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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Shopping for picture books for Jewish holidays? Here are 6 you’ll love.


Do you have something you’re really bad at?

I do, so I’ll go first.

I’m lousy at self-promotion. 

Not just bad.  Lousy.  Especially in person.  I have been at people’s houses, shown them the parsha book that I wrote, and then, when they ask me where they can buy one, I say something like, “oh, it’s probably not right for you.”  Or, “you don’t want to buy it.”

Literally, I have said that.  More than once.  I’m like the ANTI self-promotion force.  I am my own worst critic.

But it’s that time on the Jewish calendar (note to self:  buy new calendars!) when we head out – or head online – to buy kids’ books for the upcoming fall yamim tovim.  Whether they’re for our own children, other people’s children, or just to hand out randomly to children we meet on the subway (hey, a struggling author can hope, right?).  We’re all in the mood for books that make Judaism fun, colourful and appealing.

So I’m going to take a break to blow my own horn, briefly, and let you know that with the fall chagim coming up, you still have time to explore some books I wrote that you and your kids might enjoy.  If you aren’t interested, don’t buy them... drat – there I go, undermining myself again.

Let’s start over:

These are ALL great books.  I’m proud of them.  And they’re all reasonably priced and available on  Bonus:  buy any book with a Kindle edition, and I’ve set things up so it will give you the Kindle version FREE.

(If you’re in Israel, contact me; I have copies here that I can send you directly.)

Here are all my yom tov books (so far; there are more coming!)… and why you and your kids will love them:

image Penguin Rosh Hashanah Because penguins… and Rosh Hashanah.  How cool are they together?  (Answer:  very.)
image We Didn’t Have an Etrog! Everything’s ready for Sukkos / Sukkot… except the etrog (esrog)!  Two eager kids learn a lesson in patience as they prepare for yom tov.
image One Chanukah Night For slightly older kids, Sammy comes face-to-face with history and discovers his own connection with the stories of the Tanach.
image The Marror Man Run, run, as fast as you can… think you know the ending?  Maybe not, in this fun Pesach twist on a classic tale.
image Seven Special Gifts Perfect for Sukkos / Sukkot, Shavuos / Shavuot, or just generally reading about the Land of Israel.
image Shabbat Monsters Not exactly a yom tov book, but Shabbat comes around every week, and with these cute monsters, every kid will look forward to it.

This isn’t all I’ve written, just everything that has a bit of a festival “flavour.”  Click here to see all my books. 

Can I ask you a favour?

While I’m tooting my own horn… it’s kind of tiring being the only one.

If you’ve bought or read one of my books in the past, please click back through and leave a review.  As an independent writer, I live and die by reviews.  They’re the best way to tell other readers that a book by a new and undiscovered writer deserves their attention.

Again, click here to find all my books and (hopefully) leave a fair review.

And now, back to my regularly-scheduled self-effacement…

Thanks for your support.  I totally appreciate it!!!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Start to finish, a Rosh Hashanah (ish) Israel (ish) craft project


Spoiler alert!  If you are on our “nearest and dearest” list, please don’t scroll down to peek at the craft project revealed below.  It is currently winging its way to you in the mail.  Be patient.

(Um, if you feel you are near and dear and considerable time has passed and you have NOT received your very own Craft in the mail – well, oops.  We still love you, but are far from having our act together over here on this new side of the Atlantic.  Better luck to all of us next year.)

So my nanny used to get these cards.  Maybe you’ve seen them.  They were all-occasion cards with paintings on the front.  Mediocre paintings of puppies and kittens and clowns and water and boats.  And the only thing that was special about the cards was that on the back, they said they were mouth-painted by people who had no limbs.

Mouth-painted.  That phrase stuck with me, maybe because everybody always told me not to put paintbrushes in my mouth.  Or maybe the image of a limbless guy painting a landscape.

And the thing is, they didn’t have to be GOOD paintings.  Once you knew they were mouth-painted, that was enough.

So that’s how I think about our craft project.  A year ago, we had our legs pulled out from beneath us by our move to Israel.  Sure, we did it deliberately, we planned it in advance, and we’re happy we came.  But a year ago, I was overwhelmed by the thought of finding vegetables, making lasagna, assembling a meal.  Let alone renting an apartment, finding a job, ordering gas balloons, and all the other things that we’ve managed to accomplish in the year we’ve lived here.

We have had such a beautiful summer, homeschooling together.  And I wanted to wrap it up with a nice something that we could send to everybody we love before Rosh Hashanah.

Luckily, I planned ahead of time.  Between Pesach and June, when things were flowering, I took the liberty of stripping lots of flowers and bringing them home to press.  The kids thought I was nuts, but okay.

(They realized it was cool when they saw me opening up a couple of huge dictionaries and plopping the flowers inside.)

Some flowers faded more than others, but whatever… this is all about lessons learned, and not about the end result.

Remember, it’s like mouth-painting. 

We’re not just doing crafts – we’re doing crafts in Israel.  Everything is hard:  I don’t have my regular glue, scissors, paper, whatever.  No WalMart; how are you supposed to craft without WalMart?

