“Come here, little pumpkin,” Jill Hoffman said to her 3-year-old daughter. Saffi climbed onto her lap and snuggled next to her dog as mom read a colorful book about a gigantic yellow bird called Ziz.
Saffi listened with excitement about the adventures of the fantastical creature from Jewish mythology in Jacqueline Jules’ book, The Hardest Word. All the while, Saffi also learned about the upcoming Jewish holy day, Yom Kippur, known as the Day of Atonement.
Or as Ziz learns about atonement from God: “The hardest word is SORRY.”
Saffi also got a book called Apples & Honey, which teaches about another Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that began Sunday night. The tradition of dipping apples in honey signifies a sweet year.
The beautifully illustrated books are monthly gifts from PJ Library, an international program founded in 2005 in Massachusetts by Jewish entrepreneur Harold Grinspoon, now 83. PJ stands for pajamas. The program is intended to strengthen the identities of Jewish families and their relationship with the Jewish community.
PJ Library partners with local Jewish organizations, synagogues and schools around the country and the world. The local groups sign up families with young children, and the local groups fund up to 50 percent of the costs.
Each month, each family receives one new book or CD/DVD mailed to their home in a blue and white envelope.
“It’s really nice because they do this for free, and they really do it from their hearts,” said Jill Hoffman, of Hollywood. “When my daughter sees the books, she gravitates toward them. And they are a nice foundation for the Jewish holidays and all our traditions.”
Hoffman said that while she and her husband are very spiritual and have practiced Buddhism, they were raised as Conservative Jews.
“My grandfather was a rabbi, and my father was kicked out of Egypt for being Jewish when he was 13,” Hoffman said. “I feel like if I don’t pass Jewish traditions along to my daughter, I’m losing everything my ancestors have and fought for. It would be disrespectful not to pass this along to the next generation.”
Marney Tokar, coordinator of PJ Library for the Jewish Federation of Broward County, calls the books a “gateway” for Jewish children to learn about their faith and culture.
For parents, the books can be a refresher course of reinforcement. And for some, it’s an introduction to Jewish values and heritage.
“Our parents tell me all the time it brings back things they did or were taught when they were children,” Tokar said. “And sometimes in interfaith or mixed-faith families, it gives non-Jewish spouses or partners a foundation to begin a conversation with children, and they learn as well.”
Since Broward’s program was launched last November, more than 1,500 families have begun receiving books. There is local funding to reach 300 more families.
Miami-Dade County also has a PJ Library program, which has been in existence for several years.
“We know how vitally important it is to read to a child at any age, even in vitro,” Tokar said.
Nicole Pollino said her oldest boy, Douglas, 6, and her youngest son, Noah, 3, both love the books that arrive from PJ Library.
Noah’s favorite is Nosh, which has a lot of Hebrew words.
Douglas likes The Shabbat Box, which talks about a boy who loses the special box during his turn to bring it home before Sabbath.
“I love that they are age-appropriate,” Pollino said.
The Broward-based program serves five age groups. It begins with the “Apples & Honey” category, with simple pictures and concepts, for ages 6 months to 2 years and goes up to the “Eggs Matzah” category, with more-nuanced stories including fantasy, folktales and Bible stories, for children aged 5 and 6.
“They reinforce the Judaism they learn at their school and at Sunday school,” Pollino said. “And it’s really hard to find quality Jewish books that are not about the Holocaust.”
Tokar said the books delivered by the PJ Library were carefully selected by a professional team. “All of our books teach Jewish values, traditions and customs, and they’re done in a way that encourages a family to snuggle up and read and talk about them,” Tokar said.
While some of the books are written specifically for PJ Library, many are already available on the wider market. However, if they make the PJ Library they are specially printed with information flaps. They include open-ended questions that parents can use to discuss the book’s message with their children.
In advance of Rosh Hashanah, some families received Linda Heller’s Today Is the Birthday of the World. Tokar, a grandmother, said she cried when she read the book. “It teaches you to be the best you can be. What a universally beautiful message,” she said.
All of God’s creatures — the giraffe, elephant, beaver, fish, bee, worm, cow and little child — are asked by God: “Were you the best little [giraffe, elephant . . .] that you could be?”
At the end of the book, God said he is proud of his little helpers. “Because when you are the best that you can be, then the world is the best place that it can be, and there is no better birthday present.”
The PJ Library’s jacket of that book suggests that parents ask their children how they can lift the world’s spirit.
It says: “As you encourage inclinations to sing, draw, bake, read, weed, share, smile, respect, consider and love, you foster the world’s best.”