Debby Elnatan invented Upsee for her son with CP, launched a program for families of special-needs kids, and harmonizes all her activities with music. BY Abigail Klein Leichman
Debby and Zohar Elnatan with their sons, from left, Rotem, Inbar and Shachar. Photo by Tzvika Portnoy
A guitar and a contrabass are the first things you see when you walk into the Jerusalem home of Debby and Zohar Elnatan. You also notice the adaptive equipment for 19-year-old Rotem, who has cerebral palsy.
Those two elements – music and a child with special needs – are dominant threads in the tapestry of the five Elnatans’ lives.
When ISRAEL21c came to visit, Debby Elnatan was still the center of global media attention following the April 7 launch of the Firefly Upsee (http://israel21c.org/social-action-2/israeli-moms-invention-gets-cerebral-palsy-kids-walking/), a novel co-walking harness based on a contraption she invented when Rotem was two years old.
“So many orders – thousands — came in over the first few days, that the website crashed,” she says. “Parents all over the world are putting up videos on Facebook showing them walking or dancing with their kids for the first time. Some show siblings hugging for the first time. Parents write to me about their Upsee before they even take the price tag off. It’s just incredible how virally this spread; within one week it was in China, Bosnia, Iran, South America, Japan – the four corners of the earth.”
CNN Turkey and a Brazilian television crew interviewed her, as well as an Italian radio station after a piece they did on the Upsee got 4.5 million hits.
A fiddler of music and tools
Elnatan, 56, was born in Syracuse, New York, and moved to Israel in 1983. She’s a lifelong music lover. “I’m a fiddler, and I have a country band called Habandanot [the Bandanas]. We do Wild West events all over Israel.”
Her father taught her to work with tools, a skill that came in handy when she became the parent of a child with CP.
“If I saw something Rotem needed, I would build a prototype,” she says.
“Since he was one year old I’ve designed crawling, seating, standing and walking equipment refined through trial and error. I have one patent and another patent application pending, and a lot of products to get into the market. I hope all my inventions will be commercialized, because I have a lot to offer and I want to give other families the advantages I had.”
She is adamant that her inventions be sold online to remain affordable. The Irish company Leckey created a retail website for the Firefly Upsee and another product, after refining its design and testing it extensively throughout the UK.
Towards a whole family
Each of Elnatan’s items is designed to leave the parent’s hands free and give therapeutic benefits while allowing the child to participate in family activities.
“Having a child with special needs can bring great stress to a family and all the relationships in it,” Elnatan tells ISRAEL21c. “There is a danger of investing too many resources in the child with special needs at the expense of the health of the family.”
Cap 2: The family that plays together stays together. Photo by Tzvika Portnoy
Rotem’s older brother, Shachar, is a professional jazz guitarist, while 12-year-old Inbar is the one who plays the guitar and contrabass. Zohar is a guitarist and music teacher. Rotem, an aspiring DJ, entertained at a Passover party at Ilanot, his special school in Jerusalem. His mom lent some help. “We do what he can’t and he does the rest, and feels great about it,” she says.
Before Rotem was born, Debby and Zohar started an evening music group through the Shekel Association, which provides community services for people with special needs with the support of JDC Israel, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Jerusalem municipality and other agencies. This remains a weekly commitment.
“We perform with our drumming group around the country at regular schools as a way of introducing people who have special needs in a fun environment,” she explains. “The group includes young adults with a variety of special needs, who all like music and have good rhythm.”
About 12 years ago, Elnatan conceived of a program with Miri Weiss, another mother of a special-needs child, to counter what they term “the broken child syndrome.”
“If you break an arm it does heal, but children with a chronic disease or impairments may never become like a typical child,” she explains. “If you always see your child as broken and needing to be fixed, it will cause an imbalance in your family.”
After 11 years of seeking a sponsor and sitting in board meetings, the Shemesh (Full Family Rehabilitation) pilot program was born to help restore family balance through play and leisure, family participation, sibling togetherness, parenting, and learning how to ask for help. Parents of older children with special needs are trained to accompany families with younger children with special needs.
JDC Israel developed the program and sought governmental funding partners. A three-year pilot of Shemesh is now wrapping up in communities including Ashkelon, Rosh Ha’ayin, Baqa al-Gharbiyye and Rehovot.
“We had to get the government to understand that family is the main influence and mover behind the quality of life of the child, and they need to help the entire family,” says Elnatan.
Play builds special-needs children’s confidence and personality, she says. “The best advice I got was from [Israeli clinical psychologist] Aliza Vig, who recommends parents find what brings a spark to their child’s eye and follow that lead.” She was also advised to favor activities that the parent enjoys as much as the child.
The same goes for siblings. Inbar tells ISRAEL21c that he and Rotem play Wii and card games, bake cookies and prepare salads together. “Maybe it’s because he was in the Upsee [when he was younger] and could stand and do things with his hands,” the preteen observes.
Israel has plenty of adrenaline-filled activities for pint-size travelers. Try kite surfing, alpine slides, bungee trampolines, dune-buggies and more. By Viva Sarah Press
Israelis are always looking for adventures. The country’s varied topography, coupled with great weather year round, make Israel an extreme-sports destination And the cornucopia of adrenaline-filled activities is not only for adults.
Israel is a haven for the younger generation of adventure-seeking, extreme-sports nuts. The unwritten rule in Israel is that if you haven’t done something extreme, you haven’t been on vacation.
From ice skating to kite surfing, alpine slide rides to off-road biking, bungee trampolines to dune-buggy rides, horse trekking to climbing walls, there are dozens of thrills waiting to be had.
Families love skating at the Canada Center.
Starting up north in Metulla, the Canada Center keeps visitors and residents of this picturesque town entertained with a handful of extreme options including Israel’s first Olympic-size ice rink – there’s another in Eilat.
Swimming at the Canada Center.
The Canada Center houses a swimming pool, bowling alley, shooting range and the country’s second 7D Max Cinema – screening 10-minute films that take your mind on an extreme adventure via a sensory explosion that mashes a 3D movie experience with extra theatrical effects including simulated rain and wind, seat vibration and movement.
7D Max is a sensory explosion.
While families can most definitely spend a day at the Canada Center indoors, feeling the wind while mountain biking/riding in an open jeep/zipping down an omega line is a thrilling experience you can only get outside.
Clippity-clopping across the land
The Galilee and Golan Heights — with their hilly and open areas – have become synonymous with jeep tours, ATV rides, tom-cars, quad runners, and buggy treks. Dozens of operators in the area are ready to outfit families (there are even some with baby car seats) with guided and self-guided tours into the heart of nature.
Horseback riding is a popular way to get a feel of the land. A few places offer hour-long or half-day rides, but the Dubi Ranch at Kibbutz Ramot Menashe takes it up a notch with its riding-and-camping trips of a few days. Children age five and up can take part.
The fast-growing trend of cycling is alive and well in Israel. Off-road trails wind throughout the country. Families can rent single bikes, tandem bikes or even unicycles on marked trails and guided tours. HaGoshrim Resort’s bicycle center is considered a main authority in this field.
Climbing walls and outdoor ropes courses are also trendy. The Top Rope adventure park at Kfar Blum lets kids climb over rope bridges, up its 40-foot-high climbing wall, and then zip-line into the Jordan River.
Climbing wall for kids at Top Rope.
Or head up to the Hermon Ski Resort, regardless of the season. If there’s no snow, Israel’s only ski site also boasts a bike park (downhill, mountain), extreme mountain sleds, canoeing and a cable car.
And don’t overlook the Manara Cliff attraction park Although it might not look like much from the road, the site – located at the southern entrance to Kiryat Shmona — will get your kids’ blood pumping and stretch their smiles from ear to ear.
Extreme fun at Manara Cliff. Photo by Tal Glick
Manara Cliff hosts Israel’s longest cable car, which travels along a 1,940-meter route and reaches a height of 750 meters over the Naphtali Ridge.
