Erin Nicolson sifted through her collection of bedtime books and held up her favorite: "Hanna's Sabbath Dress," by Itzhak Schweiger-Dmi'el, about a girl waiting to try on a new outfit, once customary during the Jewish period of rest.
While the 4-year old from Owings Mills spoke of staging her own rendition of the tale, her 2-year-old brother Adam pointed to one of his favorites: "Five Little Gefiltes," by Dave Horowitz, a Yiddish parody of the children's song, "Five Little Ducks."
The two youngsters are among thousands of children learning about their Jewish heritage with tales and songs suited for their age and imagination -- most often heard while cuddled in the arms of mom or dad before the night light comes on.
Their parents, Lara and Roger Nicolson, enrolled them in the PJ Library Jewish Bedtime Stories and Songs For Families, a program that offers free Jewish books and music each month to more than 2,100 Jewish and interfaith families in the Baltimore area alone, along with local activities and events.
The Massachusetts-based program, which serves 60,000 children in North America and Israel, is hosting its annual conference at the Pearlstone Conference Center in Reisterstown later this month. The program's name, "PJ," stands for pajamas, referring to when parents and children often cuddle up with a book.
Some Jewish adults say that their generation didn't have such books.
"I heard many Jewish stories as a child, but few of them were in books. Most were Bible stories or stories told orally, but good Jewish children's books were not always easy to come by," said Melissa Lebowitz, the PJ Library's coordinator in Baltimore at the Center for Jewish Education. "here just weren't that many choices."
But she said the program has compiled hundreds of books and promotes Jewish authors and illustrators to either write or rewrite books with the promise of publication and distribution.
The books are a welcome addition to the Nicolsons, an interfaith family who moved here from Belgium about five years ago. Lara was born in South Africa; her grandparents moved there from Lithuania. She says that with no immediate family in the Baltimore area, she has used the books to help share her Jewish culture not only with her children but husband Roger, who grew up Anglican in South Africa.
"It gives them insight to the tradition I came from," said Lara Nicolson. "For every holiday, there is a book. I have no immediate family in Baltimore, so sadly they're not getting stories handed down from their grandmothers."
Meira Horowitz of Baltimore said she reads the books to her three children every night before bed as well as during the day. "My children love all kinds of books but especially love books that make them laugh and books about Judiasm as they are able to relate to the characters," said Horowitz. "It's always nice to read stories about the upcoming holidays as it gets the children excited and encourages them to ask questions."
The program was launched in West Springfield, Mass., in 2005 by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which funds institutions and programs that promote Jewish learning. It was inspired by country music star Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, a pre-school literacy program that sends monthly books to children in the U.S., Canada and United Kingdom.
"The goal is that through books and music, parents are transmitting to children Jewish values in content involving everything from holiday celebrations to Jewish history to love for Israel," said Marcie Greenfield Simons, director of the PJ Library program.
She added that in some communities, non-Jewish families have embraced the books as well. "It is a wonderful way to bring Judaism in the home," she said. The program was launched in the Baltimore area in 2008, when 2,500 people were sent the popular book, "Something For Nothing," by Phoebe Gilman. It's a tale from Jewish folklore in which a boy's grandfather makes him an elaborate coat, then once the boy outgrows the worn garment, trims it down to items he can use -- a vest, a jacket, a tie and a button.
Lara Nicolson says the book reminded her of stories she heard about life in Lithuania.
"When I look at the pictures and I see the life described in there, the close family, the grandparents, everyone living in the same house, and my grandfather was a merchant as well, it stood out for me," she said. "Families not very rich, all helping each other; that's how my family lived. Very traditional Jewish."
Once enrolled, kids receive a book each month. The stories include adaptations of popular childhood stories as well as written versions of Jewish tales that have been passed down orally for generations.
The titles include "The Bedtime Sh'ma," by Sarah Gershman, a collection of psalms, poems and prayers that parents can make part of the nighttime ritual to help relax kids for a good night's sleep; "Sammy Spider's First Rosh Hashanah," by Sylvia A. Rouss; and "Old MacNoah Had an Ark," by Sally Lloyd-Jones.
Stefanie Cousins of Tuscany-Canterbury reads PJ books to son Benjamin, who will be 2 in May. throughout the day. Her son enjoys, "My First Shabbat Board Book," which teaches preschoolers about the meaning of the Sabbath and shows how it is celebrated.
"I recently took it in the car for a trip to Philadelphia," said Cousins, "and he really enjoyed looking at on his own. He is still amazed by all of the pictures and we've had it for at least six months."
Lebowitz said the program offers story times and art classes at the Painting Workshop, in Reisterstown and Mount Washington, based on Jewish holidays and PJ books.
Cousins says that growing up, she was more familiar with such tales as "Goodnight Gorilla," by Peggy Rathmann and "The Snowy Day," by Ezra Jack Keats than any books that relate to her heritage. Not so for her son, she says.
"I think Benjamin's knowledge of his culture is only just beginning," Cousins added. "He may not have a full concept of what being Jewish means nor what the holidays are all about. But with each book he receives and reads, he is becoming more aware of his culture and the books will reinforce the customs we observe at home."
Jewish books for kids
Titles The PJ Library program sends to families include:
• "The Bedtime Sh'ma," by Sarah Gershman, a collection of psalms, poems and prayers.
• "Sammy Spider's First Rosh Hashanah," by Sylvia A. Rouss, which follows a spider who watches a family celebrate the Jewish New Year.
• "Old MacNoah Had an Ark," by Sally Lloyd-Jones. It tells the story of Noah and the Flood with the animals in the tradition of the popular song, "Old MacDonald Had a Farm." The PJ Library Web site says it "offers a cheerful introduction to the story without talking about God punishing wickedness or waters destroying the world."