Inclusive Family Trees

My family participates in a wonderful program called PJ Library. Their mission is to help build a foundation of family and community through literacy and increase knowledge of and exposure to Jewish traditions and culture through books. In addition to sending a book every month, in some months we receive a music CD or an activity to build on a specific value or theme. This month we received a family tree project.

I was delighted to see a family tree that was free form, one that we could build and design according to our family structure. Long gone are the days of the “traditional American family” consisting of a mom, dad and 2.5 children. The traditional family tree design is limiting and does not allow for the intricacies of modern families. This new design, something more akin to what a tree actually looks like, allows for many modalities and ways to connect each member of the family. I encourage schools, organizations and families, regardless of religious affiliation, to adopt a more inclusive family tree model and approach.

Feeding your Chemical Engineer: Customizable Noodle Kugel

Children love mixing, creating and customizing things, especially food. My daughter is no exception. Whether it is paint colors, ingredients for baking, or dirt and sand outside, she seems to find interesting objects to mix together to create something new. I like to say she is a budding chemical engineer. My daughter’s favorite ingredient is sprinkles of course. What could be better than brightly colored pieces of sugar in fantastic shapes! Like many children, she also likes to customize and create things for specific people: Dad gets the salad with tomatoes and Mom gets the one with the cucumbers. Whether you have picky or specific eaters, I like to refer to them as connoisseurs with a specific palate or children who love to mix and create, I have a holiday solution for you.

Here is a super simple and easy recipe for a traditional holiday food, noodle kugel, that can be customized for every taste in the house. Using cupcake tins, instead of a bundt pan or baking dish, is an easy way for children to get creative and create many different flavors of kugel.

Recipe: Noodle Kugel
1 package of 16 oz wide noodles (follow directions on bag to cook noodles)

In a bowl combine:
1 cup white sugar
1 stick butter (or pareve margarine)
3 eggs
¼ cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons oil

Add noodles to mixture once they are finished cooking and mix all ingredients together
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Pour about 3/4 cup of the noodle mixture into 2-cup pyrex measuring cup or small bowl and add additional ingredients (see examples of ingredients below)
Pour from small bowl or measuring cup into cupcake tin and repeat until entire cupcake tin is filled
Cook in oven at 350 degrees for 60-90 minutes or until tops are golden brown and most of the liquid is gone.

Yields about 18 individual “cupcake” kugels

file_000-4Additional optional ingredients to mix in:

  • Diced apples
  • Pineapple
  • Pomegranate seeds
  • Cherries
  • Other fruit
  • Raisins
  • Walnuts or other nuts
  • Sprinkles
  • Chocolate chips
  • Cereal (corn flakes or crunchy flakes of any brand)
  • Cinnamon


The Secret Sauce

One of my best friends in college was a fiery Persian Jew from Los Angeles; she reminded me of Princess Jasmine from Aladdin, if the princess had a potty mouth and wore less clothing. One Passover, Jasmine and I were trying to make our respective family charoset recipes. There was just one problem: neither of us actually knew the specific servings of the ingredients. We knew the general recipe and what it should taste like but otherwise we didn’t have a clue (generous helpings of the the Passover drink of choice, Manischewitz, didn’t help the matter). We both grew up making these dishes with our family every Passover, but the recipes were transmitted orally and through the shared experience of cooking together.

No matter, we forged ahead. I found myself covered in the fallout of Ashkenazi ingredients–shaved nuts, pooled honey, wine, apple slices, cinnamon, and nutmeg–while my roommate was painted in the dates, banana mush, ginger, cardamom, and pomegranate juice of Persian charoset. Sauced on sweet wine and befuddled, we exercised every college student’s best option and called our mothers for help. To this day I remember her response when pressed on the specific ingredients: “I don’t know, just taste as you go.”

One of the great ways Jews create community is through food and cooking. Instead of writing down exact prescriptions, people are the keepers of the recipes. This cleverly ensures the need for humans to participate in the process, demanding not only communication, but also face-to-face interaction. The key to a successful recipe is the presence of the “keeper of the recipe,” and as a result, our families were ensuring the continuity of community and tradition. Whether our parents and grandparents realized it, they were making their physical presence a necessity.

The tradition of oral law and storytelling has a long history in Judaism. It exists to create and sustain community. For many generations, the only way to learn the traditions, laws and customs was from the community. Now that I have my own daughter, I can’t wait for the first Passover that she asks me how to make my famous charoset and of course my answer will be, “I don’t know, just taste as you go.”

This time of year can be crazy and overwhelming: Purim celebrations rush quickly into Passover preparations and the stress of expelling every tiny crumb from the house. It is easy to lose track of the ties that connect us to each other. But the demands and traditions of the holiday are also a terrific excuse to reach out and reconnect. Go call your mom, grandma, dad, best friend etc. and share something special together this holiday season. Happy Passover!

