Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Signing Over the Kids

Recently I've spoken with a few parents who have first-grade children in day schools in order to have a measure with which to compare David's limude kodesh progress.
In some cases the parents tell me plainly that they're not really sure what their kids are doing in school. Other parents respond with generalities but it's clear they really don't know. In one case a parent told me his kid was learning x, y, z and offered to show me some of his school books and papers, but when we inspected them it became evident that the parent was clueless.
One thing that I've realized since switching David out of day school is the extent to which so many--I acknowledge not all--frum parents have handed over the responsibility for chinuch--in the widest sense--to others. We just assume that our kids will get everything need Jewish-wise in school. I don't write this as a value judgement, but simply as an observation of the way things are. Although I could justly be accused of seeking to micromanage my son's education while he was in day school and as much as we mentally prepared ourselves for public school, there was simply no way for us to anticipate the scope and full implications of the burden we were to assume. Only parents who already have children in public school can appreciate that burden.
* * *
One of the benefits of not sending a child to a day school is that a parent can (theoretically) provide him with a limude kodesh education tailored to the parents' wants and the child's needs/abilities. Keeping this mind, there is some irony in my attempts to compare David's progress with that of his day school peers. After all, why should it matter? The best answers I can come up with:
1) We have no idea what we're doing and it's helpful--or at least it feels reassuring--to have some type of external measure.
2) We want to make sure he can switch back into a day school, whether next year or in five years, and not be at a disadvantage (or worse).

Monday, December 27, 2010

'Tis the Season to be Jolly . . . (Uncut)

(This is what I originally wrote and I'm posting it now to clarify yesterday's abbreviated post.)

I miss David being in a school environment where Hanukkah is celebrated.
I don't miss Hanukkah gifts for the staff.
The truth is I don't think there is anything wrong with presenting teachers and other staff with a token of appreciation, although I'm conflicted over whether a group collection or individual presents are preferable. But I think it's a problem when cash gifts are expected, moreover when large cash gifts are expected. (One friend gave his son's rebbe five hundred dollars!?)
And don't give me that nonsense that there is nothing wrong with a rebbe accepting such a gift if parents give it of their own volition and there is nothing the school can do about this. When I worked in camp we were forbidden to accept any tips from parents and it was understood that violators would be fired. (In my two summers I never heard of anyone taking a tip.) While public school employees where I live are permitted to receive presents, they are limited to gifts worth twenty five dollars or less. And I can tell you that the vast majority of gifts are worth a fraction of that. And just in case the policy isn't clear, at the last PTA meeting the principal reiterated over and over that parents are not expected to give gifts, than any gifts must be less than $25 and that there is really no reason even to give that much (and that a homemade holiday card is perfectly fine).
But yes, I miss David being in a school environment where Hanukkah is celebrated.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

'Tis the Season to be Jolly . . .

I miss David being in a school environment where Hanukkah is celebrated.
I don't miss Hanukkah gifts for the staff.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Preventing Abuse: Yeshivah vs. Public School

I have to go the police department to get fingerprinted in order to volunteer in David's school. I was floored. Yeshivos don't even fingerprint the teachers, and here in public school I have to be fingerprinted!
The plan is to switch David back into yeshiva at some (undetermined) point. I used to say concerning all the unknowns we faced when making the switch to public school that my worst fear is that we'll love it so much we won't want to switch him back as planned. So far I can't say that I "love" public school, but now my worst fear is that I won't want to switch him back since I've seen how dysfunctional yeshivos are even when compared to a public school I don't "love."
The whole fingerprinting issue brought this to the fore for me. It's always bothered me that yeshivos don't fingerprint teachers and, more importantly, don't institute mandatory reporting policies (as in public schools). At one point I did raise the issue with an administrator. Guess how seriously my concern was received.
As much as it bothered me, it had nothing to do with the reason we finally decided to switch David to public school. But now that he's in public school and I look back, I see some of contrasts even more clearly. I'm not talking about educational issues--which the truth is I don't know how to compare because I don't have a good reference point with which to judge--or administrative issues. But even simple safety issues like fingerprinting and mandatory reporting. (Or a little thing like using seat belts on school buses, another issue I wasted my breath on--as if school buses never get into accidents and the occupants injured. Or a nuissance like bullying. David's old school was pretty lax on bullying, but in his public school it is taken seriously.)
So my worst fear is no longer that I will love the public school. Because even if I hate it, I will feel trapped in middle with no good option. I'm not sure how I agreed to begin with to entrust David's safety with people who don't take it seriously, but now that he's no longer there, how can can I put him back in that environment?
(And some of my critics actually believe that I'm the one who is putting my child at risk of physical harm davka because I put him in public school?!)
Postscript: This post is something that's been on my mind for a couple of weeks. I finally wrote it up because of a post today on Hirhurim that references some new books that deal with sexual abuse. One of the authors, who feels very strongly about the issue, notes in a comment on the post that he is pessimistic because there is no mechanism to fix some of the underlying problems. I don't understand how people who acknowledge that community's response to abuse is flawed and at the same time admit little will change, then continue to patronize yeshivos.

Ora Update

Yesterday Ora kept on crawling into the kitchen while I was working. She sat down next to me and kept on blowing me kisses. No matter how many times the babysitter carried her out, she kept on returning to blow kisses.
She just learned how to blow kisses, although her coordination is off. She covers her mouth and kisses, but waits a few seconds before waving her hand forward. This amplifies the sound and makes it sound funny. It was also really funny when she blew kisses with the pacifier in her mouth. (She reminds a lot of Maggie Simpson with her pacifier.)
* * *
Her hair is very thin, but starting to grow out a bit. (David's hair was also very thin, but it hardly grew out at all.) It's very cute when her bangs cover her eyes.
* * *
Ora likes sour pickles.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Macabbeats vs. Samantha Fox

My jaw dropped when I heard the Macabbeats on the morning radio last week. I had heard about them, but I hadn't heard their song yet. And here it was on the radio! It's nice that a positive Jewish song can become so popular in the larger world, but as far as the song itself I wasn't particularly impressed. Not that my opinion matters, so I won't bore you with my critique.
But I will bore you with my critique of a critique that I've read in a number places. Some have dismissed the song as a "freak" novelty. I.e., the only reason it's garnered any attention in the larger world is because the frum singers have an exotic or curiosity element to them. (Similarly, it was argued, Matisyahu isn't really that good and in large part his fame is due to the fact that his grooming and garb make him a curiosity.)
To this I respond, so what?
Did anyone really think that Samantha Fox (the mega-popular 80s singer) had a better voice than all the other aspiring singers out there? Was there really anything that separated her from the pack other than her famous chest (which she famously insured for a quarter of a million pounds)?
If Samantha Fox and all the other mediocre pop singers can use their own gimmicks to propel themselves to stardom, let the Macabbeats benefit from their own gimmick.

