This Land Is Your Land?


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.