Sukkot Themed KidLit by Dori Weinstein

One of the greatest gifts in the Jewish community in the 21st century has undoubtedly been the addition of the PJ Library. Started by Harold Grinspoon’s philanthropic foundation, the PJ Library now sends over 100,000 free books to Jewish families each month through the generosity of local Jewish philanthropists. As I wrote about last June on this blog, the PJ Library’s 3 millionth book was given to the daughter of a good friend of mine in Livingston, New Jersey.My three children have amassed an entire bookshelf worth of complimentary PJ Library books over the years. These books have covered all of the Jewish holidays, Shabbat, Israel, Jewish history and Jewish ethics. My family is grateful for the wonderful gift of literature that has made the PJ Library such a meaningful endeavor. But as great as the PJ Library is, the books are really more suitable for children up to a certain age. After a child reaches age 9 or 10 there are few offerings for the pre-teen crowd (although the PJ Library is beginning to add these more advanced books to its monthly offerings).

As my oldest child approaches double-digits in age, I’ve begun to collect more advanced books with Jewish themes. One such book that my son has already enjoyed is Dori Weinstein’s “Shaking in the Shack.” This book is the second in the author’s YoYo and YaYa series and is published by the author’s own Five Flames Press in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Dori, a Jewish educator, began writing these books — she’s currently at work on number three in the series — because she too was looking for modern Jewish books for her own children as well as for the students she was teaching. While there is no shortage of these Jewish themed books for younger children, especially the pre-school cohort, the options become very sparse for middle school age children who were used to more challenging books like the Harry Potter series.

Dori’s first stab at a pre-teen novel based on a Jewish holiday came out in 2011 when “Sliding into the New Year” was published by Yotzeret Publishing. That book was named a 2012 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards gold medal winner in the category of Young Adult Fiction-Religion/Spirituality. Dori’s goal is to write 12 books in which we watch boy-girl twins Joel Silver (YoYo) and Ellie Silver (YaYa) grow up during a year of their lives. As my own twins — also a son and a daughter — get older I’m sure they’ll appreciate and be able to relate to YoYo and YaYa (both nicknamed after their Hebrew names Yoel and Yael respectively).

Dori’s recent book is perfect for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot that begins tomorrow night. “Shaking in the Shack” takes place during the Sukkot festival and focuses on the Jewish value of helping those less fortunate. YoYo loves to be a comedian and to play practical jokes, but when he, YaYa and the rest of their fifth-grade Hebrew school class find a mysterious four-legged visitor in the synagogue’s sukkah they all take it seriously. Their unexpected adventure brings the twin brother and sister duo face-to-face with the importance of shelter and caring for those in need during Sukkot and year round.

The book hits on the core themes of Sukkot like hachnasat orchim, being hospitable and inviting guests into the sukkah. It also has a subtle way of teaching all of the ingredients of the fall holiday including about the lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron), as well as the ritual of ushpizin, the mythical guests of the sukkah.

Dori has decided to switch between the two protagonists as narrators in each successive book so that “Shaking in the Shack” is narrated by Joel (YoYo). In the book, he really comes across as the typical 5th grade boy who shows both a silly side as well as a maturing serious side with all of the awkwardness most pre-pubescent boys exhibit.

When I recently met Dori during her summer swing through Detroit on a family-vacation-slash-book-tour, she couldn’t contain her excitement over the new book. Every time another Judaica store or synagogue gift shop agreed to sell her KidLit series, she enthused on Facebook how YoYo and YaYa will now be available in another Jewish community. The YoYo and YaYa series is ideal for 8-12 year-olds, but even the bar and bat mitzvah age teens will enjoy them.

Happy Sukkot and Happy Reading Kids!

Cool Sukkah Contest in Ann Arbor

I hate to contribute to the stereotype that Jewish men aren’t handy, but I’ve only constructed two notable structures in my life. One is a backyard tree house for my kids and I’ve had to hire a handyman three times already to come over and either fix or reinforce that tree house so it would be safe for my kids to use. The second thing I’ve ever built is our family’s sukkah each year.

Today is the third day of the 8-day sukkah festival (observed for 7 days in Israel) when Jewish people all over the world eat meals in a temporary hut. The first time I constructed my own sukkah was thirteen years ago during my first year of marriage. Truth be told, I supplied the beer and my non-Jewish (and very handy) next door neighbor did most of the manual labor. Over the years, however, I’ve gotten better at erecting this 12×10 foot booth with canvas sides and a couple bamboo mats for a roof. This year I put it up in record time with some help from my kids (who are now old enough to be more helpful than hindrance).

