Prayer book party ’22

An Israeli tradition

On Friday, our daughter’s first grade class had their siddur (prayer book) party, which is considered a milestone for Orthodox Jewish children in Israel.

Our daughter’s school is unusual in Israel in that half the student body identifies as religious (Orthodox) and the other half identify as non-religious (i.e., secular), unlike the vast majority of Jewish schools in Israel, which are exclusively either secular, Orthodox, or ultra-Orthodox. I mention this because prayer book parties are considered the norm for first graders at Israel’s Jewish religious schools, not at secular schools… However, at our school, the non-religious children are full participants in this milestone.

I mention this because my greatest criticism of secular Jewish culture is that it more often than not produces adults who are largely ignorant of their Jewish religious heritage and traditions. This was brought home to me once again by the mother of a secular student who spoke to the schoolchildren at the ceremony. She related how she, who had attended Israeli secular schools throughout her childhood, first encountered the Jewish prayer book at twenty-six-years-old and cried upon realizing that she had no idea how to participate in Jewish prayer services.

It’s really a very sweet idea, this prayer book ceremony – every child receives a siddur with a lovely, personalized felt cover. And at our school, which is not religiously coercive (i.e. does not expect children to necessarily accept the tenets of traditional Jewish dogma), the message is beautiful: regardless of how one chooses to live their life, and regardless of what one may personally believe, the families of our community want our children to be familiar with the rudiments of Jewish tradition. We want our children to be able to navigate and feel connected to this most fundamental of Jewish books: the siddur.


Raising a Jewish child in Israel

I’ve written about this in the past, and I won’t belabor the point again, but suffice it to say that for Jews who put a priority on adhering to traditional Jewish religious restrictions (like eating food that has been certified as kosher) and consider it important to provide their children with a sound Jewish education, life in Israel has great appeal.

Whereas private Jewish day schools in the diaspora cost tens of thousands of dollars to attend, Israel’s Jewish-religious schools (which offer both full secular and religious curricula), are essentially free because they’re public schools, paid for by the government. In Israel, one need not be wealthy to give their children the gift of a Jewish education.

Growing up in the USA, as I did, I had more exposure to Jewish tradition than the secular Israeli woman who shared her personal story with our children on Friday, but not very much more. It wasn’t until I entered college that I first encountered the great depths and expanses of my religious heritage; and while I’ve spent years of my adult life immersed in Jewish text study, I remain less than comfortable swimming through the ritual and language of Jewish tradition. This discomfort of mine remains an open wound.

So, whether our daughter decides to lead a more religious or less religious life than ours is today, I don’t care too much. What I do care about is her feeling entirely at home in her identity as a Jew and being able to access ancient Jewish texts in Hebrew and Aramaic. And that is precisely what her school is educating her towards.

(I wrote above that I would not belabor this point, but I still ended up writing several paragraphs.)


Shabbat shalom

It is Shabbat in Israel at the time of this post going live, as I scheduled it in advance of sunset on Friday, which is when the Sabbath begins. (I avoid using electronics on Shabbat.)

I want to record my daughter’s special milestone here in my blog so that I could look back at this in the future. Of course, I haven’t really described the ceremony too much because the details, from my perspective, are side notes. The children sang songs, the teachers and parents gave brief speeches, we had a tasty buffet with various bourekas, vegetables, fruits, etc…

The important thing is that the children had a positive experience, and our daughter certainly did.

The reason I noted that this particular blog post is being published on Shabbat (Saturday morning) is that on Friday, after we returned home from the prayer book party, I promised to teach our child some prayers during our Day of Rest – at her request. She is already excited to explore the pages of her siddur… And that is something that makes her father glow with happiness.

56 thoughts on “Prayer book party ’22”

  1. (posting after some hesitation and discussion with David; draft titled: ‘letter to a young Jewish dad’)

    I knew a 9-year old German girl once who was sent to the local Lutheran church every Sunday. So her mum and dad would have a bit of time to themselves. She liked the organ music but thought it was weird people believe in a ‘Father in Heaven’. She did not tell anyone but she certainly did not.

    She was lonely though and loved the hour away from mum and dad’s misery.

    Not much more than 20 years later, one day with a flash she woke up to – among other things -, the realisation that the stories children are told in RE ARE indeed just that – stories, and as such, in one way or the other going back to your people.She also woke up to the fact that it was possible to love the world with oneself in it – just as if any of those stories had any truth. This was possible thanks to a Jewish psychiatrist, Jacob Levy Moreno. I don’t think he believed in religion either. I don’t even know whether he was a nice man or faithful to his wife or any other characteristics. But the woman the girl had turned into feels she owes him her life as much as the German psychologist using Moreno’s Psychodrama who let her play the lost child without interrupting or giving good advice. Just playing. – That is one of the ways in which my story is linked with the Jewish people and their history. I hope you tell your daughter that story one day.

  2. We are surrounded by Jewish Schools in this area. All Religious Schools are Private and as such charge fees but there are government grants to all. My sons went to a Catholic High school. We were allowed to pay 1/2 fees because that was what we could afford. Both did very well in their Religious Studies. I taught Religion there for a few terms also at 2 primary schools and was active in the St. Vincent de Paul society – so I think they felt we paid our way. Not bragging about my intense involvement because it helped me with my Religious experience too.

  3. Good shabbos and mazel tov to your daughter and family! Interesting to get a different glimpse into the Israeli educational system. My brother has been living an Orthodox lifestyle in Jerusalem over 20 years now with two boys (two different mothers) in the system as well. His youngest’s education, being highly autistic, is certainly not standard. However, it’s only recently that we began communicating again.
    I must admit that growing up in a very strict Jewish home on Long Island (high Jewish population in my area) was definitely a different experience than yours. Partially I’m sure because my father was interned in several of Hitler’s “camps” in his youth. It’s quite lucky that he survived at all. He made it his mission to be sure we learned everything just as he did as a young boy in a very orthodox shtetl. Including our earlier years in a strict Yeshivah school. I rebelled in my teens. However, many years later I see the benefits (and failings) from that early education. I respect it and am glad when I can help explain to my more secular friends what these things mean and what happens at the various holidays, including shabbat.
    I have heard that Judaism is practiced quite differently in the Holy Land, so thank you for a glimpse into the differences of that system. As usual I enjoyed the read!

    1. Star,

      He made it his mission to be sure we learned everything just as he did as a young boy in a very orthodox shtetl. Including our earlier years in a strict Yeshivah school.

      Wow. That’s really intense – I would have rebelled too, I think!

      I have heard that Judaism is practiced quite differently in the Holy Land, so thank you for a glimpse into the differences of that system.

      Yes and no… I think the differences are primarily cultural, although, of course, they do spill over into halakhic approaches… but, as you well understand, halakha is halakha… so I’m not sure how different the lifestyles are on a tachlis level.

      Thank you so much for sharing!

      Kol tuv,
      David

        1. no, not at all! it’s great!

          I actually find upbringings like yours fascinating, having been raised by very nationalistic but also very secular Jewish parents… my wife & I both chose to adopt Jewish religious traditions for ourselves, but we’re both very opposed to coercing our daughter into making the same decisions we’ve made.

      1. Just for clarification, my brother and l left that school after 2nd and 1st grade ,respectively. Dad’s teaching “method” didn’t stop then. It just became an “after school” and shabbas kinda thing plus Sunday school. It was a lot! (Too much maybe.) Especially for a kid trying to integrate into American culture.

  4. I’m pleased for your daughter! Her school sounds special.
    Btw, there are free Jewish schools in the UK (no separation of “church” and state as in the USA). It is doubtful I would have become frum without them.

          1. I don’t know what the requirements to receive funding are. All schools are supposed to teach the core curriculum regardless of whether they receive state support, although there’s been a lot of stuff in the news in recent years about (a) religious schools (mostly Haredi and Muslim) refusing to teach sex education and (b) illegal Haredi yeshivas that are not registered as schools and try to escape detection that do not teach secular subjects at all and have poor safeguarding and health and safety standards.

  5. Nice: I began writing my own siddur years ago, but then found Havurat Shalom’s (in Sommerville, MA, of “Little Yellow House on College Ave” from the First Jewish Catalog fame…) Siddur Birkat Shalom, and that works for me.

      1. Hi, Andrew: I can’t speak to Christian Prayer books, unless you are Greek Orthodox, as the Jewish prayer books are fairly standard, at least as of the Middle Ages, but the standard (Traditional/Orthodox) prayers are very masculine, and so I (and others) have modified the traditional prayers to include far more feminine references, like referring to The Divine in the feminine, and using female verbage in prayers relating to people as well. I personally also leave out some of the traditional prayers that do not fit, for me, where others have altered those prayers. The Open Siddur project (https://opensiddur.org/) now has many examples of people shaping their own prayer books from the old standards -Siddur Birkat Shalom, of Havurat Shalom, in the Boston area, was a leader in this, back in 1967, as was The First Jewish Catalog (self-styled ‘DIY Judaism’) from that epoch.

        Hope this helps,
        Shira

        1. Yes. I do understand Catholics have Prayer Books used by various Orders, I.e. Franciscans, I co-wrote one in translating the Latin and Greek from the Medieval

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