We spent our summer vacation delving into Israel’s history, devouring homemade hummus, visiting the Western Wall, considering Kibbutz life, and examining a toilet at Ben Gurion airport — all for the price of a few bags of chick peas.
Even if circumstances don’t allow a real-life visit to the Land of Milk and Honey, I’m determined to nourish my children, Talia, 9, and Joel, 6, with the sweetness of the Jewish state. Because even if I don’t agree with every action of the Israeli government, I’m firmly committed to fostering my children’s affection for this land which has been central to the Jewish people practically since the birth of Judaism itself. And with the aid of old media and new, this kind of connection is easier to build than ever before.
The stakes seem high. At least one major study, funded by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, released in 2007 by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman, indicates a growing alienation toward Israel with each passing generation of Jews.
So with the assistance of my children, with the aid of educators and experts, and with a loan of about 20 books from by the knowledgeable Rodeph Sholom librarian Rachelle Leon, I’ve explored books and websites and various other materials, looking for entertaining, apolitical ways for parents to help their elementary-aged children foster ties with the Holy Land.
What follows are a few favorites:
“This is really cool! This is happening right this second?” Joel asks incredulously as we watch men clad in black hats and long coats milling about the Kotel plaza during our virtual visit to the Western Wall, via http://english.thekotel.org/cameras.asp, one of the few free webcam websites of the Kotel. Talia notes the darkening sky and the small women’s section, and plans her strategy as to where she might stand so friends can see her someday via the webcam, whenever it is that we finally visit.
My children argue over who controls the mouse when we check in at www.cityofdavid.org.il/hp_eng.asp, an interactive website recommended by the Center for Israel Education in Atlanta. We are all fascinated not just by the 360-degree maps of Jerusalem, and by an illustrated timeline of the city’s 4,000-year-old history (both listed under “virtual experience” on the navigation bar), but most especially by the interactive virtual tour which allows viewers to transform the City of David, rushing it through thousands of years of growth, from a desert outpost to a bustling modern city.
We also all wish we could watch more of a short, smart, animated, video clip about the life of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the founder of Modern Hebrew. The clip, a product of Shalom Sesame but appropriate for all ages, can be found among many offerings in the Educator’s backpack of the www.icenter.org. Founded in 2008, the icenter aims to “develop and support the field of pre-college Israel education,” according to its executive director, Anne Lanski.
Other lively sites worth visiting: www.jlandonline.com, previously described in The Jewish Week as a Jewish Club Penguin, with vibrant characters and images, but best suited for kindergarten or preschool-aged children; http://ecocamp.us/, which is just getting off the ground, and aims to teach children about Jewish environmental values and introduce them to green technologies developed in Israel. Children design their own avatars and can measure their ecological footprint. http://apps.business.ualberta.ca/yreshef/funland/funland.html, a Jewish funland, with interactive Hebrew hangman and an Israel puzzle, among many other activities; http://babaganewz.com/, which includes games, recipes, videos, and an interactive map of Israel. Finally, in a venture that sounds promising, Deborah Nagler, a long-time Jewish educator, and Gabe Salgado, a techie and educator, are actively working to launch Simnik, a project that will develop 3-D immersive environments for Jewish education, including a virtual world based in Israel.
HOOKED ON A BOOK
Books on Israel for elementary aged children tend to be as dry as the desert, or otherwise mention violence and/or conflict in a direct or indirect manner. But both Talia and Joel expressed enthusiasm for non-fiction works that included images of Israeli children going about their day. They were immediately drawn to the smiley 10-year-old Tal, the central character of “A Kibbutz in Israel” by Allegra Taylor, published in 1987 by Lerner Publications Company; and Talia commented that she learned a lot about Sukkot in following an Israeli girl’s preparations for the holiday in “Sukkot Treasure Hunt,” by Allison Ofansky, published in 1987 by Kar-Ben Publishing.
No list of English-language fiction about Israel would be complete without the classic picture book “Chicken Man” by Michelle Edwards, about a kibbutz dweller who befriends the domestic birds of the community; I also liked the poetry and pictures of “Sitti’s Secrets,” by Noami Shihab Nye; it is a gentle, moving story about an American girl and her Palestinian grandmother, but does not touch the politics of Israel; Joel liked the description of pita-making.
For chapter books, there are few available in English, but Rachelle Leon, the Rodeph librarian recommends “Duel,” a children’s mystery by the renowned Israeli author David Grossman, and The Time Tunnel series, translated from the original Hebrew, which chronicles the adventures of two 10-year-old Jerusalemites, Sharon and Dan. In the first adventure, “Jerusalem Under Siege,” the pair travel back to the Israeli War of Independence.
Of course, books and digital media can’t tell the whole story.
After all, teaching about Israel may not be the primary job of families. Parents should “infuse Israel or distill a connection to Israel,” says Anne Lanski, executive director of the icenter.
That may mean hanging up maps of the country in your home or displaying artwork by Israeli artists, listening to Hebrew music, or making homemade hummus (I recommend the Claudia Roden recipes). If your child obsesses over sports it may mean following the scores of Israeli basketball teams or playing Kadima on the beach.
Parents might also forge emotional bonds by pouring over an old photo album, or by celebrating a small memento brought back from Israel by Great Aunt Joyce.
GIFT OF A GIFT
The fun of twirling dreidels never goes out of season, especially when the tops hail from Israel. For an hour on a hot afternoon in August, Joel and his 7-year-old cousin Jesse twirl their small wooden gifts from Great Aunt Joyce. The boys’ thrill only increases when I point out Pey, the one Hebrew letter that makes these dreidels distinct from their American counterparts.
For her part, Talia packs her new hamsa-charm necklace, along with snacks and a velvet riding cap as she sets off to pony camp every morning.
Talia and Joel only fidget ever so slightly as I escort them on a brief photo tour of my USY trip to Israel, circa 1985. There’s the younger me at the Bahai Gardens in Haifa, bordered by magnificent palms; and again, with arms circling handsome, dark-skinned Moshav “brothers,” and again in front of the golden stones of Jerusalem. In every photo, my grin is wide; my bangs plentiful; and my fisherman’s hat – as Talia remarks – is the same one I still wear today.
The kids seem even more intrigued by the photos of a cousin’s visit to Israel last month, especially the shots of public
restrooms where the eco-conscious Israelis have installed toilets with big flush and little ones too, which offer a more-water, less-water flushing option.
Talia imagines a site where children can install images of themselves, set against an Israeli landscape. I’m shocked to find an improved version of her idea, outlined on the Babaganewz website. Tobey Herzog is organizing and collecting photos of thousands of children with the aim of creating a poster with a photomosaic image of Jerusalem’s Old City. http://babaganewz.com/articles/picture-this.