Lessons from PJ Library

Michelle Brooks

By Michelle Brooks

November is Jewish Book Month. There is a lot going on to recognize this, from the recent St. Louis Jewish Book Festival here locally to the weekly e-mails I receive from national Jewish organizations recognizing and recommending great Jewish books. In our house, Jewish Book Month is not a month – it is all year round thanks to a program called PJ Library. The program, now in its fourth year in St. Louis, provides families with Jewish books on a monthly basis, with children ages six months to seven years old. The program is subsidized by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation nationally and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis locally.

There have been so many great books we have received over the years, but some have resonated more with our kids (and in some cases the grandparents). One such book is “Five Little Gefiltes” by Dave Horowitz. The story is simple: an explanation of what gefilte fish is, and then five little gefiltes go out one day and only four come back, and then three, and then two, etc. As they venture out into the world, they go to the theater, for a swim, to a deli to crash the buffet, and are shlepped away by a taxi. Along the way, we are introduced to the Yiddish language, with words such as “chutzpah,” “kvetch,” “mensch,” “schvitz,” and the expression “oy vey.” I will never forget the first time my mother-in-law read the book to our daughter who was 4 or 5 at the time – I think she had more fun reading it than my daughter had listening!

Another book that has taken on more significance lately as my older daughter started kindergarten is “The Only One Club “by Jane Naliboff. In this book, Jennifer, a first grader, realizes that she is the only Jewish child in her class at school. She is proud to be Jewish, and cuts out a badge to wear to school the next day that reads “The Only One Club.” Other students notice her badge and want to join the club. Then a classmate realizes that she is the only one in class whose last name is a kind of bird, another is the only one with red hair, and another is the only one with a pet iguana. Jennifer goes home that night and makes the entire class badges that say “the only one club.” Every student in class is the only one of something – they are all unique in their own special way.

A final book that has been read in our house more times than I can count is “The Shabbat Box” by Lesley Simpson. The premise is this: every Friday at a Jewish school, a different student gets to take home the class Shabbat Box. It is a decorated shoebox filled with candlesticks, a Kiddush cup, and a challah cover. All the students in class love the box, but since there is only one and there are 14 students in class, Ira, the main character, had to wait his turn to take it home. When it was time for him to take the Shabbat box home, there was a bad snowstorm and it fell out of his backpack. He was upset at what happened, but then got the idea to make another Shabbat box at home for his class to replace the one he lost. That Monday, after he showed the class the box he had made, the teacher announced that she had found the Shabbat box in the snow. Now the class had two Shabbat boxes and students only had to wait 7 weeks before it was their turn to take a box home!

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At the end of this book are instructions on how to make your own Shabbat box. My daughter kept asking me to make one with her, so one day we went to a craft store where she picked out the fabric, some ribbon, and some jewels for her box. We cut out the word “Shabbat” using foam Hebrew letters and decorated a very plain shoebox. In our box we put a copy of the Shabbat blessings, a Kiddush cup, a challah cover, and some candlesticks. We enjoyed the project so much we made another one to keep at grandma’s house for her to use when she visits.

Through the books we have received from PJ Library, my kids have been introduced to so many different concepts and values in Judaism. Oftentimes, the lessons from the books serve as a conversation starter, and not always on topics that come up at the dinner table. St. Louis is fortunate to be one of over 100 communities across the United States participating in PJ Library. For more information on the program go to www.pjlibrary.org, or contact Jennifer Baer Lotsoff, the PJ Library Coordinator, at 314-442-3867 or [email protected].

Michelle Brooks is Director of School Services at the Central Agency for Jewish Education and educator for the Our Jewish Home program