My family and I just moved to a kibbutz in Israel, but people know I’m not from here before I even open my mouth.
It isn’t the blonde hair.
It isn’t the Anne Tyler book I carry with me like a security blanket everywhere I go.
Or the fact that I insist on wearing stilettos. During the day. On the kibbutz. While traipsing through the corn fields.
They see it in my parenting: in the way my eyes dart, looking for danger that doesn’t exist. In the way I hold Faye’s hand tightly in mine as we walk down the sidewalk to the Hadar Ochel, the communal cafeteria, while all the other kids are running helter skelter, shrieking with delight.
They know it in the 18 trips we’ve taken to the health clinic since we arrived a month ago.
(“But Benjamin has 11–wait, no! 12–mosquito bites! Are you sure there’s no more malaria in Israel?”)
They know it in the way I follow my daughter up the jungle gym. Even though it’s only like one foot off the ground, I cling to her shirt lest she get too far from me and tumble 12 inches to the padded floor below.
They know it in the way I bathe both babes in hand sanitizer before (and after) we eat falafel.
Ok, I’ll admit, even by American standards, I am a hysterical parent. For instance, when a sane and rational person sees a doorknob, they see a doorknob. But, I see something entirely different. When I see a doorknob, I see staph, strep, and salmonella. I see rhinovirus, rotovirus, and RSV.
But I’ve always been a worrier. When I was 6, my doctor diagnosed me with acute stress disorder. And having kids has only made it worse since the stakes are that much higher. As far as I’m concerned, helmets are a must. Car seats are non-negotiable. We hold hands while crossing the street. Even if the street is a quiet country lane steeped in the stillness of a sleepy summer night.
Sarah would not approve.
On our first morning on the kibbutz, smacked upside the head with jetlag, we saw a parade of bicycles careening down the road toward the preschool buildings. Imas and abas, merrily pedalling away while their babies were chillin’ on rickety bicycle seats behind them. Without helmets. I rubbed my eyes, sure that I was dreaming.
“Why aren’t they wearing helmets?” I whispered frantically to my husband, Boaz.
“Um, because it’s a kibbutz,” he said.
Oh. Right. I forgot. A kibbutz is a magical place of sunshine and rainbows where children never fall off bikes and get hurt. There are never small rocks on the ground that can tip a bike over. There are never cars being driven by careless or tired people who forget to check their blind spots when they back up. And the rules of gravity never apply on a kibbutz. How could I be so silly?
Not Letting Go
And it isn’t just helmets. It’s everything. When Faye was a year old, and Benjamin was just a fetus, we visited Boaz’s family in Israel. And while all the other toddlers were playing on the ground, picking up stones and pulling up grass, digging their pudgy fingers deep into the earth and discovering the world through touch and–oh my God!–taste, I held Faye tightly to me.
Sarah holding on tight to her son.
“Why don’t you let her crawl on the ground?” someone asked me.
“Are you kidding?!?!” I gasped.
But with two kids–one in preschool making friends with all the germs, and the other almost a year old, and highly opinionated–I’ve learned that this is one battle I can’t fight.
“When on the kibbutz, do as the kibbutzniks!” So, down on the ground my babes go, playing in the earth, covered with leaves and (oy vey iz mir!) larvae.
In other words, living here is like serious immersion therapy for me. And while I still cringe when Benjamin discovers a dead bug lying on the ground near our house, or Faye picks up a moldy piece of fruit that fell from the tree, I’m learning how to relax. (Although, let’s be real: I still carry hand sanitizer with me at all times.)
“Yiheh Beseder, It will be ok” is the mantra that most parents on the kibbutz murmur when their kids take off for parts unknown. Easy for them to say. They grew up here.
The thing is, back in L.A. I wasn’t the lone mothership hovering over her child. There were others, like me–other middle class mamas raised in the generation of Adam Walsh where Very Bad Things could happen. And while the rational part of us knew that These Very Bad Things rarely do happen, just the threat of them is enough to ingrain us with the understanding that the world is a scary place.
But in the States, most of us have it easy. We are not under constant threat of attack or annihilation. Even in L.A. where police helicopters are more plentiful than stars in the smoggy night sky, things are pretty safe.
And as the world gets safer in the States with helmet laws and airbags and (in some places, curfews), as the crime rate actually decreases, our anxiety builds. Our need to create structure increases. Preschools have alarm codes. Everything is a choking hazard. If it’s not organic, it will kill you! (Whomp whomp whomp – that’s the sound of helicopter parenting.)
But on this kibbutz, things are different. This is a culture with real things to worry about, you know, like suicide bombings or Ahmadinejad’s mood swings and itchy trigger finger. Almost everyone here knows at least one other person killed in a bombing or a war. And maybe that’s why parents raise their kids to be more badass. Because they have to.
And so, I guess if I want my kids to survive here–to bravely embrace life in spite of my neuroses –then I need to learn to let go.
I’ll have to take it one day at a time, making teeny tiny baby steps toward kibbutz normalcy. I’ve already mastered the first hurdle of letting Benjamin crawl on the ground with the other kids. And just yesterday, I let Faye go down the slide all by herself. Maybe one day I’ll have the courage to let my kids ride bicycles down the road, around the corner, and out of my sight. But believe you me, when (ok, if) that day comes, they’ll be wearing helmets. Just in case.