New Models for Family Trees

by Laurie Bellet

Dear Laurie,
What a wonderful discussion of Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are is my most favorite book. Thanks so much. Also his pictures from Zlata the Goat stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, have for models many of his relatives who died in the Holocaust.
– Ellen Zuskin, Boca Raton, Florida

Thank you, Ellen! How wonderful for all of us to be able to imbue Sendak’s stories with family significance. For more Maurice Sendak lesson plans, you can go to…8_overview.html. You can also purchase Sendak inspired puppets and dolls from many booksellers. You may even be able to recognize acquaintances of your own when you and your students play with Moishe, Bernard and Sipi!

Using Jewish artists to inspire your lessons can offer a new look to time tested themes. The criteria for the definition of a “Jewish artist” is, in itself, a discussion topic. For today’s discussion, I am characterizing a Jewish artist as an artist who has a Jewish family heritage.

During the past several weeks, I have seen many “family trees” decorating school bulletin boards. Over the past decade, the traditional family tree model has become somewhat problematic used to characterize contemporary families. The dilemma calls to mind the art of Frida Kahlo, who pictured her own Jewish/Mexican heritage in many pieces including a family tree. Painted in 1936, in response to the pedigrees traced in pre-war Germany, Kahlo features herself in the middle at age two. Her father, Guillermo and Mother, Matilda are pictured above her. Her Hungarian Jewish paternal grandparents are symbolized by the sea and her maternal grandparents are symbolized by earth. The ribbon that Frida holds in her hand symbolizes the family’s relationship. In her self-portrait “Two Frida’s,” Kahlo paints one view of herself as Mexican and one as European Jew. These two images are bound by veins connecting the two prominent hearts.

Like Frida Kahlo, a growing number of our students come from complicated family connections. While for some, the traditional tree model works to trace their family, for others, it is severely limiting and cannot serve the many facets of the students’ families. As such, we must think “Kahlo-like” and expand our models for family histories.

Rather than trees, vines and gardens allow students to portray the members of their families in a variety of configurations. Different leaves and flowers can represent family groups with names appearing on stems or in flower centers. Moving away from a plant and earth theme, family constellations or even galaxies offer students a vast range of possibilities. You can offer a choice of star stickers, 6 pointed and 5 pointed, for students who wish to differentiate Jewish and non-Jewish family members. Students can also fashion family weavings. Using paper, cut into weaving strips, students write names on the various strips and weave them through a base paper, cut as a weaving mat. The completed weave can be laminated as a placemat or creased, stapled and hung as a lantern. Family lanterns strung around your room are truly eye-catching.

Collage is always a popular activity. For a project resembling Kahlo’s “Self Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States,” students cut and paste pictures that remind them of different family members, all surrounding a photograph of the student prominently placed in the center.

My favorite, because it is the simplest and offers the widest creative opportunities, is a family mosaic. I offer students a variety of simple die-cut shapes—squares, circles, hearts, stars, leaves—and give them the task of designing a free-form family mosaic. It can be overwhelming for some students to begin, so I guide them to start with the people who live in their immediate household. This task gives the student confidence as they navigate their decisions and see the resulting pattern. In a class last week, questions ranged from “What name do I put in what shape?” to “Do you think I should give both my Mom’s the same shape?” My reply is standard, “Whatever you decide to do is perfect.”

Most students are comfortable expanding the mosaic, for past generations and extended family, on the original paper. Others feel freer when offered more than one sheet of paper. I encourage students who do not know specific names, to honor every individual with a shape and a description of that person’s role in the student’s heritage. In a recent group, a student commented, “My step-father has a step-father; I think I will cut a Grandpa square into a triangle for him.” What a great idea and a solution to sanctify every family configuration!

Take a fresh look at the work of Frida Kahlo to inspire new ideas of family heritage projects in your classroom. (I am very selective as to which, if any, actual Kahlo pieces I will show students. Many contain troubling images.) Please let me know of all the ways your students enjoy representing their own family portraits.