Book Review: Guide helps families explore meaning of holidays

As parents, we often leave to religious schools the task of teaching our children the history and customs associated with Jewish holidays.

But teaching children the holidays' spiritual significance is far more interpretive, probably something we'd rather do ourselves if only we could. How do you explain Jewish values in a simple way that children will not only understand, but also incorporate into their everyday lives?

"Sharing Blessings: Children's Stories for Exploring the Spirit of the Jewish Holidays," a new book by journalist Rahel Musleah and her husband, Rabbi Michael Klayman, makes a good effort at this difficult job. The book delves beneath the holidays' surface to uncover the "whys" and "what fors" that children want to know.

By focusing on one family's spiritual preparation and celebration of Shabbat and 12 other Jewish holy days and festivals, the New York authors cloak lessons in stories that children can follow. Large watercolor illustrations by Mary O'Keefe Young enhance the presentation. The family members she portrays look Jewish without being caricatures. And while many of her compositions exude warmth, she also allow her subjects to show a range of emotions: sadness, tenderness, joy, love.

The fictional Kedner family that "Sharing Blessings" follows includes children Ilana, 10, and David, 6, their parents, grandparents and family friends.

After the opening chapter on Shabbat, "Sharing Blessings" devotes a chapter to each of the major holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with the lesser-known summer day of fasting, Tisha B'Av.

Using a simple format, the authors subtitle each chapter with a few words that capture the essence of the holiday. For example, beneath Sukkot is "Accepting Differences," then "Peace." Purim is followed by "Giving Instead of Taking" and "Gratitude." Yom Ha-Shoah, "Why Doesn't God Stop the Bad Guys?" is then followed by the words, "Free Will."

Each chapter opens with a brief explanation of the holiday and closes with a special blessing, in Hebrew and English, that parent and child can recite to remember the spirit of the holiday. Each opening and closing sandwiches a story.

Take Yom Kippur.

It was the eve of Yom Kippur, and David was scared. He'd had a fire drill at school that day and as he hid under the covers in bed that night, he tried to concentrate on the baseball cards scattered before him. But what he really worried about was fire. What if there was a fire in his house?

David called out to his parents for the third time that evening. His father came in to talk, eventually getting David to reveal the cause of his sleeplessness.

Dad gently reminded David that he could always find another good listener: God. They frankly discussed the fact that God doesn't always answer their prayers. But God always listens, said Dad. "It's painful not to get the answer you hope for, but it's comforting to know someone is always listening. God is never too busy fixing the car, working at the computer or cooking dinner."

"Yeah," answers David. "Imagine if God said, `Sorry, I'm fixing the sky. It's leaking."

"Praying is something people need," Dad continued. "On Yom Kippur we tell God everything we've done wrong so we can try to change. If we were kinder to each other, the world would be a better place."

Though the Kedners sometimes seem too good to be true — a modern-day Jewish version, perhaps, of TV's old Cleaver or Nelson families — they nonetheless serve a useful purpose: They demonstrate how families can feel the spirit of the holidays, and share that spirit throughout the year.

"Sharing Blessings" is perfect for reading aloud to young children. With preteens, it can be used to jump-start family discussions on how to incorporate lessons learned from the Kedner family into one's own life.

For those who have a hard time explaining the essence of Jewish holidays, especially as the High Holy Days come near, "Sharing Blessings" makes for timely and enlightening family reading.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.