Alexander, or: Alexander

A quadrille in memory of Papa z”l

(in two limericks)

I.

Alexander hacked the Gordian Knot;
Defeated all armies he fought;
With lightning sword,
Secured his reward...
... Unknown remains his burial plot

II.

My Papa conceived 'Cut The Knot',
Believing education ought be rethought
Blazing forth new path,
Spreading passion for math;
Personal gain? Merely... afterthought

The above combination of two limericks is my take on d’Verse’s Quadrille challenge #124.

The quadrille is simply a poem of 44 words (excluding the title), and it can take any form. This week’s challenge was to use the word “knot” in a quadrille.

Ethical will: Education

Internal obstacles to writing this entry

I’ve been thinking of writing an ethical will entry on education for some time now, but it’s been challenging for me to begin. For me, there are three obstacles:

  1. The strong personal association I draw between Judaism and placing a high value on education, which I worry may come across as off-putting to some;
  2. Not relating to many of the traditional Jewish source texts on education;
  3. My personal experiences with [higher] education, which did not [ultimately] serve me well, as a result of my poor decision-making.

Fortuitously, I recently came across a short talk by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l on Animalizard’s blog, which gave me the language I needed to overcome that first internal barrier, and this, in turn, gave me the motivation to push through the others.


Jews and education

This is the part that makes me uncomfortable to share, but it will, in part, showing you where I am coming from.

Jews, as a religious group, really, really, really prioritize education, and this has been true throughout our history (as far as I know). The ‘People of the Book’ have long valued literacy. It feels haughty to me to make mention of this, but it’s simply true, even in the modern day. In 2016, the Pew Research Center published its study on ‘Religion and Education Around the World’, which found that:

When measured by years of formal schooling, Jews have the highest average educational attainment, while Muslims and Hindus have the lowest. Christians have the second highest average years of schooling, followed by religiously unaffiliated adults and then Buddhists.

Pew Research Center, 2016

This cultural emphasis on education played a major part in my upbringing. My father and mother were both highly educated, well read and sophisticated, as was most of our extended family on either side. I grew up fully expecting that college and graduate school awaited me after high school. In my mind, it was only a matter of deciding whether to be a doctor, lawyer, professor or engineer.


A joke to lighten [the/my] mood

This reminds me of a classic Jewish joke, which some of you may be already familiar with:

The First Jewish President

The first Jewish president calls up his mother and invites her over for Passover. Characteristically, his mother immediately begins complaining.

“Oy, I’ll need to book a flight and it’s going to cost so much – it is just too much of a bother.”
Her son counters, “Mom! I’m the President! I’ll hire a private jet for you!”
“Oy, I’ll need to catch a taxi and carry my luggage. It’s just too much!”
“Mom! I’m the President! I’ll pick you up in my limo! Then my guards will carry your luggage for you!”
“Oy, I’ll need to book a hotel.”
“Mom! Don’t be ridiculous! I’m the President! You can stay at the White House!”
“Okay, fine,” she finally acquiesces.

Two minutes later her friend Sophie calls.
“So, Miriam, what’s new?”
“Oy, I’m going to my son for Passover.”
“Who, the doctor?”
“No, the other one.”


Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l on being Jewish

An important clarification

I am a Jew, not because I believe that Judaism contains all there is of the human story. I admire other traditions and their contributions to the world… Nor is it because I think that Jews are better than others, more intelligent, creative, generous, or successful…

These words can be heard spoken by Rabbi Sacks zt”l in the video below.

‘Why I am a Jew’ by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l

Education as a sacred task

Among the many reasons (and I do suggest that you watch the video in its entirety) that Rabbi Sacks zt”l gives for his being Jewish is this one, which resonates deeply with me:

Jews, though they lacked all else, never ceased to value education as a sacred task, endowing the individual with dignity and depth…

It’s not a matter of my people being better than another. It’s a matter, as Rabbi Sacks zt”l aptly puts it, of that which is uniquely my people’s:

I admire other civilizations and traditions; I believe each has brought something special into the world… but this is ours.


Jewish source texts

Some that don’t work for me…

As you may imagine, there are a lot of ancient Jewish sources that deal with education, particularly in relation to a father educating his son, and with a particular emphasis on discipline and ‘not sparing the rod’. For example, Proverb 13:24:

חוֹשֵׂךְ שִׁבְטוֹ, שׂוֹנֵא בְנוֹ; וְאֹהֲבוֹ, שִׁחֲרוֹ מוּסָר. He who spares the rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him early.

