too young to understand the difference between cultural norms and malicious prejudice? Had I worked out the context in which “Huckleberry Finn” existed in my own heart and mind?

I plunged ahead and read the book to my children. As a result, we had deep conversations about the language of racism. We concluded that words hurt as much as punches. It turns out that “Huckleberry Finn” is on Adam’s English syllabus this year. I feel good that I prepared him for the tough issues the book brings to the foreground.

I told that story recently to ML Nichols, author of the very helpful book “ The Parent Backpack for Kindergarten through Grade 5: How to Support Your Child’s Education, End Homework Meltdowns, and Build Parent-Teacher Connections.” In addition to having that important conversation about difficult subjects, she confirmed what I have intuited all these years: that “reading with your kids even for 15 minutes a day makes a profound difference in a child’s education. Teachers know which families are reading to their children. And if your kids will let you, read to them through middle school.”

parentbackpack
Middle school? Isn’t that the time when kids are first testing out their independence? Nichols noted that in between those attempts at separation from parents, some middle schoolers secretly like to be read to: “ They won’t tell their friends but from a very young age, kids like the bonding, the rhythm the expression in your voice. All that makes reading a pleasurable experience. Reading with your kids is also a great way to help them build vocabulary.”

According to Nichols, the best way to support a child’s education is to model read for that child. “Reading is a pillar of the elementary school years,” she noted. “If a child doesn’t develop those core reading skills, he or she can struggle through the rest of school.” Nichols asserts that the best way to inspire a child to read is to model it for children: “ Whether you’re reading a book, a newspaper or a tablet – let your kids see you reading.”

Nichols’ wisdom on all things connected to elementary school education is hard-won. The idea for her book came about 12 years ago when her oldest child, now a senior in high school, was entering kindergarten. She looked around for a book that might guide her through her children’s early school years and came up empty. It was also a time when she had stopped working outside the home and got a bird’s-eye view of the elementary school classroom by volunteering.

“I learned a lot as a parent volunteer in schools and on district committees,” she noted. “But it wasn’t until I helped a parent write an email to a teacher that a light bulb went off for me that I could put everything I’d learned in a guide for parents on the elementary school years.”

To that end, Nichols emphasizes that establishing a good relationship with a child’s teacher is another cornerstone of his education. “I see our children’s elementary journey like a winding river,” she said. “ We’re on one side of the bank and on the other side is the teacher with whom we’re partners. Each of us does our part.” Nichols makes her metaphor concrete with basic suggestions: “Do your part,” she asserts. “Make sure your child has had breakfast and gets to school on time. Teachers notice those things. Don’t be the parent who gets in permission slips late. I’m also hearing of more and more teachers getting notes from parents that a child couldn’t do the homework because of a dance recital or lacrosse practice. Such conflicting expectations confuse kids in elementary school because they want to please both their parents and their teachers.”

I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about homework, which is ironic given how much of it my own children have done over the years. Nichols does not debate the value of homework for young children. Instead, she offers helpful suggestions for painlessly getting it done. Like everything suggested in the book, the key is organization and consistency. Establish a time and a place to do homework with your child. According to Nichols, “ That place should be a happy one. Make it a fun destination with colorful pencils, cool puzzles or creative glue sticks. Our role as parents is to coach and guide, not to do or correct homework, which provides valuable feedback for a teacher.”

Adam is a junior in high school. I’m grateful that I no longer supervise his homework, but I miss reading to him and his sister. Although Nichols focuses on younger children in her book, I can still write a thank-you note to his longtime academic advisor for helping my boy to self-advocate and step out of his comfort zone.

“Teachers,” says Nichols, “appreciate a genuine expression of thanks from parents or students more than anything.”

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Reciting Kaddish, As a Daughter by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The night before my father’s funeral, I found a tattered prayer book from my Yeshiva days. It was small and square, the kind of prayer book I’ve seen women praying with at the kotel. Its filo-thin pages suggested a false modesty that diminishes a woman’s place in the Jewish world. That siddur was also thick with line after line of tiny Hebrew letters. I lay down on my bed and read through the Kaddish prayer for my father, something that was unheard of for a woman to do 50 years ago.

