Imagine this scenario:
It is the first day of a university early childhood curriculum course. Three students have volunteered for an introductory activity and are sitting on chairs facing the class. The professor has set the scene. He is an alien who has recently arrived on Earth. He has come across a lollipop. Having no prior experience, he is asking for information that will help him to understand what a lollipop is. The task of the students is to explain what a lollipop is to someone who comes from a vastly different world.
Student #1 – It is sweet.
Professor – What is “sweet?”
Student #2 – It is sticky.
Profession – What is “sticky?”
The exchange continues with the professor always responding that he cannot understand the explanation because he has never had that experience. Then, one of the students stands up, walks up to the professor, and puts the lollipop into his mouth. He turns to the class and says, “Now I understand what a lollipop is. Experience is everything.”
This scenario affirms what we know should guide us in Jewish early childhood settings. Now let’s think about the reality of what will be taking place in classrooms in Jewish early childhood centers everywhere in just a few weeks.
Yom Kippur is in a few days. At most, there are four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. In this school year (2012/5774), there are only two school days between the two. The pressure is on!!!! So much to do!! So much that every child of every age must learn in those two days!!
In classroom after classroom, a teacher is sitting with one or two children. The teacher is telling the children that the holiday of Sukkot is coming soon, and on Sukkot, Jews take a luluv and an etrog and shake them. Maybe the children are shown a plush luluv and etrog or maybe they see a picture of them. Then, with the best of intentions, this same teacher may give the children green construction paper. With much teacher assistance, the children roll, cut, and glue to “create” a luluv – a simulation of a beautiful, real symbol of this holiday that celebrates our agricultural history in the land of Israel. Yellow construction paper may then be offered to the children to “make” an etrog. There may be lemon juice to smell or a real lemon available as an example of an etrog. In some classrooms, children may paint on a simple, black and white outline of a luluv and etrog.
The odds are, however, that there is probably not a real luluv or etrog there because they are not usually available until Evev (eve) Sukkot. And in an even more unfortunate reality, some children may not even have an opportunity to have experiences with a real luluv or etrog once Sukkot arrives.
What would the professor say to teachers in Jewish settings the day after Yom Kippur? We can imagine many questions that could be asked, but the most important is this: “How can there be understanding without experience?” A luluv and an etrog can only be understood from direct experience. It is almost a guarantee that these symbols are different–certainly different than anything these children have experienced. They are TOO different to describe in words, in plush toys or in paper simulations. These are all representations, lacking the sensory experience of the feel, the sound and the scent of the “real thing.”
Anyone who has attempted to have an experience with a young child and a luluv knows that this takes some supervision so that no one gets maimed in the encounter. You can’t get that understanding with a toy or a picture. Why even bother if the children will not gain any meaning or understanding from the activities? Aren’t we supposed to be intentional practitioners who strive to provide enduring understandings for these young learners?
In the zeal to educate the children, we have forgotten how young children learn.
So, why does a child need a paper luluv or etrog? (Hint: “Because they love shaking them” is not the answer.) In a community where the children will be in synagogue on Sukkot it might make sense for them to have a paper luluv and etrog, so that they can participate in the service. Also, there is probably a real luluv and etrog in the home or at their school, so the child is playing at an experience that has already become a part of his/her life. This is how the plush ones came to be so popular.
However, in our quest to provide excellence in early childhood education, the question to ponder is whether it makes any sense to teach about something. Does it not make more sense to introduce children to a luluv and etrog when they come back to school during Sukkot? Children who saw them at synagogue or at home will have information to share. Children for whom this is a new experience will have much to explore. We must also remember that young children probably will not have any memory of these ritual objects from the previous year.
Three critical questions arise:
- What do we want our children to know about these strange objects?
- What might a one, two, three, four, or five year old child discover about a luluv and an etrog?
- Finally, what could adults do to build on what the children have discovered and noticed once they have had some experience with these symbols?
Why do we use a luluv and etrog during Sukkot? In the Torah (Levitcus 23:40, we read “And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.” Those four plants are the luluv (made of the palm frond, the myrtle and willow branches) and the etrog. Over time the interpretations of these four symbols have become diverse, but for young children they can represent the good things that grow on God’s earth. They are a tangible reminder that Sukkot is a time of celebration of the harvest and what we can get from the earth to help us survive. They also provide an opportunity to help children develop a love of the natural world.
A luluv and an etrog are not just for looking at. Each day of Sukkot except for Shabbat, we are to take the luluv and etrog in our hands, say a berakhah and shake them in all the directions: front, side, back, side, up, and down. We acknowledge that God is everywhere. This connects to the idea that a sukkah is a fragile structure and that our protection comes from God. And they come to us all the way from Israel giving us the opportunity to create a connection with Israel early in the school year. All of this information may not be appropriate for the youngest children. It will be enough to simply have the experience of exploring, blessing, and shaking.
What might a child think of them? A palm frond is certainly interesting. It has texture and a very pointed end. It makes a great sound when shaken. What do children think about it? What does it say to them about their world? A lemon is not an etrog. It is differently shaped, it has an extraordinary scent, and is very sour. And after Sukkot ends, an etrog can be cut open, allowing the children to explore this unique fruit. Have them taste it! Plant the seeds and see what happens.
After the intensity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, comes Sukkot, z’man simhateinu, the time of our happiness. Joyful learning is not found in rushing around cramming information into children’s heads.
We have the privilege of being present at the beginning of a child’s Jewish education. We have the responsibility to bring intentionality and reflection to what can be part of that beginning.
As we prepare for Sukkot, take the time to consider how to wisely use the time before the holiday begins. Remind yourself that experience is not the best teacher. It is the only teacher. Be sure your program has at least one real luluv and etrog to explore, to bless, and to shake. Then and only then will the plush toys in your classrooms have the context and relevance for meaningful play during (and after) Sukkot.
Hag Semeah. Happy New Year and Happy Sukkot.