Exit Ramp: Marking time with books
I adored reading to my boys when they were small. We would huddle together like a mama bird with her chicks in the nest, and I’d feed them my love of a good story. Yes, there were times I thought my head would explode from reading our best-loved picture books over and over (and over) again. Yet this was the stuff my maternal dreams were made of.
The boys learned to read and graduated to chapter books in the blink of an eye, though for a while we occasionally read those together, too. It was during the summer we read “All-of-a-Kind Family,” years before their adolescence loomed on the horizon, that they made a full retreat into literary independence. Only in hindsight could I see that the final pages of Sydney Taylor’s novel about a Jewish family in the Lower East Side tenements — a family that loves to read, by the way — would be the last chapter in our joint reading life.
Notching milestones on our bookshelves seems fitting for the People of the Book. Books are our birthright, our memory, and our future, a tether to our history, religion, and culture. As Israeli authors Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger write in “Jews and Words,” “Ours is not a bloodline, but a text line,” a connection between Jews that goes all the way back to Abraham in the Torah.
By encouraging our offspring to read, we play a powerful role in keeping that connection strong. Reading builds knowledge but also curiosity, and when the books are Jewish-themed, they can inspire children to ask questions about their heritage, helping to shape their Jewish identity. Studies have shown that reading fiction also nurtures empathy and compassion, two central Jewish values.
I love the idea that Jews are linked to one another through the written word, a truth I felt when we attended the various ceremonies at which the boys received first a siddur (prayer book), then a chumash (Hebrew Bible), and lastly, their first volume of Talmud. I cried at each of these milestone events, moved both by a wish to stop time and a sense of awe as I watched my sons entwine their own unfolding story with the eternal narrative of the Jewish people.
At home, we turned to books for fun and escape. Through stories, we tried on new selves and experienced things we never could in the world that exists off the page. We enjoyed bedtime reading rituals, wearing out the binding of “A Taste for Noah,” about a boy who hates charoset, and “The Adventures of K’tonTon.” And there were so many others, like the Harry Potter installments we passed from one to another and the Scholastic orders the boys picked out for themselves.
Alas, long gone are the days when we’d curl up together on the couch to read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” umpteen times or “My Shabbos 1-2-3’s,” which I could at one time recite by heart. Now that the boys are closer to adulthood than childhood, we get lost in separate volumes in separate spaces — if we’re even in the house at the same hours of the day, if they have time to read for pleasure at all. I suspect they don’t give this much thought, but I’m left wanting. I fill in the space by reading the classics on their high school English class syllabi.
A few years ago, I piled up many of the books we read when the boys were small, volumes no one had touched in years. Though it pained me, I planned to donate them, keeping the few I take out when I’m overcome with nostalgia. One son saw the stack near the front door and became indignant. “You can’t give away a part of our childhood!” Afraid to break the spell and delighted we still shared those memories, I tiptoed into the den to restore the books to their rightful place on the shelves.
While the next in line applies to yeshiva in Israel for a gap year and the eldest now comes and goes as a college student is wont to do, I keep thinking how Jews have always been a people on the go. Books are a perfect fit, a portable way to take the story of our heritage with us.
They also mark time, leaving me to wonder what books the boys will bring with them wherever they go next. I try to imagine what will shape their adult reading lives when they set up their own homes and which volumes they will, God willing, read to their own children. I pray they’ll pull something down off the shelf from here, and that we will always find one another on the page.