Bringing up babies, sabra style

During our visit to New York four years ago, David, a friend’s son, watched my twin boys, Eitan and Yoni, crawl around my parents’ living room. Circling a chair in opposite directions, the boys, then 9 months old, squealed with delight the moment they caught sight of each other.

They also smiled from ear-to-ear and waved their arms in excited circles whenever 9-year-old David came close. After spending the afternoon with us, David insisted that the other babies he knew were much more fearful and clingy, and was impressed by the boys’ friendliness.

“These babies were born in Israel, right?” he asked, though he already knew the answer. “I guess that’s why they’re different from American kids.”

When David’s mother insisted that babies this age are pretty much the same everywhere, he turned adamant. “Israeli kids are different, they just are!” he insisted.

David’s words stayed with me as we boarded an El Al flight back to Israel. Watching the flight attendants coo at the dozen or so infants on the plane (no one got much sleep on our flight), I contemplated whether David, an only child, was remarking on the special bond purportedly shared by twins, or whether Israeli children really are different from their diaspora counterparts. And if the latter is true, what makes them different?

While no one would claim that newly minted Israelis are born any different from other kids, their upbringing is indeed special. The fact that backpackers the world over can peg an Israeli by his self- assurance two minutes into a conversation says a lot about Israeli culture and the way parents here raise their children.

By my American standards, Israeli parents give their kids a huge amount of personal freedom. Even in big cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, parents generally allow their 7-year-olds to play outside unattended. First-graders often walk home from school without adult supervision. Many second-graders walk home from school and third-graders ride alone to school on public buses without adult supervision.

In New York, this behavior could land a parent in jail.

The fact that child-snatching is almost nonexistent in Israel hasn’t prevented me, a born-and-bred New Yorker, from worrying. Unlike many Israeli parents, I never leave my kids unattended for a moment. My Israeli friends think I’m neurotic. I prefer to think of myself as justifiably cautious (all right, neurotic) in a New York sort of way.

Whereas junior high school kids in the states consider a day trip to the Museum of Natural History a major outing, Israeli kids their age are hiking down wadis for three days and climbing Masada. Even before they reach army age, most have the skills to survive a week lost in the desert.

The Israeli children I know are exceptionally confident. With few exceptions, they seek out challenges and try to master them. Thanks to their attendance in youth movements, they develop deep, enduring friendships and tend to travel — whether to school or the mall — in packs.

Unfortunately, this freedom has its downside: When kids aren’t given enough limits they may become overly cocky. In many Israeli classrooms, teachers find it extremely difficult to discipline rowdy students. Violence against fellow students and teachers is reaching epidemic proportions. Often, the parents see nothing wrong with their kids’ “spirited” behavior, insisting that it is the teacher or another child who is to blame.

Mostly, though, I think Israeli kids are remarkable. They really are like the famed sabra, the plant that is prickly on the outside and sweet and soft on the inside. One need only watch

them at the funeral of a friend, murdered in a terrorist attack, to realize that Israeli children are just as vulnerable and traumatized by violence as any other children would be.

The difference is that Israeli children are more apt to recover from the trauma. Nourished by a society that, sadly, has much experience with handling grief, Israeli kids are encouraged to express their feelings and mourn their losses. During the second intifada and even before, school counselors were on 24-hour call to help their young charges.

Unlike in the United States, where Memorial Day is the time for a shopping spree, Israeli Memorial Day really is a day for mourning and reflection. Air-raid sirens wail, places of entertainment are closed. Quiet songs are played on the radio.

Sure, some families head to the beach or rent videos. But most embrace the sense of national pain and unity, and encourage even their youngest children to do the same.

During our trip to the states, people constantly asked me whether it’s scary raising kids in Israel. The answer is yes. Sometimes, when I take Eitan and Yoni out for a stroll in Jerusalem, I fear a bomb might be lurking in a trashcan or concealed under the shirt of the guy standing behind me at the bank.

I worry that the crazy drivers here will lose control and smash into us.

I worry that both my sons will enlist in the Israel Defense Forces, into combat units, on the very same day.

But I don’t worry that Eitan and Yoni will become assimilated Jews, or that my husband and I won’t be able to afford huge day-school bills. That kind of education is almost free in Israel.

When the boys were 2, we sent them to the English-language school a bilingual nursery school, where they learned lots of Hebrew songs — as well as “Old McDonald Had a Farm” and “Hokey Pokey.”

Though my kids were born in Israel, I want them to embrace American culture as well. I’d like Eitan and Yoni to be a fusion, the best of what Israel and the United States have to offer. Confident but not cocky, as resilient as other Israelis but a bit more polite.

OK, a lot more polite.

Michele Chabin is an Israel correspondent for JTA.