Ora/David Update

Ora turned one year old last Friday. We made her small and quick party right before Shabbat started and she enjoyed thrusting her fingers into the cupcake-on-steroids that Kinneret brought home.
Babbles a ton, but still no words. No independent walking yet. We've added omelets to her menu and she enjoys them. She is very attached to her pink blanket and she snuggle with it no matter where she is. David never had a security blanket, but he couldn't go anywhere without taking a few cars with him.
David gets bigger and bigger ever day. He was able to spin a dreydel on Hanukkah, which really surprised us. Last week he was able to finish anim zmiros in shul for the first time. He ivre is very good, but he doesn't have a strong voice and I'm afraid that when some of the other boys start finishing off with him they will overpower him and he will conform to their ivre. Two weeks ago he asked me to start teaching him yigdal and hopefully soon he'll start saying that in shul as well. He can also lein about the first fifteen psukim of Breishis, but I haven't really kept up with him on this. His favorite subjects in school are math and reading and he said he also likes Spanish.
David has always been a bit of a kano'i and last week he got into a verbal altercation with a friend at Hebrew school because the friend said he didn't care about mezuzos.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Decorous Synagogue, Morocco, ca. 1670s

From Lancelot Addison's popular volume on Moroccan Jews, The Present State of the Jews (London, 1675):

In time of Prayers none are permitted openly to spit, belch yawn, or blow the Nose. All of which they do in great Secrecy in the Synagogue, when they have occasion. Neither may they spit, or any such thing, to the right hand or before them; because of the Angels, which have made those places their Situation in the Synagogue.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Israeli Version of Stand and Deliver

Who hasn't seen "Stand and Deliver," the wonderful cinematic dramatization of how Jaime Escalante took a class of troubled and poorly educated East Los Angeles Mexican teenagers and managed to teach AP Calculus?
Now watch the heartwarming Israeli documentary "Tichon ha-Hizdamnut ha-Acharonah" (click here), in which a dedicated principal and his teachers take a group of Israel's worst high school seniors and prepare them for bagrut (matriculation) exams.
1) The teachers were not trained as educators and came from other professions without any teaching experience. The twenty-nine-year old principal came without any experience as a teacher or an administrator and there was no mention of his educational credentials. (He came on the heels of a slew of rotating-door principals, with the previous one having lasted but one day.)
2) The students in the school seem mostly to belong to particular social-ethnic groups that historically have not fared well on the path to absorbing into Israeli society. It is depressing to think that after six decades this is still a problem. I don't mean this as a criticism of modern Israel or the Zionist enterprise and I hope it isn't interpreted as an attempt to be motzi shem ra. Yes, Israel has come so far and achieved so much in its short history. But it's still depressing to read about ecstasy parties, mafia hits and an educational system that is plagued by wide gap in quality and results.
3) I was disappointed with the Russian girl at the end.
4) The principal sports a kippah. Not that it matters.

Ora Stands?

She let go of David's train table to clap her hands and was standing without support for a few seconds.
Also, yesterday when I waved to her she picked up both up her arms and waved her hands around.

Monday, November 29, 2010

MO Shabbos Abbas; or, Do Jewish Day Schools Stink?

By now anyone who reads the Jewish blogs even minimally is aware of that controversial Youtube video and the ensuing debates. I was going to post on a topic somewhat related right before that video aired, but for now I will let it rest. Instead I can't resist posting a different video, which I had to keep on pausing because I was laughing so loud. Seriously, don't watch this at work. (I imagine that some viewers will alternate between laughing and crying.)

The main message is that MO families are suffering from a financial crisis, in part due to the tuition burden. There is also an accusation of kiruv deception, but this is of little interest to me from my vantage point. Furthermore, I think it detracts from the more important message of the video. (In fact, while I'm not at all a fan of kiruv deception, I think this video is itself deceptive in blaming the woes of MO BTs on kiruv deception.)
Again, anyone who reads the Jewish blogs even minimally is well aware of the so-called "tuition crisis" and the oft-debated proposal to move Orthodox kids to public schools. However, I've found that those most serious about turning to the public schools, i.e., those are willing to do so rather than comment on blogs about how it would be a great idea, are not primarily motivated by finances.
It ends up there is actually another observant child in David's class and since we transferred him to public school we've found some other former-day school parents who've made the same switch. I'm sure that for many of them finances was an important consideration--how can it not be?--, but what I find interesting is that when speaking with them none cited finances. Rather, they were all concerned with the quality of their children's former schools and they were all motivated by a desire to provide their children will the educational opportunities they felt they themselves were deprived of in the day school/yeshivah world. (This provides for an interesting implication that I won't get into now.)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

To Shul Group or Not to Shul Group?

Most decent-sized MO shuls have some type of groups to keep the kids occupied during shabbos morning davening. I had always thought these groups were a good thing until I read a blog post a while back that questioned why we are so quick to evict kids from the main shul. Proper chinuch, the post argued, dictates that we use shul as another opportunity to educate our children. Instead many kids grow up thinking that shul is a daycare center or playground and don't get the opportunity to witness and emulate their parents' devotional activities. (Granted that the quality of both the groups and parents' behavior in shul varies widely and it isn't easy to make blanket statements.)
I've always taken David to shul with me on shabbos morning ever since he was little baby. Everyone always marveled at how well behaved he was, certainly better than many of the adults. Recently it's been harder to get him to stay in shul with me for the entire davening. (Yes, I'm aware that the fact that such a state existed to begin with was rather abnormal.) This is probably due to the fact that as he gets older he simply doesn't want to sit in the same place, even if he has an ample supply of books and toys. Also, there are now a few children in the shul and he probably wonders why they get to run around but he has to stay with me. In any case, for the last few months the understanding has been that he sits at my side and does his davening. Then he can read a book or play with some toys in his seat. Along the way he may ask me some questions about what is going on or otherwise I will point out some things to him. At some point he gets to go out and play with the kids and then comes back in for anim zmiros.
Recently I've been trying to help organize groups for the kids in my shul. This is something I've wanted to do a for a little while, but it has become more important for me now that David is in public school. Following up on the idea (here) that I want to make sure he has a solid anchor in the Jewish community, I want the shul to have a nice group of Jewish kids for him to associate with and I want the shul to be a positive Jewish experience for him in general.
I still wonder if maybe he really does belong in the shul at my side, but I hope we can run reasonably well organized groups that will serve him better than sitting at my side. The worst case scenario, however, is if the groups take off, but are poorly run and become nothing more than a babysitting service. At that point I think I'd prefer he sit with me in shul, but I then I'd be competing with the groups.

