Family Matters: Back to School
It is a sunny autumn morning and here I am, at 8:45, having sacrificed my leisurely coffee and toast breakfast, hurrying to catch my grandchildren’s welcoming-first-graders-into-school ceremony.
Driving along the winding mountain road through the Jerusalem suburb of Ein Kerem, I wonder why I agreed to go. I thought I had attended my last school ceremony when my youngest child graduated from high school, but somehow, inexplicably, I am on my way to another.
“Savta, Savta, you have to come,” my granddaughter said yesterday, her brown pigtails flying as she jumped up and down. “Please!”
“Maybe,” I answered without conviction, sitting on the couch. Zohar bounced next to me, cupped her hands on my cheeks and turned my face to hers, our foreheads touching, so that I could not escape her pleading eyes.
“The teacher said if you have a big brother or sister in sixth grade, you can be in the ceremony, so Yami and I are in it! Only me and two other kids in my class get to be in it. You have to come!” (Again, those soulful eyes, and light brown eyebrows slanting downward with little creases near the bridge of her nose.)
“O.K., O.K.,” I muttered, victim to Zohar’s implacable cuteness.
I enter the bright gym with its yellow linoleum floor and hear the buzz of parents and children sitting in the bleachers. The children wear T-shirts in reds, greens, blues and yellows with the Ein Harim School logo printed on them. They laugh with friends and glance at teachers, who stand nearby with stern faces.
I search for my oldest daughter, Tamar, in the crowd. There she is, smiling and waving to me, sitting beside her husband and holding baby Davidi, who seems enchanted by the hullabaloo.
Somewhere among the fourth graders is Yarden, my second grandson, but I cannot distinguish one T-shirted kid from another. Heading to my seat, I pass the children about to perform. They wear festive white shirts and sit cross-legged on the floor. The music—a festive “Hinei Ma Tov”—is turned on and the buzz dies down, but my mind is on the past.
Having raised four children in the land of milk and honey, I have had the opportunity to attend countless parties, ceremonies and special events while the children were in preschool, primary school, middle school, high school and the Army. Parents are expected to show up at these ceremonies. And there sure are a lot of them. In addition to those for every Jewish holiday, there are ceremonies for Family Day, Holocaust Day and Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers. Each grade also has its own special events, such as the first graders’ official welcome to the school, the second graders’ initiation into Torah studies, the third graders’ introduction to the prayer book and the fourth graders’ to the world of the Mishna. And, of course, there are the mandatory preschool birthdays and end-of-year parties and graduations.
I try to remember my own public school experience in the United States. I come up with just a few images of the student body coming together, but none involving parent participation. There was the annual variety show in elementary and junior high, sports night in high school and, on rare occasions, a gathering in the large, formal auditorium with floor-to-ceiling windows, hundreds of built-in wooden seats and a real stage with curtains, where the school orchestra would perform or the principal would speak behind a lectern next to the American flag. We would file into the auditorium in orderly fashion following our teachers and sit quietly through the program, stifling yawns.
Living in israel, the school events that my children experienced were different. As a young mother in my twenties, I sat in a circle with other parents on rickety little wooden chairs as our 3-year-olds danced and the music teacher played the accordion. In the winter, the children wore paper crowns with paper candles and sang Hanukka songs, their faces glowing. And, in the spring, they dressed in white, wearing wreaths of flowers on their heads and carrying decorated baskets of fruit (that we parents had to prepare) for the festival of Shavuot.
I remember the first time I attended a preschool celebration of Independence Day as a parent and watched my Israeli-born daughter and her classmates singing songs in Hebrew, the revived language of the Jewish people.
“My Land of Israel, beautiful and thriving,” the children sang, using hand motions to illustrate the construction of a house, the planting of a tree, the paving of a road, the building of a bridge. I sang along with tears in my eyes. Having lived in Israel for only a few years, I was still on a high over celebrating the holidays in such public fashion. I felt as if I were living the Zionist dream.
When I attended Tamar’s second grade Torah Party, celebrating the beginning of Bible studies, I was impressed by both the creativity and pageantry of the event. We divided into small groups of parents and children, each of which was herded into an empty classroom where, under the direction of valiant members of the parents’ committee, we enacted scenes from the Creation story. Each group then presented a different day of Creation to the class.
It was a marvelous spectacle, with costumes and scenery created on the spot and children performing to the delight of the enthusiastic audience. Here I was, in the Land of Israel, celebrating my daughter’s initiation into the world of Torah. What could be more meaningful?
By the time my daughters Liat and Shira came along, I was more experienced and a little blasé about all the rituals. Shira’s Israeli birthday party in kindergarten was a case in point. Seated with my husband on those tiny chairs again, our bottoms (larger by now) hanging over the small squares of wood, I knew in advance to bring a home-baked cake (the more work put into it, the better), Bamba (the national peanut-flavored snack), raspberry-flavored drink and 25 little surprise bags.
