A (brief) bout of culture shock in the classroom

A (brief) bout of culture shock in the classroom

Almost four months have passed since we made aliya, and life in Israel continues to surprise, amuse, and confound us.

My last column left off just days before our daughter set off for her first day of sixth grade in Israel (“An immigrant to Israel learns the art of patience,” Aug. 28). For an only child who grew up in a small, orderly day school in Monmouth County, the Israeli school system was a culture shock, to say the least. To cite a few examples: The informality between students and teachers (who are addressed by their first names), the ear-splitting sounds of 34 classmates talking at once, and the fact that in the first few weeks, actual learning took a backseat to singing, dancing, and playing. With the school’s proximity to Jerusalem, field trips and bat mitzva excursions take place in such exciting locales as the Kotel and the City of David.

“It’s more like summer camp than school,” Eden declared after her first few weeks.

When a substitute math teacher asked the class what they wanted to do during one lesson, they abandoned math altogether to work on a circle dance for a classmate’s upcoming bat mitzva celebration. Styling each other’s hair is also a regular extracurricular activity at Shalhevet Banot, Eden’s all-girls school. On more than one occasion, to the delight of her classmates, Eden shlepped in a curling iron, straightening iron, and crimping iron, as well as a converter to transform them from 220 to 110 volts.

From the perspective of many American parents, the Israeli classroom may seem highly disorganized. But on the upside, our 11-year-old is developing critical problem-solving skills, and the chutzpa to be more self-sufficient and innovative.

Israeli schoolchildren learn early on how to navigate their own way. For Eden, finding her way home from school the first few days was a challenge. Unlike her years at the Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore in Ocean, there is no staff member with a dismissal clipboard directing students to where they need to go. Here in Israel, not only does Eden have to figure out which of the dozens of buses is hers, she and her classmates are in charge of helping the younger students locate theirs. Not once, but three times, Eden’s bus driver dropped her at the wrong stop in our town. While I launched into a frantic search, Eden calmly found her way home, stopping to get directions (and some candy) at the local mini-market.

It took Eden exactly four days to settle in socially at school. The first three days, the girls just stared at her, captivated by her accent, her sense of style, and the really cool school supplies she had brought from America. Eden inherited tall genes from her 6′ 6″ father, and her classmates kept asking her to stand up so they could gape at her height. Mercifully, the ice broke and the tall jokes ceased when the girls discovered a common infatuation with pop stars Justin Bieber and One Direction.

School came to a blissful halt for the entire holiday season, from Rosh Hashana through Simhat Torah. Holidays are always festive in our extended Israeli family, but this year was extra joyous as they feted our arrival with speeches, songs, and dish after extraordinary dish of traditional Tunisian cuisine. Rosh Hashana and Simhat Torah were spent with family in the stunning seaside town of Caesarea, where magnificent Mediterranean “villas” share space with ancient Roman ruins. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a home a few blocks from my sister-in-law’s. The late Israeli President Ezer Weizman also used to live there, attending synagogue services with his security team.

We celebrated Sukkot in our cousins’ enormous sukka in Netanya, where we dined on homemade fricassee, fried torpedo rolls stuffed with roasted peppers, tuna, capers, anchovies, chopped salad, and pickled lemons. (This mid-morning snack was whipped up to whet our appetites for the barbecue that followed.)

Simhat Torah perhaps best exemplified the energizing and sometimes chaotic new life we signed up for when we moved here. Fourteen of us packed into the beautiful Caesarea synagogue to dance with the Torah scrolls with the many Anglo and French immigrants who reside there, as well as a large group of young olim from Uruguay whom the rabbi hosted for the holiday. At the end of the long night, we filed into the banquet room for a catered meal my sister-in-law had registered us for — only to find that the meal was not in fact that evening, but the next day. (Oops!) Stomachs grumbling, we made our way home quickly, where in less than 30 minutes we created a gourmet feast for 14 that rivaled the fare of any caterer.

Things don’t always happen as planned here, but being flexible helps keep you moving forward with a smile.

Meeting up with friends visiting from Monmouth County is always a pleasure (especially those who bear gifts of American filter coffee). Recent visitors include Rina Zimmerman of Ocean Township, the Steinbergs from West Deal, the Tuvys from Oakhurst, and the Adelsons from Ocean Township — plus we met up with the Goldofsky family in Modi’in, who also moved from Oakhurst several years ago.

I look forward to greeting participants of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County mission to Israel later this month.

read more: