Posts Tagged ‘Jewish’

Of Pain and Pride: Hard Lessons from Israel’s No-Medal Olympics

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No Israeli came home with a medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Thirty-seven Israeli athletes competed in eight sports. Two athletes came in sixth place, but alas, no medals.

For Jews and Israelis around the world, however, this Summer Olympics was overshadowed by the campaign to convince the IOC to hold a moment of silence for the 11 Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich games. The campaign consumed the media in advance of the games and even caught the attention of world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama.

In the end, while several separate services were held in their memory, the IOC chose not to hold a moment of silence during the main opening or closing ceremonies. They felt it was not an appropriate forum for a moment of silence. “Shame on you, IOC,” said Ankie Spitzer, who was married to fencing coach Andre Spitzer who was killed in Munich. “You have forsaken the 11 members of your Olympic family. You are against them only because they are Israelis and Jews.”

While it would have been nice for the IOC to hold that moment of silence—and it would have been very meaningful—I can’t help but listen to a little voice in the back of my mind. What if, instead of complaining, Israel had actually won a few medals this year? What if the world saw not a sore loser, but a brave winner? What if Israel could have proven to the world that it’s in the game and a key player on the world stage?

Imagine hearing Hatikva while the Star of David flag rose up before the podium. Imagine the great PR opportunities for Israel with its athletes in the spotlight. Imagine the voice Israel could have in the IOC if it competed at the highest levels of athleticism. Imagine Israel’s top athletes publicly displaying the Olympic spirit, like the incredible moment when Kirani James of Grenada exchanged bibs with double-amputee competitor Oscar Pistorius of South Africa. Imagine Israel’s gold medalist telling the press that her win was in honor of the Munich 11 (See Jewish American gymnast Aly Raisman’s tribute). Imagine then the incredible impression Israel could have given the world.

In my opinion, Israel should resolve today to support athletics like never before. If Israel really set its mind to it, it could have a good number of Summer Olympic medalists in the next four, eight or twelve years. Israel could generously fund athletes who train overseas and later bring back their expertise to train younger athletes in Israel. New athletic centers could be built and more kids and parents could be encouraged to participate. Whole communities could get involved and attend competitions. Israel could reach out to top coaches around the world and offer them jobs in Israel.

With stronger athletes, Israel could compete at the highest levels and make a name for itself. Not as a victim, not as a bitter widow, but as a triumphant nation born to greatness.

Imagine the pride then.

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When Violent Criminals Are Orthodox

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We were all shocked by the horrific murder of an 8-year-old boy just a few weeks ago. Like everyone else, I’m sure you asked, “How could that man be Orthodox and kill another human being? Isn’t murder against the Torah?” Our best answers boil down to, “Yes, murder is against the Torah. Therefore, he must not be Orthodox.” So we put the word Orthodox into quotes when we describe the murderer, and it makes us all feel better.

However, there is something more here. This is not the first time we have seen violence from people who live an Orthodox or frum lifestyle. We were also shocked a few months ago when a young Skverer man threw a firebomb into the home of a neighbor who preferred to daven elsewhere, and not at the main synagogue in New Square. The victim was badly burned and narrowly escaped with his life. His family was also lucky. But we all asked, “Who DOES that? So they daven at a different shul—big deal. We would never try to burn down a man’s house—and certainly not with the people inside!”

But the violence doesn’t end. This past week, a disgruntled advice seeker in Israel came back to kill the rabbi who gave him advice. He showed up and just stabbed him to death. Why? He said the rabbi had failed to solve his marital problems. Let me tell you, if this guy had that kind of murderous rage in him, believe me, he had more problems than just marital problems.

Speaking of marriage, why was that rabbi and his wife holding that guy hostage in their Lakewood home, beating him and threatening him? Yes, the Torah suggests we should “beat” a man until he gives his wife a get, but who really does that? And well, last time I checked, assault was a crime in this country. And yes, that rabbi and his wife were arrested.

What is going on? It’s hard to say it, or even accept it, but it appears that we are seeing an upward trend in violent crime among those who live an Orthodox lifestyle.

