As a little Hanukkah gift, I'm happy to bring to you another interview with someone who has been featured here on GodBricks several times in the past. Joanna Brichetto's blog, Bible Belt Balabusta presents "hands-on, Jewy projects with kids, for parents and teachers." She presents creative ways to use toys, including of course LEGO, in teaching kids about their religious heritage. BTW, on her blog she defines 'balabusta' as "Yiddish for female boss of the home, a praiseworthy Jewish homemaker."
GB: Joanna, thanks for joining us. Let's start out by learning a little bit about you. Could you tell us a little about your personal religious journey. Were you raised in a religious home? Is this something that became more important to you later in life, e.g. after having kids of your own? How has living in the Bible Belt affected you?
JB: I was raised Protestant and didn't knowingly meet a Jewish person until after college. I met Mr. Right—Jewish Person #2 —studied Judaism and became Jewish shortly before our marriage. So, I know what's it's like to be an absolute beginner. And I know that doing, making, creating can go a long way in forming a Jewish identity, whatever that phrase may happen to mean. The Bible Belt: well, I've always lived here, which is the reason for the bizarre delay in my meeting anyone Jewish at all. Now, I am often the one Jewish person that other people meet, which means I end up representing an entire People, which is absurd. In the early days, before the Internet, I had to make my own resources because there were few available locally. Everything was DIY, including the raising of children.
GB: Okay, could you also tell us about your background with LEGO? Did you build with bricks as a kid? Or did this start with you becoming a mom?
JB: I got two big LEGO sets when I was about 7, and I loved them. Back then, they were marketed to children, not necessarily to a specific gender, and the packaging reflects this beautiful egalitarianism. After a few years, they got stowed in the attic. Twenty years later, when I had my daughter, they were ready for round #2. My children and I add to the collection thanks to yard sales, hand-me-downs and generous grandmothers.
GB: What's the basic philosphy behind your blog? Why do you use LEGO (and Playmobil, and pez dispensers, and swim toys, etc) to teach your kids about their heritage?
JB: To show how easy and fun it can be to use everyday stuff—as long as the materials are irresistible—to explore and enrich what it means to be Jewish. My big goal is to support spending time with children making, doing, being together in a meaningful, enjoyable way.
GB: How did this idea start? What was your first inspiration?
JB: By using what materials and objects I had on hand. There were no local sources for Jewish toys. We had to convert or make our own accompaniments to holidays. I probably started by recreating objects with food: edible crafts, like an edible dreidel.
GB: How do your kids respond? Do they like it? Or do they sometimes say 'aw, Mom, we're just trying to play here, don't make us learn things'?
JB: So far, so good. Playing is learning, and vice versa. We don't sit down to "learn," we just play, build, cook, create. And, stories are stories. Random action figures become Odysseus and Telemachus in the bathtub, for example (with LEGO Scylla and Charibdis). We don't necessarily play Jewish stories unless we are approaching a holiday.
GB: What sort of feedback have you gotten from other parents and teachers?
JB: A few people "get" it, and these are the ones I try to think about when I post. I love these people. They understand that a good toolbox contains many, many tools.
GB: What is your favorite LEGO project that you've done?
JB: The lopsided, mishmash of a Temple that became the setting for the Hanukkah story. My preschooler helped build it, and then helped demonstrate the story for his class. We rigged a battery menorah and brought in a stuffed pig and tiny jug of olive oil. It was hideous and it was perfect.
GB: What is one thing you'd really like to build with LEGO?
JB: Gosh. I can't pick one. But I'm intrigued by Technic. I bought the new book, The UnOfficial LEGO Technic Builder's Guide by Pawel Kmiec, and most of it is way over my head at the moment.
GB: Do you have a favorite LEGO creation by someone else that highlights Jewish themes?
JB: I appreciate them all. The Jewish-themed posts you find for GodBricks blow me away, whether or not they are considered "Jewish" by their own makers. The Brick Bible is, of course, spectacular and complex. Val Glaser's cake toppers for bar and bat mitzvahs are great. The group Jewish LEGO projects by Building Blocks Workshops sound promising, education-wise. But, my favorites will always be creations by children.
GB: Do you have any suggestions for parents from all faith traditions on how to use play creatively to teach our kids?
JB: Start with the stories. Interpret your own stories with LEGO or edible components or whatever materials you absolutely love to handle. If you are having fun, chances are, so is your kid.
GB: Thanks so much for answering my questions! I look forward to seeing your next LEGO inspiration.