Only Five Religious Books Have Won the Caldecott — Most Before 1963

Noah-s-Ark-9780385094733If you’ve ever perused the religion books within the children’s section of your local library, you’re probably aware that it can be a bit underwhelming. Whether you’re going for a book about the life of Buddha, the history of Confucianism, or the holiday of Easter, so many of the books are old and outdated, clearly written for religious children, or without much literary merit. It sticks out particularly because there are so many great secular children’s books — brilliant, award-winning books that will stick with our kids for the rest of our lives. Sometimes it’s hard to skip over those and land on what may turn out to be infinitely forgettable ones.

That’s why it’s fun (for me, at least) to come across religiously themed books that are also (or were once) considered great literature. Which is what happened when my daughter brought home a brochure from school the other day listing all 75 Caldecott Medal winners, dating back to 1938. This year’s winner is an outstanding book called This is Not My Hat. And in 2011, the pick was A Sick Day for Amon McGee. And in 1970, it was Sylvester and the Magic Pebble; and in 1964, it was Where the Wild Things Are; and in 1942, it was Make Way for Ducklings.

The point is, those Caldecott people are no dummies.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, very few “religious” books have appeared on the Caldecott list in the last 50 years. Other than Peter Spier’s Noah’s Ark in 1978 — which I can affirm is a pretty straight telling of the Christian tale and not overtly religious — the books have been almost exclusively secular. Not so, though, before 1963 — when four of the first 25 winners had religious themes, including the very first Caldecott. The first three picks appear to be overtly religious (particularly the second!) but Nine Days to Christmas — about the Mexican holiday of Posada — might be worth checking out. All five, incidentally, are Christian.

1938: Animals of the Bible, A Picture Book

RECS pic 27-61

1945: Prayer for a Child

Prayer for a Child

1960: Nine Days to Christmas: A Story of Mexico

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1961: Baboushka and the Three Kings

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I do think it’s important that nonreligious parents set aside their usual standards for literature once in a while in favor of injecting some religious literacy into their kids’ lives. But within reason, of course. And this is not to suggest that there aren’t some GREAT books out there for those who take the time to look. For some tips on choosing religious picture books appropriate for nonreligious families, click here.

Quick! What the Hell is Easter?

Easter CrossMy favorite anecdote told by Teach Not Preach blogger Jim Morrison appears in one of his first blogs. As you may recall, Morrison is a World Religion teacher at a Minnesota high school, and has been for decades. This particular anecdote involves a junior named Angel — Angel! —  who approached Morrison after class one day in 1997 to ask one, discreet question.

“Is Jesus dead?”

Morrison said the girl had waited until they were alone and appeared to be blushing when she asked the question. Morrison played it off warmly, but, inside, he was dumbfounded. “How odd it was that a kid her age, living in Minnesota, would not know if Jesus was alive,” he wrote. Still, he was awfully glad she asked. (So many Christians talk about Jesus as though he’s alive and well and walking among us, no wonder kids get confused!)

“Obviously, we should not fault Angel for being ignorant,” Morrison wrote. “Her parents, friends, and elementary school teachers taught her nothing about religion. The fault lies with the American educational system and its almost total reluctance to teach about religion.”

The moral of the story? Yes, Jesus is dead. He died 2,000 years ago. It’s why we have Easter. And if our kids don’t hear it from us, they might never hear it at all. So let’s do this thing, people!

Holiday: Easter

AKA: Resurrection Day

Religion Represented: Christianity

Celebrates: The resurrection of Jesus

Date: The first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. In 2013, Easter falls on March 31. In 2014: April 20.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Easter is a 10.

Star of the Show: Jesus

Back Story: During his lifetime, Jesus of Nazareth never called himself the Messiah or Christ, at least not publicly. But by the time he and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem for Passover in the year 33 AD (or thereabouts), many people believed he was both. As legend has it: Jesus caused a ruckus at the temple in Jerusalem by overturning the tables of some dishonest merchants there — an event that likely raised the hackles of Roman leaders that may already have felt threatened by Jesus’ growing religious (and political) popularity. After hosting his Last Supper (famously depicted by Leonardo da Vinci), Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples, Judas, and condemned to die. He was crucified on a wooden cross (which is now the symbol of Christianity) beneath a crown of thorns, his last words: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” On the third day after his crucifixion, according to the gospels, Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. Christians believe Jesus’ death brought forgiveness of sins and reconciliation between God and humanity.

