From Piles of Schnitzel to Living Extraordinary Lives
I have many fond memories of cooking with my grandmother in her kitchen. As we flipped over seemingly endless schnitzels, I remember asking, “Who’s coming for Shabbat dinner?” “You, your parents, and your brother,” she replied. She put three pots on the stove. “Who else?” I asked. “That’s it,” she answered. I felt incredulousness welling up in me. There was enough food to feed an army.
I remembered learning about the Holocaust generation and the link between living with shortages and later generations of overcooking. Yet, I wondered what making rice for 20 instead of five had to do with the richness and vibrancy of our heritage. Perhaps it didn’t? While this post-survival–style Shabbat dinner seemed to work for my grandmother, I was in the middle of my college career and searching for something more. The overcooking was a small representation of an expression of Judaism that lacked relevance for me.
I found that relevance as a mother and educator-administrator at a school, Moriah Early Childhood Center, with its vision, “Inspired by Judaism, our children, teachers, and families immerse and participate in joyful learning for living extraordinary lives.” You may be asking yourself, “How does a Jewish early childhood program move us from Jewish overcooking to Jewish extraordinary living?”
Reggio Emilia pioneer Carla Rinaldi quotes Jerome Bruner as stating, “School is not a preparation for life, but is life itself.” (Bringing Learning to Life, xi). The children and families that walk in our doors every morning are experiencing Jewish living, not a preparation or “gateway” for Jewish living. Our school is a microcosm for Jewish living as extraordinary living.
So what then is extraordinary Jewish living?
Jewish living is creating and sustaining high-quality relationships.
Relationships are promoted and practiced on every level. When children count their friends at morning meeting, it is not only to develop numeracy skills. The community wants to know who is missing and why. All students in the classroom are integral. When a student is absent, the other students miss him/her and eagerly make a “mitzvah call.” On the other side, the ill child eagerly awaits the call. Some parents even call into the school, asking for their mitzvah call because their child won’t take a nap until it comes. My mitzvah call experience as a parent came when my youngest was hospitalized at a year and a half with a respiratory infection. For six days, I held her little body in my lap, working around the many cords and tubes tied to her. When the phone rang, her eyes were closed. She opened them as she heard her teacher’s voice. As she watched her closest friend toddle over on FaceTime and stroke the phone, a smile appeared on her pale face. It was the first smile she had mustered all day. I hid my tears of joy under a tissue as I watched her classroom community bring her physical and emotional strength.
Jewish living is practicing appreciation.
In every classroom, the children and teachers participate in the Modeh Ani (the morning prayer we say to thank Hashem for restoring our soul). One class, in particular, had spent weeks exploring the concept of thankfulness. We became more aware as a collective of all the good in our lives: a sunny day, a new bike at the park, a hug. The children made a festive meal to celebrate Thanksgiving in the classroom together and decided on their own to invite the school chef to thank her for all the delicious meals she prepares for them. They wrote her an invitation, hand-delivered it with giggles of glee, and decorated her place at the table with great love and care.
Jewish living is pursuing peace that allows for differences that make up a whole.
One classroom of four-year-old children decided that they wanted a place in the classroom to discuss and resolve issues. They named it “the Helping Spot” and decorated it (according to their taste and with the help of parents bringing materials) with fabric, carpeting, and LED lighting. Over time, the children began to seek out the toranim (the children assigned as class leaders for the day) to come to the Helping Spot. Over time, through the documentation and reflection we practice at Moriah, the teachers noticed that the children’s ability to reframe, or thoroughly express the issue, increased. The teachers also noticed that the children began to solve more complex conflicts on their own, such as allowing others to join in their play and negotiating space and materials where they had not been willing to do so before.
Jewish living is taking responsibility and giving space for others to do the same.
The teachers in one of our classrooms for two year olds observed that the children were craving and inventing jobs for themselves. They wondered how they might foster the children’s desire to act as helpers and contributors in the class. They responded by co-constructing jobs with the children and creating a visible chart in the room where the children race over first thing in the morning to see who is on duty. The teachers reported that the children saved a place for the line leader, letting her know that it was her turn to be in front. They excitedly urged her to take her spot at the front of the line. It is uplifting to hear about the respect and acknowledgment the children have of their friends’ roles at such a young age.
Jewish living is asking tough questions and relentlessly pursuing answers.
A group of four-year-old children went to the sanctuary (as they often do) to look at the siddurim (the prayer books). After finding the Sh’ma in the prayer book and reciting it together, the discussion about the Sh’ma prayer flowed into deep topics such as life and death, gender, and the concept of “forever.” They debated whether God is a boy or girl name as they grappled with whether God is a he, a she, or both. They wondered how they might find out by seeing God. When one child suggested that when they are dead, they can see God, another responded with a probing question, “If they are dead and their eyes are closed, then how can they see God?” As the conversation moved organically into whether God is married, a child responded in a way that only children can, weaving depth and innocent humor, “God does not need to be married because if God is married then there will be two Gods and then we’ll have too many rules. God’s wife will make more rules for us. God is also a true God and if we have another God, then God will not be so special.” What makes this conversation special is that it isn’t special. This type of discourse is commonplace among the children.
To echo Jerome Bruner, we in the Jewish early childhood center are not in the business of preparing people to live extraordinary lives. The children, families, and teachers are currently living extraordinary lives as a result of living Jewishly.
While my grandmother’s delicious schnitzel can also be part of extraordinary living, I make enough for whoever is coming to dinner, rather than an army unit. I live with the faith that tomorrow will bring a new day that will start with Modeh Ani and go extraordinarily from there even when I don’t have leftovers in my fridge.
Sharon Goldman is the assistant director of documentation and research at Moriah ECC. Sharon began her career as an educator when she taught and trained new teachers with Teach For America. Enjoying the advocacy involved in working in the public school system, she pursued a law degree and worked as a litigator. Sharon left the practice of law to spend four and a half years in Israel, attending seminary and researching Jewish Value Based curriculum as a Dorot fellow.