A major challenge for Jewish parents is instilling their children with a love of Israel. We of the post-Yom Kippur-war generation may sometimes take the existence of the Jewish state for granted, its former status as “the little nation that could” long since replaced with the perception of it as a second-tier superpower.
With this in mind, when I went on a brief trip to Israel this past week for my nephew’s bar mitzvah, I considered it an opportunity to build on the connection my wife and I have tried to establish between our Jewish homeland and our 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. We’ve read them a heap of children’s books (“Dinosaur Goes to Israel” is a favorite), showed them pictures, and bring them to the annual Israel Day Parade in Manhattan — but there’s only so much you can do from almost 6,000 miles away.
I got an idea from an old AT&T commercial I’d seen where a father on a business trip to New York City takes pictures of his young daughter’s stuffed monkey at various stops and sends the shots home, much to the little girl’s delight. So I surreptitiously shoved two of my kids’ beloved inanimate friends, the descriptively named Baby and Bunny (B&B), in my bag on my way out the door.
My thinking was simple: Rather than sharing the same photos I’ve sent them during previous trips — Daddy at the Kotel; Daddy on Ben Yehuda Street; Daddy leaning away from the smelly fish in Machane Yehuda — they might pay more attention to the surroundings if the stars in the pictures were their good pals, instead.
I soon came to realize that the original 30-second spot I based my experiment on did not address how ridiculous one feels sitting alone in a kosher Pizza Hut carefully arranging a baby doll and stuffed bunny on the table as if they’re enjoying some deep dish.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Since the stay in Israel was going to be brief, I started right away and texted home a photo of B&B buckled securely into their seat on the EL AL jetliner while we were still on the runway at JFK. And before deplaning in Israel, I asked a chasidic man sitting nearby to take a picture of me from behind, looking out the window with my unlikely travel companions. He couldn’t have been nicer, but my explanation in broken Hebrew (bishvil ha’yiladim sheli! – it’s for my kids!) didn’t seem to reassure the devout man of my sanity.
After collecting my luggage, I jumped into a cab and rushed to Beit Shemesh, where my brother lives, and scene of the bar mitzvah party, which was just getting underway. Upon arriving at the social hall, I took out B&B and persuaded my nieces and nephews, long-ago accustomed to the bizarre requests of their uncle, to include them in their simcha dancing.
The next morning, we had a late breakfast at Aroma Espresso Bar during which Baby and Bunny finished off my nephew’s ice-cream-covered waffles before heading to Jerusalem. Our first stop was the Old City and I snapped a shot of the toys riding a motorcycle parked in a tiny alley in the Jewish Quarter. As I stood in a nearby souvenir shop texting the pic to my wife, a salesman walked by, did a double take, and said, “Hey, that’s my bike.”
Luckily, he found my experiment amusing.
Things got a little complicated at the Kotel, though. Bunny, as previously determined by my son, is of the male variety, and despite appearances (I don’t judge), my daughter is adamant that Baby is a girl. I wasn’t looking to cause a stir by bringing Baby with me to the men’s section of our holiest site, so I made the executive decision to separate the pair and handed Baby to my sister.
Limited on this quick trip to Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, Bunny and Baby didn’t have a chance to climb Masada, plant a tree, or sit in the sand by the Dead Sea. But when I got home and collapsed on my living room couch on Sunday night, I happily accepted my kids’ hugs and answered their questions: Why were there notes in the wall behind Bunny? If Israel is in a desert, why were there so many trees and plants? I thought you said we don’t eat at Pizza Hut?
No matter how innovative — OK, ludicrous — my efforts, my children won’t come close to appreciating the wonder of Israel until they see it for themselves. To be sure, B&B made for good surrogates, but that’s all they could be. Hopefully next time the whole family can go together (Baby and Bunny can serve as tour guides) and I can let the land speak for itself, as it does so eloquently.
Until then, it’s up to me to find ways to engage my kids in Israel, and I’m not above humiliating myself in the process if that’s what it takes.