Perhaps it was the I remember the bus stop by the brown field Empty no man's land between the houses with a couple of small How old was I in second or third grade? Nine years old I suppose Maybe eight houses down from ours maybe less It's all so hazy Those two small trees in that dry, strange, empty space unwanted, un They were simply there, not far apart from one another teasing me with their purposelessness, their purity Perhaps it was Sometimes, often even, I still want to do the wrong very wrong Things are so murky now What was I thinking all those years ago? Certainly as a boy all of my worst inclinations were un Fantasies consumed I had super powers Rules didn't apply to me Nobody new about my secret identities, but I wanted to brag to Be appreciated Life in my imagination was So exciting that I simply had to tell the other boys at the bus stop to convince them that I had access to other realms Supernatural control over the universe Certainly over a little tree near the bus stop Perhaps it I summoned demons from another dimension to burn that little tree little by little very early every morning, long before anyone normal awoke I would watch flames born of comics pages licking And when the lower branches began to blacken noticeably with burn marks I felt my secret Feigning innocence, but speaking excitedly about arson at the bus stop and the possibility of alternate dimensions full of fire demons All of the boys certainly mentioned the little tree's gradual, daily destruction at home, and I was too excited not to Perhaps I was so sure of my cleverness Speaking, feigning ignorance, innocence, un to my mother Something terrible and strange is happening there I said There's an arsonist, I suppose, all we know is that the little tree is being burned up slowly What should we do about this? What can we do about this? What can we do? What? So horrible Acting was not my super power, or perhaps my mother's super powers were stronger despite the vastness of my imagination She was awake long before anyone normal awoke waiting for me at the door to another dimension, the portal to powers and forbidden I stood there a fool, holding some comics pages and matches, feeling revealed, stupid, pathetic, un Oh... Oh... Oh. the thrill of it.
I took notice that our 5⅔-year-old was using the word ‘half’ and the word ‘part’ interchangeably and decided that the time had come to set her straight on the matter. She’s quite bright and loves learning new concepts so it wasn’t at all challenging to pique her curiosity. However, she hadn’t yet encountered fractions so, for simplicity’s sake, I suggested that we should consider only the even numbers, which she knows about. On a piece of paper, we wrote down 2, 4, 6, and 8. And then:
2 = _ + _ 4 = _ + _ 6 = _ + _ 8 = _ + _
Unsurprisingly, she caught on quickly. After filling in the blanks together, I drew a circle for each of the four equations: one circle divided into two, one divided into four, and so on. How many slices do we need for half of a circle if there are eight slices? Four! What if there are six slices, like in this circle? Three! And over here, with four slices? Two! Wonderful! Good job! You’ve got it.
I also drew a 5th circle and divided it into two unequal pieces – one noticeably larger than the other. See? Here we have two pieces – but these are not halves. You can say that these are parts of the circle, or sections of the circle, but it would be inaccurate to call them ‘halves’. Do you know why? Because they’re not the same size? Exactly!
At that point, I decided to push the lesson a bit further. After all, she had just recently crossed the threshold from 5½ to 5⅔, right? My intention was to show her that the twelve months of the year (which she knows) could be divided into half (6) and also into thirds (4), thereby explaining why I had just recently started calling her a 5⅔-year-old.
So I began by explaining that we would first write down the number 3, and then add another 3 for the next number, which she said should be 6. And then? 9? Yep. And then? 12! After we’d written those numbers down, I jotted down:
3 = _ + _ + _ 6 = _ + _ + _ 9 = _ + _ + _ 12 = _ + _ + _
At this point, she began to noticeably tune out due to mental exertion. We managed to fill in the equations, but by the time I had drawn four circles (for 3, 6, 9, and 12) and divided them into the corresponding numbers of slices, I realized that I was pretty much doing the math exercise on my own. Then, even when I attempted to close out the activity by reinforcing that two 1’s gives us 2, whereas three 1’s give us 3, meaning that 1 is both ½ of 2 and ⅓ of 3, her mind had already wandered, and she was off to another activity.
I’m pretty sure that she still doesn’t understand what one-third is.