Yes, there was always the isolated story here and there, but these stories just don’t sound that isolated any more. People are angrier, and they aren’t afraid to show it.

But, you may say, “Jews are the ‘People of the Book!’ We’re a gentle nation, we’re always the victims, and we wouldn’t hurt a fly!” Not so. We need to open our eyes to the violent among us. Leiby’s murder was a rude awakening. If we were naïve before, we are no longer naïve. We can no longer trust a person by virtue of the fact that they lead an Orthodox lifestyle.

So why this upward trend? What’s going on in the Orthodox world that wasn’t going on before?

My theory is that the pressure to “get married/stay married/have kids/marry them well,” has become way too strong in the Orthodox community. It has reached insanely high levels. It is a prescription that not everyone will, can, or should follow. For many individuals and families, the shidduch crisis, homosexuality, divorce, infertility, illness, and death are realities closer to life.

But the pressure stays on. Get married. Stay married. Have kids. Marry them well. And the mental health issues in the community keep growing. We’ve all heard about eating disorders in the Orthodox community, alcohol abuse in the Orthodox community, domestic violence in the Orthodox community, and kids “at risk” in the Orthodox community. This new trend of outright violence is only another piece of this bigger picture. It turns out that we are a complex group of people, and we unfortunately share many ills with the general society in which we live.

As our community’s mental health is frayed, so is our educational system. We put all our stock in Jewish Education, but it keeps failing us. There are the kids dealing drugs a block from the school, the ones texting on shabbos, and others always getting kicked out from one yeshiva or another. And we keep paying through the nose for it all, hoping, hope upon hope, that our kids make it out okay, and, well, marry well.

And though we can’t afford the lifestyle, we somehow scrounge around enough money to impress our neighbors. So now, we’re not just trying to keep up with the Joneses. We ARE the Joneses.

And to top it all off, we have the added pressure of learning Torah, supporting Torah, living a Torah-lifestyle, and making sure that people know we’re doing it. Because if we do it, but nobody knows, we don’t get credit for it.

Our lifestyles are way too twisted to make any sense.

If they don’t make sense to us, they certainly don’t make sense to our kids. We’ve put ourselves between a rock and a hard place and then we wonder why we can’t get out. We wonder why our community is failing, why our schools can’t improve with all the money we’re putting into them, and why our mental health is in a downward spiral.

We need to relax the pressure to get married/stay married/have kids/marry them well. We need to realign our values such that life is not a show of money and frumkeit. We need to show our kids authentic Jewish experiences that make sense to them. And we need to realize the message we send our kids when we’re confused ourselves.

We need to come together to address serious issues in the community’s mental health. The events organized by Chai Lifeline after Leiby’s passing were a great first start. But the issues run deep, are worldwide, and they require ongoing attention.

These terrible acts of violence are indicative of a community at a breaking point. We need to unite not just in shock and horror, but in proactive efforts to make Orthodoxy viable as a lifestyle in our generation and the next.

May the Torah be a comfort to us, may we seek peace among our neighbors, and may each of us sit under our date trees in tranquility.

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Jewish Children’s Books: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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As a mom of young children, I am always on the lookout for quality children’s books with Jewish content. Unfortunately, they are too often few and far between. So I am taking this opportunity to review some of the books I have on my shelves in the hopes that other parents might enjoy the good ones and stay away from the weird ones. I am also hoping to inspire the Orthodox community to publish more books for mainstream Orthodox kids.

So here they are: the good, the bad, and the ugly:

The Good

For Babies and Toddlers:


Roni Shotter / Illustrated by Marylin Hafner / Publisher: Little, Brown and Company / Board book, Winner of the National Jewish Book Award

Between the words and the pictures, you actually really get the feeling of warmth from the book. And you get to know and like a fun-loving family. Very well done.

What do you See? In Your Neighborhood

Bracha Goetz / The Judaica Press / Board Book, Part of a Series

This book shows every day things babies and toddlers see in their neighborhoods including things they might see at the store, at school, at the doctor, or in the street. The book ends with things you they might see in shul. I like that they integrate “regular life” with shul and Jewish life. The photos are bright and colorful, the kids look Jewish, and the boys are all wearing kippahs (only black velvets, but ok). It makes me feel like I’m reading a book my kid can relate to.

