Why Jonah Resonates with Children

September 3, 2012
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Maya Bernstein

A framed painting depicting Jonah inside the belly of a large fish, with the ship and its passengers on the fish’s back and the raging waters all around, hung at the turning point of the stairwell in my parent’s house. No matter the velocity of my inevitable charge up or down the stairs as a child, I never failed to notice that painting as I turned the corner. Over the years, I began to identify my moods by the pieces my eye would catch as I flew by. Some days, I was Jonah, trapped and caught inside the fish. Sometimes, I was as wild as the foaming waters. Other days, I was off balance, like the ship, teetering here and there. And still others, I was the fish — enormous, filling up space, and displacing all those around me.

Why does the book of Jonah resonate so deeply with children? Perhaps because Jonah is a child — a lost boy on a mission, forced to find himself on his journey. Responsibility? Terrifying; run away. Living up to your potential and making a difference in the world? Too frightening to risk it; better not to try. No shade when you’re in the hot sun? Kvetch!

I sense that this story — of a person thrown overboard into the raging sea and then swallowed by a huge fish — is not particularly frightening to children because it resonates intuitively with a child’s imagined view of the world. Big animals loom close to our seemingly stable surfaces; they can jump out and eat us up at any point. And while the natural world appears to be secure, it can quickly turn supernatural, leaving us bewildered in its dizzy center as we attempt to make meaning of it all. Children never feel in control — not of themselves and not of the world around them. Jonah, too, is pulled and pushed, swallowed and burped up, by forces greater than himself. This is a child’s experience of the world, and, perhaps, it is somehow comforting to children to have it validated.

The book of Jonah is traditionally read at the end of the afternoon service on Yom Kippur, a holiday difficult for children to connect with. The figure of Jonah is key to helping children understand some of the story’s overarching themes; it is also a reminder that our most solemn and resonant thoughts are often pure and childlike at their core. Sometimes, life, or God, or other people, make demands of us that feel overwhelming. These moments are opportunities for growth. Sometimes, we evade them, though often we cannot. And when we face them, we may grow stronger and fuller, as does the world around us.

Educators can use children’s natural affinity for this story to help them express some of the most profound emotions that children grapple with on a regular basis, and that Yom Kippur challenges us as adults to face each year. Has anyone recently asked something of you that felt overwhelming and made you want to run away? Have you ever tried to do something and failed? Did you want to try it again? How did you feel? What does it feel like when someone expects something of you and you aren’t sure you can do it? Educators can help children acknowledge the importance of these questions, and help them understand that even adults grapple with them. And they can entice children to explore these questions in a variety of ways: through bibliodrama, in which children take on the characters of the story and explain motives and context; through visual art projects; through journaling or creative writing; and through re-enactments, such as a puppet show or a musical performance.

The book of Jonah offers a wonderful educational opportunity to connect the core pieces that underlie a Jewish child’s education; it is a seamless example of the intersection of Jewish literacy, the meaning behind a Jewish holiday, and the connection of Jewish stories and holidays to our lives. It provides educators with opportunities to help children make meaningful connections between this story, the issues and questions with which they grapple, and the value of Yom Kippur. And maybe these uniting threads connect to the value of education in general and can serve as a reminder to teachers of why their job is so important. They have the opportunity, each day, to convey a critical message to their students: When you’re rushing down the stairs, take pause for a moment. Think about who you are, where you’re going, and why you’re in such a hurry to get there. And when you finally do arrive, do your best, and try not to kvetch.

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Maya Bernstein is strategic design officer for UpStart Bay Area, supporting innovation and entrepreneurship in the Jewish community. She is a regular contributor to Lilith magazine’s blog and ejewishphilanthropy.com.

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