Ora/David Update

Ora is so cute and has a real personality.
There is lots of babbling, but no speech yet. Instead her preferred method of communication is pointing. If she wants something, she points. When she says hello, she points. When she sees something interesting, she points. It's so dramatic the way she leans into it with her shoulder and extends her arm all the way.
Eats yogurt, avocado, cheese, cereal, apple sauce, strawberries and tomatoes. Loves tomatoes. Also Cheerios. Likes to suck on crackers, but then the sucked-on crackers end up squished all over the floor.
Got sick last week for the first time with an unknown and generalized bacterial (?) infection. She hates the doctor's office. She cries as soon as we go into the examination room. It's amazing how she's already learned to hate medicine after just one dose. As soon as she sees me take it out of the fridge or get the syringe, she turns to crawl away. I guess one could thing about her being low on the weight chart is that she can't put up much of a fight and I can manage to administer it by force without any help. But it's bringing back bad memories of David, who until relatively recently was a real kicker when it came to medicine.
She loves to play with the doll-like oven mitts that J&A bought for us years ago. Also plays with David's trains.
She is still a light sleeper, but not nearly as bad as it used to be.
We went to Hinya for Shabbat this week and Ora suddenly crawled up about 5 or 6 steps. On the other hand she still seems to be a little off balance even when just sitting on her tush.
* * *
David went rock climbing last week. I went with him last year and it didn't go very well, so I didn't have high hopes for last week. But what a surprise. He went all the way to the top and then rappelled down. A whole bunch of times. Maybe he is stronger/braver this year? Maybe it's an easier rock wall? I don't know, but it was cool to see him do it.
Every visit to Costco entails a few impulse purchase that I end up returning the following week. This week it was three books for David. Except that he spotted them on my table. He was so excited and he's been reading them over and over. He call them his chapter books (they're really not) and I guess he feels like a big boy. Just last week I asked him again if he wants to go to the library and predictably he expressed zero interest. But when I asked him again yesterday and told him they have books like this in the library, he seemed somewhat excited. Now we just have to find the time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I'm Thankful . . .

Happy Thanksgiving Day.
I just watched "The Joneses." It's not a great movie, but it really made me think for a minute about how thankful I should be. (Spoiler alert.)
A few people have commented to me that they wish they had the beitzim to put their kids in public school. I responded that at least as far as communal and social peer pressure concerns, beitzim didn't factor into our decision. One of the benefits of not being part of a Jewish community is that we make our decisions without petty worrying about potential (real or imagined) social and communal ramifications. I can't say that if we lived in Teaneck, for example, that we would have had the guts to make the switch to public school.
And it's not just with our educational choices. Because we don't feel the yoke of submitting to communal norms, we've been able to make various other choices based on what we really think is best for us. In sum, to the best of our abilities we're living the life we want to live.
I'm not saying that I'm completely content with where we live. In general, for all the crap that goes in Jewish communities, there are also many benefits that accrue to living in one. In specific, I'm concerned that in public school David may lose his "anchor" in the larger Jewish world. I'm not talking about "going off the derech" or intermarrying--I think it's silly that at this age concerned people warn us about these things--, but simply not realizing that there is something larger out there Jewish-wise. I can daven with him, learn Torah with him and teach him to observe the mitzvos, but I want him to see the larger picture. To feel the larger picture. So while not living in a Jewish community made it easier for us to transfer David to public school, ironically I feel that we need to move into a Jewish community if we plan to keep him in public school.
In any case, one underlying theme of "The Joneses" is the danger of subtle keeping-up-with-the-Joneses-type commercial peer pressure and the financial havoc it can wreak on a family. So for now I'm thankful that we don't have this (and other) peer pressure in our life. It if you have ninety minutes and $3.99 to waste, go watch it. (Oh yeah, I'm thankful for Amazon video on demand.)
(By the way, I'm not naive as to think that communal peer pressure is unique to Jews, but the fact that it exists in other communities as well is irrelevant.)
* * *
In school David had to write why he is thankful: "Mom and sister: I like both of you. You were so nice to me when I had a fever. Mom thank you for all the stuff that you gave me and for all your kisses." (Spelling and grammar edited.)
On his arts and crafts project he wrote that he is thankful for a casa, Abba, Mama and familia.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Parent-Teacher Night