But I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the flowers all along. 

A few years ago, Naomi Rivka designed a bookmark that I knew was never going to win the public library bookmark contest.  But I thought it was beautiful, so I printed off colour copies, mounted them on cardboard and “laminated” them and gave them out to a few lucky relatives.

That’s what I wanted to do with the flowers.  Only without cardboard, without my regular glue, with weird Israeli laminating plastic… well.  It’s about the process, not the product… right?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Two things that are definitely not “us.” Thing #1.


Thing #2 is Tzfat.  A city we love, but will probably never live in.  You can read more about that over here.

But it’s Thing #1 that hurts. 

Thing #1 is homeschooling.

It’s hard not to cry as I write this (partly because Windows Live Writer ate my last version of this after I’d spent 10 minutes typing – waah).

I have had the BEST summer, learning at home with the kids.  Learning, growing, exploring, doing cool stuff together.  And yeah, proving to myself that even here in Israel, I’m still me.  They’re still them, albeit now with a touch of Israeli schoolkid chutzpah.

Given the choice, the kids would continue homeschooling, all year long.  Staying in PJs, going on tiyulim, choosing what to learn, how fast, at exactly the right level.

Given the choice, we grown-ups would continue homeschooling, all year long.  Avoiding making lunches, and yeah, staying in PJs.  Missing the chance to throw ourselves on the one-size-fits-all, inexorable conveyor belt that is any education system, even in Israel.

Have I mentioned that I hate making lunches? 

Ask any of my kids; it’s true.  Always have.  It doesn’t help that I hate almost all sandwiches and this is a nation that reveres them to the point of mandating a nationwide sandwich break at 10am every day.

But, of course, sandwiches are not a good reason to keep your children home.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Free-BEE! Free Kindle book on


My favourite price in the world:  free.  And my favourite thing in the world:  a kids’ book.  (Yes, one of mine.)

Please Like, Share and pass along this deal.  FREE UNTIL AUGUST 14 ONLY!

Learn a little about Israel's modern history and its most beloved songwriter in this short kids' chapter book! This week (Aug 10-14), my book "Naomi Shemer: Teaching Israel to Sing" is FREE for Kindle.


I started writing this book when my daughter, named after Naomi Shemer, was a baby… but only finished it last year, when she was 8.  A long time in the making, but I think it’s worth every second.  (And I loved reading it to her and telling her about the amazing lady for whom she’s named.

Acclaimed in her lifetime as the "First Lady of Israeli Song" and the author of unforgettable classics like Jerusalem of Gold (Yerushalayim shel Zahav), Naomi Shemer is almost unknown in the English-speaking world. With its engaging, straighforward narrative, this book opens the world of Naomi Shemer for the first time to English-speaking children and their parents. Come find out what made her special.

(I'd also love to get some reviews up, so if you and your kids read/enjoy it, please leave an honest review to help others.)

Here are some shots from the paperback version of the book:

image image image



If you’ve already read this book, or to get notices for future freebies… join my mailing list!

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

What we’re doing for school this summer.


So did I mention we’re homeschooling again?

At least for the summer.  Does that make me the kind of wannabe / poseur I hate?  Or an earnest parent trying hard to make something work during weird, transitional times…

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I thought I’d share a quick update on how things are going this summer with our “homeschooling / summerschooling” plans. 

(It was originally going to be quick – sorry!!)

IMG_00004866It remains to be seen whether we’re going to do this long-term.  But the truth is, it feels very good.  Very, very good.

In some areas, we’re picking up exactly where we left off.  But mostly, things slipped a lot during the year.  The only area in which both kids are further ahead (besides Hebrew!) is math.

I had a few clear criteria before we started:

Friday, July 25, 2014

The thing I didn’t expect (the thing you’re hiding).


Know what I didn’t expect?

When I stood up a month and a bit ago to give my eulogy for my brother, and shared it with you online, I didn’t know so many other people, so many other families, were suffering, too.

Look, I’m a writer:  a shy, prickly, private person, who relates better to a keyboard than to other human beings and their eyeballs.

But after that eulogy, it was non-stop eyeballs.

Do you know how many people came up to me afterwards to tell me that they, too, had a mentally ill family member?  I don’t either.  Some were people I’d known for years.  Normal people; productive, happy, busy, hardworking, everyday kinds of people.

The thing I didn't expect (but should have) is that almost everybody has a story like this somewhere in their immediate family. Family members who were broken in the same way or a similar way to my brother Eli.

These are stories that must be told.

Stories that are hidden.

My mother took my dvar Torah for his shloshim and read it out at a ladies' meeting she's been going to for years (like, 30 years or more).

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why you need to join my mailing list and take over the world (a manifesto).


Don’t cringe. 

I know the phrase “mailing list” sounds so 1998, but this post is my appeal to you to sign up for my mailing list.  I’ll tell you why in a minute.  But first, I want to tell you who I think you are and why we have this connection.

(I’ll get to taking over the world in a minute.)

Who this blog is for

If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming a few things about you.

