I love Israel, but I also recognize that it isn’t a perfect place. I have mixed feelings about the Jewish state’s politics and policies — but that matters exactly 0% in the approach I take toward sharing Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, with my kids.
The definition of “independence” is not something most little kids can easily articulate, which can make a meaningful recognition of Yom Ha’atzmaut — which starts this year on the evening of Wednesday, April 18 — difficult with very young children.
Difficult, perhaps — but not impossible. After all, kids are intimately familiar with the concept of independence (if not the word itself). And, as it happened, just the other day my 3-year-old perfectly encapsulated the meaning of Yom Ha’atzmaut: “The day that we are happy because Israel is in charge of its own self.”
I’m a Jewish educator — and I may be a bit biased here — but I was blown away by the brilliance of her simple statement.
The phrase “________ is in charge of _______’s self” is a popular one in our house. It leapfrogged from our liberal use of the phrase “____ is the boss of ____’s body” which we were inspired to use after reading this awesome book that describes bodily autonomy and models how to communicate personal preferences.
I spoke with my daughter about how Israel used to have another country as its boss, and the people really wanted to be free from the boss. (Here, I’m often interrupted with the question, “Like Pharoah?” And while it is far from the same, the concept is similar enough, so I say, “Yes, kind of.”)
Thanks to picture books we read throughout the year — like Everyone Says Shalom by Leslie Kimmelman and Good Night Israel by Mark Jasper and Anne Rosen — my daughter (and to a certain extent, her 14-month-old sister) already have an understanding that “Israel is a special place for Jewish people.”
I explained to my daughter that Israel has a birthday coming soon. I told her that on that day, we’ll celebrate the day that Israel got independence from the boss, so Israel could decide for itself the kind of rules to make and to choose what kind of place it wanted to be.
So, on Thursday afternoon, we will prepare a birthday party for Israel. We’ll blue up a dozen blue-and-white beach balls that we’ll use to bounce, kick, roll and play. (If your kids are old enough, balloons also work, of course.) We will sort out the blue and white blocks from the rest of the multicolor set and build structures using Israel’s colors.
For food, we’ll make whipped cream and smoosh it across a cookie sheet, and then we’ll use blueberries to make lines and shapes that match the Israeli flag. (Will it look perfect, or even close? Probably not. But does it matter? Absolutely not.)
Just like we do for other holidays that I want my kids to understand and recognize as a part of our culture, we will read picture books — in particular, I like ones that highlight the diversity and beauty of the people and land, like Yaffa and Fatima Shalom, Salaam by Fawzia Gilianai-Willians and Chiara Fedele.
We’ll also sing and listen to Hebrew songs — I love this playlist. We’ll also listen to Hebrew variations of familiar songs; YouTube is full of Hebrew versions of Disney and Pixar songs — like these tunes from Frozen — and I recommend searching for your favorites and enjoying them with your kids.
With just a little bit of creativity, you can celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut in a way that’s fun, meaningful and age appropriate. Yes, I’m looking forward to the day when my kids’ cognitive and verbal skills allow them to explore complex concepts about Israel’s identity and politics. But until then, I see no reason to color their foundational associations with Israel as anything less than celebratory.
I wish you and your kiddos an awesome holiday!