Last week, like almost every other Jewish Israeli parent, I attended a Chanuka party in my son’s kindergarten. Expecting two hours of performances and food, I came ready to clap, take more pictures than anyone will ever have time to view, and eat doughnuts. What I didn’t expect was to experience a revelation that would move me to tears. Yet sometime between cheering, smiling, and checking my email on the sly, that’s exactly what happened.
What sparked my revelation was innocent enough: My four-year-old and his friends were dancing to yet another Chanuka song, singing along with more enthusiasm than precision. But what they were singing was anything but childish. These kids, whose greatest challenge in life usually consists of sibling rivalry or a broken toy, joyously yelled that “Maccabees, fear not, for we are not alone. We have “HaShem”, God, with us.” What a strong declaration of faith, I thought, to put in the mouths of such young singers! They must be completely oblivious to its meaning and import!
But are they oblivious? As I sat there in the party, surrounded by clapping parents and shiny costumes, I found myself transported back to my own childhood here in Israel. I remembered the blue and white flags we hung over our window every Independence Day. I remembered having nightmares about the Greeks as a three-year-old, and being convinced that Antiochus, Haman, and Pharaoh are out to get me personally. And most powerfully, I remembered dressing up as Queen Esther or Hannah Senesh and imagining that one day I, too, will save the Jews.
Even as a four-year-old, I knew that I was a Jew in a Jewish state, and that this meant something. Sometimes, when I heard veiled stories about the Holocaust and the Russian Gulag, it simply meant that I was lucky. Sometimes, when our teachers told us about our nation’s past trials and triumphs, it meant that I belonged to a glorious history. And sometimes, especially when the stories were accompanied by songs of valor and faith, it meant that I was destined to a glorious future.
The child I was, the child who dreamed of battles and sacrifices, grew into a mother who wants to shield her children from anything scary. But as I sat and listened to my son singing Chanuka songs, I suddenly remembered how valuable and inspiring all these “scary” stories were. They gave me a mission: Be something more than you are. They gave me examples to follow: Here are people who rose to the challenges of their missions. They gave me confidence: You can make a difference, too. In the best possible sense, they made me feel that I am part of a nation, and that being part of a nation means doing wonderful deeds.
Nationalism is not popular today. Even in my Zionist social circles, it is fashionable to criticize our educational system as being too nationalistic. I often hear parents ask why kindergarteners should learn about so many wars and victories. I myself worry that war stories featuring “bad” Arabs will lead my kids to view all Arabs as bad. And my friends in academia go further at times, condemning my kids’ curricula as too Israel-centric and calling for universal and “neutral” educational content.
Yet we did not come here to be neutral and bland. We came here to be a nation. When people ask me why I live in Israel, I say that I want to be a part of our national future. I want to have a say and a stake in this new chapter of our history, and make sure that it blooms into the best future I can envision.
As I sat in my son’s Chanuka party, this future and this challenge suddenly came to life all around me. The future of our nation is built in our children’s kindergartens, in Chanuka parties and children’s games. Nationalism can generate hatred and xenophobia, but it can also inspire people to live meaningfully and kindly. It is up to me to ensure that my son’s national identity will be a positive force in his life. It is up to me to ensure that he will continue singing patriotic songs with his current enthusiasm, but also with his current kindness.
At the end of the party, I hugged my son and asked him what, exactly, we should learn from the Maccabees. My sweet, loving boy looked me straight in the eye and said, “We learn that we should be good.” It is up to me to ensure that this lesson keeps resonating, while translating it into concrete ideals. It is up to me to make sure that the nation he learns to be proud of will be worthy of his pride.