It is hard to believe, but in the span of two months of Corona quarantine, my restless, flighty butterflies have metamorphosized into very hungry bookworms. Matan has finally begun to enjoy reading to himself in Hebrew, even though he will only agree to open a book if the alternative is to go to sleep – then once he starts reading, he won’t stop. Lately he’s been tearing through the complete works of Astrid Lindgren, and long after bedtime I will have to remind him to take his nose out of the story about Emil with his head in the soup pot, determined to lick every last drop.
My twins are also reading the Swedes. Though they could not even sound out words in Hebrew before starting first grade in September, they are now reading their first chapter books to themselves – a Swedish series called “My Happy Life” by Rose Lagercrantz which was recommended to me at my local independent bookstore. The series is delightful – the twins are passing them off one to another, and they each read chapters aloud to me from time to time, so I have gotten to know the two best friends Duni and Ella-Frieda nearly as well as they have, and my heart has broken and healed several times over alongside them. The twins, along with Matan, have also been reading aloud to their grandparents in English nearly every afternoon, which has been, by far, our best use of Zoom.
Then there is four-year-old Shalvi, who has stopped napping, but who still needs her daily rest, which she takes every afternoon at 2pm on the toilet. “Imma, I have cocky,” she cries, and I know that’s my cue – not to take her to the bathroom, which she does herself, but to bring her a stack of five picture books she has not “read” in a while, and to place them on the stool (the bathroom stool, that is) so that she can flip through them as she hums aloud to herself like a broken kazoo for the next 45 minutes, until she calls me to check that her tushie is clean. (It rarely is. But she is calm and rested and ready to face the rest of the afternoon.)
Finally, Yitzvi at seven months is at last able to sit in a booster seat while we feed him; until just a week ago, we had to prop him up on the kitchen counter. This means that I now have a free hand to hold open a book of poetry and chant aloud to him while he eats. Thus far we have had mashed banana with Edward Lear (because surely bananas are the most nonsensical fruit), peaches with Wallace Stevens (albeit in Jerusalem, not Russia), and oatmeal with John Keats, in homage to Galway Kinnell, who is the first person I know to eat oatmeal with Keats:
I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that is better for your mental health
if somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal porridge,
as he called it with John Keats.
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him:
due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime,
and unusual willingness to disintegrate, oatmeal should
not be eaten alone.
He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat
it with an imaginary companion, and that he himself had
enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund Spenser and John
Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as
wholesome as Keats claims, still, you can learn something
And indeed, like the original fruit of the tree of knowledge, I have learned much from eating with my baby and the distinguished members of the Western canon. (It has always been my favorite question in the New York Times Book Review: If you could invite five people to a literary dinner party, who would they be? Well, now Yitzvi and I do it every morning.)
You’d think that now that all my kids are reading more, I’d at long last be able to start reading to myself when they’re awake, but alas, it rarely works that way. Yesterday afternoon I brought everyone’s books under the stroller when we went to the park, including my own – but I rarely managed more than two words of the new Shulamit Lapid novel between successive cries of “Imma, look! Look! Look Imma.” I had no choice but to comply, nodding in approbation at Liav’s yo-yoing, Tagel’s backflips, and Shalvi’s scooting, my finger marking my place so that I could continue to read on in two-word increments. An ant crawling across the page would have outpaced me, and I lamented the futility of the endeavor; but like the rabbinic decrees explained by the increasingly unlikely notion שמא יבנה בית המקדש, I kept my finger hopefully steadfast. I read an article this week in the New York Times about Zoom reading groups, in which hundreds of people log on at 6pm and read together in silence. It still seems like a distant fantasy; my children, for better or for worse, will not be muted.
I have tried various tricks to read with the kids underfoot. Sometimes I catch Daniel “still davening” behind a closed door, reading an article or dashing off an email to students long after he’s set aside his Siddur. I have similar dissimulations – I will stay with the baby for longer than necessary, as if he didn’t quite fall asleep until I finished the chapter. Recently I read to my older kids about how Ramona Quimby tried to trick Willa Jean, the annoying preschooler she is supposed to play with after school while Willa Jean’s grandmother minds them both. Ramona announced to Willa Jean that she couldn’t play with her—a task she loathed—because she had to complete her “Sustained Silent Reading,” hoping that the formality of the euphemism and the air of self-importance with which she made the declaration would serve to convince Willa Jean that she wasn’t simply reading the next chapter in her book. That trick wouldn’t work with my kids, but they do sometimes catch me waiting outside the front door of the apartment, tearing through the last few pages before I unlock the door and let myself in.
My kids’ great literary leap forward has also been accompanied by advances in writing. I just celebrated my first birthday with semi-literate children, and was delighted to receive a card that began, “To Ymo yor a grate mothor from the cids.” They added a line saying “fancyue Ymo for macen a kcece” – for a moment I thought I was being called fancy, but then I realized this was just their “thank you” for making a cake. Under the word “a” I could see there was a crossed-out “the,” and I asked my daughter about it. “First I wrote thank you for making THE cake, but then I realized you would know that the cake you made was for you, so I changed it to A cake.” I was impressed by her Talmudic הוה אמינא. Indeed, a few days earlier, they had asked me to bake them a plain, undecorated cake. “Do you mean a sheet cake?” I asked. My daughter looked puzzled. The cake they eventually presented me with had two marshmallows on one end. “These are the two pillows, yours and Abba’s.” I asked them why the cake needed pillows, and they told me, “because it’s a bed cake.”
Only this afternoon did I realize that the whole idea for this bed-sheet cake came from “Amelia Bedelia Bakes a Cake,” where the hapless but well-intentioned housekeeper wins a baking contest after a similar misunderstanding. As an Ymo I had underestimated my children, assuming they were merely being literal when in fact they were being literary. It was a literary allusion, but it had eluded me. With a lifetime of reading ahead of them, I hope it will be the first of many.