Saying the Kaddish for a loved one used to be an all boys club. No son, no Kaddish — unless you paid a man (yes, there is still such a thing) to recite the Kaddish for the 11 months a child mourns a parent. Recently, there was a case of gender segregation and Kaddish discrimination at an ultra-Orthodox cemetery in Israel. A woman named Rosie Davidian was denied the right to eulogize her father at his funeral. Ms. Davidian took her case to the Knesset to campaign for women to grieve as they see fit. An invitation quickly followed, asking her to read her father’s eulogy on a popular radio show where millions heard her words.

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and I had the honor of eulogizing him. The next day I was part of the overflow crowd — the common folk who didn’t pay for the pricier sanctuary tickets across the hall. One of the rabbis met my eye from the bima. She nodded in sympathy as I said the Kaddish in front of 800 people, so nakedly, so publicly for the first time.

Since leaving Jewish day school, I had wandered through the various branches of Judaism and settled on practicing Conservative Judaism. At the time of my father’s death, I decided to attend a daily Conservative minyan for 30 days to say the Kaddish for him. It was almost Thanksgiving when I realized I had gone long past my original self-imposed deadline. As I wrote in my journal:

I’m both surprised and fulfilled that the daily recitation of the Kaddish has become part of my days. In remembering my father every day, I have an ongoing dialogue with him. I have space and time to contemplate my life as a mother and a wife and a daughter.

My year of Kaddish so deeply impressed me that, ever since, I’m always on the lookout for father-daughter Kaddish stories. While researching my memoir I came upon a story that took place in 17th century Amsterdam. A man with one daughter and no sons planned ahead for his Kaddish. Before he died, he arranged for a minyan to study at his house every day for 11 months. At the conclusion of studying Torah it is customary to say a version of the Kaddish, which allowed his daughter to recite the Kaddish in an adjacent room as the male students responded “amen” to her prayer.

Despite patriarchal obstacles, the Kaddish has always belonged to women. Henrietta Szold, the daughter of a rabbi and founder of Hadassah, was the oldest child in a family of eight daughters and no sons. She declined a male friend’s offer to say the Kaddish in her place when Szold’s mother died in 1916. Szold wrote in a letter that year:

The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his wish and intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community that his parents had, and that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation. You can do that for the generation of your family. I must do that for the generations of my family.

During the year after my father died, I visited Rome on vacation. It was there among the city’s more than 900 churches, I went searching for a synagogue. I was determined not to skip a day of saying the Kaddish. I went to Rome’s Great Synagogue where armed policemen surrounded the courtyard. A private security guard asked my husband, not me, what business he had there. I told the young guard, who was wearing a kippah, that I needed to say the Kaddish for my father. “Americana,” he sighed.

Inside, the daily minyan was formal — like walking into a sepia photograph — with the cantor and rabbi wearing traditional robes and hats. My husband and I had to sit separately. A divider, improvised with a row of tall potted plants as stiff as the policemen outside, walled off the women. The women talked throughout the service until I rose to say the Kaddish.

The woman next to me said, “Ladies don’t have to.”

I told her that I wanted to say the Kaddish. Although the cantor blasted through the prayer, I managed to keep up and the women said “amen” to my Kaddish.

Who will tell the women in Rome who magnified and sanctified my Kaddish that their amens were not only irrelevant, but that they could be illegal in a cemetery in Israel? And how dare anyone tell Jewish women in the name of God not to eulogize their dead or say the Mourner’s Kaddish.

This piece originally appeared in the Sisterhood Blog of the Forward as well as the paper’s print edition.

The Joy of Cooking with ChopChop by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I don’t cook very well. My family is bored with my rotating repertoire of chicken, turkey meatballs, and pasta with kosher turkey sausage.

