Puppeteer puts her finger on early Jewish education

When it comes to teaching kids about Judaism, Jennifer Levine lets her fingers do the talking.

That’s because the director of religious education at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham has handcrafted many digits-worth of finger puppets to teach children their first lessons in Hebrew and Torah.

Levine doesn’t limit herself to finger puppets. Over the years, she has crafted scores of larger hand puppets from cloth, paper mache and other materials. They come in all shapes, sizes and species for use in both religious and secular settings.

She also put together a new puppet show, “Animal Dreams,” which she has performed at Beth Abraham and other Bay Area settings.

In “Animal Dreams,” Levine dons a custom-made apron dotted with little pockets, cartoon images of frogs, birds, sheep and other animals sewn on. Levine then uses song, movement and her wiggly-waggly puppets to teach basic Hebrew vocabulary and Bible stories.

“It’s deceptively simple, but very magnetic,” she says about her teaching method. “It captivates kids in a way I had never seen with other educational modalities.”

The academic lingo is deceptive as well. Although a trained educator, Levine loves magic, music and firing up kids’ imaginations. “I feel passionately about the puppet show,” she says. “In a world where kids are over-stimulated by media, this allows them to be quiet and enter a magic, spiritual place.”

It also gives her a happy break from her administrative duties. Now in her third year at Beth Abraham, Levine oversees the synagogue’s K-7 Hebrew school, with 100 students and 11 staffers under her direction.

Her previous posts include director of the community high school program at San Francisco’s Bureau of Jewish Education, teacher at Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar, and director of education at Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, N.Y. At the time, the Brooklyn gig was a short hop from home. Levine grew up in Manhattan and parts of New Jersey, though there wasn’t much Judaism in her household.

“My parents were completely secular,” she says. “My interest in Jewish life came from a three-month trip to Israel when I graduated from high school.”

That life-changing experience opened the door to a more observant life. Levine returned often to Israel, including a year of study at Pardes, and went on to earn a degree in Jewish studies from the University of Massachusetts. She moved to the Bay Area more than 10 years ago, working initially as a Jewish educator at Congregation Rodef Sholom and also getting involved in local theater.

Levine traces her interest in puppetry back to the early ’90s while working at Kol Shofar. “I started experimenting with puppets and dolls in the classroom to tell Torah tales and teach Hebrew vocabulary,” she recalls. “I found the kids were really drawn to the puppets.”

One of her early mask/puppet creations was the Shabbas Chef, who cooked chicken soup. Levine would have students put the ingredients in a pot, though in true slapstick fashion, the big rubber chicken wouldn’t fit.

Since then, she developed not only the finger puppets of “Animal Dreams,” but also larger-scale puppets for “Princess Moxie,” a very different show all about girl power.

“I really wanted to create an alternative to the princess who spends her life looking for the prince,” says Levine. “Kids really respond to it.”

“Princess Moxie” has been running for three years, with Levine performing it in theaters, libraries and even at the Jewish Museum of New York. She also released a CD of the show’s original music, written by composer Gaby Alter. To further hone her performing skills, Levine is currently a student at the Circus Center of San Francisco, studying in its clown conservatory.

Putting together puppet shows after a busy day at the office is no picnic, especially with a 2-year-old daughter to tend. But that’s Levine’s lot in life these days.

But, notes the Oakland resident, “She’s my best audience. I’m much more attuned to what a 2-year-old is interested in. Before, it was a little abstract.”

Now that she is a parent, Levine takes personally the importance of a good Jewish education. Says Levine about her own child, “I hope she always sees Judaism as a blessing, not a burden. We fill our house with the joy of Judaism. One of the best gifts parents can give their kids is enrolling them in a Jewish program, no matter what it is.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.