Associated Literary Passages: There are many in the New Testament: Matthew 27:50-53; Matthew 28:1-20; Mark 16:1-19; Luke 24:1-53; John 11:25-26; John 20:1-22:25; Romans 1:4-5; Romans 6:8-11; Philippians 3:10-12; and 1 Peter 1:3, among others.

Easter is a Week-Long Affair: The week preceding Easter is called Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday (marking the day Jesus arrived in Jerusalem). It also includes Maundy Thursday, commemorates the Last Supper with Jesus’ disciples (that’s today!), Good Friday, honoring the decidedly not good day of Jesus’ crucifixion, and Holy Saturday, which focuses on the transition between the crucifixion and resurrection.) Then there’s the happiest day of the year: Easter. In a sense, says my Catholic-raised friend, Tim, every Sunday of the year is meant to be a mini-celebration of Easter.

The Food: Some of what Christians eat on Easter harkens back to the Passover Seder: Hard-boiled eggs and lamb, among them. Ham is also an Easter staple, along with chocolate and sweets.

The Fun: In addition to dressing in their “Sunday best” for Easter church services, Christians give to charity, share feasts with family, and give Easter baskets full of chocolates, jelly beans and other goodies to children. Much like the Hindu celebration of Holi, Easter conveniently falls at the beginning of spring — so lots of the activities are symbolic of fertility and new life. Eggs, which also are said to represent the empty tomb of Jesus, are central to Easter, with celebrants hard-boiling them, painting them and hiding them.  The Easter Bunny, although secular, also has become an Easter mainstay — the equivalent of Santa Claus to Christmas.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Ironically, secular parents often have an easier time explaining Easter (without religion) than many Christian parents do (with it). The Passion is just such a damn mystery. Why did Jesus have to suffer? Why didn’t God intervene? How, exactly, did Jesus’ death bring about forgiveness of human sins? And if Jesus rose from the dead, why can’t we? Secular parents are lucky they don’t have to try to make sense of all this. Still, it’s important to let kids know this story is the single most important one in all of Christianity. If your kid knows this one, the rest is icing. I am seriously remiss in not having some recommended Easter children’s books for you guys here. Please check back; I promise to correct that. In the meantime, I strongly suggest thumbing through your library’s selection of Easter books and staying the heck away from the Bernstein Bears’ version. (Click here for tips on how to choose religious picture books appropriate for secular families.) Oh, and Jesus Christ Superstar is a great, G-rated conversation starter for kids, like, 9 and up.

A version of this post originally appeared in March 2012.

Quick! What the Hell is Holi?

I’ll be writing more about some of the slightly more obscure (to mainstream America) holidays in the coming months. Again, I do this because it’s a great and easy way to inject a bit of religious literacy into a child’s day-to-day. I always suggest using dinnertime or car rides to talk a little bit about each holiday, its roots and its rituals. And, if you’re game, you can “celebrate” the holidays yourselves with food, music and associated activities. Because, really, why not? First up: Holi, a Hindu holiday officially observed on Wednesday.

Holi

Holiday: Holi

AKA: “Festival of Colors”

Religion Represented: Hinduism

Celebrates: Holi has both secular and religious meaning. First, it celebrates the beginning of spring. Second, it celebrates an ancient Hindu story ending — as so many do — with the triumph of good over evil.

Date: Full moon during the Indian month of Phalguna.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Religiously speaking, Holi is quite low — no higher than a 2. Culturally speaking, it’s a 9.

Notable Rituals: Holi celebrants have parties and street festivals, light bonfires, and throw/rub colored powder and fragrant water on each other.

