Ari Shashoua, a 3-year-old with a mess of curls and saucer-like brown eyes, already has an independent streak. "He likes to make his own decisions," his mom, Michelle, says as he nuzzles his face against his dad Barry's cheek while perched on a stool in their shiny Woodcliff Lake kitchen.
Ask him his favorite children's book, and fittingly the preschooler clutches No Rules for Michael, by Sylvia A. Rouss, a tale of a yarmulke-wearing schoolboy whose world turns upside down the day his teacher instates a day without rules.
While Ari's parents admit their youngest son hasn't fully grasped the moral of the story -- that rules and structure are good things -- they appreciate how the book introduces the 10 Commandments in a child-friendly way. Raising their children with an understanding of Jewish values is "very important," Michelle says. "I think the books are a good way to facilitate that learning in the home."
Ari and his brother, Jacob, 6, participate in a free book-of-the-month club called The PJ Library, which the Kehillah Partnership administers through the YJCC in Washington Township.
Once a month, the boys look forward to receiving a white envelope in the mail containing an age-appropriate children's book with a Jewish theme.
The program is the brainchild of Harold Grinspoon, a real estate mogul from Massachusetts who wanted to create a program that would help strengthen Jewish cultural identity, especially in the growing number of mixed-faith families. Some 75,000 children from North America and Israel are on its mailing list.
The only requirement to participate is that the young readers come from families "raising their children in the Jewish faith," said Dyan Wiley, The PJ Library's community development coordinator.
A Park Ridge couple, Eva and Howard Jakob, learned about the program from their grandchildren in Massachusetts and lobbied to bring it to the YJCC in Washington Township. "I think it's very important to start at the bottom getting children interested in Jewish culture," said Eva Jakob. "The books are absolutely amazing and loving fun. It brings parents and children to the child's level."
Some 2,100 children in North Jersey have received books through the program.
A broad swath of the Jewish experience is touched upon in the eclectic selection of books ranging from the Caldecott Medal Winner Joseph Had a Little Overcoat to a story about baseball legend Sandy Koufax. Bagels from Benny is about a family bakery business and teaches about giving, receiving, caring and gratitude.
Zachary, Jared and Alex Friend, a trio of whirling-dervish brothers ages 6, 4 and 2, respectively, from Woodcliff Lake, recently tore open white envelopes addressed to each of them. Zachary held up his selection for this month: First Rain, by Charlotte Herman. He put it aside, more interested in Alex's book, a Hebrew alphabet book that he could easily read aloud.
As his mom, Lisa, flipped through First Rain, she saw a picture of a grandmother handing her granddaughter a prayer letter to insert in a crack of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Lisa recalled her own trip there. "When do you get to read a book like that to your children?" she said.