The site also boasts the country’s longest, user-controlled Mountain Slide along a 1,200-meter panoramic course (there’s another 950-meter slide at the Hermon Ski Resort) bungee-trampolines that launch jumpers up to a height of nine meters; a 200-meter omega drop suitable for adventurous children and adults alike; and a rappelling site.
Older kids experience Manara Cliff. Photo by Eyal Margolin
For younger kids, a slow moving Cliff train that comes with a recorded guide of the area.
Not so extreme, but lots of fun. Photo by Tal Glick
With the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea easily accessible, water-based extreme sports in the north of the country are also popular.
Kids wanting to try out kite-surfing, sail boarding, waterskiing or windsurfing have come to the right place. Both the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and Mediterranean are calm enough for beginners but still offer a taste of the extreme.
Feel the whoosh of the giant slides at the water amusement parks around the Kinneret.
The Luna Gal-Hof Golan is Israel’s biggest water amusement park (open April through October).
Water park near the Kinneret. Photo courtesy of Israel Tourism Ministry
The Galilee is also known for its kayaking, Kayak season depends on the winter’s rainfall but usually runs April through October. Children age five and up can take part in a family river run. If the Jordan River is high enough, the companies will also offer short floating options for ages two to five.
If paddling is not for you, then head over to Achziv National Park to Trek Yam for a thrilling Tornado rafting ride along the Israel-Lebanon sea border. The high-speed motorized rafts reach 45 knots as they glide past the Galilee hills and gleaming white cliffs of Rosh Hanikra.
Take to the air
And finally, free-falling through Israel’s skies is one of the most fun adventures anyone willing to do it could experience. However, most air sports – flying, skydiving, hang-gliding – aren’t geared for the younger set.
Megido Aviation, an aviation school and a provider of aerial services, gives youngsters a taste of flight. Its “pilot for a day” option includes taking off, ascending, turning, gliding and landing a real plane with a licensed pilot.
The cherry on the top: The flight routes give exclusive aerial views of the breathtaking landscapes below.
Courtesy of Rosenstein
Walking into Macesz Huszár, a Hungarian Jewish restaurant in Budapest’s historic — and, more recently, ultra-fashionable — Jewish district, two distinct moods emerge. The lacy tablecloths and vintage light fixtures have all the retro-coziness of dinner at grandma’s house. But other details, from the crisply dressed waiters to the chic stemware set at each table, tell a different, more sophisticated story.
The food shares a similar duality. An appetizer of Jewish-style eggs (creamy chopped egg salad enriched the Hungarian way — with duck schmaltz and caramelized onions) is served alongside a basket of artisan-baked bread, while a homey plate of veal and barley-stuffed cabbage comes garnished with a bright mix of fresh pea shoots and carpaccio-thin slices of beets and radishes.
Owner David Popovits, a 41-year-old Budapest native, says his restaurant’s split personality is entirely by design. On the one hand, he literally takes cues from his grandmother. “She always said, ‘The more animal varieties in a soup, the better it tastes,’” he told me recently. Fittingly, his matzo ball soup broth is enriched with both goose and beef. But the restaurateur (he also owns an upscale wine bar in the neighborhood, and is about to open a delicatessen), who has lived in the United States, Tel Aviv and Tokyo, understands the importance of imbuing tradition with a sense of the new and unexpected.
Open since late 2013, Macesz Huszár, which translates to “matzo soldier” (cheekily alluding to an outdated slur used against Jews), is one of a growing number of restaurants featuring traditional Hungarian Jewish dishes prepared with a contemporary spin. It makes sense as Budapest, after all, currently holds Central Europe’s largest Jewish population, with about 100,000 Jews, 10,000 of whom identify as religiously observant. Meanwhile, the city is experiencing a larger blossoming of Jewish culture, despite a simultaneous rise in nationalist sentiment and the increased power of the openly extremist, anti-Semitic Jobbik party in Hungary’s National Assembly.