Holika and PrahladBack Story: Thousands of years ago, throughout India, bonfires would be lit on the first full moon of spring to mark the end of winter. People burned old leaves and wood to make room for new flowers and leaves. They rub their bodies with the ash. As the “religious story” of Holi goes, a demon king named Hiranyakashipu became incensed when his own son — literally a demon spawn! — became devoted to the much-venerated god Vishnu. The boy, called Prahlada, wouldn’t stop praying to Vishnu. Unable to come to terms with the betrayal, the demon king tried to kill the boy using all sorts of antiquated methods. Poison was the first method, but the poison just turned to nectar in the boy’s mouth. Then he ordered his son trampled by elephants and put in a room with hungry snakes. No dice. With Vishnu’s help, the boy survived both attacks. Finally, the demon king recruited the help of his sister, a demoness named Holika who was immune to fire. Holika took Prahlada into the fire and sat with him, anticipating that he would burn up in her arms. Much to everyone’s amazement, it was Holika who burned and Prahlada who remained unscathed. “Holi” is a shortened version of Holika.*

Associated Literary Passages: The first mention of Holi — including the use of colored powders and perfume — appears in the Ratnavali, a sanskrit drama attributed to the 7th-Century Indian emperor Harsha. Unlike the Vedas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the Ratnavali is not considered a sacred text.

The Fun: Hindus and non-Hindus alike celebrate Holi, which is considered a time when enemies make friends and all social classes come together. The rich and poor unite and celebrate as one group, emphasizing their similarities rather than their differences — something of particular significance in India, where a traditional caste system reigned supreme for so long. Inhibitions also break down, and people are encouraged to break loose, drink liberally, and “openly flirt” with each other. For more fun information, you can visit holifestival.org.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Always a good idea to start out with a brief reminder of some Hindu basics. Then, if the weather fits, build a fire and tell the story of the demon king and his pious son. If you’re more adventurous, you might let kids shoot each other with water guns and have a colored-powder party. You can buy the powder on Amazon here. Parents might also cook up one of these seriously delicious-looking Holi recipes and play the song Rang Barse, the unofficial anthem of Holi. Here’s a video — complete with colored powder and open flirting.

*There are other legends associated with Holi, but this is the most popular.

Quick! What the Hell is Passover?

Most Christians (current and cultural) are all too familar with the story of the Last Supper, in which Jesus hosts his 12 disciples for one last meal before he’s crucified. What’s rarely made clear, though, is that Jesus’ final meal was quite likely a Passover meal. After all, the Jewish holiday of Passover was the reason Jesus had made his entrance into Jerusalem in the first place that year. Even if it wasn’t technically a Seder (pronounced SAY-der and referring to that day’s big feast), I have a hard time believing Jesus wasn’t inspired by the all-too symbolic Passover Seder when he asked his guests to eat bread as though it were his body, and drink wine as though it were his blood. That sort of thing is, as you’ll soon see, so very “Seder-y.”

Holiday: Passover

AKA: “Feast of the Unleavened Bread”

Religion Represented: Judaism

Celebrates: The exodus of the ancient Jewish people from Egyptian slavery.

Date: The 15th to 21st day in the Hebrew month of Nisan.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Passover is about a 9, just under Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. It’s one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays.

Star of the Show: Moses

Back Story: The Torah’s Book of Exodus recounts the story of the ancient Jews (Israelites) who were living as slaves in Egypt. As the story goes, a cruel Egyptian pharaoh ordered all the Israelite’s eldest sons to be murdered, which infuriated God — who proclaimed that Israel was God’s firstborn son (making the Israelites his “chosen” children). God approached Moses at the legendary burning bush to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and Moses accepted. “Let my people go,” Moses told the pharaoh over and over again. But the pharaoh refused, even after God infected all of Egypt with nine of 10 horrific plagues. The last and worst plague was that God would kill the firstborn sons of all Egyptians. (Nice guy, that Old Testament God.) He warned the Israelites ahead of time to put lamb’s blood in front of their doors, so the angel of death would know to “pass over” those houses and thus spare their sons. It was then that the pharaoh consented to let the Jews leave, and leave they did — so fast, Exodus tells us, that their bread didn’t even have time to rise. (Fortuitous, really, since crackers make much better travelers than bread, anyway.) When the pharoah changed his mind and ordered his army to recapture the Israelities, Moses (again, legendarily) parted the Red Sea with his magical staff, which led his people to freedom and drowned all pursuers in their wake.

Associated Literary Passages: Exodus 3:1-15:26; Leviticus 23:1-15Numbers 9:1-15, among others. Also: The Babylonian Talmud: Tract Pesachim; and the Union Haggadah.