Color me modern, but I would never lift a hand against any child of mine; and beyond that, I fundamentally reject the Bible’s expectations of a child, as stated quite plainly in Proverbs 29:15:

שֵׁבֶט וְתוֹכַחַת, יִתֵּן חָכְמָה; וְנַעַר מְשֻׁלָּח, מֵבִישׁ אִמּוֹ. The rod and reproof give wisdom; but a child left to himself causes his mother shame.

Seriously?

I cite these texts because pretending that they do not exist would be dishonest, as I want to ground my ‘ethical will’ in my tradition. However, the thrust of the approach above to education leaves me feeling cold, for such biblical sources are simply ancient and in no way reflect my thinking or perceptions. While I must, of course, allow for cultural and other historical developments, I nonetheless find this attitude towards pedagogy entirely unrelatable.

There are, of course, other Jewish texts on education, many of which focus on the study of particular religious texts and the performance of particular religious rituals at particular ages, but these are not so relevant to my thoughts on education in general.

… and some that do

I have already written my ‘ethical will’ entry on the importance of raising individuals, which includes a traditional Jewish text on pedagogy, also from the Book of Proverbs (22:6), which strongly speaks to me:

חֲנֹ֣ךְ לַ֭נַּעַר עַל־פִּ֣י דַרְכּ֑וֹ גַּ֥ם כִּֽי־יַ֝זְקִ֗ין לֹֽא־יָס֥וּר מִמֶּֽנָּה׃ Educate a youth according to his way; he will not swerve from it even in old age.

Now, while every child has their individual strengths and weaknesses, the Jewish sages thought it necessary to suggest four models of learners. The following source comes to us from a text known as the ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ (5:15), which is more precisely translated as ‘Chapters of the Fathers’:

אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בְּיוֹשְׁבִים לִפְנֵי חֲכָמִים: סְפוֹג, וּמַשְׁפֵּךְ, מְשַׁמֶּֽרֶת, וְנָפָה. סְפוֹג, שֶׁהוּא סוֹפֵג אֶת הַכֹּל. וּמַשְׁפֵּךְ, שֶׁמַּכְנִיס בְּזוֹ וּמוֹצִיא בְזוֹ. מְשַׁמֶּֽרֶת, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַיַּֽיִן וְקוֹלֶֽטֶת אֶת הַשְּׁמָרִים. וְנָפָה, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַקֶּֽמַח וְקוֹלֶֽטֶת אֶת הַסּֽוֹלֶת: There are four types among those who sit before the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sieve. The sponge absorbs all. The funnel takes in at one end and lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the sediment. The sieve lets out the coarse flour and retains the fine flour.

What I particularly appreciate about this 2nd source is that it feels to me like the early stages (200 CE) of an attempt to develop an inclusive pedagogic program that takes different learning styles into account. One may dismiss the categories as overly simplistic, perhaps, but the rabbis’ articulation of their collective concern and consideration is important.

While the Jewish tradition’s sources on education are rather a mixed bag, I find these last two very gratifying and relatable.


The sponge

In 7th grade I had an especially fantastic English teacher (Mrs. Stephanie Margolies) who metaphorically “gifted” each of her students an object from her classroom at the end of the year and explained the symbolism behind each of her personal “gifts” to us. She bequeathed upon me the large sponge that she used for washing the blackboard because, as she explained, I was endlessly asking questions during class.

The text above from the ‘Ethics of our Fathers’ has made me think about being a sponge in another way that I also find myself relating to. It’s the idea that the sponge absorbs everything – both good and bad – with no filter. Everything goes in and gets mixed around with everything else.

This trait is something that I find myself continuing to struggle with – I’m constantly absorbing bits of information from everywhere and everyone, and I’m always curious about everything at once, seeking clarification of even the most minor details. It makes focusing on any one thing for an extended period of time very difficult for me, and when I manage to focus on something, I get very annoyed with anyone or anything that distracts me (although I have gotten much better at not expressing my frustration).

I get bored of doing one thing for too long because everything else around me is interesting all the time. In fact, I have subconsciously taught myself to entirely avoid exploring certain things because I would never get anything done otherwise. This is essentially a defense mechanism for me – the choice to ignore certain aspects of the world entirely.

