More than a decade ago, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso published her first children's book, God's Paintbrush, which was based on an experience her daughter had had at school. One day, the child returned home with a picture she'd drawn of God that made the deity look like a kindly grandfather. When she showed her mother her handiwork, the child insisted that she knew for a fact that God wasn't a man at all.
As it turned out, when Sasso's daughter was first asked to draw a picture of God, she turned in a blank page. The teacher then insisted that she fill the page with something, so the child, against her best instincts, gave her a grandfather.
Sasso said that what the anecdote demonstrated to her was that parents and educators hadn't worked hard enough to give children the proper diversity of images about God. In order to broaden young people's comprehension - to give them something more than a blank page and the grandfather approach - Sasso wrote God's Paintbrush.
The author, who grew up in Melrose Park and attended Cheltenham High School, Temple University and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College - she was, in fact, the first woman ordained by RRC - is now the rabbi of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis and the author of many more children's books.
She's just published her newest work, written with Rabbi Jeffrey Schein, titled Siddur Kol Hano'ar: "Voice of Children," a 96-page hardcover Shabbat prayerbook geared for the young. Recently published by the Reconstructionist Press, a division of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, it is filled with fanciful illustrations by Joani Rothenberg, which expand the text through color and design.
When Sasso's first book appeared in the early 1990s, she said in an interview that she believed children have "very rich religious imaginations," but that adults don't give them much credit on that score. And where adults tend to use amorphous or abstract language, if they talk about God at all, children think in far more concrete terms, according to the author.
With God's Paintbrush, Sasso said she "wanted to provide an interactive text, one that kids could go off with and read on their own."
The same intuitive understanding of children's needs that animated her first book also flows through Siddur Kol Hano'ar. Meant for ages 5 through 9, the prayerbook includes many of the conventional features of a traditional siddur, but also stories from Jewish sources and folklore that help introduce and explain portions of the service to children. And there are questions at various points in the text that are meant to stimulate discussion between children and parents, or friends and other students. These questions deal with the nature of prayer, its meaning for a child and what it tells them about their lives.
Also incorporated in the text are poems written by children, which give "a sense of feeling … across the generations," according to the rabbi. She insists that talking about spirituality without including children's voices would have been unthinkable.
Two versions of the siddur have been published, one with and one without English transliteration. The work was funded through an initial gift by an anonymous donor through the Shefa Fund in memory of Rabbi Devora Bartnoff, the late local religious leader and educator; the grant was added to by gifts from others in the Reconstructionist movement.
The siddur will soon have its it own Web site, if it's not already up and functional by the time you read this, in addition to notecards featuring eight of Rothenberg's Marc Chagall-inspired images.• • •
An Encounter With Bioethics
RRC Press also recently issued Bioethics: Reinvigorating the Practice of Contemporary Jewish Ethics by Rabbi David Teutsch. The pamphlet-like publication deals with such primal bioethical issues as euthanasia, contraception, abortion, organ donation, medical research and an equitable means of distributing scarce resources.
This is the second fascicle in a projected series of such works that go under the overall title of Guide to Jewish Practice.
Teutsch is recognized nationally as an expert on the subject, and his knowledge and insight pervade this brief, incisive text.