The Food: It wouldn’t be Passover without unleavened bread, called matzah. But there are other symbolic foods, too: Bitter herbs (to symbolize the bitterness of slavery), a mixture of apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon (to symbolize the mortar Jewish slaves used to build Egyptian cities); a roasted egg (perpetual existence); vegetable (new life and hope); salt water (tears shed during slavery); and roasted lamb (the blood over the doorways). Oh, and observers must — must! — consume four glass of wine over the course of the dinner, which represent the four-fold promise of redemption.

The Fun: Specific Seder rituals are all laid out in the Haggadah. (And, yes, in case you were wondering, there is an app for that.) Observers eat and drink in a certain order; recite the Passover story; invite children to ask “four questions” about Passover; sing songs; and hide the afikoman, which is a piece of matzah in a napkin that the kids must find and then share with everyone. Observers also pour an extra glass of wine and leave the door open in case Elijah the prophet arrives. (Spoiler alert: He never does.)

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Because Passover was, in a sense, created to introduce Judaism to children, there are tons of cute Passover children’s book, some that focus on the back story, others that focus on the traditions of the Seder. Both kinds are absolutely worth checking out, although some are more “neutral” than others. I like Passover by Miriam Nerlove (and not just because it has a character called Aunt Maxine); Let my People Go by Tilda Balsley; and Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then by Harriet Ziefert.  You can always hold a quasi-Seder, of course, telling your child the Exodus story and then serving the symbolic food and talking about what each means.

This post originally appeared on April 2, 2012.

‘Up Series’ Captures the Magic of Age 7

One of my all-time favorite things IN THE WORLD is the Up Series, a British documentary series that follows 14 socio-economically diverse 7-year-olds throughout their lives. Interviewed about their dreams, ambitions, passions and beliefs for the 1964 film Seven Up!, these children were revisited again seven years later — when they were 14, then again at 21, and so on. Now, the “children” are 56 years old, and the latest of the films — 56 Up — is about to be available in the United States.

Here’s a trailor for it.

The films were based on the aphorism: “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.” Filmmakers Paul Almond and Michael Apted wanted to test the hypothesis that a child’s social class predetermines his or her future. To this end, they interviewed three wealthy boys from an exclusive pre-prep school, a group of working-class girls, a boy raised on a farm, another from a suburb, two kids from charity children’s home, a boy intent on becoming a missionary for God, and so on. The original idea was that, by age 7, life circumstances have set a child’s nature and outlook to such a degree that not much will change for the rest of his or her life.

Limiting, right? Very. But also fascinating. From the moment you meet them, the differences between these kids are startlingly apparent.

I tell you this, in part, because my daughter is now 7, and, for the first time, I really understand why that particular number was chosen. Suddenly, for the first time, I find myself being able to paint a pretty complete portrait of my daughter’s future self. Unlike the toddler years, or even at ages 5 and 6, children at 7 are predictable and consistent, firm in their likes and dislikes, forward-thinking, thoughtful, wise and full of personality. As the Up Series shows, not all of these “imagined portraits” come to fruition — and who knows if mine will — but many do. More than you’d think. And how strange that is! To have a baby and then seven years later be picturing them, pretty easily, as an adult. It’s shocking. And surreal. And, when it’s not breaking your heart, it’s totally awesome, too.

If you really want to get hooked, watch Part 1 of Seven Up! here. (Then go to Amazon, where you can buy the box set.)

Kids Leaving Parents’ Religion Certainly Gets People Talking

I’m hella busy today, but wanted to link to a few recent news posts about children leaving the faiths into which they were born. The first is informative, the second is instructive, and the third — well, the third is just trash. But watch it for the comedic value.

Study: Religious Parents’ Divorce May Cause Children to Leave the Church

The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion released a study Tuesday finding that children who have two religious parents are twice as likely to lose that religion if the parents divorce. The journal does not offer an explanation — those studies will be next, apparently — but does hypothesize that one reason may be that religious guidance gets put on the back burner in divorce situations. Baylor University also wrote about the study, and you can find that story here.

When Your Child Rejects Your Religion: Dos and Don’ts

Aimed at religious parents, this column from KSL.com in Utah has some great advice for religious parents whose children drift away from the family’s chosen faith. It’s advice that I wish more religious parents would heed. And, certainly, nonreligious parents who “fear” their children will someday adopt a religious practice would be wise to give the list a quick read, too.

