I have a theory about Israeli men.
The reason they’re so secure in their masculinity is not due to months of paratrooper training or mandatory military exercises out in the desert.
It’s because, from a very young age, boys are formally taught and encouraged to dance.
And wear leafy crowns.
And carry flowery baskets.
And hold hands.
And revel in the beauty of their own bodies.
Very subtly, the women of Israel (and in modern times, men as well) have taught our male children that moving their bodies in rhythm and wearing beautiful crowns are not signs of femininity. They are expressions of joy.
I was tickled pink the week I accompanied my then four-year-old son to gan when we first made Aliya last year. In addition to the culture shock I got as a mother – kids climbing on top of chairs to build block castles and digging through trash to find treasures in what seemed like a junkyard turned playground out back – I remarked at how integral both singing and dancing were to the preschool program.
Every day, the children would learn a new song, either about the approaching season or an upcoming holiday celebration, and most Fridays, I would arrive at pickup to find my son in the middle of a dance circle, made up only of boys, carrying and waving brightly-colored scarves and stepping in tune to the music.
Not a one stood outside the circle – ashamed to be holding a purple scarf or embarrassed to be moving his body and holding hands with other boys.
And, today, as our community celebrates the harvest festival of Shavuout, the young boys all arrived at school wearing olive crowns and carrying harvest baskets, decorated with white linen and flowers.
As a woman, but particularly as a mother of boys, it’s magnificent to witness – my son and his peers expressing their joy through movement and song without reserve.
But it’s also puzzling. What happens to these boys as they grow up? I wonder. How do they move from dancing to disrespect and speaking harshly to each other on the soccer field? What happens to these boys who used to hold hands and dance? Who used to wear flowers in their hair and sing songs about the harvest?
I’m still so new in this country. And still so new as a mother, despite almost a decade of parenting. It’s true, I don’t know yet of the heartache that hardens our sons. The burdens they think they bear. The walls they think they need to put up to protect themselves once they leave the safety of the garden.
I am also still naïve enough, however, to think that there must be something innocent that remains once they leave the gan – something that helps carry our boys through adolescence in a country where men often have to act like “MEN.” Where boys mock each other on the playground and fathers hurl insults at each other from their car windows. Where men, in particular, but all of us need often to operate in a “shuk mentality,” as my husband refers to it. Keep up your guard. Be wary of those who might want to cheat you or steal from you. Yell first, think later.
Something must remain. Something beyond the images the mothers hold dear to their hearts, of young boys wearing white shirts and flowers in their hair.
It’s been told to me that men grow close to each other during the army. That bonds are formed there. Perhaps, this is true. It’s certainly the obvious answer.
But part of me thinks the bond starts earlier, and then is sidetracked by life. The bonds are built on top of foundations made from purple scarves and olive crowns.
The bonds begin with a dance.