Books Offer Gateway to Jewish Culture

By Rodgers, Ann | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 6, 2012 | Go to article overview

Books Offer Gateway to Jewish Culture


Rodgers, Ann, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Surrounded by toddlers at the Jewish Community Center, Kristen Keller opened a picture book, "Dinosaur on Passover."

"Do you think dinosaurs celebrate Passover?" she asked, before reading rhymes about one who did everything from grating horseradish to opening the door for Elijah.

She's the local programming coordinator for the PJ Library, which each month sends free children's books about Jewish life, heritage and culture to 100,000 families across North America.

PJ stands for "pajamas," as in bedtime stories. It is funded by Massachusetts philanthropist Harold Grinspoon, with matching funds from Jewish communities. About 700 Pittsburgh-area families receive books for children ages 6 months to 5 1/2 years.

Owen Reese, 2, eagerly awaits his package each month.

"He absolutely loves the books. And it's a Jewish book, appropriate for the season. We incorporate them into our daily life," said his mother, Tamara. Every night they read "Goodnight Sh'ma," so he knows that prayer by heart.

With Passover arriving at sundown tonight, he's been enjoying "Hoppy Passover," about bunnies preparing a Seder meal.

The eight-day holiday commemorates the biblical account in which God commands Moses to deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. It opens with a Seder, a meal in which symbolic foods are reminders of biblical events.

"Passover is kind of complicated, but the books help us talk about how we are going to eat a special dinner," Ms. Reese said. "We talk about all the things we put on the Seder plate."

The family moved to Squirrel Hill when Owen was an infant. They were offered the PJ Library when they joined the JCC. Now their Friday ritual includes reading "Where Shabbat Lives," about the day of rest.

"His favorite day of the week is Bat-bat, which is what he calls Shabbat. Every day he asks, 'Is it Bat-bat tomorrow?' " she said.

"It's so good to see him love Shabbat so much. It helped me feel that I'm doing a good job as a Jewish parent when I see that."

That was Mr. Grinspoon's hope. The octogenarian is a dyslexic college dropout who made a fortune in real estate. Because of his dyslexia, he never read to his children.

On a flight he was impressed with parents who kept a young child quiet with books. Soon afterward he heard about Dolly Parton's initiative to provide books to young children and decided to start a Jewish version.

The books are selected by a committee of experts on education and children's literature, but Mr. Grinspoon has final say.

The PJ Library launched in 2005 with 200 recipients and will mail its 3 millionth book next month. Nationally, it goes to age 8, but when Pittsburgh joined in 2008 it opted to end at 51/2 because of funding concerns. The local partners are the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Community Day School, the Agency for Jewish Learning and the Jewish Community Center, with support from the Fine Foundation.

Charles Cohen, planning manager of Jewish continuity at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said local donors give $60,000 per year to leverage about $40,000 from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. …

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