Talking to Kids and Religion/Spirituality

I almost feel guilty pointing this one out, because IT’S SO BAD. But for us “nones” in more liberal parts of the country, perhaps it’s good to get a dose of the other side now and again. Here’s the setup: A morning news anchor for  a segment called “Take 5″ at WZZM13 in Michigan and a “doctor” called Clark (from a place called the Clark Institute) discuss how children are moving away from religion and how sad it is because they’re so alone and because kids so clearly yearn for God. I’m calling shenanigans on the whole 5-minute interview, but here are some high points (and, by that, I clearly mean low points):

1:33 Clark says: “The kids who went through the Newtown shooting — the ones that had a belief in God or some kind of church attendance or religion in the family, they did better after the shooting incident.” [Um...WTF???]

2:00 “Wow, you were a unique preschool teacher, let me tell ya!” anchor lady says when Clark reveals that, as a preschool teacher, he told his kids about Judaism, Islam and Kwanza. [And this is somehow shocking? Also, Kwanza: not religious.]

3:50 Clark suggests when a child discloses to his parents that he’s lost faith, a “great response” would be to laugh at the kid. [Another great response would be to add a bunch of money to a therapy jar, because that kid's probably going to need a lot of it.]

4:15 Anchor lady asks if parents are supposed to “leave it” to children to discover their own beliefs — an option she says “scares me because what might they find?” [Hmm. Waldo wearing a devil costume? Isn't the real question, what might they not find?]

Nonreligious Parents a ‘Niche’ Market? Not By My Count

NicheWhen I started pitching “Relax, It’s Just God” two years ago, I was told, repeatedly, that it was too niche for major publishers. At the time, I assumed this was true. After all, we live in a religious country. If I wanted to appeal to the masses, there were certainly better ways to go.

But since then, I’ve come to strongly disagree with the contention that we of little faith are some hugely specialized market. And, today, I did some number-crunching. Now I’m no statistician, so feel free to check me on this.

I started with some basic Census information:

• 313 million people live in the United States and 83.7 million of them are adults between the ages of 25 and 44.

Then I broke some numbers out by age and gender:

• 21.1 million adults are in the 25-29 range — including 10.5 million women and 10.6 million men

• 62.6 million adults are in the 30-44 range — including 31.5 million women and 31.1 million men

Then I discovered that roughly 74 percent of women and 62 percent of men between the ages and 25 and 44 are parents. I calculated that into this:

•  7.8 million women between the ages of 25 and 29 are moms.

• 6.6 million men between the ages of 25 and 29 are dads.

• 23.3 million women between the ages of 30 to 44 are moms.

• 19.3 million men between the ages of 30 and 44 are dads.

Then I considered this:

• 32 percent of all adults between the ages of 25 and 29 consider themselves “nonreligious” — that is, they don’t subscribe to any particular faith.

• 21 percent of adults between the ages of 30 and 44 consider themselves nonreligious.

Now, if we can assume that parents and non-parents are equally likely to be religious as they are to be nonreligious, then we should be able to play these numbers against each other. And when we do, we find this:

• 13.3 million American parents between the ages of 25 and 44 are nonreligious.

That’s more than one in five parents. And it doesn’t even include parents younger than 25 and older than 44. [Nor, as one kind reader pointed out to me, does it include parents who consider themselves "religious" but are looking for advice on raising open-minded children who will not become slaves to any particular belief system.]

So my question is this: What’s so niche about that?

Despite Controversy, World Religion Teacher Tells It Like It Is

religions_wheel_crimsonI may have a new BFF — or, at the very least, a great new source for my book.

Jim Morrison (no, not that one) has been teaching World Religion at a high school in Red Wing, Minn., for 17 years. He’s not a pious man himself (to say the least), so his classes are comparative, historical and incredibly eye-opening. His students love him. Christian fundamentalists in the community? Well, they don’t. But they do tolerate him. And that’s something, dammit.

Jim recently began his own blog — Teach Not Preach — which I like very much. All his posts are interesting. (This week he wrote about lesbians, so that should pique your interest.) But my favorite post is this one, in which he recalls the rather hilarious frenzy that broke out after his World Religion course was introduced in 1996. School administrators called an emergency meeting where 22 local ministers came together to debate the merits of Jim’s class — and whether it violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Jim writes:

About fifteen minutes into the discussion tempers started to flare. One pastor yelled “Why can’t you just tell the students what other religions believe, why do you have to make them think!?”  The room spontaneously erupted into a verbal brawl. A young pastor sitting behind me leaned forward and sarcastically whispered in my ear “It would be horrible if schools made students think, Jim.”  I smiled. It was clear he was on my side.

