This Land Is Your Land?
06/07/11
Special To The Jewish Week
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My long-legged 9-year-old clambers onto my lap, her eye-rolling cynicism suppressed for the moment. Together we wait, staring at the computer screen’s still image of an Israeli flag, listening as the sentimental strains of a symphony rise up. But when a disembodied voice explodes in song, Talia joins in, belting out the Hebrew words with a gusto she usually reserves for Broadway show tunes, her torso swaying from the effort. My daughter is caught up in the love and hope and dreams of “Hatikvah.”

And while I’m oh so thankful for this zesty rendition of the Israeli national anthem from Talia, I’m equally grateful that my daughter doesn’t scroll through the comments section of this YouTube performance. Because if she had, she’d almost certainly have detected the rage of viewers, much of it directed toward Palestinians, but toward Israel too.

I’m struggling with the Jewish state these days. It’s not what you think. I’m a committed Zionist (even if I don’t agree with every action of the Israeli government). The problem is this: I want to introduce Talia to the sunshine of the brightest beach day in Tel Aviv, the convivial warmth of Israeli street life, the beauty of dawn in the desert. But Israel: well, it’s complicated. And in looking for tools to teach Talia about the Holy Land, I’ve hit a stumbling block — most of the material is either too babyish, too upsetting, too dry, or not available in English.

The stakes are high. I don’t want her to grow up to be one of the many young American Jews who feel disconnect or disappointment or distrust when talk turns to Israel.

Talia’s 6-year-old brother Joel still enjoys clips of “Rechov SumSum,” Israeli “Sesame Street.” He giggles and hums along when Ronnie Rock sings in Arabic with a hot pink, Hebrew-speaking Muppet named Abigail. But Talia? She turns away in disdain, as any self-possessed third-grader would. As my friend Naomi Wilensky, a Jewish educator and mother of four, observes, “If the whole world were more like Sesame Street that would be good.”

Wilensky, who is the religious school director for an upstate synagogue, notes that at a certain age, you will likely “see a headline announcing a bombing on a Jerusalem bus stop. You will wonder what happened to these happy characters holding hands.” She believes “it's hard to find ways to connect positively to Israel that don't introduce politics.” She says, “The ways I was taught about Israel don't even work anymore — we can't live with blinders on.”

Of course, there comes a time when every Jewish child will learn about The Conflict; will be exposed to the controversy that continues to swirl around Israel’s existence and actions; will discover Israel’s many enemies the world over.

I don’t believe that time is at age 9.

Marjorie Ingall, who writes a parenting column for Tablet, a Jewish webzine, discusses her angst in teaching her children about Israel. “Modern-day Israel, as opposed to historical Israel, is a subject I avoid with my children. Yes, of course I believe the state should exist, but the word `Zionist’ makes me skittish,” she writes in a column last spring. In a later piece, Ingall supplies a list of several books which “encourage young readers to see both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

I support this notion, and someday — maybe even soon — Talia and I will wade through books such as Daniella Carmi’s “Samir and Yonatan” and Randa Abdel-Fattah’s “Where the Streets Had a Name,” and one Wilensky suggests, “Habibi” by Naomi Shihab Nye. But for now? Call it blinders, call it brainwashing, but my first priority is to help foster love for Israel.

And so I’m embarking on a project to find great resources to teach English-speaking kids about Israel, without delving into politics – at least not too deeply. I’m talking to educators of all types, to librarians and parents, and you too, if you care to share. I’ll list my favorites (and Talia’s) in an upcoming column.

In the meantime, one event that didn’t work so well: The Celebrate Israel parade seemed an apt occasion to expose Talia to the simple joys of the Jewish homeland. Alas, her social schedule only allowed us to attend the “after party” in Central Park.

“It is O.V.E.R.,” Talia pronounces when we survey the scene, begging that we abandon my plan and instead sail toy motor boats on the Conservatory Water. I drag her onward, toward the promise of music. At last, we huddle together by the band shell, amid hundreds of yeshiva students in matching T-shirts, watching an all-male band croon in Sephardic-accented Hebrew.