We had a parent-teacher meeting recently and it was an interesting experience for a number of reasons. One strange thing is that not just the regular classroom teachers were available, but so were all the support staff and the enrichment teachers. We had a few minutes to kill and we were curious about how David is doing in gym, so we dropped in to meet the gym teacher. The class is rather large and we're not sure if he really knows what's going on with David in class, but it was amazing to hear him speak about his curriculum, goals, pedagogy, etc. Who ever heard of a "professional" gym teacher? I'm used to some guy with no prospects for a better job sitting on a chair as he watches the kids in what is essentially a glorified and extended recess.*
We passed by the music room and there was actually a line of parents waiting to meet the teacher. We overheard him say to one pair of parents that a three (out of four) is a very good grade and they shouldn't be so concerned. Is there something wrong with us that we didn't care to go in and find out why David likewise only got a three? In any case, as with gym, we already know from other experiences that David's school take music class very seriously. It's not just about a guy with a keyboard singing some songs with the kids.
So the main thing that I thought was so interesting is that whereas what in other schools might be considered simply enrichment programming is in David's school taken very seriously. Moreover, whereas in other schools enrichment subjects might be considered extacurricular and treated less than seriously, in David's school they are integrated into the general curriculum in order to complement and reinforce various aspects of it.
Also, in David's old school there were two mid-year report cards, each of which was followed by a parent-teacher meeting, and then an end-of-the-year report card. David's new school has altogether four report cards, and all of them, even the end-of-year report card, is followed by a parent-teacher meeting. I have a feeling that over time we might come to feel that all these meetings are a burden, but while I've never heard of a year-end parent-teacher meeting, I think it does make a lot of sense.
* * *
To follow up on my previous post, one thing that we weren't happy about is the lack of a school library. When we inquired about this we were directed to websites where kids can read books online. No way Jose. Just to reiterate what I discussed in the previous post, I think it's intellectually healthy for kids to read specifically from printed books rather than from a screen. (Just to note, the school does otherwise take reading very seriously.)
* On the other hand, I do think kids need and deserve time throughout the day to let loose and go wild in an unstructured setting and I wonder if such a formalized phys ed period is the best thing. However, because David's classroom is not a traditional one with the kids sitting at their desks all day, perhaps there is not the same need to let them let loose.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Demise of the Library

Our local library was undergoing renovations for the first few years of David's life and it wasn't until he was about four-and-a-half years old that I took him to the library for the first time. (I think Kinneret took him once to another library before that.) I love libraries and books and I was excited to be able to introduce him the excitement of the library, but alas we were not in agreement.
When we arrived I first signed him for a library card. Then we looked around the shelves for a grand two minutes before he ran off to one of the many computers that lined the walls. I tried my best to lure him away with all types of books. I didn't care what the subject was, as long as it was printed. But he wasn't interested. I told him he could play for five minutes and stepped back. That was when I realized that all the kids were using the computers. The tables and reading mats on the floor were all bare.

It's not like David doesn't enjoy books. He's been surrounded by them from day one. (Although the truth is he prefers to be read to rather than to read independently.) Maybe because we have a small library at home he doesn't appreciate all the books housed in the library. In any case, I was still disappointed that I couldn't transmit to him my own love of libraries. (As an aside, while I think that the internet is an unparalleled research tool and can help people tap into unimagined horizons, I think that children's reliance on it is fostering a generation that lacks the most basic research processing skills and is unable to digest large amount of text, critically or otherwise.)

Maybe I'm too old-fashioned? After all, as far as I could tell David was not at alone in his preference for the computer in the library. Far from it. Perhaps instead of spending all that money on the new library the town should have just opened up an internet cafe for kids?

Last week the babysitter took Ora to the library for the first time and weather permitting she will take her weekly to participate in a special program for babies. Maybe there is still hope that the products of my own bibliomania will find an appreciative inheritor.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Angelic Beings, Omnipotence, Omnipresence, Resurrection

Last night I read to David from the JPS Children's Bible the story of Jacob's struggle with the angel. He had a hard time understanding the story. Who was this angel? Why was he fighting with Jacob? I told him that I didn't know and that I would look it up, and then I tried to steer him to bed. But he wouldn't give up. Against my better judgement I finally fell back on the story we all learned in kindergarten (and then in first grade and every year after that) that this was Esav's angel. And as I feared, I then had to try and explain to him how it could be that Esav had an angel that would want to harm Jacob, in violation of Hashem's overall plans. I promised him I'd look it up and he agreed to go to sleep.
Rashi concludes his perush on this pasuk by noting that according the Sages this was the sar of Esav (following Bereshis Rabba). However, I then noticed that all the other perushim (in my chumash) take a different approach, i.e., this angel was a typical Divinely-dispatached angel and was not trying to harm Jacob. Rashbam states that the angel wanted to ensure that Jacob would not flee from Esav and that he would witness the fulfillment of God's promise that he would protect him. Radak further explains that the purpose of the fight between Jacob and the angel was to make Jacob realize how strong he was, and just like the angel could not best him, neither would Esav (also in the following pasuk). Hizkuni (here and in the following pasuk) combines both Rashbam and Radak. (I won't get into this with David, but Radak [vv. 26, 31] also maintains that this entire episode transpired in the course of a prophetic vision.)
I'm glad David hasn't pressed me for more information about angelic phenomena, but at least now I can go back to him and explain to him the Jacob vs. Angel fight with an answer that won't make me cringe.
* * *
Last year David was fascinated with God's omnipotence. "Who is stronger, Hashem or [fill in the blank]?" "Hashem can beat Batman, right?" "Hashem says something and it happens, so just like he said 'Let there be light' and there was light, all he has to do it say 'you're dead' and you're dead?" Omnipotence was easy.
* * *
More difficult was omnipresence. "I don't understand, where is He?" "Is he in the tree?" "How can he be everywhere?"
* * *
David has always been interested in cemeteries for some strange reason. A few months ago he asked me if it's true that after someone dies he comes back to life again. Someone in school--I think I know who--must have told him about techiyas ha-mesim. I told him (following the Rambam) that some people--not necessarily everyone--will be resurrected in the future. He got very upset. "But I don't want to be stuck under the rock and my body will fall apart." So I tried to explain the distinction between our corporeal body and our non-corporeal neshama. Even after we die and our body rots, our eternal neshama goes to Hashem and gets to stay with him forever. I think he was ok with that response, although he didn't really grasp the the concept of a neshama. I told him it is inside of us. "Is it near the heart?" (I don't remember why, but during the parsha review Friday night neshama came up and he was able to recall some of what I had told him with a smile.)
* * *
UPDATE: Tonight I shared the my findings with David. I explained that there are different interpretations and I started by restating the "traditional" explanation that the angel was Esav's sar. But David simply couldn't understand why an angel would act to subvert God's plan. Finally I just told him to forget and and I proceeded with my findings. It took a while for him to understand what I was saying, but finally he told me that the second "question" [i.e., answer] makes more sense than the first.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sock in Mouth