Despite the conservative Christian presence in Red Wing, Jim isn’t afraid to urge  his students to “understand the difference between religious dogma and factual information based on physical evidence and research.” For instance, he teaches that “resurrection stories and virgin birth stories are a dime a dozen in the ancient world and are not viewed as historical truth by everyone.” As a result, he says, he was “accused of injecting my own ideas into the course, misinterpreting the Bible, and generally being offensive to Christians.”

But, in the end, education won out. And, for 17 years, students have been thanking him for it. Check out these excerpts taken from a bunch of end-of-semester essays Jim recently received. Here’s a sample. (Olivia’s is my favorite.)

Coming from a Christian home with many Christian friends, many told me that taking World Religions would not be good because “all Morrison does is bash the Bible.” Well, they were wrong. In no way did I find what you said offensive toward my religion or my personal beliefs….Many fear that their little Christian boys and girls are being corrupted by exposure to other religions, but to me, that talk is just silly and is nonsense. Exposure to an idea that is different from yours isn’t corruption of the mind, it is really the expansion of the mind. Through out the semester I have learned about so many interesting ideas, and I really wish the course was a year-long class.

— Nick

The necessity of a world religion class has never been more obvious as it was the night I was studying for my Christianity test and I remarked to my mother how little I knew about Protestants despite being one. How she responded made me a little sad. “You’re not a Protestant, you’re a Lutheran,” she told me. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe she didn’t know that Lutherans are a Protestant sect.

— Olivia

Islam was the biggest shock to me. I thought they were all about blowing stuff up and terrorism. But learning about them made me think differently about them. I find it amazing how they can stick to such a strict prayer schedule and honor their religion every day. I will now think differently whenever I see a Muslim.

— Andy

One lesson among many that I will take from this class is how important it is to understand people and their beliefs before passing judgment on them. It is so very easy to have preconceived notions about a person/group without truly understanding them.

— Brian

I absolutely loved this class…but I’m not sure if my mom likes the fact that I took it. I think she dislikes the fact that I began to be more open about my personal beliefs, which differ from hers. Because of this I’m not allowed to talk to my little sister (eleven years old) about religion at all! I got in trouble for telling my sister “false ideas,” ideas that were not exactly pro-Christian. Despite this, I’m happy I took the class. Yeah for critical thinking!

— Sarah

Don’t you wish you could clone this guy and put him in your kids’ high school?

One Set of ‘Footprints in the Sand’ is Plenty for This Kid

Footprints in the sand on beach near San José del Cabo, Mexico at sunrise

When I was growing up — Missouri, 1980s — half the kids I knew had a framed copy of “Footprints in the Sand” somewhere in their house. Usually hanging in the living room.

That poem was as meaningful to these families as Rudyard Kipling’s “If” was to ours. (My mom gave me a poster-sized copy of “If” right before I entered adolescence. I must have read it 500 times.)

The point is, although it wasn’t in my own home, “Footprints in the Sand” was a part of my childhood. I have vivid memories of staring into the ubiquitous pictures of sandy beaches and thinking what a comforting, beautiful sentiment that was. Or maybe it was just the thought of a beach that I found so comforting and beautiful. (This was Missouri, after all.) I assume most of you have read it, but here it is:

Footprints in the Sand 

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.

Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.

In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.

Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,

other times there was one only.

This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life,

when I was suffering from anguish,

sorrow or defeat,

I could see only one set of footprints,

so I said to the Lord,

“ You promised me Lord,

that if I followed you,

you would walk with me always.

But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life

there has only been one set of footprints in the sand.

Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”

The Lord replied,

“The years when you have seen only one set of footprints,

my child, is when I carried you.”

author unknown

This notion of always having someone with us to keep us going is among the most common reasons people desire religious faith. It’s also, I’ve discovered, a reason that secular parents who were raised in religious households sometimes feel a sense guilt for not introducing their kids to this potentially friendly presence in their lives.

But telling a child that God is in the room with them is not nearly as compelling as it sounds. Kids’ minds are far more active than ours, their imaginations are rich and vibrant. If they want or need company, they have no trouble finding it. They hug their stuffed animals. They invent imaginary friends. They cling to their blankets. They talk to themselves.