It was a terrible mistake for me to pursue my undergraduate degree in engineering because I was never interested in it; the world around me was much more fascinating. My graduate degree in public policy was a step in the right direction because it broadened my understanding and appreciation of how my society operated, but ending up behind a desk at the U.S. Department of Energy sent me towards depression – it was not long before I became bored out of my mind.

Even now, I’m not sure what choices I should have made as a young man, in terms of my higher education, but taking off some time before entering college would have been a wise move for me. I think that it’s not only on our parents to treat us as individuals, but also on us to actively seek to better understand ourselves. Education remains, unquestionably, a top priority for me; but it must not be embarked upon merely for the sake of diplomas and credentials, as I did.

Teaching poetry to children? Help!

Despite have been born in and growing up in Israel, my six-year-old speaks, reads, and writes English better than she does Hebrew. In fact, I think she also writes and reads (and maybe speaks) better Russian than Hebrew, thanks to her mother’s efforts.

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned in passing, our little girl is well aware that I write poems for this blog of mine; and she’s taken to rhyming words all day long herself. Sometimes she’ll unintentionally make off-rhymes, pause thoughtfully, sound them out to herself aloud, and then say, “well, that’s just an off-rhyme, but we could still use it in a poem.”

Now, I have done all sorts of fun writing exercises with her in English, and my mother in America has also taken to writing snippets of short stories back-and-forth with her on Facebook Messenger. Her grammar and punctuation aren’t perfect, but she’s learning very quickly. Just recently, for example, she asked me to show her how to write lowercase letters by hand because she knows that her penmanship needs work too.

Several days ago, out of the blue, she asked to write some poems with me on my computer (we used Microsoft Word) and was very intent about having me share them on my blog. She even asked me, “So what tags are you going to assign them? When will you decide? When will other people read them?”

Our three poems are below, in case you’re curious; but I am actually drafting this blog post primarily because I want your feedback: how do I teach her to write poetry?

Here’s where she’s at right now:

  • As I mentioned above, she is very comfortable with rhyme
    • For example, for one of the poems below, she suggested the word ‘coffee’ instead of ‘tea’ because she realized that the second syllable of ‘coffee’ rhymes with ‘tea’, and we had already used the word ‘tea’ in the previous poem.
  • She is less comfortable with rhythm and counting syllables per line, although I tried demonstrating those concepts to her while we were writing the short poems below. This is something that I don’t quite know how to get across to her.
    • I tried explaining these concepts by counting the syllables aloud with her and tapping my fingers on the table, while saying, “bum, bum, bum-bum, bum.”
    • Still, she tends to write lines of inconsistent lengths and rhythms if left to her own devices, as long as they include (and especially end with) rhyming words.
  • Also, I am having difficulty with teaching her about creative imagery and devices like alliteration, assonance, etc. She’s very bright so when I manage to explain things well, she usually gets them, but it’s not so easy for me to convert and upload my thoughts into her child brain.
    • To her credit, she was able to understand what I meant by ‘metaphor’ when I explained my last nature haiku to her and pointed out that the language of the poem was making a comparison between plants and poetry with its use of the word ‘seeding’.
  • Lastly, since she’s so focused on rhyming, she doesn’t quite understand how to write non-rhyming poetry. She has finally accepted that such a concept exists, but it remains fairly hard for her to grasp. How would she go about writing a non-rhyming poem, she wonders?

Three poems, a collaboration

by David (41) and Liorah (6)

1.

The dog found a log 
that fell from a tree 

She sat on the log, 
happy as can be 

Then there was a fog 
‘twas too hard to see 

She sobbed in the fog, 
wishing she could flee 

She got off the log, 
squinting hopefully 

Wind blew away the fog; 
dog whistled happily

2.

Then there was a squirrel, 
sipping a cup of tea 

Squirrel saw a girl 
swimming in the sea 

Then the waters whirled 
very dangerously 

Quickly, ran the squirrel, 
reaching desperately 

Stretched out her hand, 
poor girl, begging – please save me! 

They ate ice cream swirls 
once he pulled her free

3.

The cat found a hat 
and thought, “This is for me!” 

Then came out a bat 
and offered her coffee 

On her head she sat 
stirring daintily 

Then came out a rat 
Sniffing greedily 

They said, “GET AWAY, RAT!” 
and he cried tearfully 

When they noticed that, 
they felt so, so sorry!

