Sunday, August 30, 2009

Healthy attitude

Medicine is something I was always interested in, particularly neuroscience. But it was mostly an intellectual exercise combined with increasing appreciation for the wonders of creation. When one of my children turned out to be very allergic to quite an impressive list of substances ( whoever heard of someone being allergic to garlic?),I decided to do some research. First we tried the standard route - allergists, benadryl, hydrocortisone, etc. There was only one problem, it didn't help and I was not so enthused about my infant getting addicted to antihistamines or using steroids on regular basis. As I discovered, allergies are a fairly undiscovered field and therefore the possible solutions in conventional medicine were few and formulaic. So out of desperation I started looking for alternatives and discovered a whole new (or rather old) field of natural medicine. Eventually someone recommended a homeopath. I was desperate, my husband was skeptical, both of us prayed that we should find some relief for our child. The homeopathic treatment worked and relieved his symptoms so he could function, thank G-d ( he is still allergic but his reactions are not as severe). In the process though I learned a lot about the human body and the amazing way it works and a whole lot about natural ways to treat many different problems that could arise. Having gone through this experience and becoming more informed about health and various related issues, I also gained more confidence about making decisions about my family's health. I am not anti conventional medicine but neither am I totally under the sway of New England Journal of Medicine to the exclusion of all else. I particularly like to read naturopaths who are also MDs, or MDs who also use naturopathic treatments in their practices, I think one gets a more balanced view that way. One of these days I'll hopefully write a post on my favorite natural health books(consider yourself forewarned). But either way medicine, study of plants, etc and their effects on the human body makes for a very interesting study. One can also use it as a great springboard for health related topics such as healthy living, nutrition, home remedies, various branches of medicine, history, chemistry, biology and other sciences, anatomy and of course various practical, mussar and metaphysical implications of how and why our bodies are organized the way they are. And if neuroscience tickles your fancy, try books by Oliver Sacks, he has quite a few popular books on the subject (just ask my editor:).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Them foreigners...

I am always looking for ideas on improved and optimized foreign language instruction. So here are a few of my favorite tips, many of them from a book called How to Learn Any Language. Keep in mind that any serious attempt to acquire a new language requires a lot of perseverance, I speak of experience:)
- If you know a different language use it regularly with your kids and start as early as possible, ignore all attempts of the younger generation to dissuade you from your goal
- Read the local newspapers and magazines. It will give you the most frequently used word supply as well as the local news.
-Keep a journal in your target language
-Read native classics in your target language
-Read your favorite books translated into your target language
-Use copywork to internalize your target language and get a feel for usage and grammar

Now all I have to do is follow my own advice:)

Where fantasy and reality collide

This morning I heard my 3 year old announcing at some unearthly hour " Time to wake up" in a very loud voice . At first I thought oh no, not now but then it got me thinking. It is Elul after all:) A friend of mine once read to me something very astute from a book called Holy Diet or something like that. The author wrote that it used to be that art imitated life but these days you find that it is life that is imitating art. For example a person watches a movie and gets a certain picture of reality from it and then attempts to apply those ideas or values to his life most often resulting in great disappointment because of course the picture that the movie projects is not a picture of true reality. Rabbi Abraham Twerski M.D., who is a psychiatrist, writes in his books that many emotional pathologies result from a person having a wrong perception of reality, such as lack of self-esteem or addiction. When a person is totally incapable of differentiating between reality and fantasy in a very extreme way, we call it insanity. Besides inducing a really distorted view of reality, movies, computer games, video games, etc. are extremely addictive and are often a callosal waste of time . Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen in his book to Kindle a Soul has statistics and cites studies to support that thesis. One of the things that I found particularly striking was a study that showed that even if a person was just staring at a blank screen his metabolism rate dropped. Watching something, therefore is basically a training in passivity, to sit and do nothing while someone else is imposing their view of reality on you. A lot of Judaism is about actions, that's why there are so many mitzvos. We are supposed to work on ourselves both internally and externally. We are not supposed to be passive observers, but active participants in life. Sefer Hachinuch writes that a person makes himself into something according to his actions. Therefore good actions make a good person and empty actions an empty one. To spend one's life on emptiness while perverting one's sense of true reality and self is a terrible thing. When a person is reading a book of value he needs to make an effort to create a mental image, to react to what he is reading somehow, to digest the information but with videos etc. all the work, including thinking is done for you. And I am not even talking about inappropriate content. That is why I am against too much regular watching of anything even educational stuff. Same for video games and hours of internet surfing. It is true especially for young children but even older ones, when they are still developing their fundamental habits and views that will shape their future lives. It's true for adults as well. My daughter was right, it's time to wake up.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Birthday surprises