  • You are Jewish, or interested in Judaism.
  • You have kids, or are interested in education. (or both!)
  • You don’t take much for granted.
  • You believe both in lifelong learning and in questioning the status quo.

This blog, my first and still very close to my heart, has always dwelt at the intersection of Judaism and family life. 

True, it has changed over the years.  But I don’t like to think of it as changing, but rather, evolving with me and my kids.  Whether through cloth-diapering and attachment parenting, or homeschooling, or cooking weekday suppers, week in and week out, or dealing with family losses, it has always revolved around those two themes:  Judaism and family life.

Many of you have stuck with me for a good long while.

As I’ve branched out in new directions – like making aliyah and writing kids’ books – some of you have stayed with me.  But most of you haven’t, and that’s okay.  If you look at that list above, it doesn’t say anything about making aliyah or writing children’s books.  It doesn’t hurt my feelings that you’re not over there on those other blogs.

But I still want to stay in touch.

Partly for selfish reasons – I want to be able to let you know when I have a new children’s book coming out so you can help me promote it like crazy (and maybe even write a review or two).

Partly to help others – one of my most popular posts of all time is the eulogy for my brother, because so many people are suffering through similar things with mental illness in their families.

Partly for fun – it’s cool to bounce ideas off folks and to hear back from people who have enjoyed something I’ve written.

Mainly because… all those things in that list of “who you are” up above?  That’s still me, and I hope that’s still you.

Say No! to Digital Sharecropping

So why a mailing list?

There’s a new(ish) term bouncing around the internet:  Digital Sharecroppers.  A few smart writers have noticed that we are overly dependent on one or two services to help us stay in touch with the people who matter.  That’s you – blog readers.

To put it bluntly:  because this blog is hosted by Google, if Google tanks tomorrow, that’s the end of our relationship. 

That’s bad.  (Okay, the Tanking of Google is the end of a lot of things… let’s not think about it.)

Now that I see it so clearly, I know I don’t want to be that digital sharecropper.  I want to be the one who in control, so I don’t have to depend on Google and keep all my eggs in one basket.  And that means I want to “meet” you – well, your email address – and maybe even get to know you a little better. 

That’s why I’m asking you to sign up for my mailing list.  No spam, no ads – just me.

What do you get out of it?

  • A short note from me with Jewish parenting and family insights.  Every other week (or so), with nothing in between.
  • The chance to read and review my new children’s books free, before they come out.
  • Discounts and special offers, maybe even freebies, on existing books.
  • Umm… I could draw this list out even longer if I wanted.
  • Maybe even add a couple of empty bullet points filled out to make it look super-substantial.
  • Oops.  You figured out my trick.  I have nothing to say here.

If you’re here, reading this, I’m counting on the fact that you think a little like me, and that together, we can take over the world, or at least, make it a really interesting place to be Jewish and raise our families.

See?  I got around to the bit about taking over the world – at last.

I’m not going to stop blogging, either here or elsewhere.  It’s still part of my empire-building plan for global domination, don’t worry.

But I probably won’t blog as much as I have been.  It’s basic math:  I’ve only got so many words in me each day, and if those words are going into blogs, they’re not going into books.  If books is what I want to be doing, then blogging has got to take a backseat.

I really hope that having an easy, direct way to stay in touch with you will help us stay together wherever I may find myself in the future.

Here’s the signup form you’ll be seeing on some of my posts from here on out.  I hope you’ll consider filling it out.

Jewish parenting insights? Yes, please!

(Not too many... you’ll get a short personal note every other week or so. No spam, no ads; I promise.)
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If you don't like it, you can always unsubscribe.  But I really appreciate your taking a second to sign up now.

For those fanatics out there who happen to adore every single thing I do (hi, mom!), I have two other lists you can join as well:

Did I say thank you?  THANK YOU!

[cool robot world domination photo credit:  Phil Plait via flickr]

Sunday, July 13, 2014

New kids’ siddurs from Koren give Artscroll a run for its money.


If there’s one thing that causes hand-wringing and hair-pulling in the Torah homeschooling world, it’s choosing a siddur.

It makes sense, doesn’t it?

  • We’re passionate about educating our kids,
  • We’re passionate about Judaism,
  • Tefillah (prayer) is an important cornerstone of Judaism.  Therefore…
  • The siddur we choose is critical.

Hence the hair-pulling.  (or tichel-pulling, as the case may be)

Complicating things is the fact that many homeschooling parents are baalei teshuvah (newly-observant) or geirim (converts), who may not know the text or its meaning and might feel insecure about sharing these things with their kids.

Since my own personal favourite grown-up siddur is my Koren / Sacks siddur, I was thrilled to receive review copies of two new kids’ siddurs from Koren Publishers.  One, the Koren Children’s Siddur, is for young kids, the other, Ani Tefillah, is aimed more at middle grades and high schoolers. 

The distinctive Koren fonts and layout have been incorporated into their junior versions – yay!  With their slick look and obvious quality, these exciting new entries in this under-populated niche will certainly challenge established children’s siddurs.

Both are intended for English-speaking kids, though the children’s siddur doesn’t include translations; these can be found in the accompanying Educator’s Companion, which I’ll look at in a minute.  And both are beautiful siddurs with a lot of attention to design and details.