Dinosaur on Shabbat

Diane Levin Rauchwerger / Picture by Jason Wolff / Kar-Ben Publishing

Cute poem about a dinosaur who visits a family and stays for Shabbat. It’s very cute and very well illustrated.

For Ages 4-7:

Mendel’s Accordion

Heidi Smith Hyde / Illustrated by Johanna Van Der Sterre / Kar-Ben Publishing

Excellent story about Mendel, who comes to America on a ship with his accordion. The book traces Mendel’s family, their musical interests, and what happens to the accordion after Mendel is gone. It is a very poignant story about friendship, family, immigration, and the meaning of music in Jewish life. Really, really good book.

The First Gift

A.S. Gadot / Illustrated by Marie Lafrance / Kar-Ben Publishing

“The very first gift my parents gave me was my name….” This is a great book about names, and how we are all called different things by different people throughout our lives. It talks about a boy named David, who was later named King and called Your Majesty, but his son Solomon just called him Daddy.

The book ends with,

Even though I’m not a king, they named me David after my great-grandfather. But I, too, have many names. My baby brother calls me Dave-Dave. My savta in Israel calls me Dah-veed, my Hebrew name…. When I grow up I might also be called Doctor or Rabbi or Coach or even Mister President. And maybe someday I’ll have a son, but he’ll just call me Daddy.

The book is very well written. The themes are Jewish names, names from different cultures and countries, the different roles we play in life, and the importance of family.

Once Upon a Time

Draizy Zelcer / Illustrated by Vitaly Romanenko / Hachai Publishing (Chabad)

This is probably the best Jewish book I’ve come across so far. Romanenko is an incredible illustrator and the book is really well-written. As we turn each page, we meet funny Jewish characters and follow them throughout their day. Each page has a clock on the top, so we can work on learning how to tell time. The vignettes are cute, and each one teaches good Jewish values like tzedakah, bikur cholim, davening, saying brachas, etc. At the end of the day, all the characters go to sleep.

The book ends, “ And now you know the secret / Time was not just meant to tell. / It’s a gift that’s full of meaning / If you use each moment well.” The book is genius.

It Could Always Be Worse

Margot Zemach / Farrar, Straus, and Girouz / Caldecott Honor Book

This is a great story to begin with. You probably know it already.

A simple shtetl man lives in a tiny hut with his large family and begs the rabbi to help because the children keep growing and fighting, and the house isn’t getting any larger. Each time he visits the rabbi, the rabbi insists that he bring more and more of his animals into his home. He doesn’t understand why, but he does it anyway. The house becomes a balagan, with animals making their lives very difficult. Finally the rabbi tells him to get rid of all the animals. That night the house is quiet and he sleeps much better. He tells the rabbi at the end, “…you have made life sweet for me. With just my family in the hut, it’s so quiet, so roomy, so peaceful…what a pleasure!”

It’s a funny book and well-written. The illustrations are good, but I think there is way too much brown and gloominess. I would have liked to see some more color. Also, I’m not sure that with young kids we want to directly suggest in a book that the rabbi (or anyone) might be crazy. But otherwise, it’s a fun read and definitely worth picking up.

The Bad

I’m sure some people worked very hard producing these books and I thank PJ Library for sending them to me, but they just don’t make sense for my Orthodox kids:

For Babies and Toddlers:

Gathering Sparks

Howard Schwartz / Illustrated by Kristina Swarner / Roaring Book Press / The PJ Library

A child asks where the stars came from. The answer is given that,

Long, long ago, before this world was created, God sent forth ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. If those vessels had reached their destination, the world would have been perfect. But the further they traveled, the more fragile they became. Finally, the vessels shattered, scattering sparks of light throughout the heavens. And that is how the stars came into being…. That’s why we were created—to gather the sparks, to gather the sparks no matter where they are hidden…. Every time you do a good deed, one of the sparks is set free. When you plant a tree, a spark rises up. When you help your baby sister, a spark can be seen in her eyes.

The parents’ blurb at the end of the book says that the story was “a central teaching” of the Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria. While it is a nice story, last I checked, we didn’t have Kaballah on our two-year-old’s curriculum. And whatever good things you would say about the Arizal, I would not call this book mainstream.

Here’s another book by the same author, equally weird:

Before You Were Born

Retold by Howard Schwartz / Illustrated by Kristina Swarner / Roaring Book Press / The PJ Library

Based on the Midrash Tanchuma, this book tells children that,

…the angel Lailah led your soul out of the Treasury of Souls and brought you down to this world. Once you were here, Lailah told your soul to enter a seed. Then Lailah brought that seed to your mother, and you started to grow inside her. While you were growing there, Lailah lit a lamp inside your mother’s womb and read to you from the Book of Secrets.

Ok, this is sounding very, very odd. I’m not reading this book to my kids. …I might as well stop quoting it!

For Ages 4-7:

The Only One Club

Jane Naiboff / Illustrated by Jeff Hopkins / Flash Light Press / The PJ Library

A story about a girl who is sad because she discovers that she is the only girl in her class not celebrating Christmas. I read this one to my daughter, but I had way too much explaining to do. The whole book was like Greek to her. Maybe the book will be less odd for her when she grows up, but by then, she will consider it a “baby book.”

The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story

Jacqueline Jules / Illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn / Kar-Ben Publishing / The PJ Library

This is a weird story about a fantastical large bird called a Ziz. In the story, the Ziz bumps into a star and it falls down, burning a hole in the earth. The Ziz goes to talk to God at Mt. Sinai. God asked the Ziz to “search the earth and bring back the hardest word.” After a few failed attempts, he comes back to say he’s sorry he can’t, and then learns that the hardest word is actually “sorry.” More bizarre than cute.

The Ugly

Bubbe Isabella and the Sukkot Cake

Kelly Terwilliger / Illustrations by Phyllis Hornung / Kar-Ben Publishing / The PJ Library

The pictures are dark and ugly, Bubbie is a loner who talks to bugs, animals eat up most of Bubbe’s sukkah, and a huge bear sits on her cake. Yuck and weird.

Another odd thing about this book is that the text of the story mentions the “harvest” and the “holiday procession” but avoids using the words “Sukkot” and “Simchat Torah.” I find that very strange and a little insulting to those who actually do observe the chagim.

Lastly, for those of us familiar with Jewish history, Isabella was certainly not a bubbe!

There is one other book I am tempted to put into this Ugly section, but I hesitate because it is actually an incredible book. The problem is that the book was illustrated in pencil and never colored. It’s a great book, but my daughter won’t read it because it’s black and white!

In case you are a budding writer, here are a few lessons learned:

  1. No weird midrashim please. Nothing nobody has ever heard of.
  2. Use color—and lots of it.
  3. Be funny, have characters we can love.
  4. Convey the feeling and the relevance of Judaism.
  5. Relate to kids and their personal experiences.

Here are my thoughts on some of the publishers:

  • PJ Library – this new up and coming non-profit is part of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and sends Jewish books to Jewish kids through the Federation system. Sounds great, but they send out (and now put their label on) some pretty odd selections. There are some sad attempts at retelling weird midrashim, and some books simply do not make sense for the Orthodox child. PJ Library is an incredible service, but the books they send are a mixed bag—some are great, some are not.
  • Chabad – they actually have the best books of the lot. Their works are some of the most creative and they have the best illustrators. Downside: all content has to be reviewed. There is always a chance the book raises way too many questions about the Rebbe and/or Mashiach that you can’t answer.
  • Judaica Press – looks like it might have good potential. I’m looking forward to reading more of their books. One downside: they need a new website to better display their publications.
  • Artscroll – they should have cornered the children’s books market, but they aren’t really serious players. They have a small bunch of successful titles, but they just aren’t the leaders in kids’ books that they are in other areas of publishing.
  • OU Press or YU Press should consider children’s book publishing. I would love to find books that I immediately know are appropriate for my kids – books I can trust without having to read them through first. But neither press has made such a move, and that’s a shame.

If you got to the end of this review, and happen to be a publisher of Jewish children’s books, I did write a great book that is yearning for the light of day. Please contact me at

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