Unlike the few long-standing Jewish restaurants in the neighborhood, specifically Hanna and Carmel, which are both glatt kosher and cater to kosher-keeping tourists and the city’s observant Jews, these newer restaurants do not follow Jewish dietary law. But they are explicit in their desire to bring Hungary’s Jewish cuisine into the 21st century.
Around the corner from Macesz Huszár is Café Noe, one of four bakeshops run by pastry chef Ráchel Raj and her husband, Miklós Maloschik. The daughter of a rabbi father and cookbook author mother who originally opened Café Noe in the mid-1990s, Raj, 33, custom designs cakes and serves up a variety of Jewish sweets, including hamantaschen during Purim and an apple matzo cake year round.
Most notably, however, she makes flódni, a traditional Jewish tri-layered pastry filled with poppy seeds, ground walnuts and apple, slicked with homemade plum jam. The boundlessly energetic Raj, who identifies herself as a “modern Yidishe mama,” helped put the dessert on the map when she and Maloschik set a world record for baking the largest flódni at the popular Sziget music and culture festival in 2012. (The record-breaking pastry was 72 feet long.)
Diners strolling around the Jewish district will also find Koleves (which means “stone soup”), a trendy spot that opened a year and a half ago in what had been a kosher butcher shop. The menu primarily offers globally inspired fare like sweet potato risotto and grilled brie salad, but eschews pork and includes Jewish Hungarian staples like matzo ball soup and sólet, the Hungarian take on the Jewish bean stew, cholent. A short walk away, Fülemüle Étterem (or Nightingale Restaurant, in English), which opened in 2000, has become something of a sólet mecca. The restaurant offers half a dozen old school and improvisational takes on the dish, including one topped with goose leg and another spiced with chili powder.
Beyond the Jewish district, restaurateur Tibor Rosenstein has created perhaps the most well-known of these nouveau Jewish eateries: the aptly named Rosenstein. Raised by two food-loving grandmothers (he lost most of his family in the Holocaust), Rosenstein, 72, said he spent his childhood learning at his bubbes’ apron strings and, as he put it, “schechting [slaughtering] chickens instead of playing soccer like the other kids.”
He opened his namesake restaurant relatively soon after the fall of communism, in 1996, with the ahead-of-his-time plans to offer Hungarian and Jewish dishes with an elegant twist. At Rosenstein, a thin white platter might come artfully adorned with goose skin gribenes (cracklings), foie gras, edible flowers and a slab of inez — a Hungarian Jewish recipe of goose fat rolled in ruby-colored paprika. Meanwhile, he might pair a dish of stewed veal with tarhonya (a small Hungarian pasta commonly called egg barley), top his sólet with a hunk of smoked brisket and a creamy roasted egg, or slice flódni into svelte towers and dust them with confectioners’ sugar.
Not surprisingly, over the decades his restaurant has become a sought-after destination. And, along with his son Robi, Rosenstein has continued to innovate, offering a line of house-made pálinka,(plum brandy), as well as, most recently, partnering with a farm nearby to source high-quality produce and meat.
Collectively, these restaurants are changing the face of Jewish dining in Budapest. They attract plenty of locals, both Jewish and not, as well as tourists hoping to tap into the local Jewish culture. Rosenstein, meanwhile, has welcomed its fair share of celebrity guests, from Steven Spielberg to Helen Mirren.
But for Tibor Rosenstein, restaurants like his represent much more than good eats. In the decades before World War II, Budapest’s population was nearly 25% Jewish, with Jews actively participating in and contributing to mainstream Hungarian life and culture. Then came the war, which claimed 600,000 Jews across Hungary. “The Holocaust and the decades of Communist rule afterward greatly impacted the Jewish Hungarian kitchen,” Rosenstein said. “Lots of people forgot recipes and lost gems from their childhoods. Now there’s a revival of people doing research to bring some of these dishes back.”
Take Popovits of Macesz Huszár. Though his approach is unapologetically modern, he mined 100-year-old Jewish Hungarian cookbooks, along with his grandmother’s cooking, while creating his menu. Now, in addition to opening the new delicatessen, he and his team are working on a cookbook of their own. “We want to put out something that captures our perspective as an outspokenly Jewish restaurant in the early 21st century,” he said. “When people look back 100 years from now, they will see that this is what Jewish food in Hungary looks like today.”
