By Lisa Handelman.
Inclusion, at its core, is about understanding that each of us, created in the image of God, has unique worth. Each year, books are selected for JDAIM Reads (Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month) that use a Jewish lens to help us become more aware of the strength and value of individuals with disabilities. These books encourage us to be more inclusive through heightening our awareness.
For our youngest learners, The Mitten String by Jennifer Rosner highlights these values. This picture book is about Ruthie, a young girl who shares with and learns from Bayla, a mother who is deaf. Ruthie admires Bayla’s creative problem solving and learns from her how to find the plants needed to make bright blue yarn. And Ruthie sews for Bayla a matching set of mittens to connect Bayla to her infant son. (This book is part of the PJ Library program for young readers.)
The Storyteller’s Beads by Jane Kurtz, likewise involves two main characters, Sahay and Rachel, who learn from each other. While this story is primarily about the difficult refugee journey from Ethiopia through Sudan, Rachel’s blindness along with her strength give the story added depth. The girls’ mutual distrust is the result of their different backgrounds and has nothing to do with Rachel being blind. The fact that Rachel is blind is just part of this Jewish story, an important part, but this story does not focus on the disability. (This book is part of the PJ Our Way program.)
Both of these children’s books were inspired by real people; Bayla was the name of Jennifer Rosner’s great-great-aunt who was deaf and lived in an Austrian village in the 1800s. Rachel’s story was inspired by the account of a “blind girl in the group that walked all the way to the Sudan with her hand on her brother’s shoulder.” It has been more of a challenge to find an adult book that has a Jewish narrative and is also written by or from the perspective of an individual with a disability. This year’s JDAIM Reads’ choice, like previous picks, is a moving memoir written by Jewish parents about raising an autistic child.
A self-proclaimed “non-recovery autism book,” Ketchup is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up with Autism by Liane Kupferberg Carter exposes real fears and exhausting challenges including early denial, insurance companies that refuse to cover seizure medication, and peers whose interactions are limited to earning community service hours. Similar to other JDAIM memoirs, the acceptance that shines through during the bar mitzvah of Carter’s autistic son, Mickey, provides a glimmer of hope for the future.
While disability inclusion is not specifically a Jewish cause, our traditions, stories, and values provide reinforcement and teachable moments. As we continue on our journey as a Jewish community to advance disability inclusion, I hope to meet the real-life Baylas and Rachels, and I hope to be able to listen in a way that allows young adults like Mickey to tell their own story. From understanding their strength and contributions, we can grow more aware and learn to genuinely include.
More information about JDAIM Reads can be found on Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s JDAIM website tinyurl.com/jutfmr9. A guide for The Mitten String can be found at tinyurl.com/jjurrxt, and a guide for The Storyteller’s Beads can be found at tinyurl.com/hkty73a.
Lisa Handelman is the Community Disability Inclusion Specialist at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.