This morning my seven year old decided to make a surprise for his brother's sixth birthday. He wrote and decorated a birthday card that conveyed his birthday wishes and love in two languages. He decorated his brother's chair with wrapping paper, stickers and pipe cleaners and only lamented the lack of balloons in the house. The occasion called for a present. So he took one of the books that we had, made sure that it was one that his brother would enjoy, wrapped it, ceremoniously inscribed his brother's name inside the cover and presented it to the birthday boy. All of this was going on in the morning before they had to go to school. Just thinking about it puts a smile on my face. I guess someone has been listening to one of my many lectures on the importance of being good to one's siblings:) I am not a big party person but I do like small family celebrations especially the impromptu kinds like the one above. I read some really great birthday present ideas in the Tightwad Gazzette by Amy Dacyzyn , which is one of my favorite frugality books. I have since implemented some of those ideas with great success so I think they are worth sharing here. One idea is to take an envelope decorate it, put the child's name on it and insert a number of hand designed coupons ( as many as the child's age?) for something a child would enjoy like a treat, a date to do something special with a parent or a sibling, something extra like an opportunity to stay up later than usual, etc. Another great ideas is a themed combination gift that could be assambled from storebought or homemade or secondhand materials. For example you can make an artist's kit, get a garage sale backpack or decorate an old luch box or little suitcase, put in paper and lots of different art supplies, a smock, etc. You can do a doctor's kit or a gardening kit or whatever your child might like kit, use your imagination. Another idea is to give a personalized gift, one year I decorated a clipboard and made a matching notebook with my child's name in calligraphy, attached a pen and voila ! Children have to learn to appreciate that there are things that money can't buy. That there is something very special about a family member or a friend taking their time to make or put together something unique just for them. They have to learn to give from the heart and to take other people's needs and desires into consideration. And also realize that a special gift doesn't have to cost a fortune and to use their creativity and ingenuity to may be even make a gift from something they already have on hand. So here is to many, many more happy birthday surprises!!!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Child's play

It was a beautiful end of summer day. The breeze caressed my face as I relaxed in an easy chair attempting to read a book. I was surrounded by beautiful green plants interspersed now and then with bright colored flowers. Behind me was a to die for gorgeous hilly view so common to where I live. My little people buzzed around me like bees. They were swinging and rolling and rocking and running and scooting. The big smiles, the bickering about turns, the endless requests for something every 30 seconds on average competed with my futile attempts to read. I helped this one, took care of that one, comforted that one and for what felt like a millionth time told this one to say please and that one to say sorry if he did something wrong, to be considerate and generally act with derech eretz. In the end things got a bit too rowdy and we had to disband and go inside for supper. And yet it was exactly the kind of thing that childhood memories are made of. The nice weather, lovely view and just spending time together on a regular after school afternoon. There is such sweetness in just watching them play and interact, try out new things or practice old ones. The childish abandon, unbridled happiness of swinging away or hanging upside down or climbing or performing some heart stopping (for the adults present) stunts. It's so wonderful to see them grow up and watch the wonder on their faces when they encounter the beauty in nature. To see them watch other children play or look at the antics of the neighbor's puppy or kitten. To realize how each one's personality shines in such different ways. As the seasons change and as they change and as I change, I can only pray that we should only be blessed with more such joy as I was feeling on this late August afternoon.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Jewish Self

I am reading this great book The Jewish Self by Rabbi Jeremy Kagan which is really perfect for Elul and introspection. It's philosophy, history and musar all rolled into one. It's kind of a heavy read but it's beautifully written and has ideas that are absolutely astounding practically on every page. It was published in 1998. It's real hashgacha that I found it now in a local book g'mach, it's such a delicious read. And what's better, you can preview the whole thing on google books and here is the link. So if you like philosophy, history and jewish thought, give it a try, it's chuck full of amazing insights just in time for Rosh Hashana.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The blessing of a brick wall

