It wasn’t the blonde hair.
It wasn’t the Anne Tyler book I schlepped with me like a security blanket everywhere I went.
Or the fact that I insisted on wearing hooker boots. During the day. On the kibbutz. While traipsing through the corn fields.
They could see it in my parenting: in the way my eyes darted, looking for dangers that didn’’t exist. They could see it In the way I clutched my daughter’s hand when we would walk down the sidewalk to the Hadar Ohel, while all the other kids were running helter skelter, shrieking with delight.
They knew it in the 18 trips we took to the health clinic during our first month. (“But my son has 11– wait, no! 12 — mosquito bites! Are you sure there’s no more malaria in Israel?”)
They knew it in the way I would follow my daughter up the jungle gym. And even though it was only like one foot off the ground, I would cling to her shirt lest she get too far from me and tumble 12 inches to the cushioned floor below.
They knew it in the way I’d bathe both babes in hand sanitizer before (and after) we’d eat falafel.
OK, I’ll admit, even by American standards, I was a hysterical parent. Let me break it down for you: when a sane and rational person sees a doorknob, they see a doorknob. Or, if they happen to be tripping on acid, maybe they’ll see some incarnation of God or Jim Morrison. But I would see something entirely different: When I’d see a doorknob, I’d see staph, strep, and salmonella. I’d see rhinovirus, rotavirus, and RSV.
I’ve always been Woody Allen with girly parts. And having kids only made it worse, since the stakes are that much higher. For me, helmets are a must; car seats, non-negotiable. And we all hold hands while crossing the street. Even if the street is a quiet country lane steeped in the stillness of a sleepy summer night.
So, Israel was a shock to the system. On my first morning on the kibbutz, smacked upside the head with jetlag, I saw a parade of bicycles careening down the road toward the preschool buildings. Imas and abas, merrily pedalling away while their babies were chillin’ on rickety bicycle seats behind them. Without helmets. I rubbed my eyes, sure that I was dreaming.
“Why aren’t they wearing helmets?” I whispered frantically to my then-husband.
“Um, because it’s a kibbutz,” he said.
Oh. Right. Obviously. A kibbutz is a magical place of sunshine and rainbows where children never fall off bikes and get hurt. There are never small rocks on the ground that can tip a bike over. There are never cars being driven by careless or tired people who forget to check their blind spots when they back up. And the rules of gravity never apply on a kibbutz.
And it wasn’t just the helmets. It was everything. When my daughter was a year old, and my son was still a fetus, we visited my then-husband’s family in Israel. And while all the other toddlers were playing on the ground, picking up stones and pulling up grass, digging their pudgy fingers deep into the earth and discovering the world through touch and — oh my God! — taste, I held my daughter tightly to me.
“Why don’t you let her crawl on the ground?” someone asked me.
“Are you freaking kidding?!?!” I gasped.
But with two kids who are for all intents and purposes being raised as Israeli, I’ve learned that this is one battle I can’t fight.
“When on the kibbutz, do as the kibbutzniks!” So, down on the ground my kids go, playing in the earth, covered with leaves and (oy vey iz mir!) larvae.
In other words, living in Israel is like serious immersion therapy for me. And while I still cringe when my son discovers a dead caterpillar lying on the ground near our house, or my daughter touches a moldy shesek, I’ve learned how to kind of sort of relax.
(Although, let’s be real: I still carry hand sanitizer with me at all times.)
“Yiheh Beseder, it will be OK” is the mantra that most parents in Israel murmur when their kids take off for parts unknown. Easy for them to say. They grew up here.
The thing is, back in LA I wasn’t the lone mothership hovering over her child. There were others, like me — other middle class mamas raised in the generation of Adam Walsh where Very Bad Things could happen. And while the rational part of us knew that these Very Bad Things rarely do happen, just the threat of them is enough to ingrain in us the understanding that the world is a scary place.
But in the States, most of us have it easy. We are not under constant threat of attack or annihilation. Even in LA, where police helicopters are more plentiful than stars in the smoggy night sky, things are pretty safe.
And as the world gets safer in the States with helmet laws and airbags and (in some places, curfews), as the crime rate actually decreases, our anxiety builds. Our need to create structure increases. Preschools have alarm codes. Everything is a choking hazard. If it’s not organic, it will kill you!
But things are different in Israel. This is a culture with real things to worry about; you know, like terrorist attacks or Ahmadinejad’s mood swings and itchy trigger fingers. Almost everyone here knows at least one other person killed in a bombing or a war. And maybe that’s why parents raise their kids to be more badass. Because they have to.
And at some point, I’ve had to let go. I’ve had to say “screw it;” my kids are Israeli even if I’m not. And if they’re going to survive here — to bravely embrace life in spite of my neuroses — then I need to let go.
So, I’m taking it one day at a time, making teeny tiny baby steps toward Israeli normalcy. My kids tumble down the slide by themselves. And when they fall — which they do — they learn the limits of their bodies and gravity. My kids go barefoot on the grass. And when they get stuck with a prickle — which happens — they learn to watch where they’re going. My kids negotiate their own space and their own autonomy. And when they disagree — which is often — they learn how to defend themselves.
And maybe one day I’ll have the courage to let my kids ride bicycles down the road, around the corner, and out of my sight. But believe you me, when (OK, if) that day comes, they’ll be wearing helmets. Just in case.