Social skills taught at preschool

The Jerusalem municipality offers a service to selected children at preschools to help them improve their social skills, as I just found out today.

Upon my dropping off our daughter at preschool this morning, the head teacher asked to speak with me and told me that she had selected her as one of seven children to meet twice weekly with a specialist to develop her social skills. She handed me a permission slip, which I will be returning signed to the preschool this afternoon.

We can tell, and the teacher confirmed to me this morning, that our child’s social skills are stronger this year than they were the year before. Still, for all of her innate intelligence, she is often awkward around other children, and there are some likely reasons for this.

First of all, as an only child, our daughter spends a disproportionate amount of time with me and her mother, having conversations with us at a fairly high level about complex and sometimes philosophical matters (she’s not quite six-years-old yet). Relatedly, she has an incredibly vivid and active imagination and regularly engages in conversations with her group of imaginary friends who live in her rich, imaginary universe of heroines, heroes, and villains. If other children aren’t interested in hearing her fantasy stories, she dramatically loses interest in playing with them.

Also, she speaks well in three languages and thinks about the intersections between these languages. She thinks about which words have similar and dissimilar meanings in Hebrew, Russian, and English; about which words rhyme; about what letter sounds exist in her three languages; about how some expressions can be translated directly from one language to another, whereas others cannot… This is only my personal perspective, but our daughter seems to often be bored in conversations with other children.

Still, it is abundantly clear that our daughter yearns for meaningful relationships with other children. Whenever we go to the playground, she always expresses a desire to play games with others, but she never quite knows how to initiate interactions with them. She’s not shy; that’s not the problem. But she can’t seem to keep conversations going for long with other children and tends to bore quickly of their children’s games and conversations.

Our preschool teacher is a lovely woman with many years of professional experience in education, and she confirmed and affirmed all of my sentiments. It was difficult, she told me, for her to select only seven of her students for this special program, but she decided to primarily favor those preschoolers who would be entering first grade next year, as she wants them to be maximally prepared for primary school.

In any case, I feel very grateful for our daughter to have this opportunity. I know that socializing with other children is something that she needs to work on for the sake of her happiness; and while I burst with pride in describing her exceptional communication and critical thinking skills, I also worry that these set her awkwardly apart from the majority of her peers.

First grade for my Israeli daughter

Thank goodness for Israel

Moving [back] to Israel as an adult has had its ups and downs for me, but I can honestly say that I’ve never doubted my decision for one simple reason: our daughter’s Jewish upbringing and education.

I’ve written in the past about the simple comfort and fulfilment of living as a Jew in the Jewish State:

Israeli Jews speak Hebrew, the Jewish tongue. The State’s work week runs from Sunday through Thursday (just like in the Arab states), and its national holidays include all of the Jewish religious holidays…

Even my daughter’s Jewish education is of no serious concern, unlike it would have been elsewhere…

Every moment is a Jewish moment here. The notion of assimilation is… laughable.


A moment of truth

Our daughter will be entering first grade next year.

This means that we will be selecting a school for her and thus making the first of several major decisions governing her education. In Israel, the education system consists of three tiers: primary (grades 1–6), middle school (grades 7–9) and high school (grades 10–12). The major decisions about schooling have to be made for 1st grade and 7th grade.

If any of you would like to know about the different tracks of Jewish education available here in Israel, you can take a look at what I wrote in a previous post of mine; I laid everything out there. As always, if you are curious to know more, I would be happy to answer your questions. However, for the purposes of this post, only two school systems are relevant for us:

  1. State-Secular;
  2. State-Orthodox

Nota bene:

Most people in Israel would translate ‘State-Orthodox’ as: ‘State-Religious’, but this is not quite accurate. For historic and political reasons, the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations (Conservative, Reform, and others) continue to have a very limited footprint in Israel. For this reason, the Hebrew word ‘dati’, which means: ‘religious’ has long come to mean: ‘Orthodox’ in the minds of Hebrew speakers.

However, in reality, an individual could be a ‘religious Conservative’ or ‘religious Reform’ Jew, and(!) one could also be a ‘non-religious Orthodox’ Jew. This is why I more accurately term Israel’s ‘religious’ Jewish schools as: ‘Orthodox’, for they only represent a very limited range of flavors of Jewish religious expression.

