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I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home. There was no Christmas, and I was fine with that. I can remember only one or two of my friends having a tree and I had no real concept of the cornucopia of gifts they received early Christmas morning. As far as I was concerned, all that was special about December 25th was that it was my mom’s birthday. A day that all the streets in New York were eerily quite.

As my family has morphed and changed, Christmas has become part of my winter routine. (I wrote about my own coming to terms with this last year.) While I would be perfectly happy without it, I have come to embrace the parts that make sense to me – cooking and crafting with the kids, retelling old family stories, and enjoying extra time with my husband at home.

Perhaps because we celebrate both holidays, we never pit one against the other. The Chanukah I grew up with was not about competing with Christmas traditions, it was about celebrating our own. It’s ironic to me how many Jews celebrate a “Christmasy Chanukah” complete with so-called Chanukah bushes. Such an idea runs in complete contradiction to what the holiday is about–maintaining commitment to Jewish ideals when those ideals are challenged by others.

So, I was a bit disappointed when looking for a project to bring to Cora’s hippie hebrew school as part of our Chanukah celebration. So many of the ideas I found, some of which were very beautiful and well-crafted, look like Christmas projects in disguise. I am trying to give some of these ideas a chance. Afterall, if we want to make something festive with our kids, why not decorate the house? We put our menorahs in the window so others can see them; a sign of our freedom to practice our religion, out in the open. Perhaps garland and ornaments can contribute to that cause, but I can’t fight my longing for holiday projects that are distinctively Jewish. Your recommendations most welcome!

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3 Things We Can Learn From The Fine Brothers

Cora has heard The Beatles many times. When she was a baby, “Blackbird” was in her lullaby rotation. There is a folder on the MP3 player she inherited from her sister filled with their tunes. I often suggest she listen to those tracks instead of her kids’ music, but l know I shouldn’t push it. Like a neighbor and local music reviewer suggests, I realize the possibility that the more I push the more she’ll rebel. But, this past weekend she had two new encounters that seemed to convince her, once and for all, that The Beatles are worth her time.

First, she played Beatles Rock Band with Rosa and Dan. Thanks to Music Together, Cora loves to spend time with family singing and never misses a chance to bang on a drum. Add the chance to play big kid video games and she was hooked. Like so many other kids who have learned The Beatles’s music while pretending to be John, Paul, Ringo, and George, she asked to listen to their music later that day. So, we watched old concert clips at dinner. She was mesmerized and so was I.

Sometimes, I still can’t get over how much content we have at our fingertips. Like this version of “Paperback Writer” or this one of “Hello Goodbye.” Both have great sound and (relatively) sharp video. It’s rare that I sit around watching videos on YouTube, but Cora’s interest kept me clicking on recommended links for awhile. At some point we came across “Kids React to The Beatles.” Cora only tolerated a minute or two before she demanded more music, but I bookmarked it to watch after she went to bed.

Awesome, right?! Once again, I stumbled upon a cultural phenomenon that took hold over the past three years while I was submerged in work and family life. Parents and educators know how illuminating it can be to listen to kids’ reactions to things – books, music, works of art, historical events. They give us new insights and help us understand how they perceive the world around them. The Fine Brothers catch all that in their Kids React videos, and so much more that I still need to process. Their work seems like one part cultural anthropology and one part social justice as they empower kids to share their viewpoints. Their most recent post about gay marriage is not to be missed.

Watching Kids React is interesting, but it’s even better to watch your kid (or your students) react. Here are three things we learn from the Fine Brothers about sharing cultural content with our kids:

1. Consume media together. I’ve certainly been guilty of encouraging my older kids to watch videos and play games as far away from me as possible. I find so much of what they want to watch and listen to a waste of time. But, there’s a lot to be gained from watching what our kids are watching, hearing them talk about it, and asking questions.

2. Allow your kids to have their own opinions and come to their own conclusions about what they see and hear. Too often we want our kids to like what we like. As much as we might hate it at times, our kids will develop their own preferences, and oftentimes those will conflict with our own. If you have the means, record their thoughts so you can all come back to them later.

3. Ask questions that challenge kids to question their initial reactions and consider others’ perspectives. While it is important to let them have their own opinions, it is also important to push kids to explore and articulate the values and experiences of their beliefs.

 

Serving time in the StoryCorps

While this makes two posts in a row that feature George, he and I haven’t had a lot of quality time together lately. So, it was with great excitement, and some anticipation, that I told to him about our invitation to participate in the StoryCorps project last weekend.

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I was excited because I LOVE StoryCorps – a ten year-old “independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.” Over 50,000 stories have been recorded so far, most archived at the Library of Congress. Excerpts from select stories are aired on NPR’s Morning Edition on Fridays. Some girlfriends and I routinely listen and then send each other text messages with our reactions. Some are funny, others endearing, many heart-wrenching.

I was anxious because the interview would be 40 minutes long, and I couldn’t remember the last time George and I spoken for that long. Couple that with the fact that our appointment was for 9 a.m. on a Sunday and George is 14 years old, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Luckily, George was intrigued by the idea: “Cool! We listen to NPR everyday,” he said cheerfully. Hearing we were among a small group of folks who were invited to participate in this series of recordings at the Columbus Museum of Art also appealed to him.

StoryCorps sent representatives to the museum as part of their award for winning a National Medal from the Institute of Library and Museum Services. George and I were invited because of a project we participated in last fall called Dispatchwork. (You can read about that here.) I thought we would be talking about that as part of our interview, but upon arrival and introductions, we learned we could talk about pretty much anything we pleased. We were given a list of questions on a range of subject to help keep our conversation moving.

George and I went back and forth asking one another questions and sharing our memories, ideas, and lessons for life. We both asked questions the other wasn’t prepared to answer, including some I have been harboring for a long time like, “Do you ever imagine what your life would be like if your mom and dad stayed together?” and “Do you ever wish Cora wasn’t around?” Perhaps, now that the door is open, we’ll revisit and respond to these queries in the future.

I don’t think our interview will ever make it to the radio, at least not on a national level. But I’m so grateful for this opportunity to practice the art of conversation with George. I know he will never forget this encounter with oral history, and who knows, perhaps someday his great-great-great grandchildren will listen to our conversation on a trip to Washington, D.C.

Farewell, Mr. Maynard.

DSC_0130George played trumpet with his high school marching band tonight at the state finals. Dan, Cora, and I made it into the stadium just in time to catch the set. (Seriously. If we had been 30 seconds later we would have been shut out by the “no entry during performance” rule.) I haven’t made it to many of George’s band events this year and I’m glad I didn’t let the cold, wet weather keep me home. I’m generally not so brave.

The show was smooth and, as always, brought tears to my eyes. It’s amazing to see all that work come together. Mostly I just drive the minivan and get the 3-5 word report on how things are going, but tonight I got to see what George has been up to every afternoon and weekend since August.

Cora and I did intentionally showed up early for pick-up one day this week and got to watch a practice. Sitting in the stands, I watched and listened to the band directors critique – through their on-field microphone and amongst themselves. Training a group of 160 kids to perform a musical arrangement is so far removed from any teaching experience I’ve ever known. I could feel the pressure to make all the parts flow together.

Tonight, halfway through the performance, Dan poked me and told me to check out the band director, Mr. Maynard, rocking out on the sideline just in front of us. He didn’t just sway back and forth on his heels. He strutted around, proud as a peacock.

Maynard is retiring at the end of the year so this was, in effect, his curtain call. Tonight he was off-duty. His role as a teacher was over and the kids were on their own, on the field. There was nothing left for him to do but sit back and enjoy the show. It was an honor to witness.