* * *
I enjoy speaking, writing, reading, typing, watching movies, and playing various word and story games with my daughter. We are raising a trilingual child, and I am both fascinated by and very proud of her language development. It’s incredibly rewarding for me to know that I am shaping her development and giving her an invaluable gift in this way. Never before have I been so invested in any project.
As it happens, I have an engineering degree, but most of what I learned back in college has long since faded from my memory banks for lack of any application. To the extent that I am good at math, it’s almost entirely due to the comfort with numbers that Papa inculcated in me from a very young age, and, of course, I wasn’t the only son who benefited from his tutelage. My brother, not long after Papa died, reflected upon his appreciation that Papa had been around to help him with his university math studies, which led him to receive a minor in mathematics.
My wife and I can both teach our daughter essential math skills, and I can even pass down many of the same math tricks that Papa once taught me, but… math isn’t enjoyable for me and it doesn’t come naturally. I’d rather be teaching her to write poetry. I’d rather be… I’d rather be… teaching her about mythical creatures of legends native to various world cultures. Perhaps some of those same colorful, magical creatures were good at mathematics themselves, but it has never excited me.
* * *
Not so long ago, on the 2nd anniversary of Papa’s death, I lit a 24 hour memorial candle in his memory. Lighting such a yahrzeit candle is a universal Jewish custom but not a requirement of religious law. Many people also light yahrzeit candles on those Jewish holidays when we traditionally recite the Yizkor prayer for our deceased loved ones, including Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret, both of which we celebrated just recently. I did not attend communal prayer services at shul for the holidays (COVID-19 is my excuse), and so I did not recite the Yizkor prayer, but I did light candles on all of the holidays… even including the recent holiday of Sukkot, which has no associated memorial prayers for the dead.
I’ve been attracted to candles and to fire for longer than I remember, but I never made a point of lighting them until the time came to commemorate my Papa, and, unexpectedly, I found it comforting.
Now, I don’t put much stock in belief in the supernatural. I believe that it is possible (and even likely) that some supernatural, omnipotent Force exists that created everything… but that’s about the extent of it. If somebody somehow proved that such a Force doesn’t exist (which I don’t believe to be possible), this wouldn’t be particularly disconcerting to me. It’s okay with me if God’s existence is disproven because I don’t believe that God or any other supernatural Force actually cares about us.
Still, the candle flame does excite my imagination in how it licks at the air around it. It’s soothing to imagine my Papa’s neshamah flickering in its flame, and I’m hardly the first human being to relate emotionally to fire as a living thing. In fact, as I now write about this, I find myself stirred to write some poetry about it… perhaps I’ll do that later. [addendum: here’s the poem I wrote later]
And so I’ve taken it upon myself to light a yahrzeit candle for Papa every Friday evening before Shabbat starts. For me, this has nothing to do with religious obligation, nor anything to do with faith. Rather, it’s simply comforting. It feels nice to spend a minute focused on remembering Papa. It feels nice to wake up on Saturday morning and see his candle still burning.
Of course, if I continue lighting a candle every week, I suppose I’ll have to come up with something else to do for Papa’s yahrzeit… but, unlike math, imagination has always been my strong suit.
Last night and the night before I wanted to take some time to write, but I ended up falling asleep while putting my daughter to bed each time.
For me, perhaps the most frustrating thing about Israel’s current (2nd) pandemic-related lockdown is the diminished amount of time and space that I am left with for myself, which I primarily use for writing, reading the news, and watching the occasional movie. Even under regular circumstances, most of my free time is at night when I am not working and not parenting.
My wife and I are lucky to still have our jobs during these lockdowns, rather than being furloughed, as so many Israelis have been. In fact, my wife has a very dear friend who works as a chef for a major Jerusalem hotel who is also a single mother; and her financial situation is challenging even under normal conditions. In this regard, we have humility enough to appreciate our blessings.
Still, these lockdowns are challenging for us emotionally, and, dare I say, more so for me because my more flexible work hours mean that I end up assuming the majority of parenting responsibilities for our child during such periods (one of the reasons that her English reading and writing abilities have improved over her Russian language skills).