Presented in collaboration with AICF
WEDNESDAY, MAY 21, 8:00PM
On Wednesday, May 21, the young Jewish community
of New York City will come together
for an annual concert showcasing musical works by Jewish composers from around the world,
featuring internationally acclaimed and award-winning Israeli musicians.
Following the concert, there will be a cocktail reception with delicious food and drinks overlooking Central Park to kick-off the summer in style!
You are invited to an evening celebrating the Jewish community, philanthropy, and music.
The young Jewish community of New York City will come together for an annual concert showcasing classical works by Jewish composers from around the world, featuring internationally acclaimed and award-winning Israeli musicians. Following the concert, there will be a cocktail reception overlooking Central Park to kick-off the summer in style!
NYC’s Young Leadership Jewish organizations have teamed up to collaborate on this community-wide event which will be held in our beautiful and historic sanctuary. This will also be part of our 360th anniversary, as well as the America-Israel Cultural Foundation’s 75th anniversary.
The proceeds from the tickets will support the dozens of New York-based organizations that make up our vibrant Jewish community.
This event is co-sponsored by:
By Roi Mitteiler, NoCamels
Fluency in two languages, or bilingualism, substantially contributes to mental dexterity and the ability to rapidly skip between different cognitive mind sets and challenges, according to new research out of the University of Haifa.
“The lifelong experience of bilinguals, characterized by the constant shifting between languages, may explain their noted advantage of cognitive flexibility,” says Professor Rafiq Ibrahim of the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center of his and his research team’s findings, recently published in the journal “Psychology.”
Prior research on bilingualism has revealed that a balanced control over two languages enhances certain cognitive functions, especially the perceptive and idea-forming abilities in children. In the current study, the researchers sought to discover whether bilingualism among adults could lend itself to cognitive agility— the ability to create complex ideas, solutions to problems, or reactive thoughts, and quickly move between these sets of thoughts independently.
Bilinguals are more spontaneous, mentally at least
In order to examine their hypothesis, the team created two groups of research participants. One was a group of adult bilinguals who spoke Hebrew and English fluently at the same level, consisting mostly of Israelis who grew up in English-speaking homes or who immigrated to Israel at a young age. The second group was compiled of Israelis with a moderate level of English learned in school. The participants were presented with a series of tests aimed at determining the differences in the cognitive flexibility of the two groups.
The results of the study indicated that people who are bilingual have higher levels of cognitive flexibility, particularly spontaneous cognitive flexibility, or the ability to quickly and independently move between idea sets. The group of researchers then analyzed the test results statistically, confirming that the major difference between those who are fluent in two as opposed to only one language is their level of spontaneous cognitive flexibility, which gives the bilingual individual the upper hand mentally.
Don’t rush into learning a second language
“The findings of our study shed further light on the significance and added benefits of being bilingual, especially that those who spoke two languages fluently have more spontaneous cognitive agility, which is a higher level of cognitive activity. Our study clearly indicates that being bilingual has a notable impact in improving this ability,” Ibrahim concluded.
This study, conducted by Professors Ibrahim and David Sher, together with Reut Shoshani and Anat Prior, is only one in a series being conducted at the Safra Center aimed at directly measuring cognitive and brain activity in order to ascertain a relationship between bilingualism and certain cognitive functions.
Before you rush out to start learning a second language, it is important to remember that the majority of bilingual individuals have been so since birth and that there a number of simpler ways to improve your cognitive agility, like solving crossword puzzles for instance!
At Campus TLV for Moms, enterprising young mothers learn business tips from the pros while nursing, burping and changing their babies. By Karin Kloosterman
It may look like back-to-school night, but it’s actually Google Moms. Photo by Niv Kantor.
It’s a Sunday night at Tel Aviv University and 10 women entrepreneurs are eagerly listening to Elena Donets, the passionate CEO of starTAU entrepreneurship program. She is giving a DIY guerilla guide to founding a startup.