This may be a lot to take in for those who are not very familiar with Jewish life and culture, but if you have any questions for me – I will do my best to answer them.


So… our two school options are:

State-Secular

State-secular elementary and high schools provide a general studies education, including a minimal amount of Tanakh (Bible) study. Some of these schools offer a limited Jewish enrichment program.

State-Orthodox

State-Orthodox elementary and high schools offer a dual curriculum of Judaic and general studies. There is a commitment to both a Torah-observant lifestyle and to the values of religious Zionism.


Our take on Jewish tradition

Despite observing the Sabbath and keeping a kosher kitchen, my wife and I are very non-ideological. We don’t believe that all Jews “have to” follow traditional Torah law. We don’t think that being “religious” or being “Jewish” necessarily makes one “good”. At home, we don’t require our daughter to participate in any religious norms and rituals unless her choices would affect the entire household.

Both of us, having had secular or non-Jewish upbringings, chose for ourselves to live our lives according to Jewish tradition. Our extended families are mostly comprised of non-religious Jews and gentiles, and we embrace them as they are, just as they do us.

Personally, I harbor deep skepticism about the theological underpinnings of all faiths, as well as of the involvement of any supernatural power in our lives. My wife is definitely more of a theist than I am, but she’s very much a pluralist, in the sense that she doesn’t believe that any particular religion has a monopoly on humankind’s access to the Almighty.

Still, for ourselves, we have chosen to live in Israel because we love being Jews. We are proud of our national identity and ancestries. We both find great beauty in many of our rituals and holidays, and we are both reluctant to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” when it comes to Jewish tradition.


Our take on secularism

Neither one of us is uncomfortable with secular life. Most of our friends and family, as it happens, are not religious by their own definitions.

Also, by virtue of our daughter growing up in Israel, it’s highly unlikely that she would marry a non-Jew, which is of concern to me in particular. In principle, therefore, why should it matter how familiar she becomes with Jewish texts and history? Her national identity is essentially guaranteed.

The reality is that the level of ignorance among secular Jewish Israelis on all subjects related to traditional Judaism is very high. They would be, of course, able to navigate the Torah and other historic Jewish texts in their original forms because their fluency in modern Hebrew would enable them to decipher Biblical Hebrew and its later incarnations… but they usually don’t care to do so.

Sadly, we live in a very polarized and reactionary world, and this is no less true of religion than it is of politics. State and religion are not separate in Israel and infringe upon the lives of its secular citizens, and Orthodoxy is broadly accepted in Israeli society as the “one true faith”, so many secular Israeli Jews are turned off to Judaism as a historic way of life. By virtue of living in Israel, they are members of a predominantly Jewish society and participate in what one might call “social” religion, but I dare say that for most of them, being Jewish in the Jewish State is not so much their choice as their default.

Now, I well know that this is a controversial thing to say, and there are plenty of people who will disagree with me. And, yes, I am aware of the growing trend among some young secular Israelis to study traditional Jewish texts and incorporate Jewish rituals into their lives. Still, I maintain that this is a tiny minority in Israel, and I believe that my perspective is borne out in the curriculum taught to secular Israeli school children, which contributes to their general ignorance of traditional Judaism.


But, but…

But the Orthodox schools are run by Orthodox Jews.

😮‍💨

I cannot speak to other religious communities, but I assume that the following also holds true outside of the Jewish world: Jewish religious schools are operated by and taught by people who are more religiously conservative and less favorably predisposed towards secularism and skepticism than the families who send their children to these schools.

Prayer is obligatory, girls are required to wear skirts, classes are only co-ed until 4th or 6th grade, and the Torah is taught to the students as the undeniable Truth, rather than as a historical cultural document.

Ugh.

Now, luckily for us, we live in Jerusalem. Living here is expensive, but there are great advantages, including a wider range of religious communities than can be found in many other places throughout Israel. This means that several of the local Orthodox schools are somewhat religiously liberal, given the communities that they serve. This means that in our neighborhood we are not the only ones with one foot firmly planted in the non-religious world. This means that teachers are somewhat more prepared for students and parents to push back on them.

We’ve done our research, and it seems that there are three or four Orthodox schools in the area that are open-minded enough for our tastes. That is exactly the number of schools we are required to register for, so we are not left with any flexibility (outside of Jerusalem, we would have even fewer suitable alternatives, if any at all). Hopefully these schools are good enough. Hopefully our daughter will be okay.


Providing what we cannot give

Ultimately, parents supplement their children’s school educations, and the reality is that we cannot give our daughter the substantive Jewish education that we never received ourselves.

That is what it comes down to.

Priorities.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 49

She was not yet three-and-a-half years-old when her grandfather died, but death was still beyond her imagination. On the other hand, she understood quite starkly, with dismayed frustration, that her father was abruptly leaving home again… “I have to go help Dedushka Shurik move far, far away,” he explained too gently. “I’ll come back in just one week; and I’ll call you every day from America.”

Abba’chka and Mama’chka were both restrained, but the little girl sensed that something was amiss. The atmosphere in their apartment was thick with something heavy and foreign to her, and her parent’s tones sounded oddly muffled by the laden air around them. A disagreeable, viscous surreality was filling up the room, and it was somehow related to her Dedushka in America. She could grasp this much.

Moved to express herself, even as Abba’chka stood waiting to leave with his large, red and black suitcase, the little girl declared that she would draw some pictures for her Dedushka. Scribbling furiously with her blue marker on sheet after sheet of paper, with a fierce intensity that was rather unlike her, the girl produced a veritable stack of doodles “to give to Dedushka Shurik.” (She knew that blue was his favorite color.)

It all happened much too quickly for me.

* * *

In those few hours before I left for the airport, in those disintegrating moments, the euphemism of “moving to a faraway place” came to us fairly quickly. We were dazed, stunned, unsteady; our overriding instinct was to protect our [not a] baby.

She’s a sensitive child and has always suffered through our absences whenever one of us has traveled abroad without her; hence we’ve taken to preparing her for our departures well ahead of time. My Papa’s death came without warning, however.

Worse, I had been home for merely ten days after a week-long absence (blog #40), and my daughter had just come to rely upon the dependability of my presence again… days before I abruptly had to fly off again.

At three-and-a-half-years-old, she was already trilingual (she speaks English with me, Russian with her mother, and Hebrew outside the home), but for all of her natural eloquence she was barely out of toddlerhood and only beginning to engage our Shabbat guests with her earnest, all too serious-sounding queries at the table. Most of what she could express with accuracy was a repetition of conversations she had overheard.

Even after my return from the shiva, I found it difficult to determine the extent to which our child was capable of comprehending and processing the horror of what had transpired, due to her perfectly age-appropriate limitations. Certainly, I knew she hadn’t fully recovered from my extended, unexpected absence, for she continued to cry every evening when I would leave to recite kaddish for Papa (blog #3).

My wife and I were particularly wary due, in part, to my wife’s own childhood. At three-years-old, she had also lost her loving grandfather and, in the aftermath, developed deep anxiety about the possibility of herself or her loved ones likewise “disappearing” forever. The matter-of-fact explanation she’d received as a child had terrified her.

* * *

In the course of my research on Jewish mourning and kaddish, I happened upon this article by Rabbi Avram Mlotek on his five-year-old daughter’s confrontation with death: ‘My 5-Year-Old Confronts Death’.

Rabbi Mlotek ends the piece like so:

Ecclesiastes offers, ‘There is a time for everything.’

But for children, time bears no hold on reality.

It’s Sukkot eve and we put Ravi to bed, telling her if she goes to sleep nicely I’ll bring her to the sukkah later, to sleep on a blow-up mattress.

‘How long will you be?’ she asks. ‘An hour? A minute? A second?’

I smile because she doesn’t grasp the difference between these markers and that, for now, is truly wonderful.

This scene with little Revaya and her father is so true to life; and I find myself smiling at Mlotek’s depiction because my own daughter, now four-and-a-half-years-old, confuses days with weeks and seconds with minutes (although she knows the twelve months and four seasons in three languages) (yes, I’m boasting).

I read the article again, imagining my daughter asking all of the same questions that Ravi did: Is Dedushka Shurik really in the box? How did he get there? Are his white clothes comfortable? When do the kids get to shovel dirt upon the grave?

This whole scenario is so very plausible to me, so very, very plausible, but then it hits me: she’s not three-and-a-half any more.