Perhaps I would be less frustrated with this government directive, were it not for the politics of COVID-19 in Israel. Putting aside the “why” of the matter, it is simply a fact that rates of infection in our state are significantly higher in ultra-Orthodox and Arab neighborhoods. However, despite health professionals recommending that local measures be applied to those areas, the ultra-Orthodox political parties have strong-armed the government into shutting down all of society.
Still, I am trying to remain positive.
* * *
Yesterday, our daughter had a playground playdate with a friend who showed up in a cranky mood. The little boy was mourning over his inability to attend preschool during the lockdown. I tried explaining this to my daughter, and she was clearly befuddled. “Really? I like being with you and Mama’chka more than preschool!” From her perspective, you see, lockdowns are like extended vacations.
I must admit that it’s very affirming for me to hear that our child likes being at home with us. It would seem that we’re doing something right.
[In that vein, we’ve also noticed a shift in her daily discourse over the past half year. Whereas she used to constantly ask, “Do you love me?” (and she still does occasionally). She now much more often prefers to say, “I love you” and kiss us; and since we parents are also human beings, I am not too shy to admit that we like hearing this.]
* * *
One other party in our household has benefitted from the lockdown, and that is Goldie the goldfish.
In truth, we’re learning how to take care of Goldie as we go – taking fish seriously as pets is not so simple, it seems.
Several weeks ago, we decided to get an airstone and pump for Goldie, which provides better circulation and aerates the tank water. This is not an absolute necessity, but it is generally considered healthy for the fish, and increases the efficiency of the filter. All of this was new to us.
Then, at a later date, we decided to upgrade to a bigger aquarium because the smaller tank was leaking from the top. In doing so, we learned that the water level in the smaller tank had been too high – that it should have been a bit lower than the bottom of the filter. (We also received 3 free Buenos Aires tetra fish with our purchase)
During that pet shop visit, we picked up a large, plastic “rock” with “plants” on it. However, what we came to realize is that the hollow “rock” was accumulating dirty water beneath it (leaving us to wonder why hollow aquarium decorations are sold in the first place). The “rock” has since been replaced with a sunken ship of the British Empire with a solid bottom, and our daughter is has taken to using the “rock” for her Playmobil figures’ adventures (don’t worry – we washed it).
Now our current and continuing challenge has become determining just how much to feed the four fish, as tetra fish should be fed more often than goldfish. In our research, we’ve also learned that tetra fish and goldfish are not necessarily the best tank mates, and the tetras, which are tropical, are not likely do well in colder temperatures… so they may not survive the coming Jerusalem winter.
In any case, the important thing is that our daughter is very happy to have pet fish. She takes feeding them very seriously and is still trying to decide upon names for the three tetras. We’ve warned her, of course, that they may not be long for this world… but we’ll get some replacements for her if they don’t make it.
Being home every day during this lockdown is providing us with an opportunity to monitor the aquarium… so I suppose there have been some hidden benefits to the ongoing insanity…
Given that I put a premium on being true to one’s self, one would be correct to assume that this value fundamentally informs my parenting priorities. As is nearly always the case with my ethics, this is no novel notion of mine.
Let us look at Proverbs 22:6 together:
|חֲנֹ֣ךְ לַ֭נַּעַר עַל־פִּ֣י דַרְכּ֑וֹ גַּ֥ם כִּֽי־יַ֝זְקִ֗ין לֹֽא־יָס֥וּר מִמֶּֽנָּה׃||Train a youth according to his way; he will not swerve from it even in old age.|
Perhaps I should end this post here. What have I to contribute of substance to this ancient wisdom? Should it not be obvious that all children have their own strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and ways of understanding? That they deserve the same opportunities to grow into and actualize themselves, which every single parent would like to have for themselves?
* * *
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-88) did, in fact, illustrate this idea in the context of the Torah’s tale of the twins Esau and Jacob. Why, he wondered, did one twin follow their parents’ path and the other (Esau) go astray? Rav Hirsch suggested that this was due to a grave mistake perpetrated by the brothers’ parents Isaac and Rebecca.
[A BRIEF ASIDE: Something I profoundly appreciate about our Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is that it doesn’t shy away from or attempt to smooth over the shortcomings and failings of our matriarchs, patriarchs, kings, prophets, and heroes. Rather, we are to derive life lessons from their terrible mistakes.]
Rav Hirsch was bothered by something in Genesis 25:27. Let’s take a look:
|וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים׃||And the youths grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a mild man who sat in tents.|
Why, wondered Rav Hirsch, does the verse say that the twins were different only after they grew up? Was it not obvious that their natures were very different long before they came of age? Based on this verse, the great rabbi deduced that Rebecca and Isaac raised the twins in exactly the same way. Their childhoods had been identical. He wrote:
|כל עוד היו קטנים, אף אחד לא העניק תשומת לב להבדלים בפנימיותם (עיין פסוק כד); נתנו להם אותו גידול ואותו חינוך. הוריהם שכחו כלל גדול בחינוך: ״חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל־פִּי דַרְכּוֹ״ וגו׳ (משלי כב, ו).||As long as they were little, No one paid attention to the differences in their inner natures (see verse 24); they gave them the same upbringing and the same education. Their parents forgot a big rule in education: ‘Educate a youth according to his way…’ (Proverbs 22:6).|
Rav Hirsch brought his point home as follows:
|״ויגדלו הנערים״: רק לאחר שהבנים גדלו והפכו לאנשים, הופתעו כולם לגלות, ששני האחים, שמרחם אחד יצאו, ואשר קיבלו את אותה השגחה, התחנכו באותה הדרך, ולמדו אותם לימודים; היו כה שונים בטבעיהם ובפעולותיהם.||“And the youths grew up”: Only after the boys grew up and became adults was everyone surprised to discover that the two brothers, who had come out of one womb, and who had received the same supervision; been educated the same way; and been taught the same studies, were so different in their natures and actions.|
According to Hirsch’s lengthy exegesis, the upbringing and education received by the twin brothers suited Jacob but not Esau, which explains why Esau did not grow up to become a righteous man.
* * *
One of the amazing aspects of watching our daughter grow up is our ever-developing familiarity with her temperament and personality.
When she was yet a baby and even a toddler, I harbored skepticism regarding the extent to which her actions and reactions were anything more than behaviors common to most, if not all, children at those ages. Now I know that I was very wrong.
I recall a video from her daycare when she was but a one-year-old, in which she vehemently shook her head and rejected a pair of maracas offered to her during a holiday celebration. Every other child seated in that little circle was happy to grab some maracas from the music teacher and shake them. At the time, this incident mostly amused me.
Since then, based upon my and my wife’s observations, and based upon the feedback that we’ve received from multiple daycare and preschool teachers, I have come to recognize that our daughter often likes to play independently from other children and come up with activities for herself. She does not always want to play with others, and she does not always want to do what others are doing. She doesn’t have problems socializing with her peers; she is simply aware of her need for personal space. Now, given our worldviews, we’ve never needed reassurance that this is anything other than perfectly healthy behavior, but multiple teachers have felt the need to underscore: “Don’t worry, this is totally fine!”
The above is but an example of a character trait, which exhibited itself in our daughter’s behavior at a very early age. There are, of course, many, many others – and, as Rav Hirsch expounded upon in his Torah commentary, this is true for all children.
It is for parents to observe their children and fathom them. Our approaches to rearing and education must be adapted accordingly.
Your little face Might just be proof for me of God's good grace You utterly bewitch me Your fancies so enrich me I want to be Your Abba'chka... How can I assure you That there's a God Though I s'pose you do not need it You naturally believe it... Holier than me My Dear Baby I so fear when you'll learn about "maybe" The hurts you'll know as onwards grow For much of life is simply show My Dear Baby I don't wanna say He ain't there for me Every day I watch you read and sing and learn and play Your birth gave me such purpose Of this I'm fully certain That I've so changed My love for you It flows red hot and it is bursting through... Wish I could protect you from painful disappointment When He misses His appointment But still I'll be Your Abba'chka... How can I assure you That there is a God Though I s'pose you do not need it You naturally believe it... Holier than me Your childish purity I cannot see Whom your eyes see But whenever you need me That's where I'll be
The avocado pit that I recently attempted to grow into a tree didn’t make it. We’ll give it another try next time we purchase an avocado – I still think our daughter would enjoy watching a little avocado sapling sprouting in a glass of water.
Since the avocado tree never actually began to grow, my child (and I) never had an opportunity to grow attached to it.
* * *
By coincidence, my daughter received a goldfish from her preschool on the final day of the school year, just over one week ago. We hadn’t expected this, and, as we don’t have a car, I was slightly miffed at having to schlep the little plastic container home, water splashing out through the air holes as it swung from side to side… but in the end, after a pizza stop and an extended playground date with a friend, we all arrived in tact.
As I carried the little fish around, I could feel it bumping its head against the sides of its small plastic prison, and I knew it wouldn’t last long in such cramped quarters.
I only recall having one goldfish in my childhood, and its life was very short-lived. I won it at my childhood synagogue during an annual Purim carnival and brought it home. It never occurred to me that caring for it would require any serious commitment, nor that the water in that tiny container without a filtration system would quickly become poisonous. Also, I don’t believe it much bothered me to flush the victim of my disinterest down the toilet.
For some reason, perhaps for the same reason that I wanted to grow an avocado sapling for my 5½-year-old, I immediately saw potential in her newly acquired goldfish. I would, of course, have appreciated it if the preschool had let us know in advance about this unexpected gift, but… well… there it was, bumping its little head around.
* * *
We arrived back home at 7:00 in the PM, and I immediately had to complete a PowerPoint presentation for work. Quickly, I checked online to see how late the local pet store would be open- 9:00 PM.
I hurried to complete my work, arrived at the mall by 8:30, and ordered myself an iced cappuccino before making my way to the pet store on the 2nd floor.
As my spoken Russian is stronger than my spoken Hebrew, I was pleased that the young salesperson had a familiar accent and peppered him with a dozen different questions, which he was more than happy to answer. That night, I came home with a small aquarium with a filtration system, a bag of black pebbles, two plastic plants, and a lot of information.
Back at home, I transferred the fish to the aquarium and started scouring the Internet for further goldfish-related nuggets. Unsurprisingly, entire websites have been dedicated to the raising of goldfish, and I found myself wondering what might have been if such resources had been available during my childhood.
- Domesticated goldfish can potentially live for ten years or more
- They have different personalities and can get bored
- Their diet consists of fruits, vegetables, rice, shrimp, and other things
- Goldfish have teeth at the back of their throats
- Instead of a stomach, they have one long intestine
- For every year of a goldfish’s life, it develops a ring on its scaly body
- Goldfish can see more colors than human beings
- Once they are used to their homes, they will nibble food out of your hand.
- They can be taught tricks, can recognize their owners, and have memories that span more than three months
* * *
At first our daughter assigned the goldfish a series of five or six names (including our last name), but eventually she settled upon ‘Goldie’, just like Peppa Pig’s goldfish. She feeds Goldie every morning, and she sometimes suggests that I peel and cut up a grape, which she cheerfully drops into the tank.
As for me, after Goldie’s first week in our home, I changed the water and rinsed the aquarium filter… so I’m doing my part in trying to keep Goldie alive. I guess we’ll see – goldfish are very cheap to buy so if Goldie doesn’t make it for some reason, we’ve already discussed our intent to get another fish. If at first we don’t succeed, we’ll try and try again.
There are several reasons why my 5½-year-old, despite living in Israel and despite only having one parent whose speaks English at a mother tongue level, speaks, reads, and writes English as fluently as she does.
I suggest that parents should assume that all children are capable of absorbing languages like little sponges. Nevertheless, let’s assume for a moment that your child never learns to speak, read, or write in your native language. In such a case, your child must still -at minimum- be able to understand your speech if you remain stubbornly consistent about speaking to them in exclusively one language. That is a gift.
