Teaching Children and Literature

Mentoring a New Teacher

In early November, I have the privilege of speaking to the National Jewish Early Childhood Network on “The Many Possibilities of Thinking, Teaching and Experiencing Communication with Children, Co-workers and Parents”.  I was asked to talk about the creative opportunities of children’s literature.

As I considered how I could address this topic, I was reminded of a story about Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, who is referred to as the Vilna Gaon or Genius of Vilna. Born in 1720, it is said that by the age of 6 he was studying Bible and Talmud and although he grew to be proficient in all things Jewish, he continued to study 18 hours a day. According to a popular Jewish legend, one of his disciples was asked why his Rabbi studied so much. He answered, “If the Vilna Gaon studies Torah 18 hours a day, the rabbis in Poland will study 10 and in the more enlightened climate of Germany, the rabbis will study 6 and the rabbis in England will study 2, then the Jews of England will at least keep the Sabbath. But if the Vilna Gaon only studies 10 hours a day then the rabbis of Poland will study 6, and the rabbis in Germany only 2, and the rabbis in England only ½ hour, what will become of the Sabbath observance of English Jewry?”

Today, communicating our holidays, values and traditions has always been a priority for me—some who know me well might say an obsession. I had recently moved back east and was teaching two year olds for the first time at the local Synagogue. At the start of the school year, I asked the veteran teachers how they taught two year olds about the Jewish holidays and I was told, “We don’t because they’re too little to understand.” I had used secular rhymes and finger plays to the delight of children I had taught previously and I was determined to write Jewish rhymes to introduce Jewish holidays to the young children I was teaching.  For each holiday, I created new rhymes and accompanying finger puppets as well as flannel board props to engage the children.  The collection ultimately became my first published book, Fun with Jewish Holiday Rhymes.

Sukkot Rhymes from Fun with Jewish Holiday Rhymes, URJ, 1992

There are so many fruits for you and me.
What kind of fruit does ________________ (child’s name) see?


Take a hammer, 1, 2, 3; build a sukkah now with me.
Here’s the wood, 1, 2, 3; make the frame for all to see
Now on top, 1, 2 ,3, place some branches from a tree.
Take some string, 1, 2, 3; now hang up some fruit with me.
Who has the apple? 1, 2, 3; where, oh, where can the apple be?
Who has the ______________ (name of the fruit)? 1, 2, 3; where, oh, where can the___________ be?