December 9, 2009
Coming of Age
It’s been 21 years since I landed in Israel, in December 1988. I say “landed” and not “ascended.” I flew from Los Angeles, touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport, and that was that. I use the word “aliyah” as freely as the next Jew, but one way I’ve come of age as an Israeli is that for me, this country is mostly a place where I fight traffic and pay exorbitant water bills. In other words: a place to live.
Nor do I believe that by dint of immigration to Israel a Diaspora Jew is necessarily elevated to a higher plateau of Jewishness. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, a saintly Jew, didn’t move here — in fact he never came even once to visit. People can also be splendid Jews in the United States. Trust me, no matter what the next visiting Israeli dignitary tells you from the podium, however half-seriously, you can relax: You don’t have to live here.
Some of you, however, might rightly want to. This country has fantastic advantages, not the least being universal health care for its citizens. I am duly proud of Israel’s achievements in the high-tech, and certainly the bio-medical fields, but don’t quiz me on the details. I adore our modern dance companies, even though I seldom go see them. What I do know a lot about is Israeli kids: my kids and their friends, and my friends’ kids, and the Israeli kids they marry. We have many praiseworthy projects in Israel, museums and universities and orchestras, but the best thing about us is our kids.
My son is 20, a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. When I was his age, I was a junior at a venerable New England college, having busted my tuchis at the Yeshivah of Flatbush to get in. I was reading Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”; my son never heard of the guy, but manages on his own nonetheless. My kids both went to the arts high school in Jerusalem, where they were spoon-fed enough history and literature and Bible and math to do fine on their matriculation exams. Someday, I expect, they’ll go to college. Now, they barely think about it. Israeli kids, of their age and younger, rarely do.
It’s commonplace for folks like me, American olim, to brag that our kids are not obsessed with grades and extracurricular resumés, that they are not consumed by competition from age 12 onward (or is 10 the new 12?). I agree one hundred percent, but to be frank, I wouldn’t complain if my two children were currently attending Yale or UCLA and were not in range of Iranian missiles. But it didn’t turn out that way. Like I said, I landed in Israel.
My daughter is 18, a recent high school graduate. Next year, she too goes to the army. This year, she’s in a pre-army mechina, from the Hebrew root meaning “prepare.” There are about three dozen such mechinot in the country, approved by the Ministry of Defense and funded by various organizations. Hers, simply called “HaMechina B’Yaffo” — Yaffo being the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Jaffa, part of the Tel Aviv municipality — has been around for seven years, under the aegis of Telem, an acronym for the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism, also known as the “Reformim.”
Other mechinot are secular, or Orthodox, or a mixture of the two. There are mechinot that focus on yeshiva training and those that impart military skills, including one where the kids study Arabic in hopes of being accepted into intelligence units. There’s also a mechina of Druze youngsters, whose community has a longstanding tradition of IDF service, and another dedicated to environmentalism. What the mechinot have in common is a mission: to foster qualities of leadership, self-confidence and mutual responsibility, in a Zionist context. From my limited experience, it seems to be working.
My son also spent a year at the Yaffo mechina, and even made a few short videos about it, which inquiring readers may find on YouTube. In his group, there were 30 kids; now there are 40. They study in the morning, with an emphasis on Jewish social justice, ethical dilemmas in the army and the Talmud, Chasidic spirituality, that sort of Israeli Reform stuff. In the afternoons, they do volunteer work — with underprivileged Arab and Jewish kids (there’s a lot of poverty in Jaffa), the Hebrew-speaking children of foreign workers, elderly Holocaust survivors, Ethiopian Jewish teenagers. Afterward, they do a lot of sitting in circles and intensely sharing their feelings about the day’s experiences. (My kids are less into that aspect, but so it goes.) In the same spirit, in preparing this article I phoned my daughter in Jaffa and asked her what she liked best about the mechina. Her answer: the independence.
They live communally, crammed into several apartments in a rundown building situated amid auto repair shops. There is no “dorm counselor”; all their madrichim live elsewhere. They take cabs to a mega-supermarket in Holon, buy epic quantities of groceries, and do all their own cooking. Some weekends, my daughter comes home to Jerusalem, along with her laundry. Other weekends, these kids are out briskly hiking shvil Yisrael, the trail that traverses the country north to south, or spending a traditional Shabbat at the mechina.
The Yaffo program, headed by an ex-Orthodox elite commando officer who became a Reform rabbi, centers on the idea of eclectic education. One of its annual outings is a full Shabbos in Mea Shearim, hosted by ultra-Orthodox families. Two years ago, my son spent three days at a monastery. This fall’s excursions have included picking dates on a kibbutz and two visits — once with religious settler guides, the other time with peaceniks — to Hebron in Judea (West Bank), flash point of the never-ending conflict. Some of these young people might be back there soon, in uniform.
Toga parties they don’t have, but lest you think they lack for fun, I assure you that the opposite is true (though I surely don’t know the half of it). The beach is maybe a 10-minute walk, and close by in the other direction is Florentine, the hippest neighborhood in Tel Aviv. Like many college students in the Old Country, they don’t live in the safest part of town, but half a block from the mechina is a huge gleaming structure that helps me sleep at night: the central headquarters of the Tel Aviv police department.
A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from the Guest Lecturers Committee of the mechina (one of many committees) inviting me to come give a talk about film. So my wife and I drove down to Jaffa, took our daughter and a friend out to dinner, brought her a duffel of winter clothes and chided her to clean up her room. Down in the multipurpose room, I spun a few DVDs for the kids, showing scenes from recent Israeli films to illustrate how movies are put together. I used to teach in film school, in the United States and also here, and the evening was fun, almost nostalgic. The kids asked great questions, like, does analyzing films the way you do make you enjoy them less? The same could be asked of my life in Israel, which I’ve been writing about all these years. Now, as my kids and I come of age as Israelis, the answer is: I enjoy it more.
Stuart Schoffman, a former Hollywood screenwriter, is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and editor of its new magazine, Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.