I’ll never forget the spring day many years ago when my 4-year-old son began coming home from kindergarten chattering about someone named “Eet-er.”
This kid, whoever he was, seemed make everyone miserable. I wondered who he was and where he came from. Who in the world was “Eet-er” and why was he getting away with such terrible behavior? It took a while, but I finally pieced it together. “Eet-er” was none other than his interpretation of his Israeli teacher’s pronounciation of Hitler. They said “Heet-ler,” he heard “Eet-er.”
I was shocked. How could it be, that at such a tender age, the children were beginning to learn about evil in its most unfathomable dimensions? And so began one of my most difficult cultural adjustments. In middle-class American life, being a mother means protecting your kids from the more disturbing aspects of life until they can handle them. At least, that’s the kind of mother I intended to be.
But in Israel — and specifically during this particular week, punctuated by Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and the Victims of Terror — children are fully and rather relentlessly exposed to the impact of the worst imaginable side of humanity. The entire country stops its normal routines and takes time to honor those who have lost their lives, and to stand in solidarity with their families.
But little is done to shield children and their delicate psyches from the impact. The smallest children learn to stand silent as the memorial sirens are sounded, even before they know what they mean. From age 6, in first grade, they sit through somber ceremonies in their public schools, and listen to the stories of Holocaust survivors and parents of fallen soldiers in their classrooms. As a result, I’ve had to cope more than once with a sleepless, anxiety-ridden child, and had to explain to them that Nazi reign is unlikely to make a comeback anytime soon, and that their father is not a combat soldier.
My Israeli neighbors here, however, look at me uncomprehendingly when I express my discomfort with exposing children to so much grief at such a tender age. They, naturally, can’t imagine it being any other way. I understand that harsh realities are part and parcel of life in the State of Israel. I just don’t know if they need to be faced quite so early in life.