Ingredients for my friend’s Persian Charoset:
Dates, apples, banana, walnuts, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, pomegranate juice

Ingredients for my Charoset:
Apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, walnuts, honey, Kosher sweet blackberry wine

Finding your Shehecheyanu: Connecting Jewish tradition to Thanksgiving

In the past, I celebrated Thanksgiving without giving it much thought. In school, I learned the “traditional story” of Thanksgiving: The Pilgrims were so thankful they survived a winter and were able to produce a harvest that they celebrated with a special feast. The story of Thanksgiving often overlooks the reality of the what happened when Europeans arrived in America, it leaves out the Native American perspective. There is a lot of controversy, bias and harmful stereotypes surrounding Thanksgiving.  In the past, to me, Thanksgiving really only meant a long weekend and a lot of food and family. As I have gotten older and had children, I tried to take a closer look at the holiday and what it represents. Instead of discounting the holiday completely, I decided to focus on the gratitude element and integrated important ideas from my religion. As a Jew,  gratitude is a central component of Jewish life and many Jewish routines and rituals are based around gratitude.

From the moment Jews wake up they are supposed to be filled with a sense of gratitude, and verbalize this through the Modeh Ani. This prayer is recited every morning to show gratitude for waking up. Before Jews do anything else, before planning the day, thinking about the million and one things that have to be done, Jews are supposed to take a moment of gratitude. Another common recognition of gratitude is the shehecheyanu. Jews recite this prayer every time they do something new in a given year. Jews recognize that this moment is special and are thankful for being able to partake in it, …[You] who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion. When I work with schools, educators and families I emphasize the power and importance of the shehecheyanu.

TurkeyAs a parent of a two year old, I have a whole new sense of gratitude. Like any parent of a young child, I find myself being grateful for many things: the incredible hugs and kisses, two extra minutes of sleep, when my daughter happily sits in the carseat without a struggle, the sweet brown eyes and smile that wake me up every morning by announcing “it’s breakfast time” (this one, I admit is sometimes harder than others to be grateful for, especially when it’s 5:00 am), the new word my daughter said that day, when my daughter offers a hug to a crying child. The list could go on and on. But like any busy parent I get lost in the everyday moments of life and lose some of the critical elements and benefits of gratitude. I find it important to recenter and refocus myself and for me, this can be done by saying the shehecheyanu. Taking a moment to stop and reflect on the moment is crucial for building gratitude and appreciation. Children, especially young children, are experiencing and doing something new all the time and are often extremely proud and excited about it. Parents can take these wonderful moments to pause from their busy lives and say the shehecheyanu to express and celebrate their gratitude for reaching this moment. If the shehecheyanu isn’t meaningful to you, create your own tradition, something that is meaningful to you and your family to celebrate a moment of gratitude. Whether or not you believe in G-d, the value of gratitude and being thankful for arriving at a moment is a universal value. Create something that allows you to take a moment to pause and reflect.

My in-laws have a tradition at Thanksgiving in which everyone at the table shares what they are thankful for that year. This year I encourage families to not only share what they are thankful for during the past year, but to also continue the Jewish tradition of gratitude and celebrate moments from your month, week, and day on a regular basis to reflect on and express gratitude.

*Modeh Ani: I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.

Modeh anee lefanecha melech chai vekayam, she-he-chezarta bee nishmatee b’chemla, raba emunatecha.

*Shehecheyanu: Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.

Ba-ruch A-tah A-do-noi E-loi-hei-nu Me-lech ha-o-lam she-he-chee-ya-nu v’ki-yi-ma-nu vi-hi-gi-ya-nu liz-man ha-zeh.

Making your Classroom Feel More Like Home

“And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your home and  your gates”

-Deuteronomy 6:4-9/11:13-21

For some children, they spend as much time in a classroom or daycare as they do in their homes. So why wouldn’t educators commit to making the classroom feel more like “home”? Hanging a mezuzah*on the classroom door is a way to bring the home-school connection to life and make it tangible for children. Having a mezuzah on the door also makes an important statement, saying “this is a Jewish classroom”.

The start of the school year is a great time to focus on the mezuzah. Children are transitioning from home to school and this is a great opportunity to make children feel like their classroom is a safe and comfortable place, like a second home. Children love sharing stories about their lives, so let each child bring in a picture of a mezuzah they find at their house and share it with the class.  If a child does not have a mezuzah at their home, then use this as an opportunity to discuss different traditions of families and religions. Make it an inclusive project for a diverse classroom.