Koren’s Ani Tefillah Youth Siddur

Let’s look at the “big kids” model first – Ani Tefillah, which seems to be aimed at middle grades and up into high school.

What I liked about this siddur:

  • Distinctive Koren layout & fonts
  • Sensible translation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
  • Thought-provoking commentary by educator Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz
  • Co-sponsorship and/or imprimatur and/or hashkafa of Yeshiva University

This siddur would make a great accompaniment to a course in tefillah. 

However, in practice, the format occasionally gets clunky; as with many haggadahs, there’s sometimes a lot more commentary than text on the page.  In daily use, kids would probably skim over most of the commentary, and indeed, have to flip pages pretty quickly to keep up with whoever’s leading the davening.


I wouldn’t just hand kids a book like this and expect them to be moved to new heights of spirituality.

Instead, to get the most out of this book with its terrific material for reading & reflection, a parent or teacher should prepare ahead of time, then go through the book with kids in sections, ie shema, weekday shemona esrei, etc.

The Koren Children’s Siddur

Moving right along… to the Koren Children’s Siddur, available in Ashkenaz and Sefardi models (they are almost identical).

What I liked about this siddur:

  • Distinctive Koren layout & fonts
  • Richly textured illustrations by Rinat Gilboa
  • Thought-provoking questions and commentary
  • Co-sponsorship and/or imprimatur and/or hashkafa of Yeshiva University
  • Light weight will appeal to little kids and travel easily to shul, school, etc
  • Includes both boys and girls, both in illustrations and in text variations for male / female (modeh / modah ani etc)
  • Shema and some other tefillos are complete (but some are not; see below)
  • Krias shema at the very end for convenience.

This is a beautiful book that is ideal for first explorations of tefillah with very young children.  The illustrations really make this book, as you can see here.  Lots more pictures below.


Homeschooling parents, especially BTs and geirim, will be very interested in the Educator’s Companion… especially because there is no integrated translation in the siddur itself.

The Educator’s Companion (also available in Ashkenaz and Sefardi versions) is keyed to the siddur precisely, with full-page illustrations so you can be sure you’re (literally) on the same page as your kids (click to see bigger versions).


Every page provides translation, along with other great features.  The illustration is examined in detail for its symbols and meaning relative to the tefillah in question.  Also, each siddur page usually offers two “kavannot” (reflections on the meaning of the tefillah), and the Educator’s Companion offers discussion possibilities and clues for each one.

There’s a lot to look at in this siddur, and I think it would make a great starting point for any family just beginning to incorporate regular davening into the daily routine. 

Koren Children’s Siddur – drawbacks

I wanted to love this siddur for so many reasons.  Most significantly, I don’t believe one company or hashkafa should have a monopoly on Jewish thought and quality texts in the English-speaking world.  I also want to support a company that has put so much obvious care and thought into this project.

There are a few things, however, that might diminish from this siddur’s appeal to homeschoolers:

  • No included translation (it’s in the Educator’s Companion; see above)
  • Incomplete tefillos, including shemona esrei and Ashrei
  • Symbols at the bottom of pages may be distracting (they’re meant as a navigation guide)
  • Highly stylized illustrations may feel “babyish” and date easily
  • Order of tefillah is different from Artscroll and many generic Ashkenazi siddurim (however, this is true for all Koren siddurs; it’s not wrong, just different)
  • No bentching or food-related brachos (that I noticed)

When you create a kids’ siddur, by definition, you can’t cram everything in… or you’d be back to a long, boring adult siddur.  You have to leave some stuff out – and what gets left out is mainly an editorial decision.  (Or a decision by parents and educators as to what we’ll buy for our kids.) 

In the Koren Children’s Siddur, for example, Yigdal is entire included, but Ashrei and Aleinu are truncated; I’m not sure how decisions like this are made, but I would have kept all three, since they are all very commonly used with children (the other two at least as often as Yigdal, if not more so, in my experience).

What’s worked for us so far?

My siddur of choice for years has been the classic Artscroll children’s siddur.  This is probably the reigning champion in the kids’ siddur world. 

It suffers from many of the same problems – indeed, the artwork in this late-90s favourite is already looking a little dated, in my opinion; there are also incomplete tefillos, though not as many.  Overall, it seems far more complete, though it’s not an overly large volume:  it includes the entire weekday shemona esrei, though not the Shabbos one, along with the complete bentching, along with Al Hamichya and brachos for other occasions.  It also includes the complete Ashrei and Aleinu.

IMG_00004892        imageimage

With our move to Israel, we are starting to transition to Hebrew-only siddurs. 

So I was excited to see the Koren Mibereishit Siddur (סידור קורן מבראשית) at the Jewish Book Fair last year in Jerusalem.  Even without a lot of Hebrew, I have been enjoying the parsha sheets from MiBereishit (“from Genesis”) for years.  The parsha sheets are fun, well-drawn and lively, and I hoped the siddur would offer more of the same.