I did have a creative period where I made chicken fajitas and a pretty decent meatloaf. But those didn’t last long. My excuse is that I’m always short on time, but the truth is that cooking intimidates me. I’m from the Birds Eye generation where convenience trumped fresh food and cooking itself.

I’ve been waiting a long time for a food writer such as Sally Sampson. Sampson is the founder and publisher of a nonprofit organization that publishes a delightful magazine for children called Chop- Chop: The Fun Cooking Magazine for Families. Sampson not only finds the fun aspects of cooking; she demystifies it and elevates simple cooking to its own art form.

Sampson is no stranger to creating recipes. With 22 cookbooks under her belt, she decided the time was right to combine her expertise with her burgeoning interest in health care and preventing obesity in children. In a recent interview at ChopChop’s offices in Watertown, Sampson noted that ChopChop Magazine and her new cookbook “ChopChop: The Kids’ Guide to Cooking Real Food With Your Family” allows her “to address obesity by having doctors prescribe cooking at well-child visits. And I’m using my skills [as a food writer and healthy-eating advocate] in the magazine recipes and the new cookbook.”

 

ChopChop Magazine, a quarterly publication, is distributed in 10,000 pediatricians’ offices in all 50 states. The magazine is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which reviews every issue. Since its launch in 2010, ChopChop boasts a circulation of 500,000 with 20 percent of the issues printed in Spanish. The magazine is funded primarily through sponsors such as the New Balance Foundation, and Children’s Hospitals in Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia. ChopChop recently garnered the equivalent of an Oscar in the food world when it was named “Publication of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation.

ChopChop

Sally Sampson’s new cookbook is an extension of her nonprofit’s popular magazine.
No doubt ChopChop’s appealing design and clear language, along with bright colors and gorgeous food photography, were factors in wining the prestigious Beard Foundation award. But there is something more at stake here. It’s the recipes themselves that are innovative. Although the magazine and new cookbook are aimed at children ages 5 to 12, the recipes are surprisingly sophisticated without being complicated.

“I think of kids as inexperienced cooks,” said Sampson. “We cover the basics in our recipes, such as what kind of kitchen utensils they’ll need and whether or not making a recipe requires adult supervision. There are not too many steps in these recipes and not too many ingredients. And I don’t cook anything that goes into two pans.”

Sampson divides her recipes into three categories: the basics; the fancy version of the basics, in which kids can bump up a recipe with spices or herbs; and the expert level, which requires things such as kneading dough or using a blender. Adults need to be on hand to help with most recipes, which makes the ChopChop way of preparing food an intergenerational experience. Bear in mind there are no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches here. To prove how easy yet still elegant food preparation can be, Sampson taught me to make a basic vinaigrette dressing with olive oil, vinegar and mustard. I drizzled it onto a simple spinach salad that I tossed with almonds and raspberries. After my family got over their initial surprise, they were impressed. Preparation time was less than 10 minutes. We haven’t had store-bought salad dressing since then.

“Eating well is cooking well,” noted Sampson. “If you can’t cook, then you don’t have a really clean diet. [ChopChop’s] No. 1 criterion is that it tastes good. We don’t want to demonize sugar and fat, but reduce them while being flavorful. We’re competing with fast food and takeout, which is causing an uptick in the obesity rates.”

Sampson’s solution to the dinner dilemma is straightforward too. She said the key lies in “a well-stocked pantry. Beans, pasta, rice and any other staples you can think of. Have olive oil on hand and a couple of vinegars, spices, onions, garlic, carrots, lemons and lime. Tofu is also good to have in the house. If you eat meat, have chicken breasts in the freezer. You can make an amazing salad with basic ingredients.”

As for me, I recently spiced up my pasta dishes by making Sampson’s “World’s Quickest Tomato Sauce.” Foregoing store-bought sauce, I also dispensed with sugar and, in some cases, fillers and preservatives.

As Sampson noted, “Cooking can seem out of reach for some people. We want to focus on the joy of cooking for kids and adults alike.” She’s helped me to do just that.