As I was building the metal frame of the sukkah this year I thought about the impressive sukkah designs I helped judge in the Sukkah Arbor competition a month ago. This is the inaugural year of Sukkah Arbor, which like a similar design competition in Manhattan called “Sukkah City: NYC,” is a design-build competition to re-envision the sukkah. I had the distinct honor to serve as a juror in this competition together with my colleagues Rabbi Rob Dobrusin (Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor) and Rabbi Seth Winberg (my successor at University of Michigan Hillel), several architects, builders, and professors in the U-M School of Architecture. Looking at 22 spectacular entries, we were tasked with judging the best handful of the lot based on sustainability, portability/reusability, beauty/inspiration/awe, and innovation. The entries were also supposed to adhere to the Jewish laws concerning the building of a sukkah:

  1. The sukkah must enclose a minimum area of 7 x 7 square handbreadths.
  2. The sukkah must have at least 3 walls, but the third doesn’t need to be complete. The walls must remain unshaken by a steady wind.
  3. If the sukkah has only 2 complete walls, and they face each other, a third wall of at least 4 handbreadths must be within 3 handbreadths of one of the complete walls.
  4. The base of the walls must be within 3 handbreadths of the ground, but need not reach the roof.
  5. The sukkah must be at least 10 handbreadths tall, but no taller than 20 cubits.
  6. The roof must be made from something that once grew in the ground, and is no longer attached to the earth.
  7. The sukkah must have a roof made of schach: the leaves and/or branches of a tree or plant.
  8. The roof cannot be made of bundles of straw or sticks that are tied together (although untied straw or sticks may be okay).
  9. The sukkah must draw the eye up to its roof, and to the sky beyond.
  10. In day, the roof must provide more shade than sunshine. Its individual construction elements must be less than 4 handbreadths in width.
  11. At night, one must be able to see the stars from within the sukkah, through the roof.

When I was contacted by my cousin (technically my mother’s cousin’s son), Andrew Hauptman, many months ago to serve as a juror for this competition I immediately agreed. I thought it was great that Andrew was involved in this endeavor and so excited about it. Andrew, a very talented architect in Ann Arbor, isn’t an observant Jew and hasn’t been very active in the Jewish community so I thought this was wonderful that he was taking a lead in this project. I hope we can create similar events that encourage participation of other Jewish rituals for those who haven’t traditionally been involved.

Sukkah Arbor, like similar projects in other cities, really gets people involved in the sukkah building process who otherwise wouldn’t even know about the Jewish commandment to build a sukkah on the Sukkot holiday. The objectives of Sukkah Arbor were to bring 21st century ‘design-build’ techniques and materials to a traditional observance, unite the wider community in a participatory, educational and artistic project, and to raise awareness of and educate about modern causes that connect to the holiday of Sukkot including homelessness, hunger and the environment. Architects, builders, environmentalists, and artists who have gotten involved in different aspects of Sukkah Arbor have learned about the Sukkot festival and the meaning of the sukkah.

The winner of Sukkah Arbor was the “Hay Bales” sukkah created by Harold Remlinger, Ralph Nunez and Shari Stein (pictured above). Mazel Tov to them and to all of the sukkah designers. The sukkahs were originally on display at Liberty Square Plaza and can now be viewed at the Ann Arbor Jewish Community Center. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to be a part of this project and hope it continues for many years to come.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

TSA Issued Lulav Alert for Sukkot This Year

On this blog I’ve written about past incidents on airplanes concerning presumed breaches of airline security when Jewish passengers began to put on tefillin (black leather straps and black boxes known as phylacteries). Like many others I criticized the airlines and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for not educating flight crews that these were necessary parts of Jewish prayer garb and therefore permissible on planes and in airports.

Therefore, I feel it is important to now praise the TSA for its recent notification to all employees concerning the prayer accoutrements that might have been seen in airports and on airplanes during the Sukkot holiday. The TSA’s alert stated that “Observant Jewish travelers may carry four plants – a palm branch, myrtle twigs, willow twigs, and a citron – in airports and through security checkpoints. These plants are religious articles and may be carried either separately or as a bundle. Jewish travelers may be observed in prayer, shaking the bundle of plants in six directions.”

It concluded that “TSA’s screening procedures do not prohibit the carrying of such agricultural items through the airport or security checkpoints, or on airplanes. These plants are not on TSA’s Prohibited Items List. As always, TSA is committed to treating all passengers, including passengers who may be observing Sukkot, with respect and dignity during the screening process.”

Very nice. I hope the TSA remembers to issue this directive in future years as well. So, it seems that Jewish travelers are now free to carry and shake their lulavs through airports and in airplanes (not during takeoff and landing please) without fear of being interrogated, breaching security measures, or being responsible for an emergency landing.

As for bringing your kid’s plastic sword on board an airplane during Purim… don’t push it!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Ivanka Trump’s "Flowers" Is Really a Lulav

There were two funny things about the photos of Ivanka Trump (The Donald’s daughter) and her husband Jared Kushner taken in New York this past week.

First is the fact that the well-to-do couple wouldn’t be using a fancy etrog holder. As Kushner was pushing their baby daughter Arabella Rose on the second day of Sukkot, he was also carrying a lulav and etrog. One would think that Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law would have a nice silver etrog carrying case, but it appears that the Kushner-Trump couple is sporting the simple cardboard box etrog carrying case along with the plastic bag the lulav comes in.

The second funny thing is that the Daily Mail first published this photo over the weekend in its online edition explaining that “Jared, wearing a casual black jacket, pushed little Arabella Rose’s pram along the streets on their way to lunch. He also held some flowers in one hand – perhaps a gift for his wife.” I suppose you could combine a palm branch with some myrtle and willow branches to form a bouquet of sorts, but I don’t think it’s a popular gift for ones wife.

There was no word on where the couple was headed for yuntif lunch or if they had their own sukkah outside of their Manhattan home.

Trump, the billionaire heiress and model, and Kushner were married by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who also worked with Trump through her yearlong conversion to Judaism. Kushner is the publisher of the New York Observer.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller