Now for the Hard Part: Teaching Morality

Life Lessons

By Jennifer Lerer Eden

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.
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With a new baby girl and two toddler sons, my husband and I have very little use for alarm clocks these days. It is usually still dark outside when the boys creak open our bedroom door and tiptoe together to the foot of our bed, whispering, “I want milk please”; “Let’s build a LEGO castle, Daddy”; “Is it still night?” The clock does not yet say 6 a.m., but our day already has begun.

There is little doubt that the next 13 hours will be very hectic, filled with meals, diaper changes, naps, play dates, reading, dress-up, singing and the occasional conga line through the living room. And when 7 p.m. arrives and the children have been read to and tucked in, I close their doors, happy and satisfied but extremely exhausted, figuring that the physical exertion required to raise children is as hard as it gets.

Recently, however, I’ve begun to suspect that mastering the physical routine of parenting is probably the easy part. Since our older son is now in school for much of the day and comes home with questions about people he meets and experiences he’s had, my thoughts have been increasingly focused on more complicated matters beyond the physical — teaching values, morality and kindness toward others. And, unlike the science of the diaper change, it is hard to imagine a clear formula for shaping a respectful, ethical person.

But with the holiday season approaching, publishing houses are banking on more than a few families looking for guidance. Here are just some of the Jewish-flavored offerings you’ll be seeing on bookstore shelves:

“Wise… and Not So Wise: Ten Tales From the Rabbis” (The Jewish Publication Society), a book of stories compiled by Phillis Gershator, utilizes “tales derived from talmudic and midrashic folklore” to touch on many issues of morality, including tolerance and honesty as well as Jewish prayer and Sabbath observance. Designed and illustrated by Alexa Ginsburg, the book is filled with short stories of rainmakers, stonecutters and brilliant rabbis; in an effort to enhance the book’s educational value, Gershator follows each story with character biographies and discussion questions. In addition, she tampers with details of the traditional tales and encourages readers to think about the meaning of her alterations. Many of Gershator’s questions are weighty and require reflection: At the end of “Hanina’s Stone,” for example, Gershator poses the question, “Is it foolish to dream and then work to make the dream come true, however impractical that dream may be?” Following another story, the author asks, “No matter how wise someone may be, can any one person know what’s right for everyone else?”

The book certainly succeeds in familiarizing kids with Jewish figures of the ancient past while forcing them to think

about important moral issues.

“The Only One Club” (Flashlight Press), a book for children ages 4 to 8, is written by Jane Naliboff and illustrated by Jeff Hopkins. It tells the story of first-grader Jennifer Jacobs, who gleefully discovers that she is the only Jewish student in her class. The girl’s positive sense of Jewish pride quickly morphs into a grade-school brand of ethnic elitism as she begins parading around with a badge, identifying herself as a member of the exclusive “Only One Club” and refusing to let anyone else join. Eventually Jennifer’s conscience prevails and she decides to include every classmate in the club, finding “only one” categories for all of them: For example, Sam is the only kid with a pet iguana and Alex is the only first grader who was born on a bus.

The book attempts to deliver a clear and praiseworthy lesson: It is important to celebrate those things that make each of us unique. But this message often gets lost as the story takes a few puzzling turns, starting with the jarring decision to cast Jennifer as an inside-out version of Anne Frank and to transform the December dilemma into a young Jew’s holiday fantasy. The early emphasis on Jennifer’s Jewishness sets up the book as a story about bridging ethnic differences. But the author proceeds to ignore the obvious racial diversity in the class (made clear through illustrations), instead equating Jennifer’s distinct religious identity with jumping Double Dutch and having huge front teeth. And, in the end, the children seem less interested in celebrating their diversity than in making sure they gain admission to the club.

• A few months before the birth of our second child, I began to prepare our son. Though he was only 18 months old –– probably a bit young to appreciate the discussions –– parents of older children might find “Baby Babka, the Gorgeous Genius” (Clarion Books), written by Jane Breskin Zalben, helpful in advance of their next child.

The book, illustrated by Victoria Chess, chronicles two siblings, Beryl and Sam, and the arrival of their new baby brother, Zachary. Beryl, the oldest child, is particularly unhappy with the shift in the family dynamic. In response, the children’s uncle Morty appeals to the kids in both humorous and subtle ways — by taking them to Coney Island, by showing them baby pictures of themselves — and shares with them the joys of a new baby. The lessons here are simple and straightforward: A growing family is a wonderful thing and even though siblings don’t always get along, there is always plenty of love to go around. However, the book does resolve itself rather quickly: While most children need time to adjust to a new baby, one week after Zack is born his siblings huddle over his cradle, professing their love for him as sure as “the sun in the sky above.” Overall, the book is tender and sweet, offering a tasty bonus at the end: a recipe for “Mama’s prize-winning” chocolate babka.

“A Kid’s Mensch Handbook, Step by Step to a Lifetime of Jewish Values” (Behrman House), by Scott E. Blumenthal, is the quirkiest selection of the lot reviewed here. More classroom handbook than bedside reading, the book tackles serious religious ideals, including shalom bayit (domestic peace) and derech eretz (respect for all people), in a kid-friendly, fast paced format. This colorful, interactive book, aimed at fourth and fifth graders, fuses creative exercises, including the Mensch Movie Review and the Mensch-o-meter, with kitschy cartoons and meaningful Jewish quotes, making lofty concepts accessible and fun.

There are more books to discuss and more to say about the ones mentioned here, but midnight has arrived and the hours of potential sleep for this mommy are dwindling. Good night, and happy Hanukkah.

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