Ora puts everything in her mouth. We never had this problem with David and we were sort of unprepared for it with Ora. We have to be so careful not to leave anything on the floor, especially now that she is crawling all over the place. And when she can't reach anything she'll just pull off a sock with her teeth and keep it there.
Last week I picked up David from talmud torah and someone alerted me to the fact that there was a sock dangling from between Ora's teeth. I feigned surprise and invited the well-wisher to engage in a tug-of-war and attempt to dislodge it. She declined.
* * *
We can't believe she is almost one year old!
* * *
Like David before her, Ora loves dogs. Whenever she passes one in the street she leans out of her carriage and beckons to it.
She even tries to imitate a bark if you ask what sound a dog makes. She can't do it yet, but it's so cute to watch her try. She sucks in her cheeks and puckers her lips, but no sound comes out. Sometimes there is a slight whistle, but nothing like a bark.
* * *
Ora loves David. She follows him everywhere and is always happy to see him. At night it's a problem if we try to put her and David to sleep at the same time because they like to play with each other through the netting of her pack-n-play. We sit in the kitchen and listen to them giggling at one another, but eventually we have to go and take her out until David falls asleep (which usually only takes a minute or two).
* * *
Last week Ora climbed onto David's bed! I enclosed the bed with barriers so she wouldn't fall off and went into the kitchen for a minute while David entertained her. Suddenly I heard a big thump and wild crying. I ran inside petrified that I would find Ora flattened on the floor, but it was actually David, who had lost his balance and fallen off the roof of his (train) bed onto the floor.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Ora Crawls/Walks, David Melts Away, Frum Kids and Therapy

It's amazing. Just a month ago Ora was barely crawling, now she's crawling all over the place. I don't think it will be long before she's walking. She's always loved to be put into a standing position--she would stiffen up and not let us sit her down--and she is starting to pull herself up. Just two days ago I was doing homework with David at the table--talk about pulling teeth (usually Kineret takes care of this)--and when I looked down, there she was standing and hanging onto the leg of my chair for dear life.
Ora is also still babbling a ton and whistles a bit. Kineret said she shakes her head no, but I haven't seen this. She also looks up at the light when asked in Russian, "where is the lamp?"
Although she looks so big and grown up to me now, she is actually at the very bottom of the weight chart. But on the other hand she is tall. (David, in contrast, was in the 90th+ percentile for weight and height.) We were a little concerned, but her pediatrician said it is ok and anyway she'll be tall and thin like a model. Considering the stereotypical anorexic model, he wasn't very comforting. I also wonder if there is some sexism involved, whereby he is more willing to overlook underweight girls.
* * *
The most difficult adjustment by far--for all of us--in terms of David's public school has been the schedule. He has a lot of homework as well as Talmud Torah two evenings a week and Sunday mornings. We've had to pull him from judo and cancel his physical therapy. I really hope he is getting enough exercise because he can still use a lot help in terms of coordination, proprioception, muscle tone, etc.
Kineret believes that some of his problems are because he didn't get enough "tummy time" and because he was a late crawler. So while everyone is commenting that Ora will soon be walking, I wouldn't mind if she keeps on crawling for a while and builds up her upper body strength.
* * *
We know a lot of frum kids who get physical and/or occupational therapy. I sometimes wonder if many of our kids really have underlying problems that necessitate such therapy or if their problems simply stem from a lack of exercise and activity owing to the busy yeshivah schedule, frum disdain for sports, etc. It also doesn't help that these frum kids live in heavily built-up urban areas and I also wonder if in general there is a difference in therapy rates between urban and rural kids. (With suburban kids somewhere in the middle?) Of course a confounding factor in such a study would be the drastic difference between urban and rural areas in terms of access to such services.
Have a good shabbos.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah Applied to Parenting

My approach to sechar va-onesh (Divine reward and punishment) is essentially--or some would say is crudely--a Maimonidean one. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah--averah goreret averah. Good deeds beget more good deeds--bad deeds beget more bad deeds.
I don't like idea of bribing kids. You can make yourself feel better by calling it positive reinforcement, behavior modification, point system, star charts, etc., but you're just fooling yourself. It's still a bribe no matter what you call it.
I'm not saying I don't engage in the practice myself. When literally overnight I had to come up with a way to reorient his davening environment, naturally my first instinct was to dangle some type of bribe in front of him. (Background: David loves to daven and last year he won the "davener of the year award," which happened to be the only year-long award that was given out in his class. He then repeated this feat in camp. But when he transferred to public school he went overnight from singing with twenty other kids in a class room to davening alone in a crowded kitchen as everyone is rushing to get ready for their day.)
However, for some reason it just didn't sit right with me to bribe him to daven. Maybe it's because of my own theological aversion to "slot-machine Judaism" (as I think Leibowitz described it). Or perhaps it's a practical realization that we are going to have to find creative ways to instill in him a love for performing Jewish ritual without the crowd reinforcement that other kids have and if I start now with bribes then there will be no end to it.
In any case, last week I was about to offer him a quarter if he would sit down and daven for a few minutes and suddenly I had an epiphany (or theophany, if you prefer). Mitzvah goreret mitzvah. A good deed begets a good deed. I told him that every time he davens nicely I will give him a quarter to put in a tzedakah cup and this way when we go to shul on Sunday he can put his own money into the pushka (usually I give him change from my pocket).
So far it's worked. Every morning since that day he's been adding a quarter to his cup and this morning he gleefully counted seven quarters. (He was unable to come with me to shul yesterday so he didn't get to empty out the cup yet.) I know it's only been a week, but I hope that his enthusiasm for davening + tzedaka continues. And grows. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.
Of course davening in the comfort of home and with my encouragement/reminder is the easy part. I have no idea yet where even to begin with encouraging him to be frum in school. When he first started the new school I told him to go to the bathroom before lunch to perform netilat yadayim and say the bracha silently when he leaves. Here I did fall back on bribing and I told him that every time he does it he should tell us and we'll put a star on a mitzvah chart. So far that has not happened once and I stopped asking. Maybe it's too much to expect of a young boy who is still trying to navigate in a "foreign" environment, especially when it isn't his personality to tread a different path. We have to work on him to speak up when he needs to go to the bathroom to pee, forget about going to bathroom not to pee.*
But for now the davening is a good start and hopefully netilat yadayim and more will fall into place. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.
* There actually is another religious boy in his class and I thought of suggesting to his father that we form a "mitzvah club" for our kids so, for example, they can remind each other and go together to do netilat yadayim. But I can't tell if his father is so concerned about these types of things, which brings up a question for another post.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Transitions from Yeshivah to Public School

David does not deal well with transitions and this should have factored into our decision to switch him to public school. This consideration should have been given even more weight since this is just a trial year and it is very possible he will have to undergo another transition come next September if we are unhappy with public school.