* * *
While I’ve touched upon our approach to communicating with our daughter in our respective native tongues (mine: English, my wife’s: Russian), speaking has been only one of several critical components to our strategy.
First of all, multilingual children must have age-appropriate books on their shelves of all the languages of their homes. Reading is crucial to linguistic development. With almost no exaggeration, I would say that not a day goes without at least one of us reading a book to our daughter. (I literally just took a break from writing this post to read ‘Walter the Baker’ to her.)
* * *
I must give my mother her much due credit.
The reason my mama deserves credit is that she is very thoughtful about pedagogy, and she has gifted our baby all sorts of puzzles and children’s games that have made learning English fun. From her earliest days, our 5½-year-old was surrounded by alphabet jigsaw puzzles, word-spelling memory games, alphabet dice, etc., etc.
Now, I don’t personally have any experience with children’s games in languages other than those of our home, but my wife found Russian alphabet jigsaw puzzles and other Russian spelling games, as well as a terrific website for Russian children’s books. I would imagine that such things are available in most countries – you just have to seek them out, and the Internet makes that so much easier than it once was.
The proof is in the pudding – our daughter knew both the Russian and English alphabets by heart (both the names of the letters, their sounds, and their shapes) before she was 2½ years-old, and she learned the Hebrew alphabet by the time she was three (Hebrew has never been our priority in the home).
* * *
By the time she was four, she was asking to use our computers and telephones to send messages to her grandmothers. At first I was worried that this would make drafting letters by hand unappealing to her, but that was not the case.
My wife taught her to form Russian letters at around the same as when she began learning to write in Hebrew at preschool. Seeing this, I encouraged her to try her hand at English, and soon she was copying sentences from her Russian and English children’s books at home.
Then, during the initial COVID-19 lockdown, she and I played a game (at the encouragement of my Mama, I think) in which we would take turns writing snippets of stories that we would make up, folding over the papers strip by strip, such that only the most recently written lines could be seen. Finally, we would unfold the papers and read the silly stories aloud to one another, giggling.
Today she and I are going to her friend’s 4th birthday party, and our little girl is now comfortably writing out the words of the birthday card with minimal assistance in English. If we were to be attending a Russian language birthday party, she could do the same.
* * *
I’ve mentioned our strategy of watching Disney movies with our daughter, but now I want to touch upon something else: YouTube.
The Internet is such a resource. Looking back at my own childhood, I am certain that if I’d had access to Russian videos on the Internet, my Russian would be better than it is today. I do speak the language comfortably, but I make grammatical mistakes, and my vocabulary could use quite a bit of buffing. My daughter, on the other hand, has easy access to videos in all of her spoken languages, and when she comes across unfamiliar words and concepts she knows that her parents will be more than happy to explain them to her.
Of course, it’s important to vet the videos that our children watch, but there are so many wonderful children’s educational channels, videos, and songs on YouTube – they’re not hard to find. Even cartoons like Peppa Pig, Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom, Masha and the Bear (originally in Russian), Pororo the Little Penguin, Maya the Bee, etc., etc. are educational in terms of developing a child’s vocabulary. These feed children’s imaginations, and I have found that our daughter is particularly curious to learn new words if they play into her fantasies.
Also, storybooks and videos reinforce each other. Our child is always more excited to read stories that are based upon videos that she’s seen, and vice-versa. Also, she likes comparing her books to corresponding videos – what are the differences in the storylines, for example? What do different versions of the same story emphasize?
Of course, parents shouldn’t aim to zombify their children in front of computer screens, but there do come moments when children reach a point of exhaustion and are unable to focus on more demanding activities such as drawing, reading, puzzle solving, etc. We have found that with careful supervision, watching videos has made a very positive contribution to our child’s development.
* * *
In short, resources are available to us in a way that they never were when I was a child. If your children’s development is a priority, it shouldn’t be difficult to fill their lives with all sorts of educational games, books, videos, etc. Children’s activities lend themselves readily to learning and development if they are introduced and conducted thoughtfully and with intentionality.