We also came prepared with a creative activity to present to the group: a puppet show. We smiled as the cute toddlers gave the birthday girl a booklet of their drawings and chuckled as they each came up to her decorated throne (where she sat like a queen, wearing a wreath of flowers) to offer blessings:
“I wish you a happy birthday, and you should live till 120” (from the most precocious kid in the class).
“I hope you don’t get a cold.”
“I hope you get lots of presents.”
Then it was time for the traditional dance of the parent with the child, songs and games led by the birthday girl and, finally, the lifting up of the child on the birthday chair; one time for every year of her life, plus one more for next year.
The graduation ceremony from elementary school was a long and well-rehearsed event. The children spent weeks preparing for it. But it paled in comparison to the high school graduation, a four-hour affair to which, for some reason, we dragged my visiting father. He swore that the experience resembled a transatlantic flight, except that he could not get out of his seat, was not served any food and did not get anywhere.
I was moved, however, watching the entire class swaying arm in arm, singing together the popular song by Arik Einstein, “Fly, Little Nestling.” I cried along with the other parents. We were conscious, not only of the coming of age of our children, but also of the fact that in a few short months they would be going off to the Army. Who knew what awaited them? In which wars would they have to fight? What would happen to them and to the friends they were laughing with and embracing?
The ceremonies I attended when my children finished their Army courses and basic training were impressive and solemn.
At the completion of Liat’s course for medics, I sat on the outdoor bleachers, the blue-and-white flag of Israel flying in the breeze, songs by former Army troupes blasting over the loudspeakers. I could not help but feel the significance of the event.
With pride, I watched my dark-haired, freckled daughter march in, wearing the khaki uniform and beret. I forgot my grumbling about waiting an hour and a half for the ceremony to begin and concentrated on filming the glorious moment when the commander stopped in front of Liat, spoke with her and brought a smile to her flushed face.
What a nutty country this is. With all the ceremonies, meetings, parties and events, how did we ever manage to go to work, cook dinner, do the laundry? I can’t believe that I succumbed to Zohar’s pleading that I come today, and now find myself about to sit through another ceremony. Shouldn’t there be a changing of the guard?
The sixth graders in white shirts move to the center of the gym floor, form a circle and begin the first dance. “Shalom, shalom, shalom kita alef,” goes the children’s song—a golden oldie that I recognize.
The principal then welcomes the parents and students, after which representatives of each grade greet the first graders. Smack in the middle of the gym floor are six children, including Yami and Zohar, seated on chairs. Yami looks nonchalant about being on center stage, but little Zohar is smiling, waving to her parents, her knees moving up and down as if she cannot keep them still.
Finally the grand moment arrives. each pair of siblings stands up in turn. A chubby blond girl with pink cheeks speaks slowly and loudly, enunciating each word, as her even chubbier little sister with matching blond hair giggles. After each child speaks, the audience applauds. Yami stands up, faces his little sister Zohar, and recites his lines:
“Welcome to first grade, Zohar. We in the sixth grade wish you all good luck in school.”
It is hard to hear him, but I clap as loudly as I can, stifling the urge to yell out: Bravo! When three first graders stand up to respond, Zohar flashes her gap-toothed smile, ready to recite the much-rehearsed lines:
“Thank you, sixth graders. We wish you good luck, too.”
But Zohar is too excited and shy to join in.
Oh well, I think to myself, she will have about 100 other opportunities to improve on this performance. And I will probably be persuaded to attend every one of them.
An old, vaguely familiar children’s song is playing as the children walk off, stirring up memories. The musical notes pass through my ears, stop by my brain and knock on the door to my heart. I watch Yami smile at his little sister and take her hand, and my eyes fill up with tears.
It is not just the love for my grandchildren that I feel at this moment. So many of the ceremonies I have attended as a parent have moved me—not only because they were rites of passage indicating that my children were growing up, but because they were growing up in Israel.
Much has changed since that first event I attended at my daughter’s preschool back in the seventies. Mother’s Day is now Family Day. New wars are mentioned during Memorial Day ceremonies and victims of terror are mourned in addition to soldiers who gave their lives. A new ceremony has been added to commemorate the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. And when “Hatikva” is sung, I feel a heaviness in my heart, remembering the old days of innocence and wondering if we will ever know peace.
I watch the children rush out of the gym, talking and laughing, gesturing and waving to their friends from other classes.
I guess these ceremonies will continue to be part of the educational landscape of Israel. They will continue to connect children with their cultural heritage, tradition and history. They will assume that the focus of our lives is our families—so what if you have a job. They will provide parents with countless opportunities to kvell and to develop their photography skills. And they will speak to grandparents of days gone by—and days yet to come.
Judith Haberman Forman is a teacher in remedial education and a freelance writer living in Jerusalem.