In these weeks, as we are reading about the exodus from Egypt and the march toward the Promised Land, I have been thinking about the connection between literature and space. Every year for Passover we reread this story and I return to my own childhood memories of Seder at my parents’ house. In our keeping the Passover law (nomos) we relive the Passover narrative. In retelling this story we are transported to another time and place. Our people was born when we left Egypt, became Bnai Mitvah at Har Sinai, only to wander around the desert in our teen years seeking a new home. This has become more interesting to me as I continue to work on being a better father.
Last year as part of my work for the Foundation for Jewish Camp I had the pleasure of going to Israel. As part of that trip I went to Holon to see the municipal gardens there. The municipality has intentionally designed public parks to educate their children. The unique part is that some of the parks represent the canon of Israeli children’s literature. So children can read the stories of their country at home and then go into a public space to realize that the culture in their private homes is really the national culture. It is their story and their land. It is empowering to young children to know they have a space and a story in this young country.
After my trip to Holon, I had the fortune of going to Pinat Shorashim, when it was still on Kibbutz Gezer. David Leichman created a space to enable people of all ages, including prisoners, to come to a place to reimage themselves as part of the story of Biblical Israel. If we allowed ourselves to be present in the space what story could the land of Israel teach us? There at Pinat Shorashim the Biblical stories become alive. There, the story of the exodus from Egypt was not just a story, visitors would actually have to make their way through an obsticle course representing the plagues. Like the “story park” in Holon, David enjoined the visitors to revisit themselves as part of this living canon of Jewish/Israeli literature.In the words of Rebecca Leibowitz, my co-worker at the Foundation for Jewish camp, “Reverence is transformed into relevance”.
But, how could I bring this back to North America? I could not exactly put it in my carry-on bag. It was then that I realized, my children are beneficiaries of an emergent canon of Jewish children’s literature. Since Yadid was three years old we have been getting PJ library books sent to our home. Like many other parents in over 100 communities across America we have been introducing our children to characters of our Jewish heritage as part of their bedtime rituals. How amazing would it be to find a Jewish space to bring these characters and these values to life?
The most logical place to do this would be in the JCC day camps in those 100 communities. How amazing would it be for the JCCs to bring in an artists-in-residence to engage PJ Library families to create a public garden in their day camp to bring these stories to life? This project links the family to community. The JCC would create a new context for the bed time stories of thousands of kids for generations. These parks will create a natural bridge between the private Jewish expression to public Jewish Life. This kind of creative use of space will not just help us tell our story, it could change the story of American Jewry.