Journey of a Lifetime textbook guides children through lifecycles

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Did you know that Abzug and Drucker mean "printer"; that Feinstein and Steiner mean "jeweler"; Portnoy, Chait, Schneider and Zwirn mean "tailor"; Forman, "teamster"; and Lehman, "banker"?

Did you know that in ancient times, parents paid five shekels to redeem a first-born son?

Did you know the practice of shiva may date back to the time of the Bible, when Jacob mourned his son Joseph's death for seven days?

Designed for religious schools as a text for grades four and five, Rahel Musleah's "Journey of a Lifetime" offers not only little-known facts about Jewish customs and how we got our names. It also systematically traces Jewish lifecycle ceremonies, from the brit milah (circumcision) and brit bat (baby-naming) to the funeral and rituals of mourning. Subtitled "The Jewish Life Cycle Book," it's an excellent guide not only for kids but also for parents who are learning about Judaism along with their children.

With illustrations and photographs, exercises and stories from the Bible, the book fleshes out the story of the Jewish life journey and shared rituals and traditions. It explains what it means to be part of K'lal Yisrael, the people of Israel, sharing an ancient heritage and a commitment to community. It also provides a glossary with both Hebrew letters and English transliterations and definitions, a real boon to beginning Hebrew students.

The book takes an egalitarian approach to lifecycle ceremonies, showing women in kippot and tallitot and a girl reading Torah at her bat mitzvah ceremony. While this is refreshing, some may feel that the book doesn't satisfactorily describe the Orthodox tradition. The description of the aufruf ceremony, for example, a special calling up to the Torah during the Shabbat before a wedding, includes both bride and groom reciting blessings.

There is no mention of the fact that in Orthodox synagogues, only the groom receives this honor.

In the chapter on the brit milah, there is a more glaring omission: Discussing the covenant, the author says the mohel "performs the circumcision, which takes only a few seconds and is almost painless." She explains when it takes place and why. But she never bothers to explain what happens. In a book that goes to considerable lengths to explain the rituals surrounding death and burial, frankness about the removal of the foreskin would have been welcome.

But such shortcomings are minor. One of the strengths of this book is that it puts Jewish traditions into a framework children can understand.

In the chapter on baby naming, Musleah asks: "Have you ever gone to camp?…Did your parents write your name with markers, or sew name tags on your socks, shirts, and swimsuits?"

Your name, she points out, "identifies a special person who is different from all others — you!" And Hebrew names are markers that "link us to the Jewish people."

Citing similarities and differences in naming customs among Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, the book also tells the biblical story of how Isaac got his name. When Sarah found out she was pregnant at an advanced age, she laughed. Abraham named their son Yitzhak (Isaac), which means "child of laughter."

The book provides exercises for children to do alone or in school, such as finding the meanings of their Hebrew names. It also includes a dictionary of Jewish family names, from Abzug to Zwirn.

One of the best chapters is on the Jewish approach to dying and mourning. Subtitled "Saying Good-bye," the chapter begins by asking the young reader to imagine getting ready to move to a new city. "In a way, death is like that unknown neighborhood. It is a mystery, and it can be frightening because no one knows what happens after we die.

"Our Jewish tradition understands that we are never ready to lose someone we love," Musleah writes. The rituals, however, both honor the person who has died and comfort those who are saddened.

Musleah describes Jewish rites from the chevra kadishah, or preparation for burial, through the funeral service and rituals of mourning. She also includes a midrash on death from Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:4

"Our rabbis taught that when we think about death, we should imagine two ships in a harbor. One is leaving port; the other is returning. Many people cheer the ship that leaves the harbor, but few notice the ship that returns.

"A wise man said, `There is no reason to rejoice over the ship that is leaving…But we should all cheer the ship that is sailing back into the harbor, because it has returned safely.'"

The book also discusses the condolence call, letting children know what they might do, including bringing a gift of food and sharing a personal memory about the deceased. Taking an open-ended approach, the book invites children to list other things they might do when calling on the bereaved.

Ending with a Shehechiyanu, a prayer recited when one has completed a task or done something for the first time, the book invites children to "express the wonder and thanks we feel as we achieve each new step."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].