At first glance, it does. 

image image image

What I like best about the MiBereshit siddur is that the kids just look… like kids.  Ordinary kids, not dressed up, running around, having a good time. (Artscroll’s kids tend to look very dressed up – probably well-suited to their target audience, but a little weird for my kids, who can spend entire weeks in their pyjamas if given the opportunity.) 

Unfortunately, this siddur, too, suffers from the same incompleteness and we didn’t start to use it on a regular basis.

What we will probably end up using are the siddurs the kids brought home from school at the end of the year.  Naomi Rivka’s is a problem – it’s a real siddur, but it’s totally Sefardi, so I plan to gently transition her back to Ashkenaz somehow.  Gavriel Zev, meanwhile, is utterly in love with his gan siddur, and since it’s Ashkenaz, there’s no reason not to keep using it. 

IMG_00004907 IMG_00004908 IMG_00004909 \

The illustrations are not my style – they’re a little on the hokey side and star beloved singer Dudu Fisher (yes, “doodoo” is a name here!), but like I said, he loves it.  There’s a lot in here, although it, too, falls short in the shemona esrei department.  I guess that’s just not a priority for children’s siddurs, but I think that’s a shame.

The Bottom Line:  Should you buy it?

In my ideal world, illustrated siddurs would include a little more, including at least one full shemonah esrei, and ideally, no partial tefillos (ie if you include it, put in the whole thing).  But this ain’t an ideal world, and we’ve all got to choose a siddur for our kids.

Here’s the bottom line:

  • Who should buy the Koren “Ani Tefillah” Youth Siddur?  Don’t give it as a bar mitzvah gift.  With a parent or teacher for guidance through the learning selections, the Koren “Ani Tefillah” Youth Siddur is a wonderful choice for learning about tefillah with middle-grade kids and high-schoolers.  Especially useful if you’re planning to transition into the adult Koren/Sacks siddurim.  Click here to buy.
  • Who should buy the Koren Children’s Siddur?  With the Educator’s Companion, this is a good first siddur for families starting out, assuming they can read some Hebrew, or for almost any type of Hebrew school.  The discussion points in the Educator’s Companion make this a complete tefillah course for younger grades, especially for BT parents curious about the background and meaning behind tefillah.  Also terrific for very young children – the illustrations and conversation questions are sure to spur many wonderful discussions.  Click here to buy or click here for the Educator’s Companion.
  • Who should buy the Artscroll Children’s Siddur?  This siddur offers full translation and a more complete tefillah experience in a single colourful volume.  I think it’s probably better for FFB families and those more on the chareidi side who want to see children dressed up, boys and girls not interacting, and bearded Torah scholars.  Also, if you plan to transition into Artscroll or generic yeshivish siddurs in the middle grades, this book will teach the same order for most tefillos.  Click here to buy.
  • Are there any other options?  One good choice if you’re learning Hebrew might be Rabbi Chaim Alevsky’s “My Siddur” prayerbook (I’ve already reviewed his Tefillah Trax here – I’m a fan).  No pictures, no translations, but the Hebrew and transliteration are clear and easy to read.  He has a few different versions available, along with audio to help you learn and get comfortable with tefillah tunes… so email him to find out which one will meet your needs best.  Click here for more information.


I’d love to hear about your experiences, and perhaps even review more siddurim at some point.  Let me know what has worked (or not) for your family or class!

Jewish parenting insights? Yes, please!

(Not too many... you’ll get a short personal note every other week or so. No spam, no ads; I promise.)
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Sunday, July 06, 2014

“Water, water”: Insanity and Torah Thought (for the shloshim of my brother Eli)

Saul Tries to Kill David, by von Carolsfeld

Think mental illness is something new?

It’s not; it’s always been with us.

We may believe our understanding has come a long way, but throughout Jewish history, we’ve wrestled with questions of what causes mental illnesses, and how to treat people among us who suffer from them.

In Jewish law, a person who is insane is referred to as a shoteh, and there are very specific guidelines as to how we should treat them. But let’s look at the definition first.

What is a shoteh?

The Talmud conveniently provides not a translation, but a definition, in masechet Chagigah. The shoteh is:

  • · he who goes out alone at night,
  • · he who spends the night in a cemetery, and
  • · he who tears his clothes.
  • · Later, a second baraita adds a fourth criterion: he who destroys all that is given to him

While this probably wouldn’t satisfy a modern psychiatrist, it’s not a bad start.

More important is the broader picture: setting out a definition helps us not merely define the disease, but attempt to create a compassionate situation where both the shoteh and his community are protected from its ravages.

One other beautiful idea encapsulated in the halachic approach: this status is not irreversible.

Nobody is declared a shoteh for life. Instead, there is hope, right until the final hour.

Reb Moshe Feinstein ruled that a person who had been considered a shoteh and ate matzah while in his delusional state must repeat the act a second time once he enters a period of remission (presumably, if it’s still Pesach).


Any of us, at any time

A shoteh is not who you are. It’s something you’re living with at any given moment.

There are parallels in the modern mental health system (though they don’t always work as well as they should), which take away a person’s decision-making power – and the extent to which he’s held responsible – during times when he’s relapsing into illness, and returning it to him when he’s in a period of remission.