Yizkor As a Family Service by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When I was a child, I was exiled from the Yizkor service at Yom Kippur—the service in which we recall our dead and attend to mourning them formally. Call it superstition. Call it avoiding death. My grandmother would point towards the door, and out I would go with the rest of the kids until it was safe to return to the service.

 

I’d like to propose a new model: make the Yizkor service a family affair. Our children should learn early on that to be a Jew is to be deeply attached to memory. Jewish literature has championed memory from time immemorial. According to Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, the verb lizkor — to remember — appears 228 times in the Torah. It’s associated with subjects and events as disparate as Shabbat, Miriam’s leprosy and Amalek’s attack on the Israelites. Gelfand’s essay appears among a wonderful collection of pieces in an anthology called, May G-d Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism.

No doubt, our children see that we are a people that constantly references our time as slaves in Egypt in liturgy and worship. We are also a people for whom remembering is not abstract, but rather an active part of our identity. Rabbi Gelfand quotes Joshua Foer, author of a lovely memoir called Moonwalking With Einstein, who notes in his bid to become the 2009 USA Memory Champion that:

 

In Judaism, observance and remembering are interchangeable concepts, two words that are really one…. For Jews, remembering is not merely a cognitive process, but one that is necessarily active. Other people remember by thinking. Jews remember by doing.

 

The Yizkor service is somewhat of an anomaly to me. In a tradition that places so much value on communal life and the benefits of sharing memories of our dead, Yizkor is a highly individualized ritual that takes place within a congregation or at least among ten Jewish adults.

Rabbi Gelfand examines how memory morphs over time through Foer’s take on the neuroscience of the subject:

Memories are not static. Somehow, as memories age, their complexion changes. Each time we think about a memory, we integrate it more deeply into our web of other memories, and therefore make it more stable and less likely to be dislodged. But in the process, we also transform the memory and reshape it—sometimes to the point that our memories of events bear only a passing resemblance to what actually happened.

 

If you have an analytical kid like I do, the neuroscience of Yizkor not only appeals to his intellect, but also balances thinking about death with the malleability of memory. Perhaps as parents we can work our way up to Yizkor by sharing our children’s namesake with them. The idea resonates with my work as a memoirist. Yes, memories fade and mutate over time. But in some ways Yizkor is a bulwark against that phenomenon. In its methodical accounting of our dead, there is an explicit reconstruction going on. Yizkor is the time that I clearly remember my father, my grandparents. It’s also the only time of year that I can conjure my dad’s voice. For me, Yizkor is a dedicated time and space that momentarily defies biology and psychology.

 

 Yizkor, notes Rabbi Gelfand “provides us our own private ongoing relationship with a loved one. It encourages an evolution of that relationship as opposed to allowing it to be frozen in time. Remembering someone over and over again enhances the parts of that relationship that prove sustaining but allows us to forget those characteristics that are not.” I like the way Rabbi Gelfand points out that forgetting is a crucial part of remembering. I think she’s on to something that approaches a neuroscience of the soul.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer a customized Yizkor in which my son Adam might meaningfully participate. When Adam was born I shook off Ashkenazic tradition when I gave my son my father’s Hebrew name, Akiva. Unfortunately, the relative after whom Dad is named is forever lost. His predecessor’s name is without context. But Dad shares his Hebrew name with a martyr. Rabbi Akiva died in the second century, flayed alive in the hippodrome of Caesarea. His last words were the Sh’ma—Judaism’s signature prayer. Even an assimilated, lip-synching Jew like my father knew the six words of Judaism’s central prayer.

I want Adam to know that I’m certain my father would have liked Rabbi Akiva’s story. Akiva was a poor illiterate shepherd until the age of 40. Like my dad he married late. Like my dad he couldn’t recognize a single Hebrew letter until someone taught him as an adult.

 

My father’s story is an integral part of Adam’s life story. Showing him the door at Yizkor, before he has a chance to remember my father, is the antithesis of the Judaism I want to impart to him.