I know I’m getting into “blasphemous” territory here, but kindly bear with me… Whether or not kids think there’s a God above doesn’t change the fact that they must solve their own problems here on Earth. In my personal experience, whether we talk things through with God or with Paddington Bear has absolutely no influence on the outcome.

As I’ve said before, my 7-year-old is very much on the fence about God. She believes sometimes and not other times — and that’s fine by me. But she said something recently that inspired this post and made certain that, whatever she ends up believing, she likely won’t ever feel the need for “Footprints in the Sand.”

“I’ll never be lonely,” she told me, “because I’ll always have myself.”

Now THAT I’d hang in the living room.

Quick! What the Hell is Purim?

I always think of the Bible as sort of dry reading — difficult to understand, weighted down by archaic language and vague descriptions, full of stories that just kind of go on and on. But, of course, that’s not always true.

And it’s especially not true in the Book of Esther.

Reading more like a Shakespearean play, the 10-chapter Book of Esther tells one hell of an intriguing story. It’s a story of honor, greed, deception, justice, irony, death and triumph. There is a clear beginning, a clear ending and even a climax and denouement. And, on top of it all, it’s a relatively quick read.

All this is good new for any Bible reader, but it’s fantastic news for our Jewish friends because, during the Jewish holiday of Purim, celebrants are asked to read the entire story of Esther aloud. Twice.

Purim begins tomorrow and continues through sundown Sunday.

So without further ado, here it is, your friendly neighborhood Cheat Sheet to Purim.

Holiday: Purim

Pronounced: POOR-im

Date: Purim falls on the 14th day of Adar in the Hebrew Calendar.

Celebrates: The escape of Persian Jews from extermination sometime around the 4th century BCE.

Religion Represented: Judaism

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Purim is maybe a 6 or 7, says my friend Jason Gewirtz, who acknowledges that Purim is pretty much the most kick-ass of all the Jewish holidays even though he, himself, suffered some childhood trauma around Purim. (Something about having to wear a cute little beard in a Purim play when he was 4. Sounds ghastly, doesn’t it?)

Star of the Show: Esther

The Back Story: Purim’s back story (which comes to us courtesy of the Book of Esther) is one of my all-time favorites, and reads a lot like a melodrama — which is exactly how Jews treat it. The villain of the story is the Persian king’s advisor, Haman (BOO! HISS!), and the two heros are Esther, the queen, and her cousin, Mordecai — both of whom are Jewish. The story is absolutely wonderful. And if you know it, you’ll pretty much know everything there is to know about Purim. For your reading enjoyment (or not), I’ve included my version of the story HERE.

Associated Literary Passages: The Old Testament’s Book of Esther, and the Babylonia Talmud: Tract Megilla.

Why Feminists Should Love Purim: There are precious few Biblical stories that put a woman front-and-center and show her taking heroic actions. Not only is Esther willing to “out herself” as a Jew to save her people, but the king respects her boldness and advice so much that, by the end of the story, she’s calling virtually all the shots. You go, girl.

The Food: The most Purim-est of the foods is Hamantaschen, a pastry shaped like Haman’s three-corned hat. “Leave it to the Jews to develop a snack based on the hat of the villian Haman,” Jason quips.

The Fun: Celebrants read the story of Esther twice during Purim — once at sundown, and again the next morning. They give away food, donate to the poor and, of course, engage in some serious feasting and drinking. In fact, the Talmud literally demands that Jews get rip-roaring drunk at Purim. No shit. The Babylonian Talmud states, and I quote, “Rava said: A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’” How’s that for an excuse to party?

Conveying Meaning to Kids: This is a no-brainer, really. Just tell your kid the story! Either put it in your own (age-appropriate) words and tell it as a bedtime story, or check out a Purim picture book from the library. My favorite is Queen Esther the Morning Star by Mordicai Gerstein, but Queen Esther Saves her People and The Story of Esther: A Purim Tale also are good. You can also look online for videos about the story of Purim; Sesame Street has a good one. And I found this website with some very funny Purim-centered puppet videos and a slide show, among other things, that would be great for kids ages 8 to 12 or thereabouts. That and Hamantaschen, and you’re good to go.

 

A version of this post originally appeared in March 2012


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