Children are also much more invested in something if they have a hand in creating it. Let the children help create the decorative case for the parchment scroll to hang on your classroom door. You can easily find large plain wood cases on craft sites to decorate or you can use materials such as clay, plastic tubes, wire,  etc. to create your own case. Children will be excited to see their work hanging on the door. Make sure to let the children create their own mezuzah to take home as well. One way to include families in the process is to invite them to write a prayer or wish for their children or family on the scroll.

There are a lot of opportunities to expand on the concept of a mezuzah and create an entire project around it. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Homes:
    • Composition of a home: (doorposts), materials (wood, brick, cement)
    • houses around the world (huts, igloos, apartments)
  • Mezuzah scroll
    • Explore the different types of writing utensils and paper
  • Mezuzah cover
    • Endless opportunities to explore different materials to create a cover (wood, clay, wire, etc)
    • Are there different traditions and artistic styles for different communities and different parts of the world?

The mezuzah is an important tradition in Judaism and something we see everyday, so celebrate it and have fun exploring and creating!
*A mezuzah is the parchment scroll on which the prayer, the Shema is written and not the decorative cover. For purposes of this post, when I use the word mezuzah, I am referring to both the decorative cover and the parchment inside.

Teshuvah Doesn’t Just Mean Saying “I’m Sorry”

I no longer just say “I’m sorry” nor do I request it from my toddler. Instead, we try to reflect on the true meaning of Teshuvah. Many of us have been raised to believe that during Rosh Hashanah, and especially Yom Kippur, our focus should be on repentance and saying we are sorry.

Every Yom Kippur, our Facebook newsfeed fills up with general statements of “I am sorry to those who I have I wronged in the past year”. Yet, the wordTeshuvah is often mistranslated as “repentance”. According to many sources, the more accurate translation is “return” and signifies a return to the original state (Chabbad, Aish). Is just saying “I’m sorry” really what the High Holy days are about?

When young children are forced to say “I’m sorry” they don’t always understand why they are saying this phrase, nor are they given a solution to avoid the transgression in the first place. We can look to the Jewish scholar, Maimonides, who described four steps to Teshuvah, to help guide us.

Steps to Teshuvah:

    1. Stop: Recognize and discontinue the improper action.
    2. Verbalize: Verbally confess and address the action, thus giving the action a concrete form in your own mind.
    3. Regret:  Evaluate the negative impact this action may have had on yourself or on others.
    4. Make a Plan: Devise a plan to handle the situation better next time and a solution to avoid the wrongdoing in the first place.

In schools and at home, we can take the opportunity to help children by giving them the language and the vocabulary to recognize transgressions and give them tools to help solve or rectify the situation. We can look at a common situation that occurs with toddlers to help us understand how to use the steps of Teshuvah with our children. When toddlers hit, they do so out of frustration, not because they are malicious or they truly want to hurt the other person. Use the steps of Teshuvah in this situation: stop the behavior immediately (stop the hitting). Verbalize what just happened “I see that you are frustrated and that you hit your friend.” Explain the result of the behavior “When you hit your friend you hurt them and make them cry.” You can have the child say “I’m sorry”, but also have the child try to rectify the situation and take action. They can ask “how can I make you feel better?”  Then help the child find a solution to avoid the frustration in the first place or deal with the frustration in a better way: taking turns, playing with another toy or friend, find an adult, etc.

True Teshuvah can be difficult. We often are quick to apologize to our loved ones when we hurt them, but how often do we take a moment to reflect on our behavior and the results of our actions and commit to changing our behavior?  Although we can’t change others’ behavior, believe me I have tried, we can change our behavior and the way we interact and react to others. Since having my daughter, this idea of introspection and reflection is especially important to me because the way I interact with my husband and those around me affects the way my daughter will interact with people. Our children learn from us whether we intend it or not. Modeling the steps of Teshuvah in our everyday interactions can help strengthen the relationships we have with our loved ones and our relationship with G-d. I no longer just say I’m sorry when I transgress but instead figure out how to truly make the other person feel better and try to become a better person in the process.

Baking Round Sweet Challah for the High Holidays

Baking challah every Friday can seem like a daunting task, especially if you have young children. Because I can’t spend a few hours each week making challah, but it is important to me to have homemade challah, I use a recipe that yields 4-8 challah loaves (depending on the size you make each loaf). I freeze the loaves and pull one out on the following Friday mornings. My daughter is now getting to the age in which she can help cook, which is a lot of fun if you don’t mind a messy kitchen! Although most food she helps me prepare must have rainbow colored sprinkles in it, cooking with her and sharing the experience is well worth rainbow sprinkled pizza, salad, challah etc. I can’t think of a better way to usher in Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah or any holiday, than with a colorful homemade challah.