I love great quotes and I love lessons one can derive from daily living. So here is one from Randy Pausch the author of the Last Lecture. "The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something." So many times in life and especially in parenting we feel frustrated. So many times we run into brick walls with no obvious solution in sight. So here is a way to look at all these walls as a challenge and as an opportunity. It's a gift we can give ourselves and our children, not to be daunted by life's curve balls. To push forward even when you don't know where it will take you or how you can overcome a particular problem. I think Someone was really trying to tell me something today. Because I read this idea no fewer than three times today in that many books. One has to learn to live one's life with with courage and faith. Hashem has a plan for each and every one of us and we have to trust Him to take us where we need to go as long as we do out part in good faith (pun intended). We have to recognize the lessons we are constantly being presented with and appreciate the blessings even if they come in a shape of a brick wall.

The last lecture or what do you want on your tombstone

There is a phenomenon on college campuses known as the "last lecture". Where the speaker is asked to deliver a lecture that would encapsulate the wisdom he would want to impart if he knew he was dying and it was his last lecture. It kind of reminds me of an old pizza commercial from a company called Tombstone that went -"What do You want on Your Tombstone?" I think that question has a very great significance for parenting and life in general. What do we want our children to remember about us when we are gone? If we had a one final opportunity to say something of importance to our kids, what would it be? The reflections of this sort are part of Jewish thought. Our Sages teach us that a person should repent a day before his death and then ask does a person know when he would die and then answer it in the negative and deduce from it that a person should always repent being that he doesn't know the moment of his ultimate demise. Obviously, we cannot live our lives as if we are constantly staring death in the face, but my husband tells me, it means in the very least a person has to live their life in such a way that if he has to go, at least he wouldn't be embarrassed by what he was doing at that moment. I once read a great idea from Rabbi Avi Shulman. He advised that parents should keep a notebook of their Torah thoughts or ideas that at some point they could present to their kids. In general, I am quite enamored with the idea of keeping a journal and various theme journals one could keep ( I think I even posted about it) so this would be one such journal idea. We should write a "farewell address", even for our own use. It helps us focus on what's important, on what our goals are for ourselves and our families, on what kind of people we really would like to be. So go ahead and write it , the last lecture, for yourself and for your kids and then go and live it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Another timely reminder

Here is a very timely message for Rosh Chodesh Elul - the time is short and there is a lot to do , in case you don't usually feel that way on a regular day:) Chodesh Tov!!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My neighbor the hero

When I was a young girl growing up in the Bronx, New York we had an elderly jewish couple as our next door neighbors. To an outsider they were simple people. He painted homes for a living and she was a housewife. They let us read their newspapers when they were done and we translated their mail into russian for them and wrote letters in english when they needed. She made pickles and other homemade delicacies and took care of her children and grandchildren. When they went on vacations or to visit their son in Israel we took care of their cat and looked after the apartment. Once in passing our neighbor mentioned that in all her married life her husband never came home at night and not have a hot meal waiting for him. My teenage self did not think of it as much of an accomplishment, "Big deal, a hot supper every night". I was not mature enough then to appreciate the full significance of what she said. But I suddenly remembered that comment many years later, now as an adult. And then it hit me, it wasn't only that the logistics were amazing but what it all meant. Given the age of my neighbors it was obvious that their lifespan included the times when both peace and resources were scarce. She surely had many more things to worry about than what to cook for supper. But more than that, her commitment and selflessness is astounding. It is indeed something special to be able to put someone else's needs above your own not just on occasion, but day in and day out for decades. I wrote before about making mitzvos beautiful. It's easy to see how an object could be beautiful - a beautiful esrog and a lovely challah cover. But there is also making the interpersonal mitzvos beautiful by going the extra mile, by being kind even when it's not convenient. My neighbor was not very observant, but I think that this was her special mitzva, the one that she really invested all her being and love into and that is not something to sneeze at. I am sure that in Hashem's eye all those years of hot suppers are a rare gem. She is a type of hero that the Pirkei Avos writes about when they say that the mighty one is the one that rules over his/her inclination.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