I say “him,” when I should really say “us.”

In halachic terms, as in medical terms, mental illness is not something that only happens to others. It can happen to any one of us, at any time, and that’s why the halacha treads so carefully, and with so much compassion.

In terms of protecting the people around the shoteh, the Talmud (Ketubot 48a) says that a beit din (rabbinical court) is allowed to take away his property and use it to support his wife and children on the grounds that, if he was sane, he would surely want to take care of this responsibility himself.

And when we talk about protecting the shoteh, we have the gemara in Yevamot (112b), which says that a husband may not divorce his wife while she’s insane.

A person with a mental illness is considered a choleh she-yesh bo sakanah, one who is sick and whose life is in danger, to the extent that Shabbat observance can be suspended to help them get treatment or take medications.

And in that, the halacha shows a deep understanding that even many of us “enlightened” and “accepting” members of society don’t fully grasp:

Mental illness is a deadly disease.

With this disease, death doesn’t come through the body’s withering or fading, but the withering and fading of the mind. As the mind loses its grasp on reality, it slips away. Over 40% of people with schizophrenia try to kill themselves; 10-15% eventually succeed.

Many of the rest die from accidents related to their disease: fires they have set themselves, substances they have eaten or drunk, fights they have picked with others, or simply freezing to death from misjudging the weather conditions.

Schizophrenia and other mental illnesses can kill, just as surely and brutally as any other disease.


Madness in the Tanach

David HaMelech had a deep, deep understanding of Hashem’s creation. Yet even he admitted in a midrash (1 Shmuel 26) that there were three things whose point he’d never understood:

  • · The web-spinning spider
  • · The stinging wasp, and
  • · The madman

This midrash goes on:

“When a man walks in the market and he drools over his clothes and children run after him and the people make fun of him; this is beautiful before You?” The Holy One blessed be He said to David: “You complain about the injustice of insanity; by your life you will regret this and you will pray for it until I give it to you.”

Later, David HaMelech was convinced of the “benefits” of madness when he had to escape from King Achish of Gat. He begged Hashem to make him insane, acting so abhorrently that Achish saw no choice but to send him away.

We have to understand this a little more closely. Although it says in Tehillim (34) that David “disguised his sanity,” only true madness would have made the great king drool and act like a crazy person in a way that seemed fully authentic.

And then, just as with the shoteh, it was gone.

 David and Saul, by Marc ChagallNot only was David HaMelech back in control of his senses, his vision was clearer and sharper than ever; some of his greatest words of wisdom are encapsulated in Tehillim 34, written at the blessed return of his own sanity.

This wasn’t the first time David HaMelech had encountered madness.

We read about this in Shmuel Alef. Remember how, as a boy, he came with his harp to play for Shaul? That’s because the great king had temporarily gone crazy. Hashem’s spirit was suddenly gone, and an “evil spirit” has replaced it.

וְרוּחַ ה סָרָה, מֵעִם שָׁאוּל; וּבִעֲתַתּוּ רוּחַ-רָעָה, מֵאֵת ה.

Now the spirit of Hashem had departed from Shaul,

and an evil spirit from Hashem terrified him.

Very odd: Hashem’s spirit is “gone,” and then a different spirit comes upon Shaul, also from Hashem.

Madness isn’t something external or foreign, as we’ll see. It’s just as much from Hashem as the “sane spirit” that overtakes Shaul in his better moments.

How can something so ugly be from Hashem? That is the eternal question, and one I can’t really answer here.


Rabbi Akiva, from the Mantua Haggadah Madness in traditional Jewish understanding

The classic story of insanity in Jewish tradition comes to us in Chagiga (14b):

Four men descended to the “Pardes” (orchard of Torah learning): Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher [Elisha ben Avuya] and Rabbi Akiva.

Ben Azzai went in, saw what was there, and died.

Ben Zoma went in, saw what was there, and went mad.

Acher went in, saw what was there, and left the life of Torah.

Rabbi Akiva, it’s said, entered in peace and left in peace.

Every one of these is a complete story in itself, but Ben Zoma is our question right now. What did he see? And how did it make him go mad? Great questions… and again, questions I really can’t answer here. I don’t know if anyone knows.

First of all, Ben Zoma, like King Shaul, was no ordinary mind. This was the man who, in Pirkei Avot, taught us the secret of wisdom: “Who is wise? The one who learns from all men.”

How could someone so great fall so low, so fast?

That is the essence of the shoteh; it can happen to any one of us, at any time. The spirit of madness, as with Shaul, also comes from Hashem.

However, every source I looked at tried to blame Ben Zoma, or at least find in him spiritual failings that would cause his mind to shatter so easily. Blaming the victim, then as now, is something all-too-common in every type of mental illness.


Two dangerous ideas

We’ve all probably come across two harsh and counterproductive ideas that are examples of how we, as Jews, are not supposed to think. Yet they have been, perhaps, the two most pervasive misconceptions throughout our history:

  • · One, that mental illness is a phenomenon like a dybbuk, where a person is “possessed,” and
  • · Two, that mental illness is in some way a punishment.

