Isabella looks at me wide eyed waiting for an answer. “Be home by midnight,” I say to my eldest.
“Uchh! You’re so Americannnnnn, you don’t understand! The other kids in my shevet are allowed to stay out till 3 a.m. tonight!”
I note her familiar annoyed tone. She may not believe me but I completely understand. My kids have so much more freedom then I ever would have expected to give. Even so, I’m still the “weird American mom” who needs to chill out.
I was raised by an immigrant as well. My mother was born and raised in Mexico, the second oldest of 14 children. She is a strong Jewish and Latina woman and she never let us forget it. On Sundays, while my classmates were playing Nintendo and eating snacks, we were doing chores. Don’t get me wrong, we had fun as well, but only after we finished everything my mother expected us to do. We had strict curfews unlike most of our friends, we were expected to have excellent table manners, and we all knew how to cook a meal at a very young age. We also knew that if we went to our mother with an ailment, lemon was the first plan of action. Mosquito bite? Lemon. Heartburn? Lemon water and baking soda. Allergies? Lemon. We laugh about it all the time but it really does work.
My mother’s conversion to Judaism generated a delightful fusion of our heritages. Imagine this — tequila l’chaims, bar mitzvahs with mariachis, and Shabbat meals consisting of foods like picadillo, arroz, frijoles, and salsas galore. Kugel and chulent were rare foods in our house. It was evident that we were different, but the dissimilarity was an advantage in many ways. One thing is for certain, my mother and father did the best they could, and we were loved.
As parents, it is our job to evolve our methods in order to keep our children safe and happy. These methods can vary drastically depending on your residence, the ages of your children, your religious beliefs and many other factors. It’s a delicate game for me, truthfully. I’m trying to keep my family’s traditions and culture alive, while also evolving into the new world I have chosen to raise my children in. So, my lovely children, bear with me. Or don’t — that’s fine too.
I own our decision to make aliyah. I can’t imagine a better place to raise our children. But, wow, it does add quite a bit of work to basic parenting. It has gotten easier through the years, but truthfully I have felt downright inadequate from time to time. Not speaking the language fluently is crippling at times. I wiggle my way through parent-teacher conferences, I pray my kids’ doctors speak English (which they normally do), and don’t get me started on those class WhatsApp groups.
There are a few things I would have appreciated knowing about beforehand, but I learned quickly, and so will all the other parents who make aliyah. Mostly for fun and for your entertainment, I share with you (in no particular order) some of the fun I’ve encountered parenting in Israel over the last eight-ish years.
Fire in some form will be incorporated at every celebration throughout your child’s life. It starts as early as daycare, so don’t be alarmed. Lit menorahs and candles on birthday cakes is just the beginning. Lit sparklers, firecrackers, bonfires and flaming torches are just a few examples. Most times, there will be a supervising adult; unless it happens to be during a Bnei Akiva trip, at which point there will be a semi-responsible 15-ish madricha watching from the side, while talking on her cell phone (not actually, you can breathe… there will be an adult as well on the premises). Please refrain from making terrified expressions, it will only ruin the fun atmosphere. Breathing exercises can help ease the impulse to scream from fear when your 8 year old is building an elephant-sized bonfire for Lag B’Omer.
Invest in sunblock. A ton of sunblock. Life often takes place outdoors and the sun here is unforgiving. You and your children will resemble raisins after 10 minutes if not protected. For those of you who are shaking their heads thinking, “I’m Sephardi, I don’t burn,” well, don’t be silly, you can still burn. If you ever see a woman chasing after her children with a spray can of sunblock on the beach, it’s me. You can laugh, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. It could be 95 degrees in January, so don’t leave home without it.
You can not leave the party unless your kids have collected all their “magnetim.” If said “magnetim” are left behind, it will be a catastrophic trauma for your child. These valuable party favors are the only proof your child has that they did in fact attend the party. Their memory is simply not good enough. Who am I kidding? We adults love them as well.
Your children will most likely travel alone at a very young age. You will most likely resist for a bit, but then will join the masses and enjoy having one less thing to do. I swore I would never let my second-grader go anywhere alone. I did eventually, and now I feel silly for judging other mothers in the past. They are more capable then we realize; it is amazing how fast they learn how to make plans on their own.
Wow, your kids sound so American!
Yes, they sound American, but don’t let their lack of Israeli accents fool you. Their mannerisms are brilliantly indicative of where they live. It is not a surprise that kids are like sponges; within a couple of weeks of landing, my kids were mimicking phrases and body language. Many of these developed actions are cute and they make me laugh, but not all of them. The famous “shoulder shrug” makes me nuts, and I know many mothers who share in the aggravation it triggers. Another good one? “Lo ba li” — which basically means “I don’t wanna” or “I don’t feel like it” — is a phrase you’ll hear often, so fun. The last one I’ll mention today is the “pinched fingers.” This aimed finger pinch says many things: “Are you listening?” or “Nu,wait!” or “Chill out lady!” Coming from a child, I find it rude, but it is quite effective. I will even admit to using it from time to time.
Birthdays Without The Frills
Prepare to save tons of money on birthday parties for your children. All you need are some friends, a cake, music, sparklers (or some sort of fire* refer back to “holy smokes”), and a good old fashioned game. The kids will take care of the rest. It’s amazing how the kids really know how to celebrate, without the added costs of bouncy houses and entertainers.
Homework Survival, Ask For Help
For those of you like me, who speak Hebrew like a drunk kindergartener; you might want to keep a tutor close by. I have spent HOURS “helping” my children with their homework. Even with the help of Google Translate, a dictionary in hand, and my other children helping here and there, it is a daunting task. I often send them to school praying that the teacher knows just how much we tried to get it right.
A Different Kind Of Girl/Boy Scout
If you agree to letting your children join Bnei Akiva expect very late night parties, amazing friendships, impromptu water fights, bonfires, smoked tuna in a can, missing school days for trips, fireworks, 15-hour hikes, and many ruined shoes. I recommend you understand and accept that it will be a beautiful and wholesome experience for your children. They come home exhausted, but the blisters on their feet do not stop them from going back over and over again. They experience unity among peers and learn appreciation for our beautiful country. It will be worth it, even when you are drained from preparing bags for sleep away trips, washing contents of said bags after the trips, going to shows they’ve prepared, and everything else in between.
It is hard to imagine why any parent in their right mind would allow many of the examples mentioned above. The truth is simple. We often live in a state of war. We worry less about them getting jumped in the street for a pair of Nikes, we don’t (bli ayin hara) have school shootings, and we aren’t usually concerned about gangs, etc. We do worry about war and suicide bombings by terrorists. We do worry about car-rammings and stabbings. What we are adamant about is training our children to be hyper-aware of their surroundings, to filter through the sights and sounds. We need them to be in tune, to go with their guts and trust their instincts.
They need to notice the man wearing a heavy coat on a bus in the summer.
They need to see the random backpack left alone on the street.
So what do we do? We let them have fun and explore, for life is sweet and it should be savored. We trust them to travel alone and build fires at a young age; they will learn to be independent and trust themselves. It is not easy for me to give such freedoms to our children; frankly, I worry every time they leave the house. Nevertheless, I know that they need to learn and I don’t want them to fear their own country. Ultimately, it will be their turn — they will be the ones protecting our whole country. I pray that our methods, strange as they may seem to others, will keep them happy, smart, strong and protected.