Going to Israel with two small children under the age of 6 is a little like swimming with weights -- you'll get to your destination, but it will take a lot more sweat and planning.
My husband and I recently took our not-quite-6-year-old daughter, Rachel, and 2 1/2-year-old son, Danny, for a two-week vacation to Israel. Although my husband and I had been to Israel many times before, and even once together, this trip bore little resemblance to our previous travels, and we all had the chance to see Israel through fresh eyes not jaded by political ideology and complicated history. In short, we were there to have fun, and we modeled our trip on what an Israeli family does during its vacations.
Naturally, we only took the essentials. Our two-page, single-spaced packing list included a port-a-crib, stroller, folding booster seat, baby backpack and a comprehensive collection of over-the-counter and prescription drugs. We also brought along the wonderful travel book "Kids Love Israel; Israel Loves Kids," by Barbara Sofer (Kar-Ben Copies Inc., 1995).
My husband, whose Hebrew is quite good, has been speaking to the kids in Hebrew since they were born, and he wanted them to understand that more than just he and a few friends actually spoke in Hebrew. It was also a chance to give them a taste of being abroad in the place we both knew best.
Within 24 hours of leaving Los Angeles, Danny had visited the neighborhood all-night Supersol grocery store at 4 a.m. -- he was too jet-lagged to sleep. And within 48 hours, Rachel had traded in Nickelodeon cable programs for Arutz HaYeladim (Kids Channel) and was singing their promotional jingles.
Outside of our immediate new neighborhood in Tel Aviv, we went to a parrot farm (complete with a petting zoo) on Kibbutz Na'an, rented boats in Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv, and explored the Youth Wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (although we did sneak a quick look at the House of the Book, with its amazing Dead Sea Scroll fragments). We also hiked in Ein Gedi, that enchanting wadi adjacent to the Dead Sea.
With coastal Tel Aviv as our base, we swam often in the warm, green waters of the Mediterranean, limited only by the sparse number of clean towels available in our rented apartment (which we found through the classified ads of The Jewish Journal) located in the heart of Tel Aviv. And what will probably be most memorable for Rachel was the all of us getting invited to a birthday party in the apartment building for a 9-year-old girl we had never met before. Party-goers spoke an interesting mixture of French, Russian and Hebrew.
We hit a few major historic spots: We prayed at the Kotel (Rachel was permitted to go on both the men's and women's sides, while Daniel was perched in the heavy-duty backpack, much to the delight of the female soldiers), learned some military history at the Golani memorial in the north, and spent a delightful morning in the Museum of the Diaspora at Tel Aviv University. And, yes, we managed to find baby sitters through major hotels' concierge services and went out by ourselves two lovely evenings.
Israelis couldn't keep their hands from patting Danny's strawberry-blond hair, and Rachel received more than one unsolicited treat from kindly grown-ups. Although every restaurant seemed to have a highchair or a booster (except for the cafeteria at Bet Hatefutsot at Tel Aviv University), there were virtually no changing places for Danny, and I found myself standing him up on corners in the strangest places. Seems that most Israeli kids go to day care, called gan, and are potty-trained at the tender age of 2. In fact, the largest diapers available in the stores went up to only around 30 pounds.
We not only had to speak Hebrew, but we had to think in kilograms and meters. Rachel was stunned to learn that she was limited to the 1 (meter) section of the pool, while, at home, she can hold her own all the way to 3 (feet).
When bombs went off at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, we were far away in Tel Aviv, but the rest of the trip took place with a heightened sense of security issues. After watching the news coverage of the bombing, Rachel began asking hard questions about how heavy a bomb is and how exactly they exploded. She wanted to know if the kids she saw on TV, being whisked away to hospitals, were all right. And, as is often the case in Israel, the son of a friend was in the same youth group as the youngest bomb victim, who only survived due to the quick intervention of a pediatrician who happened to be on the scene.
For those who dread the 16-hour plane ride and have vowed not to go to Israel until their youngest is bar or bat mitzvah age, my advice is -- go. Let your children, while they are still little, absorb the legacy, history and spirit that define Israel.
Rachel now knows about passports, security clearances and the difference between tehina and hummus. Not bad for someone not quite 6.
Free-lance writer Michelle K. Wolf lives and works in Los Angeles.
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