As Donets explores the ins and outs of UX and UI, we hear a dull thud of a breast pump in the background. Sharon Solomon, an entrepreneur creating a coupon aggregating and comparison site called Coupick, is extracting milk for her infant son Raz, now at home with Dad.
This class is called We Dream, and it is targeted to help women make it in the predominantly male world of high-tech companies. Women found only nine percent of Israeli startups, and a smaller percentage get funding.
At We Dream, a pioneer course in Israel operating for a couple of years, three of the women were pregnant, and most of the rest had young children at home. Three of them were also graduates of Google’s baby-friendly startup workshop in Tel Aviv called Campus TLV for Moms, or more colloquially “Google Moms.”
Google Moms veterans include Solomon and her Coupick cofounder Maya Holtzer, a mother of three.
Holzter, 40, and Solomon, 39, met when they started their Google Mom classes last October, the second round of the course. One day a week for 10 weeks, from 9:30am to 2pm, they and about 50 other women met at Google’s panoramic office in Tel Aviv –– with their small kids, if they chose.
A venture in the park
Google furnishes the women with expert seminars as they sit on poufy cushions and mats where the babies can roll around at leisure, getting nursed, burped and changed as needed.
Coupick cofounders Maya Holtzer, left, and Sharon Solomon.
Google Moms was created by successful Israeli entrepreneur Hilla Brenner, founder and past CEO of Whitesmoke. She worked with a friend, Google Israel Product Marketing Manager Tal Sarig-Avraham, to get the idea off the ground.
The two friends were walking through the park one day with their kids when it dawned on Brenner that she could take skills from her women-only high-tech network, Yazamiyot, to give other women who wanted to start their own ventures. Sarig-Avraham pushed to get the concept accepted at Google.
For Solomon, the timing was perfect, she tells ISRAEL21c. She was pregnant, had a toddler, and was looking for a productive way to use her three-and-a-half-month maternity leave.
During the first leave, she says, her days were spent meeting with girlfriends and talking about their babies.
Future business partners? Photo by Niv Kantor
With Raz, there has been a change: “I do the same things now with my girlfriends,” says Solomon. “Except this time it’s not just talk about pee-pee and ca-ca. Now it’s pee-pee, ca-ca and startups,” she smiles, while packing up her breast pump.
She attempts to juggle Raz’s nursing and sleeping schedule with her husband, who is also trying to build a startup.
“I knew I would have an opportunity and time to work on a startup during my maternity leave. My mission was to learn about startup goals and to meet people who were at my stage of development,” says Solomon, who has been working at startups and tech companies for 15 years.
The pressures of Israeli women
At the end of their Google Moms session, Solomon and Holtzer won the demo day competition, earning $20,000 worth of Google Cloud services and a slot in the esteemed Google Launch Pad program – which unfortunately is not open to babies.
Before they met, Holtzer had been trying to get a startup going through Facebook.
“I wasn’t wasting my time, but I was working needlessly and not going anywhere and felt stuck. I felt I needed a direction and framework and some new tools to take me forward,” she tells ISRAEL21c.
She’d heard of the women’s venture support network Yazamiyot, and they let her know about the program starting at Google.
Maybe the babies will pick up some tips, too. Photo by Niv Kantor
“I thought, ‘Why not?’ I am a mom. Let’s take advantage of my gender.”
Women in Israel have, in some ways, a harder time starting up ventures. The social norm is to marry young, and have a career and children by age 30. Life plans are usually delayed by two or three years or more, because of army service, the almost “compulsory” post-army trip, and university.
Google Moms and other programs like We Dream offer the right framework, while not compromising on any of the perks offered in the usual networking channels.
Based on the resounding success in Israel, Google is now launching moms-only programs in London, Berlin and Moscow, says Brenner, whose own new company is called Keydownloads.
Commenting on the second session, as a third session of Google Moms is poised to begin in May, Brenner says, “It was nice because women got together and heard important lectures on business development and finance. They saw role models as the babies were crawling around.”