I'm not sure why, but for some reason this issue didn't factor much into our deliberations over whether or not we should switch schools. Part of me believes that children--even those with transition difficulties--are much more resilient than we give them credit for. They frequently undergo many transitions without adjustment difficulties but it is easy to overlook these adjustment-free transitions. Perhaps we thought that the potential benefits outweighed any transition problems? For whatever reason, this objection was pushed aside.

It is still too early to gauge how his new school is in general and in specific how his transition is proceeding. The truth is that at first glance it has not been a smooth transition and it is still hard for us to determine if he is happy. Last year he loved school. He looked forward to it every day and he couldn't wait to return after a vacation period. This year, however, I don't sense that same excited anticipation.

I've asked him on a number of occasions if he likes his new school and other occasions--and I realize this was a dangerous question--if he likes it better or worse than his old yeshivah. He always answers that he liked his yeshivah much better (and at first he wanted to know when is going back), at which point my heart sinks down into my tuchus. But when I ask for an explanation, he says that his lunch in public school is "nasty" and he misses lunches they served him in yeshivah. "Ok, but aside from lunch, do you like your new school?" He continues to respond in the negative, at which point my heart drops to my toes (even though by now I can predict his answers). He tells me that in yeshivah they had two snacks, in the morning and in the afternoon, but in public school there is only one snack. Ok, and besides lunch and snack? Well in yeshivah they had recess in the morning and the afternoon, but in public school only once a day. And gym period in public school isn't fun (it's a formal phys ed class rather than the glorified extended recess he is used to). Ok, so besides lunch, snack, recess and gym, how do the schools compare. "I don't know, but the lunch in public school is nasty." Sigh. So he is really fine in public school and he is just nitpicking about lunch, etc., or is he really unhappy overall and the only way he knows how to express it is by complaining about lunch, etc.?

So maybe he really isn't happy? Or maybe this shift in attitude was inevitable anyway as last year he was in pre-school and first grade is a very different environment. Who knows if the attitude he expressed last year would have continued had he remained in his yeshivah? Maybe it would have even been worse than public school! Indeed, the first grade class in his yeshivah is much more formal than pre-school, e.g., the children sit at their desks all day and it seems much of the day would have consisted of didactic instruction and individual assignments. Although his public school is very rigorous and academic--perhaps too much for our tastes--the classroom is modeled on some modern, fluffy educational ideas that permit the children greater freedom and variety throughout the day. Maybe he would have chaffed too much had he remained in the confines of the yeshivah's traditional classroom?

Even though I don't sense any excitement exuding from David regarding his public school, I do sometimes see signs he is enjoying it. For example, while he is having problems with math, he constantly come to us and randomly rambles some addition or subtraction equations ("do you know 4 + 4 = 8), or counts in multiples or additives (10, 20, 40, 80, 160). And every so often he "tests" me by asking ridiculous question like what's "one thousand twenty hundred six" + 83. One free afternoon he even filled up some pages in a little notepad with equations . . . out of his own volition. He showed it off to us and explained he did it so that if he forgets an answer he can look it up. He also rattles off various facts and concepts he learned in science and social studies. Finally, more and more frequently he throws out Spanish words he is learning. (His school is very strong on foreign languages.) Just this morning he suddenly listed all the colors he knows in Spanish.

So maybe all this does demonstrate excitement on his part, just in a more mature way than I am used to from pre-school? (But I am really not sure if he is genuinely excited to be learning Spanish or if he is trying to impress me, as he knows that I love it when he uses Hebrew and Russian.)

To be continued . . . ("Second Guessing")

Update: While davening this morning he asked me to teach him the rest of Ashrei (he only knows the first few lines). This is the first time since he left yeshivah that he has been willing to learn more davening, which I think is a good sign and hopefully not an exceptional occurrence. I should note that Shabbat is a different story and he is constantly learning more davening, specifically how to "finish off." He knows most of anim zmiros already and he said it in shul a few times.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Teaching David Parsha; Ora Crawls

David loves to hear parsha stories. Whenever he learns about a new biblical personality he always asks if that individual is still alive. (He also frequently asks if personalities from different generations knew each other.)
Recently I was telling him a Noah story and he was puzzled how someone who was described to him last year as being dead is now suddenly alive again.
* * *
One thing I like about David's talmud torah is that he learns only the peshat of the parsha, at least as far as I can tell from the parsha sheet he brought home. I can't tell you how much of a pleasure it was not to have to see questions about that silly story of Avraham smashing his father's idols this past Friday night. Nonetheless, that story remains one of his favorite and he wouldn't let me tell him any other story at bedtime. (Just for the record, I didn't mean to denigrate the Midrash here. I just think it's a silly story to teach little kids.)
* * *
From a few hip thrusts three weeks ago, Ora is now crawling all over the apartment. We are very excited, but we have to baby proof the apartment again. It is much harder this time around because we have a lot more garbage lying around (and much less time to clean it up) as well a newly-turned-six-year-old who needs to learn to clean up after himself better.
Last week I was working from home and no matter how many times the babysitter picked her up and brought her back to the living room, Ora kept on crawling into the kitchen/office to smile at me.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Frum Kids in Public School: Tutor vs. Talmud Torah

When we made the decision to remove David from the day school system it was conditional upon the ability to ensure we don't compromise on his limude kodesh. There are basically three options available to us:

1) Home schooling
2) Private tutor
3) Talmud Torah

Home schooling for limude kodesh is not an option that we considered thus far for various reasons, so we're left with talmud torah or private tutor. Each has it pros and cons.


This alone should make the choice simple. Talmud torah is relatively inexpensive whereas a private tutor can cost just as much or even more than day school tuition.


If you live in a mid-sized or larger Jewish community, there is probably a decent pool of private tutors that you can choose from. Even though the pool will shrink once you determine the equilibrium between how much you want to pay and what type of a tutor you want, there should still be enough options. And if it seems like a particular tutor is not working out you can work one-on-one with the tutor to resolve the problem or fire him and hire someone else.