“Very interesting,” Talia says, pointing her bubble wand toward the sky. She rolled her eyes.

Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month.

Last Update:

06/15/2011 - 17:22

Comments

Here are three books that DO introduce Israeli politics, but in an age-appropriate way, while also celebrating other aspects of Israeli life. (As you can tell from the descriptions, they are also slightly saccharine -- but again, in an age-appropriate way -- I guess if you're going to introduce a child to the Arab-Israeli conflict, you want to at least inject a note of hope.) I've read these with my own Talia, slightly younger than yours. They definitely fall inbetween Shalom Sesame and the more mature titles you mentioned. Curious to hear what you think if you wind up reading any of them.

"Snow in Jerusalem" by Deborah daCosta:
In this picture book, an Arab boy and a Jewish boy both think they've adopted the same street cat. (I don't know whether this would work for you, but if I want my daughter to hear a substantive picture book without a priori rejecting it as babyish, I read it to her younger brother in her presence.)

"Tali's Jerusalem Scrapbook" by Sylvia Rouss:
This picture book is geared toward older children, and is intense enough that I would NOT read it in front of younger brother -- but that in itself ("Only you're old enough for this one") was a draw for my daughter (plus the namesake thing). Tali lives in Israel, and her American cousins are supposed to come visit for her ninth birthday, but they cancel the trip for fear of violence; Tali resents the conflict and, by proxy, the Arabs, until an elderly neighbor helps her and her friends come to appreciate the diversity of Israel's population.

"Aviva's Piano" by Miriam Chaikin (out of print but available):
This is a short chapter book about an immigrant girl on an old-style kibbutz in northern Israel. Her piano finally arrives from their old home in Argentina, but is too big to get into their new home on the kibbutz. During an air raid later that day, Aviva and her classmates take shelter and hear shellings. It turns out that Aviva's house was damaged, but the silver lining is that now there's a hole big enough for the piano. Since this book is set earlier in Israel's history, and focuses on a border that's relatively peaceful now, you could read it and still steer clear of the current conflict if you chose (while also laying some groundwork for the inevitable time that Talia does learn of current problems). The description of kibbutz life is also pretty interesting.

Hope that helps.

Wow Elicia, I think you summed up a serious problem not with Israel, but with much of American (Jewish?) youth: cynical 9 year old children with social schedules. I took my 7 kids (ages 15 to 2) to the cheesiest, hockiest, yom ha'atzmaut event in Efrat, Israel. While some of the speeches were too politicized for my taste, they weren't very audible and didn't impact the evening. None of my kids rolled their eyes -- we may have smiled a bit at various points. I think that American tv shows (anything on Nickelodeon for instance) help to create this attitude. If you think that inculcating the idea that somethings are important, they have to take precedence over 9 year old's other social engagements. Parents should set the agenda.

I teach 18yr old students who come to Israel for the year. They are really good young adults with quintessential American upbringings and the cynicism too often permeates their being. Many have an over inflated sense of entitlement and having "done everything" a powerful sense of ennui. It is really harmful and a shame.

My experience with Israeli, religious Zionist youth is that they are ideological (sometimes to a fault, and that is our serious problem) but not cynical. This is despite actually living with "the Conflict" and not watching it on youtube.

The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinian. The conflict is between Jewish and Arab population living in Palestine. Within Israeli and Palestinian society, the conflict generates a wide variety of views. The roots of the conflict can be traced to the late 19th century, with a rise in national movements. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the world's longest standing conflicts. Many people feel that resolving this conflict is the key to resolving the various conflicts throughout the Middle East.

Documentary - "The Heart of Jenin" reveals about a family whose son was shot by an Israeli soldier whilst playing with a plastic gun in the refugee camp Jenin. Despite his grief his father did a courageous act and decides to donate his son‘s organs to Israeli children. Is their any end for all these conflicts and suffering of the people living there?

To watch please visit - http://www.cultureunplugged.com/play/5234

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