Finding Jewish-Themed Children's Books Beyond The Holiday Season
12/22/11 5:30PM By Neal Charnoff  Download MP3
(Host) It's an age-old tradition for parents to read to their kids at bedtime, but finding children's books with Jewish themes can be a challenge in Vermont. So, many families are turning to the PJ Library, which sends out free children's books devoted to Jewish stories and holidays. VPR's Neal Charnoff reports.
(Charnoff) At the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Montpelier, Rachel Rosenbloom is leading children through a reading of "Latkes Good To Eat," a selection from the PJ Library of Vermont.
The Library was founded by philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, and currently serves about 160 communities in the U.S. and Canada.
Rabbi Tobie Weisman leads the Vermont chapter.
Weisman says that Grinspoon's connection with Judaism came later in his life, and he felt it was important to raise his own children with a strong Jewish foundation.
(Tobie) "He felt in a certain way Jewish families are disadvantaged because we don't have that connection that our parents or our grandparents had to Judaism."
(Charnoff) Weisman says storytelling is an ideal way for parents to introduce their kids to Jewish values and traditions.
(Tobie) "The most important time of the day is really at night when we're putting our children to bed, and we have these deep moments with them, where they want to ask us questions. They want to talk about their day. And so he felt that why not make this moment a Jewish moment? And stories are such a rich way of teaching without having to be dogmatic."
(Charnoff) Cara Rosenberg of Montpelier appreciates how the books can lead to discussing Jewish values with children.
(Rosenberg) "There's a great book called The Birthday Of The World, which is for Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year, and it's this wonderful book that asks all these animals, like, my dear little elephant, have you been the best elephant that you could this year, so it sort of invites you to talk to your kids about have you been the best person that you could be this whole year, and what are you going to do going into the next year."
(Charnoff) The books come with notes for parent to help explain Jewish holidays and traditions to their children.
Rabbi Weisman says the books are also helpful to parents who haven't had much Jewish education, or are re-learning forgotten Hebrew School lessons.
Library member David Rubel says that reading PJ Library books has been a natural way to re-engage with his own roots, while teaching his children what it means to be a Jew.
(Rubel) "These books in particular led to all sorts of discussion and questions, and it wasn't just me reading but me having a conversation with my kids."
(Charnoff) Rabbi Weisman says many parents become more involved in Vermont's Jewish community because of their enrollment in this program.
The monthly gatherings are a way for people to learn about and share Jewish culture with other families.
But there are other reasons why the PJ Library can be appealing to kids.
Jude Fidel of Montpelier is only five, but he gets excited about two fading 20th century concepts: mail delivery and hard-cover books.
(Jude Fidel) "It's exciting when you get a package in the mail and it's for you."
(Charnoff) And Jude's sister Ayla says that not all of the books lessons are philosophical.
(Ayla Fidel) "Well I learned that a lot of Jewish people came from Russia on a big crowded boat, and that Jewish people like to eat knishes and latkes."
(Charnoff) Rabbi Tobie Weisman says that while the PJ Library was established with funding from the Grinspoon foundations, the local chapter will need to rely on local donations to continue operating. But for this group on this day, the focus is on latkes and holiday cheer.
For VPR News, I'm Neal Charnoff in Montpelier.