Everyone Needs a Little Chicken Soup

By Barbara Russek
Special to Jewish News of Greater Phoenix
(January 4, 2002)

When I lived in the East many years ago, a billboard caught my eye that said you don’t have to be Jewish to like Levy’s Rye Bread. I would like to take that idea a step further. Based on a recent experience in my classroom, you definitely don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate a wonderful new book, “Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul” (Health Communications, $12.95 paperback).

Chicken Soup is a collection of 100 stories with a Jewish theme, some humorous, some serious, all giving a tug to the heart strings.

I found out recently that Tucson attorney and Jewish educator Amy Hirshberg Lederman’s first-person piece, “My Grandmother’s Candlesticks,” had been selected for the Chicken Soup publication. This was quite an honor. As I found out later, there had been over 4,000 submissions for this particular text.

At that very moment a light bulb turned on in my head. Why not invite Lederman to read her piece to my seventh-grade reading class? It would fit in perfectly with the series of stories we are reading about people of various ethnic backgrounds. My goal is to show the universality of emotions behind the superficial differences that so often build fences between people.

My only concern at that point was whether Lederman would be interested in reading to a group of non-Jewish middle schoolers, not known for having the greatest attention span. I need not have worried. Not only did she accept with enthusiasm, but she even offered to bring refreshments for the whole class. Lederman explained that it all had to do with a simple concept of association. She wanted students to appreciate the sweetness of learning. What better way than to give them a tangible sweet to eat during their time together.

Lederman arrived on a Friday afternoon. Students filed into the room noisily and it took a few minutes to settle them down. However, as soon as she began to speak, a hush fell over them all. Then she started to read the story of receiving her beloved grandmother’s candlesticks, brought over from Russia and how that experience and the subsequent passing of her grandmother affected her.

What happened next was the most surprising and touching of all. Many in the room were moved to tears. My co-teacher, who is not Jewish, wept unashamedly as she thought of her own grandmother, who is in a nursing home today. One student broke down in sobs, as she shared with the class the story of her father’s passing last summer. Three or four other students were crying, as they remembered the death of “nana,” favorite “tia” or other close relative.

As the period ended with a reception of goodies and drinks, students milled about, talking and laughing among themselves, as I had seen them do so many times before. Yet, I could not help but feel that they had grown from this experience, as I had. They say the pen is mightier than the sword. After Amy Hirshberg Lederman’s visit to my classroom, I realize again that it can also be used as an instrument of shalom or peace and help create a feeling of kinship among all people.