Lantern Library is giving storybooks to children in all Arab, Bedouin and Druze kindergartens and special-education Israeli schools, and some preschools. BY Abigail Klein Lachman
The kids at preschool in Baka al-Gharbiyeh, 30 miles northeast of Tel Aviv, love their new books.
The Arabic book was gifted to every kindergartner, special-needs pupils and some preschoolers in state-run Arab schools as the latest extension of the Massachusetts-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s PJ Library project. Suggestions included for classroom and home activities based on the book have been a big hit.
“I’ve seen more mouse masks, mouse hats, mouse drawings and pictures of mouse homes than I ever dreamed I would,” laughs Galina Vromen, CEO of the Grinspoon Foundation’s Israeli arm and director of its book distribution programs Sifriyat Pijama (PJ Library) for Jewish children, now in its fifth year, and the new Maktabat al-Fanoos (Lantern Library) for Arab children.
About 45,000 children in 1,750 kindergartens will receive four children’s books this year with the goal of instilling an early love of reading.
Vromen explains that many Arabic-speaking families do not have children’s books. Written Arabic is formal – the equivalent of Shakespearean English, she says — making literature inaccessible to kids. The four Lantern Library books chosen by a committee of Arab experts in children’s literature and/or development, as well as Education Ministry officials, employ a combination of formal and colloquial Arabic to be more child-friendly.
“The formal language is a huge barrier, and this program makes the issue of parent involvement easier,” Vromen tells ISRAEL21c.
Soumsoum, the first of the quartet, was distributed in January in cooperation with Arab publishing houses. Three of the books are written by Arab authors and one is an Arabic translation of a Hebrew book.
Lantern Library is led by the Ministry of Education, with support from the Grinspoon Foundation and the Price Family Charitable Fund, which funds and operates Bidayat (Beginnings) Early Childhood Centers and programs in Arab communities.
Pajamas and lanterns
Vromen expects that Lantern Library will be as successful as Sifriyat Pijama, which this year is distributing Hebrew books to more than 200,000 Hebrew-speaking preschoolers and kindergartners in most Israeli municipalities, or about 85 percent of children attending state schools in these grades.
Teachers and parents shared reading time with the kids in the Baka al-Gharbiyeh classrooms.
Between them, PJ Library in the United States and Sifriyat Pajama in Israel have given away more than 10 million books in nine years.
Why Maktabat al-Fanoos rather than the Arabic equivalent of PJ Library?
Arabic does not have a “p” sound, and Arabs call their sleeping attire “nightshirt.” So Vromen and the committee searched for a different name.
“A lantern conveys the feeling of shedding light, in terms of enlightening and being associated with the evening,” Vromen explains.
Soumsoum (which means “sesame” in both Arabic and Hebrew) is about a field mouse who mentally stores the images and stories of summer while his peers scurry around gathering food for the winter. When the cold weather arrives, Soumsoum warms his friends with his stories and poems. The lesson is that every person has a role to play in his or her family and society.
One of the suggestions for parents and teachers reads: “The mice use their imagination in order to cope with their hunger and boredom. Let us take our child on a journey through the world of imagination: We’ll close our eyes and imagine ourselves in a beautiful place. What do our senses perceive? Or you may think of something pleasant that happened to you today, or that you would like to happen.”
Feedback from teachers has been enthusiastic, says Vromen. One teacher invited fathers to come in and read the books to small groups before everyone took the books home, while another asked all the parents to attend a session where their kids told them the story in their own words.
The book now being distributed is Fiddiya, originally published in Hebrew as Kaspion and translated some years ago. It’s about a small silver fish swimming alone in the sea that comes across a huge baby whale in distress because he lost his mother. Fiddiya and her friends help the whale find his mother.
“Parent discussion suggestions focus on the way that each person can help another,” says Vromen. Arab culture is rooted in mutual assistance, and its folklore is full of stories about someone small coming to the rescue of someone big.
Lantern Library is envisioned as a long-term partnership with the Ministry of Education.