Depending on the particular community, however, there may be only a few, if any, talmud torahs to choose from. Also, once your child is enrolled a talmud torah, you will probably have little input into shaping the program the way that you can with a private tutor. You will have to contend with various parties, including teachers, administrators and even other parents. (Conflicts with other parents should not be underestimated and this is an issue I really want to post about.) At that point I'd be asking myself why I removed my child from day school, where one of my biggest complaints was that parental input was not welcome (with the exception of cash input).

Communal Learning

We all know that one-on-one learning is the best modality. Or is it?

David's public school subscribes to some new-fangled, post-modern, fluffy education theories that play a large role in determining the classroom experience. I'm not sure if I agree with all the theories, but hey, who cares . . . it's free (click here).

For one part of the day the students are paired up and they read to each other. I though this was silly and not productive. But then I happened to be in the classroom when this going on and I couldn't believe my eyes. Spread out across the room were pairs of kids on the floor with one kid reading as the other followed (and corrected). While obviously for didactic and supervision purposes you want a professionally-trained and experienced adult teacher at hand, maybe there is something to the group classroom experience, when properly facilitated, that encourages children to learn--or maybe just practice--better than in isolation?


I am leaving group vs. isolation with a big question mark, although I do think that for general content and skills acquisition there is nothing better than personalized, one-on-one learning. On the other hand, there is one aspect that I am convinced is encouraged better in a group environment.

I think it is very difficult for a private tutor to foster the acquisition of ritual behaviors and a child is most likely to adopt these behaviors when they are best learned and reinforced by repeatedly joining others in performing them. Specifically I'm thinking of davening. My son has learned certain parts of davening and he should certainly be leaning more. But although we do daven at home with him at home, he won't let us introduce him to new tefillot. I'm not sure how to do this without him being in the presence of a group of twenty or thirty other kids who all davening together.


One of the criticisms of home schooling is that children are not exposed to an age-appropriate social environment. Proponents respond that there is no problem as long as parents are careful to provide appropriate extra-curricular activities in larger social groups. I think a similar criticism can in certain instances be raised against tutors for limude kodesh.

Obviously we are reconciled with David having non-religious and non-Jewish classmates and we have no problem with him befriending them in and out of school. But as much as we are open-minded in these matters, at the end of the day we identify first and foremost as (Orthodox) Jews and we do want to him to grow up recognizing that he too is an organic part of a larger community of (Orthodox) Jews. Because where we live David does not have any Jewish (Orthodox or otherwise) playmates, we like the idea that in a talmud torah he will have the opportunity to spend time with other (Orthodox) Jewish kids and hopefully develop friendships with some of them.


1) One variation that I did not discuss above is hiring a private tutor to work with a two or three children. Most importantly this is more affordable than a one-on-one tutor and perhaps the social isolation problem can this somewhat be resolved in this manner. But there are other problems, mostly practical one, with a small group tutor.

2) For various reasons (not the least of which being laziness) we chose to enroll David in a talmud torah rather than hire a private tutor. We were very excited about a particular talmud torah because (at least the way it was promoted) it was designed to avoid the avoidable pitfalls that plagued the talmud torahs of our parents' and grandparents' generations. Unfortunately from what we've seen during the short time that David has thus far attended, we are less than impressed, to say the least. But we are not giving up on it yet and we are trying to work with some other parents to get the school to live up to its advertising. If we don't see real changes being implemented over the next month or two, we will most likely hire a tutor.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fear (Updated)

Updated below.
Today David received general anaesthesia in order to undergo some tests. He was pretty good in the hospital up until the moment that they tried to put the mask over his face. He struggled for about a minute until finally the medicine kicked in and he was out. The anaesthesiologist told me that I could let go of his hand because he was asleep. I didn't realize he was already out because under the mask his face was convolutedly frozen with an expression of unimaginable fear and a sense of betrayal. I assumed he was still awake.
It took a little while to get that terrible image out of my mind.
* * *
At first David said he didn't want to leave the recovery room because the bed was so comfortable. This doesn't mean anything to readers, but hopefully when I reread this in twenty years it will jog my memory.
Rereading the post I would recharacterize the expression on his face as one of fear and some anger. The sense of betrayal I wrote about was probably (hopefully) my imagination.
One frightening part was when he started to wake up in the recovery room. His mouth started moving and he wanted to tell me something, but because he had been intubated during the test his voice was not audible. He repeated it over and over and stared getting frustrated that I wasn't responding to whatever he was saying. Finally I heard the word "oxygen" and then "want." I started getting nervous because he has asthma, which is a complicating factor during anaesthesia, and I though he was saying he wanted oxygen. After a long and scary minute I realized he was saying that he "didn't want oxygen." The oxygen tube was still on the bed and was blowing on him and he wanted me take it away.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Punishing Children With Mitzvot

Sometimes parents threaten little children with the prospect of being denied the opportunity to participate in a mitzvah. For example, "if you [fill in the blank] one more time you're going strait to bed and there's no kiddush grape juice tonight." I've always felt very uncomfortable with this type of punishment because kids should be encouraged to look forward to performing mitzvot and get to revel in the act of the mitzvah. They should never have to associate mitzvah with discipline. (I'm not sure if this makes sense, but I'm having trouble expressing myself here.)
Recently I've become even more attuned to this. Now that David attends public school I've become hypersensitive to our obligation to provide him with a thoroughly Jewish experience at home. (This really deserves further elaboration at a different time.) For about half a year our Sunday morning routine has involved going to minyan followed by a visit to the a bagel store for a plain bagel and perhaps a donut (which is a special treat for him). This morning the bagel store we usually go to was closed and I continued to drive home. David insisted that we go to another store and I tried to explain that this wasn't an option because then I would come late to work. David didn't care and he started freaking out in the back seat.
I was about to tell him that if he doesn't calm down he will have to stay home next week, but I stopped myself. That would have been a bad move because at this age I think that delayed punishments are not yet effective. But I was at the point where rational thinking no longer dictates the punishment. Nonetheless I didn't punish him from minyan next week because the last thing I want to do now is to deny him exposure to mitzvot.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Who Cares . . . It's Free! (i.e., Public School)

