When actions speak louder than words

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They sat together at the dining room table. Her small, dark head leaning forward as she peered at the pictures on the flashcards. The teacher’s encouraging smile and vigorous nods willed the words from her lips. Slowly her mouth formed the unfamiliar sounds, and she uttered some semblance of guttural letters.

“Tov me’od! Very good!” the teacher exclaimed. Always Hebrew first and then English. Very good? I wondered nosily from the kitchen, a few feet away from the lesson. What’s she talking about? That wasn’t good at all. How can she not know how to say mishloach manot?

Hebrew lessons happen every Monday after school in our house, and participation is mandatory. Our engaging teacher is wonderful and makes all the lessons fun, age appropriate and interesting for each of my kids. There is no getting out of the lessons. That they know some Hebrew is as important for me as their knowledge of basic math facts, and since they do not go to a Jewish day school where Hebrew is part of the curriculum, how they learn this not-so-easy language takes some creativity on my part.

It’s important that my kids can read and speak the language of our people, the language of our heritage and much of our family. It’s important that they can communicate with their aunts, uncles and cousins and also feel at home in a land that already is their home.

Of course, some of my kids find it easier to learn and absorb a new language than others. Some remain engaged for the entire lesson, and one can only manage to focus for 15 minutes after a long day at school. Some can pronounce mishloach manot perfectly. But for the 9-year-old, the “l” and “ch” get stuck somewhere between her tongue and throat, and what comes out sounds nothing like what it is.

Her mispronunciation bothered me. Worried me. She’s been learning since kindergarten, and my disappointed heart reluctantly wondered if the problem was not only in the pronunciation, but also in what she knew about the Purim holiday.

It’s everybody’s favorite. Costumes and hamantaschen, noise, friends, bouncy houses and carnival fun. An intriguing tale of villains and heroes, a brave queen and a confused king, and much to learn about the resilience, faith and celebration of the Jewish people. And the mitzvah of mishloach manot.

I love this aspect of the holiday, derived from the time of Esther and the Jews in Persia. It is a prominent mitzvah (good deed) to give baskets of food and drink to family, friends and neighbors on Purim. We should ensure that everyone has enough food for the Purim feast, and strengthen our bonds of love and friendship among each other.

For most of my kids’ lives, mishloach manot has played a starring role in our family Purim production. Our former preschool has a vibrant mishloach manot fundraising program, and for many years I was always involved in it: gathering donations, administering orders, assembling themed baskets and then delivering them all over the East Bay. The kids were always around: watching, helping, running the baskets from the trunk to front doors.

Now that our preschool years are over, we make our own. We decorate gift bags and fill them with fruit, candy and homemade hamantaschen. Sometimes we include something a little more whimsical, like a packet of seeds or Chapstick. We make a list of friends and neighbors and set up an assembly line on the dining room table.

But in these last few weeks, everything but Purim has been on my mind. I wondered how we were going to pull it off this year. Would the kids even notice?

“Mom,” said the 9-year-old from the back seat. “Purim is next week! We need to do the mishlachacha whatever it’s called.”

I glanced at her thinking face in the rearview mirror. She was looking out the window, creating baskets and making lists in her head. “Tea. We should definitely put bags of tea in this year.”

She may not know how to pronounce the words. But she definitely knows what they mean.


Nicki Gilbert

Nicki Gilbert is a writer, Alcatraz swimmer and country music lover who lives in Piedmont with her husband, four kids and dachshund puppy. Her blog is RedBoots.me.