As American parents debate on the best kind of permanent marker with which to label their kids camp clothes, Israeli parents are in the final stretch of the school year. And as invitations for mesibot siyum (final parties) are issued, and presents for teachers are purchased, here are a few things that I have learned as my children are graduating from their first year in Israeli schools.
1. If you aren’t on WhatsApp you won’t know that is going on. This is the communication app of choice for all Israeli parents. What was so wrong with the tried and true group emails? At least it slowed down the rapid fire pace of 30 parents x 2 schools to communicate about e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Between the affectionate responses from every parent like you are mhamehhhhmet (amaaaaaaazing) when one parent takes a picture of the homework assignment written on the board and forwards it around, and the back and forth about why Asher didn’t want to wear the crown on his head for the Shavuot gathering (too effeminate apparently), the details relevant to what I need to know are totally lost. So I made an executive decision not to look at the thing. That’s probably why my kid showed up in a bright red t-shirt on the day that everyone wore white for the Jerusalem day parade. Oops.
2. Which brings me to my next point. If you are a parent sending your kids to school in Israel, stockpile white t-shirts at the beginning of the school year. You never know when you will need it. Every holiday, every Rosh Chodesh, every third Wednesday, is the day for the white t-shirt. You can never have enough (clean) ones, so buy early and buy often.
3. Google translate has its limits. My Hebrew is pretty good. After all, I lived here for a decade when I was in my 20s. But back then I was in grad school in education and dating. My vocabulary spanned topics like “pedagogical,” “ontological” and “he’s really cute.” Now, as a mother who has to appropriately prepare her children for school each day with special requests from teachers around various holidays, I usually come up short. For example, take Shavuot. It’s a tradition to bring the children into school with little baskets of fruit. It’s a modern day re-enactment of the “first fruits” ceremony that the ancient Israelites brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. But who knew that when the teacher added “maadan” to the list of fruits to bring in (which in Google translate is “delicacy”) that she meant a very specific kind of yogurt? Even the new immigrant mom from Russia knew that. But alas, I tucked a little pesek zman chocolate bar into my daughter’s basket instead. Nothing says “delicacy” to me, like chocolate. Thank goodness the Russian mom brought an extra yogurt drink and shared it with my daughter.
4. When you want to fit in, eat white bread and chocolate spread. While Israeli kids do eat their veggies, sugar is also quite ubiquitous during both aruchat eser (the 10 a.m. snack time) and at school parties. But is white pita and chocolate spread really a nutritious meal for a growing child? As I continued to diligently pack whole wheat pita with almond butter or hummus, I saw much of it come back in lunchboxes, untouched. For kids who just wanted to fit in, I didn’t realize how much their incessant request for yellow cheese or chocolate spread on a white lachmania (roll) was a part of their own process of acculturation. (Also, when my son started to chide the other children by saying “your white pita and chocolate spread are really not healthy,” I realized this wasn’t exactly the way to win friends and influence people.) And yet, Israeli children don’t suffer from the obesity epidemic that is raging in the States. Everything in moderation I guess, even chocolate spread.
5. Common sense security. Israelis know security. Gun violence in schools is a non-issue. They also know about profiling. So when I asked what the protocol was for having someone else pick up my child from school, they answered, “What protocol? If the child is happy to go with the person picking them up, we let him go.” Fair enough. Except for the time when I picked up my son’s friend, who was not at all happy that his mother was no where in sight, and the teacher on duty, empathizing with my situation, encouraged him to come with me instead (in that instance, the candy she offered him did the trick!).
6. My children know their plants. Israeli kids know nature. And mine are no exception. They especially know which plants are poisonous and which ones have leaves that can make a mean cup of tea.
7. Immersion programs work. At the beginning of the year I would ask my son how school was. “I don’t understand a word they say,” he would lament daily. And now, he speaks, plays, reads, and writes in Hebrew pretty fluently. “That was so long ago” he will recall when I remind him about how hard it was in the beginning of the year. And when we start to say a bracha (blessing) before we eat, my son and daughter will slip into a litany of brachot they recite each morning as a part of their tefillot. They ask me questions about biblical characters as if they are action figures in an epic game, and they celebrate Jewish holidays with an excitement and anticipation that rivals their anticipation for their own birthdays.
As hachofesh hagadol (the big summer break) nears, and I reflect on who my children have become this year, my big takeaway is that my kids are capable of a lot more than I had thought. And I am too.