In the Middle Ages, Jewish children learned Hebrew by licking letters drawn in honey. At Congregation B’nai Israel’s (CBI) Child Development Center, the tradition of learning by tasting continues. Every day, CBI’s loving and inventive teachers, under the leadership of Lisa Heller, use food to teach math, explore nature and cultivate healthy eating.
Inside CBI’s cheerful classrooms, children learn to count fruit at snack time, read funny books about vegetables and share in clean up. Outside, they grow food in pots and little garden plots. “Carnival carrots” come in five colors, adding surprise at harvest time. Last year, a pumpkin grown from a seed pack was left to decompose and return to the earth. The children were delighted to watch baby pumpkins sprout in its place.
In a deep shady stretch of the yard, a pair of free-range hens peck among the rustic play structures. Teacher Debbie Horn, a chicken in her lap and a little boy by her side, explains that the precious eggs they lay (one a day at the height of their season) go into the weekly challah, which the children make from scratch and bring home for family Shabbats.
Meanwhile, in the synagogue’s spacious kosher kitchen, Fereshta Majid is making home-made pizza. She and her sister-in-law Sofia Azizi enjoy cooking up American favorites along with dishes from Afghanistan, where the women grew up. Kids savor their hot lunches, and parents know that their kids are eating tasty, nutritious meals that reflect the seasons.
On a recent tour of the facilities, teacher and avid home gardener Linda Oxman led me to a bare triangle of the garden. A few days earlier, on Tu B’shevat, the students had scattered parsley seeds in the warm dirt. By Passover there should be enough parsley for each child to take some home for family seders. I smiled at Linda’s joy. Where I saw only empty earth, she was already contemplating a tiny wilderness of green. ✿
Julia Lupton is a contributing writer to Kiddish magazine, a professor of English at UCI and CBI Board member.