Nearly every parent who sends their child to gan in Israel dreads this moment: the moment your phone pings with the notification that you have been added to your child’s gan WhatsApp group. It’s like a right of passage, a sort of initiation into the world of Israeli daycares, kindergartens and schools. So when the inevitable notification occurred, I took a deep breath and readied myself.
In the beginning I was pleasantly surprised. We introduced ourselves and our children. We expressed optimism over the coming year, despite the insanity of 2020. We politely and warmly wished each other health and happiness over the holidays. We shared pictures of random articles of clothing that were sent home with our children by mistake, offering to wash them and bring them back the next day. We updated each other when our children weren’t feeling well, in order to make informed decisions on whether to send our child to gan the next day. Overall, things were going surprisingly smoothly.
But then we had our first inevitable hiccup.
It began with a heated – yet polite – discussion over a small incident at gan. Parents weighed in with their perspectives. As someone who instinctively prefers to listen first and then respond, I watched as other parents hurriedly typed out their responses, all the while weighing my own words and considering what I wanted to say. But before I had the chance to begin typing, a message appeared from one of the parents. I started reading, choosing to skim over some of their baseless complaints. I had almost decided to stop reading the message entirely when a sentence jumped out to me. I read it quickly and then backed up, reading it again: “…By the way, it doesn’t seem that the kids hear a word in Hebrew all day, [here] in the State of Israel. Does that seem logical?”
The other parents who had been composing their responses stopped writing. I looked at my phone with bated breath, waiting. I could sense that every other parent in the group was similarly holding their phone, waiting. But no one responded. I heard my son cry from the other room so I put my phone down to go to him, only remembering to check it later that evening. But by then, too much time had passed, so I uncomfortably tried to move on.
The next day, I found myself rereading that message. I stared at it, feeling bothered. Why did this person feel comfortable writing such a message and what were they really trying to say? I am someone who tries to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I tried my best to ignore the racist undertones. But their words still didn’t sit comfortably with me.
I decided that that message warranted some sort of response. I made a judgement call that initiating an argument with a parent who I didn’t even know (but might need to know down the road) in a WhatsApp group was going to start an unproductive argument. So instead, I’m composing my response here.
To the parent who is bothered that their child doesn’t hear a word in Hebrew all day (which is of course, false), here is my response:
We send our children to a wonderful gan, a gan where they hear not only Hebrew, but Arabic and Russian as well. Personally, I’m proud that my son is spending these first years of his life surrounded by all of these languages. He’s learning from this tender age that our country is brimming with different cultures. He’s learning that it’s a beautiful thing for him to hear his name pronounced with Arabic, Russian, Hebrew (and English) accents. He’s learning that warmth and care can come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Dear parent, I know we come from different backgrounds. While I don’t know your personal history, there are high chances that you were born and raised in Israel. I was born and raised in America. I moved to Israel 6.5 years ago and am currently grappling with the question of how to raise a bilingual child – a child who will feel comfortable expressing himself in both Hebrew and English. A child who will find comfort speaking with his saba and safta in Hebrew and his oma and grandpa in English. So, when you complain that the kids don’t hear a word of Hebrew all day, here in Israel, I take offense. Your words – unintentionally – speak to my very experience as an immigrant in this country.
I got to investigating and did you know that in 2019 alone, 34,000 people immigrated to Israel? That’s 34,000 separate individuals bringing their native languages, their cultures and customs to Israel. Many of them will learn Hebrew and ultimately speak in Hebrew to their children. However, a significant amount will continue to speak their native languages at home. They will continue to cook their own foods and continue to incorporate their cultural practices into home life. And, some of these individuals will go off to work at ganim, bringing their accents and languages with them. As you know, our country is rapidly growing. While Hebrew is one of the primary languages spoken here, it’s not the only one.
Why does it bother you so much that your child hears some Arabic and Russian at gan? Perhaps your complaint was intentionally exaggerated; but your exaggeration didn’t succeed in masking your true feelings. I’ll state for the record that of course our children are spoken to in Hebrew at gan. While the Hebrew might be accented, it’s nonetheless Hebrew.
Similar to many of our metaplot at gan, I am also an immigrant. I can attest to the fact that it’s mentally exhausting to think and speak in a second language all day long. Did you know that during my first year in Israel, I had a constant headache from having to express myself and assert myself in a different language all day long? I cried more often than I care to admit over moments in which I felt stuck due to my rudimentary Hebrew skills. Those arduous months and years it took to achieve fluency highlighted just how much we take for granted the ability to effortlessly find the right words to articulate ourselves. Now, add on top of that the extra effort required for us immigrants to find a professional foothold within a different country – in that second language. It’s draining.
So, when we encounter others who speak our native language and understand our culture, we are able to relax. We savor those moments. Those moments are what keep us going. When you complain that the kids don’t hear a word in Hebrew all day, please understand that those other languages are actually moments for our very human metaplot to breathe, to relax and express themselves most freely.
Dear parent, it’s so easy to judge a situation from the outside. In fact, I doubt you even realize that one of the parents in this WhatsApp group so relates to the very situation you are complaining about. Every person in this country is trying to succeed, to contribute and make ends meet. Every person has a unique back story and journey that brought them to this place in time. Let’s try to respect that. I am confident that your child will only benefit from hearing other languages at gan. Please, let’s be supportive of one another in order to strengthen our shared society.