My [not a] baby has always been articulate for her age, but our conversations today, one year after Papa died, are incomparably more substantive than they once were. My year of mourning coincided almost exactly with her first year of preschool, and her ability to express herself has exploded since last September. It was only two months ago that she squeezed my hand on our way to shul one Shabbat and contemplatively tested her developing understanding with me: “Is it right that my grandfather died?”

I will remember this particular year of my daughter’s life forever.

* * *

Papa used to say that he couldn’t cry anymore; that he hadn’t cried for more years than he could remember; that tears simply wouldn’t come. Me? I cry for my father – but only in the absence of my nearly four-year-old daughter.

– Me, blog #27

In mid-January I wrote the above, as I continued to struggle with how to communicate our tremendous loss to our daughter. Several weeks prior, she had finally asked me what the “faraway place” that Dedushka Shurik had left us for is called (blog #23), and I had answered her that nobody really knows. Family, friends and acquaintances had all been asking me: why don’t you just explain it to her?

But I was scared; I didn’t know if she could handle it.

Then, in early March, my dear friend Yael who has supported many terminally ill patients and their families as a chaplain drew my attention to an NPR article: ‘The Dog Isn’t Sleeping: How To Talk With Children About Death’.

* * *

The article mentions a Mr. William Lee (1908-1982) who died of a heart attack at 74 years of age, but American children knew him by the name Mr. Hooper, and this is how he was referred to by the author.

Mr. Hooper had been a special friend to Big Bird, and the unexpected death of the actor who played him on Sesame Street inspired its producers to create an educational episode about death: Episode #1839. The executive producer would go on to explain that the Sesame Street team had followed their instincts to “deal with it head-on,” as reported in the New York Times on Aug. 31, 1983.

The clip above this post is powerfully poignant. The cast’s tears for their departed friend were all genuine. But… wait: what age is Big Bird meant to represent? 

From Wikipedia:

‘Although all the Sesame Street Muppet characters are technically ageless, Big Bird is psychologically written to represent a six-year-old.’

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I was impressed by the substance and thrust of the NPR article, but its six takeaway principles weren’t all entirely appropriate for my daughter at a tender three-and-a-half, specifically:

  • The article first suggests that parents should “be honest and concrete” with their children. The author writes: “parents only complicate matters when, instead of being concrete, they resort to euphemisms.” While I would agree that this may be something to aspire towards, I have no regrets about telling my little daughter that her grandfather had “moved far, far away” when he died.
  • The fourth principle is: “Grown-ups, it’s OK to cry.” Sure, ideally our children would be capable of comprehending why their parents are crying, but what if they’re not? What if they’re just old enough to sense our hurt, absorb it and become overwhelmed with emotion that they have no capacity to describe? What if they’re not able to ask the questions necessary to better understand? What if they’re just too young?

For all of its truly helpful guidelines, the article’s one failure is its lack of context: What ages is this advice suitable for?

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I am not the only one to have gone through a process this year, as my wife pointed out to me at Shabbat dinner last week. Our daughter had a deep attachment to her Dedushka, for he had spent an entire month or more nannying her every single year since her birth (blog #22).

My daughter awoke two days before he died, thinking that Dedushka Shurik was with her in the apartment. My wife explained that it was a dream, and she tried calling my father in America so that our little girl could speak with her grandfather, but he had already gone to bed. Learning of this, my father glowed with love and pride for what turned out be his final two days in this world, telling everybody that he spoke with that his granddaughter had dreamed of him.

– Me, blog #15

Looking back, I feel that we did our best, gradually introducing concepts to our [not a] baby gradually, as she developed from a three-and-a-half-year-old into a four-and-a-half-year-old little girl.

We deliberately did not avoid speaking about Papa’s death to others in her presence, and I explained to her that I was reciting kaddish at shul for Papa as soon as she inquired about it (blog #22):

I’ve told her that I am reciting kaddish for my papa at the request of my mama (in part), but what can I relate to her about kaddish beyond this?

As she grew older and became more articulate, she gradually came to express more and more ideas surrounding the death of her Dedushka Shurik, and I answered her in ways that I sensed she could process. Even before she asked me about his being dead, I had intentionally been teaching her about living things (plants and animals), and I had shown her dead insects and dried leaves that had fallen from the trees. Without speaking directly about my father, I was attempting to explain his death.

None of us were prepared for Papa’s death, and all this year we’ve been keeping ourselves together as best we could.

God knows we really tried.

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