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By Joe Burris
BALTIMORE — Erin Nicolson sifted through her collection of bedtime books and held up her favorite: "Hanna's Sabbath Dress" by Itzhak Schweiger-Dmi'el, about a girl waiting to try on a new outfit.
While the 4-year-old spoke of staging her own rendition of the tale, her 2-year-old brother Adam pointed to one of his favorites: "Five Little Gefiltes," by Dave Horowitz, a Yiddish parody of the children's song "Five Little Ducks."
The youngsters are among thousands of children learning about their Jewish heritage with tales and songs suited for their age and imagination — often while they're cuddled in the arms of mom or dad before the night light comes on.
Their parents, Lara and Roger Nicolson, enrolled them in the PJ Library Jewish Bedtime Stories and Songs For Families program (the PJ stands for pajamas), which offers free Jewish books and music to more than 2,100 Jewish and interfaith families a month in the Baltimore area alone. It also holds local activities and events.
The Massachusetts-based program serves 60,000 children in North America and Israel.
Some Jewish adults say that their generation didn't have such books.
"I heard many Jewish stories as a child, but few of them were in books. Most were Bible stories or stories told orally, but good Jewish children's books were not always easy to come by," Melissa Lebowitz, the PJ Library's coordinator in Baltimore, said at the Center for Jewish Education. "There just weren't that many choices."
She said the program has compiled hundreds of books and encourages Jewish authors and illustrators to either write or rewrite books with the promise of publication and distribution.
The Nicolsons are an interfaith family who moved here from Belgium about five years ago. Lara Nicolson was born in South Africa; her grandparents moved there from Lithuania. She has used the books to help share her Jewish culture not only with her children but with husband Roger, who grew up Anglican in South Africa.
"It gives them insight to the tradition I came from," said Lara Nicolson. "For every holiday, there is a book. I have no immediate family in Baltimore, so sadly they're not getting stories handed down from their grandmothers."
Meira Horowitz of Baltimore said she reads the books to her three children every night before bed as well as during the day. "My children love all kinds of books but especially love books that make them laugh and books about Judaism , as they are able to relate to the characters," Horowitz said. "It's always nice to read stories about the upcoming holidays, as it gets the children excited and encourages them to ask questions."
The program was launched in 2005 by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. It was inspired by country music star Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, a preschool literacy program that sends monthly books to children in the U.S., Canada and United Kingdom.
"The goal is that through books and music, parents are transmitting to children Jewish values in content involving everything from holiday celebrations to Jewish history to love for Israel," said Marcie Greenfield Simons, director of the PJ Library program.
She added that in some communities, non-Jewish families have embraced the books as well. "It is a wonderful way to bring Judaism in the home," she said. The program was launched in the Baltimore area in 2008, with 2,500 people being sent the popular book "Something For Nothing," by Phoebe Gilman. It's a tale from Jewish folklore in which a boy's grandfather makes him an elaborate coat, then once the boy outgrows the worn garment trims it down to items he can use — a vest, a jacket, a tie and a button.
Lara Nicolson says the book reminded her of stories she heard about life in Lithuania. "When I look at the pictures and I see the life described in there, the close family, the grandparents, everyone living in the same house, and my grandfather was a merchant as well, it stood out for me," she said. "Families not very rich, all helping each other — that's how my family lived. Very traditional Jewish."
Once enrolled, kids receive a book each month. The stories include adaptations of popular childhood stories as well as written versions of Jewish tales that have been passed down orally for generations.
The titles include "The Bedtime Sh'ma" by Sarah Gershman, a collection of psalms, poems and prayers that parents can make part of the nighttime ritual to help relax kids for sleep; "Sammy Spider's First Rosh Hashanah" by Sylvia A. Rouss; and "Old MacNoah Had an Ark" by Sally Lloyd-Jones.
Stefanie Cousins of Tuscany-Canterbury reads PJ books to son Benjamin, who will be 2 in May. Her son enjoys "My First Shabbat Board Book," which teaches preschoolers about the Sabbath.
"He is still amazed by all of the pictures and we've had it for at least six months," Cousins said.
Cousins says that growing up, she was more familiar with such tales as "Goodnight Gorilla" than any books that relate to her heritage. Not so for her son, she says.
"I think Benjamin's knowledge of his culture is only just beginning," Cousins added. "He may not have a full concept of what being Jewish means nor what the holidays are all about. But with each book he receives and reads, he is becoming more aware of his culture and the books will reinforce the customs we observe at home."