I asked Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner, Rosh Kollel of Toronto’s tiny YU branch, because he has a strong background in medical issues and slightly off-the-beaten-path halacha, for some guidance on these two points.

His answers were very helpful to me. These days, we may roll our eyes at the dybbuk thing, but at various times in our history, one of the most common ways to “cure” mental illness was through exorcism.

Here’s what Rabbi Torczyner told me:

The idea that this is a dybbuk stems from an old idea that a soul might return to Earth and enter someone's body. It's an ancient idea, not necessarily originating in Judaism at all, but some are ardent believers in it, and they will use it to explain phenomena that they observe. In the 10th century, Rav Saadia Gaon wrote that some people see an animal that exhibits behaviours similar to their deceased relatives, and they conclude that this is a new incarnation of the relative; he was not impressed.

Neither am I.

But if it sounds like the idea of a dybbuk is something out of the 18th century, think about some of the ways we talk today.

Have you ever said “I’m not myself today”?

What about, “I don’t know what got into me?”

Dybbuks may not be in the forefront of our minds, but this idea, that an ordinary person is in the grip of something extraordinary or supernatural is an astonishingly pervasive one, even in our modern “scientific” culture.

(not really true) But by far the more harmful myth about mental illness is that it is in some way a punishment. This is what Rabbi Torczyner had to say about that:

The idea that this is a punishment is horrific and repulsive, but I can see how people get there. They start out with the concept that reward and punishment exist in this world - an idea that may be wrong (indeed, some passages of gemara contradict it), but is not beyond the pale of Judaism (other passages of gemara support it). They then confront a case of someone suffering, and they cannot believe that Gd would permit this, unless the person deserved it. So they conclude that it is punishment for something. This is seen in the narratives of Iyov's friends, who try in various ways to get him to accept that his suffering must be punishment for his sins. Ultimately, Gd comes and blows them out of the water, but it takes a few dozen chapters to get there.

Rabbi Torczyner’s responses reflect the compassionate ideas rooted in the halachic understanding of the shoteh.


Dividing the waters

Rather than blaming Ben Zoma, then, let’s look at his own words, right after the Pardes experience, when asked by another rabbi where he’d been:

“I was contemplating the mysteries of creation. I learned that between the upper waters and the lower waters there are but three finger-breadths.”

Hearing this, the rabbi told his students, “Ben Zoma is gone.”

The “upper and lower waters” are described in the story of Creation, back in Bereishit. On the second day, Hashem divides between the two types of waters, mayim and sha-mayim.

Rabbi Yissocher Frand says neither water was more or less “valid.” This wasn’t a case of good and evil, or true and false. In separating these waters, Hashem has drawn an arbitrary distinction between two equal things.

And here we see the very essence of sanity.

Sometimes (my thoughts, not Rav Frand’s), we need these arbitrary distinctions in the world; toeing this line is what marks us as “sane” in ordinary society.

When the distinctions begin to blur, as they did for Ben Zoma, when the upper waters start to seem like they’re the same as the lower waters – or at least, only three finger-breadths apart – then our sanity is in trouble.

One line often left out of the Pardes story is Rabbi Akiva’s exhortation to the other three before they ascend to see whatever it is that they end up seeing. He says, “When you get there, don’t say ‘water, water!’… for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes' (Psalms 101:7).”

Although there is really no distinction between water and water, keeping the ideas separate is crucial enough for Rabbi Akiva to call this blurring a fundamental “untruth.”

My brother Eli lived the last part of his life, twenty years or more, in a world of untruth Rabbi Akiva could easily have recognized.

Schizophrenia is a world of lies.

With this disease, your senses fail, not in the ordinary way, of deafness and blindness. You can see and hear, alright. But what you see may or may not be real. What you hear may or may not be the truth. Friends and family can start to look like enemies, or at least, conspirators.

Water that is above can start to look a lot like water that is below.


Sanity and Jewish responsibility

No wonder the rabbi told his students “Ben Zoma is gone.” Without rationality, the ability to see these distinctions, he couldn’t really function anymore, either as a rabbi or as a Jew.

That’s because although Hashem created the world originally, it is our job to partner with him in its ongoing operation. It’s an important job, and it’s one that falls only to those whose sanity, whose perception of these arbitrary distinctions, remains intact.

As Jews, we exercise our power of discernment every week after Shabbat, when we praise Hashem for distinguishing between light and darkness, holy and profane, Jews and non-Jews.

But perhaps the best example of this responsibility comes with Rosh Chodesh. In the time when the Sanhedrin sat in Yerushalayim, the new month couldn’t begin until the moon was sighted by two witnesses. These witnesses had to travel to the Sanhedrin to tell the rabbis all about it.

They didn’t get off easily, either.

The rabbis would interrogate them: “At what angle did you see the moon? In what position? What did it look like?”

Here’s the thing: The rabbis of the Sanhedrin knew the answers already.

Even in those days, trained astronomers could predict when and where and how the moon would be sighted each month. Nevertheless, until it was seen by a reliable witness, it basically hadn’t happened yet. The arbitrary distinction between truth and falsehood lay solely in the accuracy of the witnesses’ perception.