To link or not to link that is the question

I am always on a look out for interesting information that relates to parenting, education, crafting, etc. And Heaven knows, it's a big and exciting world out there and there is certainly a lot available thanks to the internet. But here is the rub, the vast majority of what's available is often not 100% appropriate for a jewish person. For example, a lot of information on almost any type of homeschooling has a decidedly Christian slant to it and if it's not very christian than it often is ubersecular, where the person tries to completely divest himself of anything even remotely smacking of religion, with the result once again not really appropriate for a religious jew or any jew really. So I try to avoid linking to sites which heavily fall into one or the other of the above mentioned extremes. However, being that the vast majority of the world is not jewish it obviously often espouses a worldview that is not always congruent with the Torah worldview. Our sages teach that there is a lot of wisdom among the nations that we could learn from as long as we don't go out there looking for moral guidance. That, we should be getting from the Torah and in fact providing the world with that moral guidance not the other way around. But getting back to my linking dilemma. I try to provide links to the sites and information that are appropriate and relevant and interesting to jewish parents, which is why I started this blog to begin with. It is possible however that there might be some christian or pagan or secular content on the site I am linking to in general but the information I am highlighting is independent of that content. To paraphrase I think Thomas Jefferson, the price of holiness (and freedom) is eternal vigilance.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Succos serendipity

I am always delighted to see how Hashem makes things come together in one's life in so many ways. How things seem to materialize out of nowhere when you need them. When suddenly ideas or books or whatever seems to rain down from the sky and drop into your lap. Recently, I was reading a book of short stories called the Inside Story, very good short stories. There was this one story about a man who loved the mitzva of succah and really invested himself into it. He personally built the walls of his succah and spent a lot of time lovingly carving out elaborate decorations out of wood for it. So it got me thinking about Succos and decorations and the whole idea of making mitzvos beautiful. I was thinking that it is really a good idea to combine crafting with a Torah/mitzvah theme such as an upcoming holiday. So besides practicing practical skills and learning about the holiday, it's a wonderful opportunity to help children to truly invest themselves into Torah and mitzvos and really make it their own. So I was taking a mental inventory of our succah decorations from last year and remembering reading about a family who made it their summer project to make really nice succah decorations and make it really special without the last minute pressure and how perhaps we should do the same. And then as I was browsing through my various favorite internet haunts, I suddenly found this amazing site,Creative Jewish Mom with a whole section of stunning succah decorations to make in August and other great projects as well. So I am very excited about this. I also remembered the post I saw a while back on making a succah banner out of an old pillow case so here it is while we are on the topic, together with the packing tape sculpture technique that we used last year to make some really nice succah decorations. A veritable Succos serendipity bonanza, indeed!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

What I did this summer

With official summer vacation at an end, it's a good time for the traditional what I did this summer essay. As always, I had grand dreams and plans. In the end though reality interfered,as it usually does, and instead of the super-organized we opted for the more flexible approach. In a rather erratic fashion we practiced phonics, did mental math, practiced writing and spelling, tried some dictation and some oral narration. We read lots of books and looked at pictures. The Little House on the Prairie was very popular this summer. The kids played all kinds of pretend olden days games, complete with wagons, trundle beds, cabins and fireplaces and trolleys. We listened to lots of music and story tapes. We had lots of discussions about many different subjects. We did all kinds of projects, colored stained glass pictures and regular pictures, made and decorated bookmarks, made newspaper slippers, made clocks with cardboard, stickers and clock mechanisms, altered a store bought clock, redecorated and reorganized the kids' room. We tried some gardening with various degree of success and finally abandoned it mostly due to the heat and lack of time. There were ice cream cones and other summer treats. We tried out embroidery and baked together. We tried out new recipes and washed the living room rug in the tub. The kids helped around the house and were more involved in Shabbos preparations. We went out on local outings. We bought school supplies. We worked on our middos individually and as a family. We looked at old family albums. We sang and even danced on occasion. The older kids had some swimming lessons and went bike riding while for the younger set it was more of a spectator sport. One day ran into another. There were endless make mess/clean up cycles and piles and piles of laundry. Meals were made and speedily devoured, dishes were washed , only to reappear again in prodigious quantities in the sink. Toys and books and things were scattered all over and tidied up and reorganized over and over again. There were the usual colds and cuts and scrapes and tears and a few sleepless nights. There were fights and there were moments of great togetherness and cooperation. There were surprises from parents to children and from children to parents. There were very loud times and times of quiet and reflection. There were the moments of realization of how much everyone has grown both physically and emotionally in the past year. There were moments of great nachas and sometimes moments of disappointment. There were family get-togethers and play dates. Did all of this really happen in such a short span of time? Even on the most difficult days, there was something good that happened. A cute saying here, a sweet hug there, a successful project, a new something learned, an exciting discovery, a flight of a child's or parent's imagination, a new dream or an old one . This summer,more so than the previous ones, made me realize how much really takes place even on the quiet (or loud) days of normal domesticity. As they say, no news is good news. Thank G-d just for regular, ordinary, everyday, no bells and whistles living. And this is what I did this summer.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Elul Reflections

