Papercut Peace


Celebrating Sukkot at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation


For the last eight days, the holiday of Sukkot has been celebrated by Jews all over the world.  Like many ancient holidays, this one has several meanings.  It is the culmination of the “Days of Awe” or Yamim Noraim – from the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year – through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  During this ten-day period, Jewish people everywhere engage in deep soul-searching and take stock of goals for the year to come.  Then Sukkot begins – the time of relaxation and joy in the harvest of our inner work, our community, and the fruits of nature.

Sukkot means “booths” in Hebrew, referring to the booths that act as temporary shelters during the eight days of the holiday.   The booth has three tent-like walls – typically canvas or burlap, in the U.S. – and a roof that is partly covered with organic material.  One must be able to see the stars through a sukkah (singular of sukkot).  The sukkah symbolizes the temporary shelters that the ancient Israelites slept in during their forty years of wandering through the desert from Mt. Sinai to the Land of Israel.  The sukkah is meant to remind us of the impermanent nature of our lives, as well as our dependence upon the Source of Life that sustains us.

Sukkot is also a harvest festival.  Each sukkah is hung with the fruits of the harvest – gourds, vines, flowers, nuts, and fruits – and other decorations to make the sukkah comfortable and pleasant.  Why decorate something temporary?  Because it is a commandment , or mitzvah, to invite guests to dine in one’s sukkah, and to be joyful there.   These special guests are known as ushpizinan Aramaic word simply meaning “guests”.

The ushpizin were invited into the sukkah at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in the form of paper leaves.  We cut large leaf shapes from colored paper, and drew on them.  Some children drew the traditional ushpizin: our ancestral forefathers and foremothers:  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.  Others chose to bring their family ancestors and deceased relatives into the sukkah.  Some children drew pets they wished to remember.   In the Sephardic tradition, special honor is also given to Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David, for each of these exalted persons represents uprootedness, and each in his wanderings brought benefit to the world through the characteristics of lovingkindness, strength, holiness, and sovereignty.  Our temporary dwelling in the sukkah can inspire us to emulate  these qualities.

The paper leaves also remind us that it is our duty to include the poor among our guests, for it is written that the spirits of the ushpizin will not enter a sukkah where the poor are not welcome.   The great scholar Maimonides admonished that anyone who sits comfortably within his own walls and does not share with the poor is performing a mitzvah only for his stomach.   We are meant to open our homes – and our hearts – to the needy.  What better way to celebrate the abundance of the harvest?

The Hebrew prayer “Sukkat Shalom” (Canopy of Peace) brings yet another meaning to the holiday of Sukkot.  A true canopy of peace is not a rock-solid fortress, but a tenuous hut made from living things, open to the sky, exposed to the elements, welcome to guests and compassionate to the poor.  Most of all, a sukkat shalom must be tended with ongoing effort and care, for it is built to last only with the loving touch of human hands – and the creativity of children.

May you be sheltered with peace in the coming year – a tender and tenuous peace.

Chag Sukkot Sameach – Happy Sukkot Holiday – to all!







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The Art of Science

Making a Class Biology Book

Last year I applied for a grant to work with 100 middle school students on a non-fiction  illustration project.   Thanks to the generosity of Dutchess County Arts Council, the grant was fulfilled last month when I taught a special residency at Onteora Middle School in Boiceville, New York.  As an arts-in-ed teacher, my job was to help teach the curriculum.  I had done residencies before, working with children in grades 2-5 to create murals and  books on a variety of subjects.  This year, I wanted to work with older kids who have more advanced writing and drawing skills.   

I got what I asked for when Alyssa Babcock stepped forward and offered to host my residency in her five biology classes.   I was overjoyed!   After some jockeying of calendars, testing dates, grant regulations, and seasonal considerations, we planned a project in which each student would be given a biological subject to research, write about, and illustrate on one page of a class book:  an illustrated field guide to . . . .

. . . macroinvertebrates.

“You mean water bugs?” I asked, as the teacher smiled at my ignorance.

Thus began a collaboration that lasted several months, with many challenges and rewards.  As an illustrator, I’m used to tackling subjects outside my own personal interests, but this was the first time I collaborated with a science teacher.   Freshwater macroinvertebrates were a subject that was completely unfamiliar to me.  Until then,  I’d never heard of a water penny or a water midge, a sowbug or a netspinner caddisfly.  I did not know the difference between a stonefly and a Dobsonfly larva.  Yet all these watery creatures have been living quietly in the upper Esopus creek, along which I drive almost every day.  I had a lot to learn.  

To begin the project, each student was assigned a creature to research.  That research included a class excursion to the nearby Esopus Creek, where the students gathered specimens, took notes, and had a great time wading in water alive with larva.  After that came more research through books and the internet.  Now the young observers were ready to start writing and drawing.

Mrs. Babcock’s 7th-grade biology students research freshwater macroinvertebrates in the upper Esopus Creek.

Some students were as daunted as I was to draw “creepy-crawlers”.  I tried to use their natural reluctance to exemplify the classic illustrator’s challenge:  to render artistically a subject that is assigned rather than chosen.   How do you get inspired about a leech?  How do you get into drawing anything you didn’t choose to draw?  We all had ideas about that!  But if we approach the unfamiliar with a sense of discovery, we can convey that in the art.   In each class, we discussed ways to make the book visually engaging – a book of shared discoveries, not for ourselves, but for our readers.  Many of the students had younger siblings, and could relate to seven and eight-year-olds as the imagined readers of their book.  They liked the idea of educating younger kids, rather than just proving what they know to teachers.

a dragonfly nymph

Everyone agreed color was a vital tool.  Since both our subjects and their habitat are basically brown, what could we do to make the illustrations more colorful?  We talked about context.  What information do we want to convey about our creatures’ habitat?  What can we show that will demonstrate scale?  Some kids decided to show a penny next to their critter; for others it was a leaf, a hand, or the toe of a shoe.