Their sanity, in other words.

This isn’t just any old mitzvah. Rosh Chodesh is the very first mitzvah Hashem gave to the Jewish people, to keep time and mark the months, and here it is, so very contingent on our rationality.

Happily for Ben Zoma, perhaps, he died soon after the Pardes story took place.

In real life, people live for years with insanity. And those of us around them, those of us in society, have to wrap our own minds around how and why something like this could happen.

Unless we look the other way, ignore them, describe what they’re going through as “emotional disturbances.” Saying, “he’s a little… off.” Not calling it what it really is.

A miserable life, with a deadly disease.

Schizophrenia doesn’t always kill its victims, but then, neither does cancer. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously. It kills often enough that we all ought to pay attention.


Suicide and Jewish burial

You may have heard that a person who kills himself can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Perhaps that’s true if they do it with full intention, in their right mind. But as the halachas of the shoteh show, even before the modern era, Judaism had a full and rich understanding of what it means to be in one’s right mind – and why we must exempt those who aren’t.

When I heard that we’d be holding my brothers’ burial at his graveside, rather than in comfortable seats at the funeral chapel, I had one main concern: that people would think he was less worth honouring; that we were burying him surreptitiously because of the way he died.

Because of his disease.

I was comforted by the many friends and family members who turned out on that sunny Tuesday afternoon, but more than that, I was comforted by the words of one of the rabbis from our shul who explained that when a person suffers as much as Eli did, they are not responsible for any of their actions – right up until the end.

Not only not responsible: Such a person is to be held on the level of a tzaddik, as one who fought an honourable battle, bravely and to the extent of his abilities, and who will be welcomed with open arms in shamayim, immediately.

I cannot imagine what Eli was battling all those years. Yet, as this rabbi pointed out, he never once tried to hurt any of us, or anyone else; he always spoke kindly to the children and brought them weird little gifts.

That was his true character shining through a very hazy windowpane; his inner strength and character that shows us it was not that a dybbuk had taken hold of him, but just his own mind, terribly, terribly twisted.


The gift of Eli

My mother also reminded us that, thirty years ago, he refused to attend his own bar mitzvah if my parents held a big celebration in the shul; you know, the kind of shindig mine had been two years before. So they made a small party at home and Eli was happy.

His funeral, then, was the equivalent of a small party at home. I like to think he was happy that nobody had to get dressed up or sit through a long, boring service.

Beyond a better understanding of his disease, the greatest gift of the past month has been getting Eli back.

Am I allowed to call it a gift?

Unshadowed by the gloomy, shouting, anti-social presence he’d become, the brother I knew has surfaced again through photographs, through stories. We have finally been allowed to enjoy him once again.

It’s the opposite of what we saw with King Shaul. The “evil spirit” has departed from Eli… and he is back where he belongs, in the glow of the shechina, in the world of truth once more.

Yet even as we’re grateful for the gift of having him in our midst again for this short time, we also have to let him go: brother, uncle, son, childhood companion and friend.

The stages of mourning in Jewish life teach us the pattern of gradually letting go.

At the end of the shiva period, we got up and walked with Eli out of the house. Not with anger, not amid shouting, as happened a few times in his life. With peace and love and memories.

Now, at the end of this shloshim period, we give him one last hug and send him even farther than we can possibly go yet ourselves. We promise him the journey will be wonderful, the wisdom infinite, the light and truth a fountain for his weary soul.

As David HaMelech wrote after he was delivered, alive, from his own battle with insanity:

צָעֲקוּ, וַה שָׁמֵעַ; וּמִכָּל-צָרוֹתָם, הִצִּילָם.

They cried, and Hashem heard,

and delivered them out of all their troubles.

There is nothing new here. History repeats itself, and will keep on repeating itself. Water, water, everywhere, and the distinctions sometimes so hard to see.

And yet every individual, every story, is unique, and my brother’s soul is stronger than ever now, unburdened from its disease. May Eli’s neshama help those who still suffer; may his bright spirit and gifted mind intervene to ease the pain of others.

May the shining light of the World of Truth continue to comfort him, and the knowledge that he is surely there already continue to comfort us as well.

# # #

[public-domain images:  Saul Tries to Kill David, by von Carolsfeld; David and Saul, by Marc Chagall, Rabbi Akiva, from the Mantua Haggadah]

Friday, July 04, 2014

Come meet the king of creepy Jewish kids’ books.



Sorry, but that’s what comes to my mind when I think of Eric Kimmel. 

Creepy, as in the very best kind of creepy Jewish books:  ghosts, ghouls, goblins and all things paranormal. 

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins kind of creepy.

Gershon’s Monster kind of creepy. 

Jack and the Giant Barbecue kind of creepy.

Huh?  Jack and the… giant… barbecue?

Check it out:


Sure, Eric is the undisputed champion of creepy Jewish kidlit, but if that sounds like he’s stuck in a niche, think again.  He’s not just about creepy… or just about Jewish books, as you’ll see.

Read all about Eric A. Kimmel over on my children’s-book writing blog!