For Shabbat, challah is usually braided lengthwise but on Rosh Hashanah we make the challah round to signify the new year. For a long time, I simply rolled the dough into one long “snake” and wrapped it around itself to form a round challah. This approach can work, but mostly for me, it ended up looking flat and uneven. I searched online and found that in order to make the nicely shaped round challah, I needed to weave the dough. I have included a few links below the recipe  to tutorials for weaving round challah.

Here is the recipe I use for Challah:


1 1/2 tablespoons salt
3 eggs
5 lb. flour bag (minus 2 cups)
5 packages of dried yeast (or 4oz fresh)
4 cups of lukewarm water
1 tablespoons of sugar
1 1/2 cups of oil (Canola)
2 cups of sugar (I often do 1 cup brown and 1 cup white sugar, or I will only use 1 cup sugar and substitute honey for the second cup)


In a large bowl dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in  4 cups lukewarm water (wait to see bubbles)

  1. Mix all dry ingredients in separate bowl
  2. Make “well” in center of bowl—add egg, oil and yeast, mix with spoon
  3. Knead mixture well until it has a stiff but smooth consistency
  4. Lightly oil the dough
  5. Cover (with saran wrap) and place in a warm spot
  6. Allow dough to rise until it has doubled in size (1 hour 45 min.)
  7. Separate a piece of dough and set aside in silver foil to broil and discard (broil in oven before baking Challah)
  8. Recite the blessing over small piece of dough (see prayer below)
  9. Grease pans or use wax paper
  10. Divide the dough into 4-8 pieces (depending on desired loaf size)
  11. Add sweet ingredients such as raisins, honey, cinnamon, pieces of apple etc.
  12. Divide again and shape into individual loaves (see links to tutorials for round challah)
  13. Preheat the oven to 375°
  14. Glaze challah with egg (or egg yolk)
  15. Let rise 45 min
  16. Sprinkle with savory toppings: poppy seeds, sesame seeds, garlic, oregano, or sautéed onion or sweet toppings
  17. Bake for 20 min., turn the pan around and then for another 20 Min. (or until browned)
  18. Wrap extra loaves, once cooled, tightly in plastic wrap or foil freeze

Links to tutorials on how to weave a round challah:

Creative Jewish Mom
Kosher on a Budget Video

Prayer for Separating Challah:


Separating Challah Prayer




Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to separate challah.

Finding Your Family Value

Every year, for as long as I can remember, my parents have hosted an open house for Rosh Hashanah. There are always the familiar faces of friends and family who have consistently attended for as long as I can remember, but every year there are also new faces, guests that we might be meeting for the first or second time. My parents are incredibly welcoming and inclusive. If they hear of someone who does not have anywhere to go for a holiday they invite and welcome them into their home. This tradition of having an open house, a truly open house, one in which it is important to create a community that welcomes people, has been instilled in me from an early age. My parents believe there is always room for one, or in their case, a lot more. They led and taught by example the beautiful Jewish value of Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming guests into your home.

In my previous blog post, Teshuvah Doesn’t Just Mean Saying “I’m Sorry”, I spoke about how Teshuvah is often mistranslated as “repentance” (instead of it’s true meaning, “return”). We can use the idea of Teshuvah to once again help guide us in raising a kind family centered around Jewish values. During the High Holidays, we want to return to our better, kinder, more moral selves. While it is effective to teach values by modeling behavior and leading by example, we often get caught up in our busy lives and don’t always take the time to really highlight and teach those values. To help guide our children in this process of returning to a better self, we can choose one or two Jewish values to focus on for a year. We can set an intention for our family.

Before or during the High Holidays consider having a family meeting. Discuss with your family the theme of returning to a better self. Give a few examples of Jewish values that are important to you (see below for some examples) and ask for suggestions from your family members. What values do your children think are important? What actions do they perform or want to perform? Vote on which values your family wants to focus on during the year. Once a value is chosen, ask for specific examples of how your family can live and express this value and set specific measurable goals. Have a few family meetings throughout the year to check-in with each other.

Keep in mind, children often need tangible examples (something they can physically see or do) to learn values. If your family chooses Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, your goal could be to reduce the trash of your household by recycling and composting. In this example you could even assign specific tasks to each member of your family to help encourage regular action and participation. You could keep a chart of how much trash, recycling and compost you have each week to keep track of your progress.

L’shana Tova Umetukah, have a happy and sweet New Year!

Examples of Jewish Values:

  • Hachnasat Orchim: Welcoming guests
  • Gemilut Chasadim: Acts of loving kindness
  • Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim: Kindness to animals
  • Shalom Bayit: Peaceful home
  • Bikur Cholim: Visiting the sick
  • Kibbud Av V’Eim: Honoring your parents