As the summer slowly and quietly begins to turn into fall one can feel Elul and more reflective mood descend. So here is something in honor of upcoming Rosh Chodesh Elul.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

More Music

Still under the influence of Yerushalaim, how can one not be?

Oh Jerusalem

I just came back from Yerushalaim from a family gathering. Isn't it amazing? I just came back from Yerushalaim and it's a most natural thing in the world, B"H. There is always a certain excitement in the air whenever we go to Yerushalaim. So many different types of Jews together in the same place, in our own special, G-d given land. And this is only a foretaste of the things to come. oh, G-d willing to see Jerusalem in all its true glory. Here is one of my favorite Yaakov Shewekey songs, with beautiful pictures too.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Living large

Here are a few interesting links I just found. Enjoy!!!

Lots of Kids - Lots of recipes and other large family living stuff
Cooking for a large family- more on cooking for a crowd
Ellen's kitchen- there is a section on this site with lots of recipes with a high yield

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Some days are just like that

Lest one think that every day is pure ecstasy and joy in Home-ed-landia, I'd like to point out that like with anything else there are ups and downs. Some days everything is going wonderfully, the kids are interested in what you are trying to teach or they come up with intriguing ideas for doing something all by themselves and everyone behaves themselves as little gentlemen and ladies ought to. There are other types of days, when everyone bickers, the recipe flops, the project doesn't take off and is too frustrating and everything seems to go belly up no matter what you try. Some days are just like that and it's normal. After all, it's all part of the learning process. As long as the general direction is positive and the down days are in the minority, all is fine. It's important to appreciate the disappointments together with the joys. It's good for the kids (and parents) to realize that it's not always fair weather and smooth sailing in the sea of life. Sometimes we have to learn to be flexible and go with the flow or change directions if necessary. Other times, one has to stay the course and persevere in the face of difficulties and not to shy away from struggles that inevitably crop up. There is a value in the process of learning itself, not just the end results. It's easy to get caught up in being too goal oriented and ambitious because there are so many exciting things in the world to learn and teach. But I think, that precisely the days when things don't go as we planned are a perfect opportunity to reflect on the process itself and let it carry us, at least for the time being, wherever it will take us. You just might make some interesting discoveries.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The long short road

Another subject that I seem to never get enough of is that of responsible spending. Teaching the proper attitude towards money is one of the great gifts that a parent can give to his child. That attitude will play a critical role in what kind of a life our children will lead. In today's world where we are constantly inundated with messages that shamelessly promote materialism and consumerism, frugal living is an anomaly even though the current economic crisis might change that some. One of my favorite books on the subject is the Millionaire Next Door. It should be required reading for everyone because it explains in a very readable and systematic way what responsible attitude to money looks like by examining the common habits of millionaires. It fits very well with the Torah outlook on life. All worthwhile things in life require time, patience, discipline and effort. Often there are no quick fixes. There is a great website with a great name called Get Rich Slowly that has lots of great stuff on the subject of responsible financial living. Money is important. But it is even more important to have the proper perspective on money. I am sure I'll be writing about this again.