We recently switched my son David from a Jewish day school to public school. The transition has not been as smooth as we had hoped it would be. A few problems have come up, including one really big one that had us wondering if we should switch him back to the day school. This problem is really bothering us and it is something that we need to address, but we're just not sure how to do it.
And the other little problems in the meantime? Some of them caught me off guard, but they don't bother me. Not in the least bit. Sometimes my wife Kineret complains to me about this or that, but I'm not interested. I don't want to hear about it. I really don't care because . . . hey, it's free!
It's amazing how low the bar of expectations becomes when you're not paying good money for something. I'm not saying we pulled David from day school for solely for financial reasons. Thank God we could pay the tuition. But hey, free is still free and it's hard to ignore this benefit of public school.
The truth is that at some point we may end up hiring a private tutor so that he can keep pace with limude kodesh, which would eat up any savings from the switch--and possibly cost even more than the day school. But for now I'm really enjoying dismissing our complaints with a waive of the hand, a smile and a thought of "who cares . . . it's free!"
(Yes, I'm aware that's it's not really free and that I pay for public school with my taxes. Eventually I'll start complaining about every little thing in the public school too and rant about how the cause of my discontent is being funded with my own hard-earned income. But in the meantime I'll revel in the bliss of "who cares . . . it's free!")

Monday, September 27, 2010

Similac Recall; Preventing Birth Defects

"Abbott is initiating a proactive, voluntary recall of certain Similac-brand, powder infant formulas in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam and some countries in the Caribbean." For more information, visit the Abott website here.
This recall is being conducted by lot number rather than by NDC number. The lot number is a unique number assigned to a specific production run from a particular time and place. The NDC number is a more general number that is assigned to a particular strength, formulation and size of a medication, regardless of production run.
The recent recall of some common over-the-counter pediatric suspensions (e.g., Tylenol, Motrin and Benadryl) had been conducted by the more general NDC number. I thought this was silly because in fact not every lot had been at risk. On the other hand an NDC recall provides better protection for the manufacturer, which has to assume that the average consumer is an idiot. So rather than leave it to the customer to figure out whether the bottle they have at home is from an affected lot, the company simply recalls every lot.
* * *
A few days ago the FDA approved the marketing of Beyaz, which combines a popular oral contraceptive product (YAZ) with folate (actually a folate metabolite). The FDA explains (here) that "a known association of low folate levels and neural tube defects (e.g., spina bifida) has resulted in recommendations that women of childbearing age supplement their diet with folate."
My initial reaction was to chuckle. Why combine a birth control product with an additional ingredient that can contribute to a healthier baby? But of course many patients who use birth control will eventually discontinue it in order to conceive and it makes sense to combine a medication that patients may not immediately recognize as important with a second medication that they take religiously. (Actually it might not bad idea to combine many other medications with birth control formulations in order to improve patient compliance.)
The truth is that many insurance companies don't cover YAZ, but don't start reaching for your cash even if your doctor sees a benefit in the new Beyaz. You can simply continue using your regular birth control and take the folate supplementation separately.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Show and Tell

On the way home from NJ tonight we somehow started talking about "show and tell" in school. We asked David what he would bring to show in school if they have "show and tell." He responded that he would bring his baby sister.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Are There Little Men in the Television?

David used to be fascinated with the answering machine. I remember the time his teacher left a message and he would stand there listening to it over and over again. Was there actually a person inside the machine? It was the equivalent of the kid who thinks there are real people inside the television box. (I wonder if kids still think this with our modern flat screens?)

He also didn't--and still doesn't--understand the limits of the telephone's capabilities. One time we were speaking on the phone and he started talking about something, all the while assuming that I could see what he was talking about. Just yesterday Kinneret eavesdropped as David spoke on the phone with his friend A. from the confines of our bedroom. (He likes to talk in there behind closed doors to preserve his privacy.) David complained to his friend that his knapsack stinks terribly. (Let that be a lesson to him so next year he doesn't let an entire summer pass with forgetting every night to hang up his wet towel and bathing suit.) "Here A., smell it," he offered his friend as he placed the phone next to his knapsack.

* * *

Today I called up a friend and her daughter answered the phone. I couldn't believe how old she sounded. All I remember is that about seven years ago I was working on a big project with her mom and she--six years old at the time--would call and interrupt us every three minutes. It was pretty annoying, but what did I know? Now it's David who has mastered the telephone, calling me every three minutes. I have an insurance company on one ear and a doctor on the other ear and now I have to use my feet to answer David's calls on the cell phone every three minutes because he wants to know why I'm still at work.

(As long as we're on the subject of feet I must relate this cute story. A few weeks ago we were lying in bed together and I asked David to add twelve and five. It was taking him a long time to get the answer and I was about to tell him, but he told me to wait, removed the blanket covering him and proceeded to use his toes to help him add above ten.)

In the mornings he likes to call Baba Dora and he puts her on speakerphone as he walks around the apartment. Thank God he no longer dials 911, but he's figured out how to use the caller ID, which can be just as dangerous in his hands.

Finally, his penchant for basic reading does not couple well with his ability to use a phone. This morning he got the phone number for Kids in Action from a birthday invitation and called them to find out if he can also make a birthday party there. Then he used the number for a barber from an advertisement in his camp calendar and called to make an appointment. Imagine all the power he yields with a mere telephone. Before I know it he'll have more dangerous tools at his disposal, like a driver's license. But then again he may not wait that long, as two weeks ago he climbed into the front seat and tried to put the car in gear . . .

Friday, September 17, 2010

Second Child Syndrome

Yesterday Kineret told me that Ora clapped her hands. "Did you get the video?" I asked.
"Nah," she replied sheepishly.
(Ora also finally started crawling last night, albeit just a few inches and it was more from hip propulsion than actual leg and arm movement. For this I was home and I did run to get the video.)
* * *
Last week Oren asked me if I am speaking to Ora in Hebrew the way I did with David. Unfortunately I don't get spend as much time with her as I did with David and so I haven't really stressed the Hebrew with her. I started to say that I feel bad about it, but Oren cut me off. "Yeah, spare me," he said, "everyone feels guilty with the second child."
While Kineret was pregnant I remember talking to my cousin about how I wasn't expecting to see as much of her as I did David. She smiled and said there is nothing like the relationship with the first child.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Minhag Philadelphia

From Isaac Leeser's Mahzor (1837), vol. 2, part 1 (Yom Kippur):

Click on image to enlarge to see the instruction in the footnote that שאו שערים is not said in Philadelphia.