When a residency is too short to work on basic drawing skills, I allow shortcuts.  The students were visibly relieved when I gave them permission to trace their subjects.    I also believe tracing, like training wheels, can be an effective stepping stone to freehand drawing.  I  

Have you ever heard of a scud?

encouraged the class to make their drawings unique through design and execution.  That they did beautifully, as I was pleased to discover when almost 100 final drawings were delivered to me as digital scans two weeks later.  The finished drawings were amazing!

Next I set about composing the writing and art from each class into a book.   With more time, the students could have designed their individual pages and learned about typography.  As always, there was potential to take the project further.  But given their very busy schedules, I’m grateful I had as much time with these students as I did. 

I hope Mrs. Babcock’s students found value in the project.  I hope they gained a sense of connection to the aquatic wildlife that populates their world.  I hope they discovered how art and science can meet.   I sure did.

a finished page in the class book

Special thanks to Alyssa Babcock for making this residency possible.  To view or download the class books, please visit Mrs. Babcock’s web page on the Onteora Middle School website.   Many thanks also to Eve Madalengoitia and Dutchess County Arts Council.




Happy Summer!

Durga Yael

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Four Archetypes of Learning


Pondering Passover with Puppets

esterday I participated in a lively children’s activity called “Passover Wanderings”  at Temple Emanuel in Kingston, NY.   In preparation for next week’s holiday, groups of students wandered from “station to station”, each of which taught about one aspect of the traditional Passover seder.

My wonderful class of fourth-graders and I had made puppets together the previous week, to be used at the magid, or storytelling, station of the wanderings.   Our puppet-masks were simple: cut and colored poster board, with large eye holes, enabling the wearer to act out the characters: the Four Sons of Passover.

The Wise Child is open and interested in learning.

The Four Sons of Passover depict four types of children.  They are the Wise Son, the Wicked Son,  the Simple Son, and the One Who Does Not Know to Ask.  We accepted as a given that these could equally be daughters, but prefer to show four aspects of one child rather than two boys and two girls – for these are aspects of children; we have all these characteristics within us, inhabiting us at different times in our lives.

The characters may also be regarded as four archetypes of learning.  Appropriately, the four sons have also been depicted by various artists as the books of the four sons.  We decided to give our masks books, too.  The Wise Son’s book is a book of learning, presumably a Haggadah or a Chumash (printed and bound Torah) – hence the owl upon his book.  The Wicked Son has set his book on fire.  The Simple Son holds a blank book full of questions.  And the One Who Does Not Know to Ask dozes with a closed book.

The Wicked Child rejects learning and tradition.

As each group of kids came to my station, we talked about the Four Sons.  What do their characteristics symbolize?  We collected more words to refine our understanding, and wrote them on a chalkboard.  The Wise Child wants to be part of the seder, hear the story of Passover, and learn about the tradition into which he was born.  The Wicked or rebellious child wants only to discredit and rebel against tradition, and to eat.  He does not see a connection between the past and the present or future of his people or himself.   The Simple Child is open and curious, innocently naive, a potential Wise Child.  The One Who Does Not Know to Ask is simply not present; he is tuned out.

The Simple Child is innocent, naive, and full of questions.




The children took turns holding the four masks and acting out the characters.   To act out the Four Sons is to ask the questions each character would ask at the Passover seder.  What question would the Simple Son ask about the story of Exodus, the timeless tale of slavery and liberation?  What question would the Wise Son ask?  That was a tough one.  The Wise Son is encouraged to ask challenging questions, such as Why did the Eternal send ten plagues to free the Israelites from slavery, instead of simply lifting them out of Egypt?  


The Child Who Does Not Ask is disconnected and unaware that there is even anything to learn.

Next the children were challenged to put the four masks in order from the one with the most brain power to the one with the least.   The answer is shown in the photo at the top of this post.   Some children were surprised to see the Wicked Child in second place, but when they thought about it, they understood.   The difference between the Wise and the Wicked sons is not in how smart they are but what they do with their intelligence.   That brought us to one of my favorite Hebrew words, kavanah.  Kavanah means intention.  And it is intention that determines the difference between brains put to good use and brains put to not-so-good use.

It was interesting that the children listed the word “ignorant” under three of the four archetypes.  Yet they are different:  the ignorance of the rebellious child and the tuned-out child is deliberate, while that of the simple child is an innocent lack.

Finally I asked each group a question:  which child was the hardest to act out?  By far the answer was the Wise Child.  Everyone was able to act out the Wicked child (“This is stupid!” “I don’t want to be here!”), the Simple child (“huh?”  ”What’s that?”), and the One Who Does Not Know to Ask (“zzzzz……”).  But the questions posed by a wise child are hard to come up with.  Can you think of one?

I enjoyed making and using the puppets of the Four Sons.  I think the wanderers enjoyed this activity, too.  Why is it good to explore a tradition or ponder archetypes of learning?  Well, that might be a question for the wise and wondering child in you . . . or the cynical, rebellious one . . . or the naive simpleton . . . depending on your kavanah. 

Happy Passover and Happy Spring!!

D Yael


To find out more about school visits and arts-in-ed programs with Durga Yael Bernhard, click here.

(click on book covers for more info)

is a 2012 winner of the Sydney Taylor Honor Award.

GREEN BIBLE STORIES is available in both hardcover and paperback.  This unique collection retells classic Torah tales from an environmental perspective, and was an “honorable mention” book at the National Green Book Festival in San Francisco.

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