Sisterhood Blog

How Parenting Came to Be a Group Effort in Israel

By Avital Norman Nathman

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The author (left) and her son in the Dead Sea, Israel. / Copyright Avital Norman Nathman

There’s a certain sense of overwhelming fatigue that comes from spending hours traipsing along the streets of Tel Aviv under the hot summer sun. Even my mother, who accompanied my almost 8-year-old son and me on this outing and can truly shop till she drops, started flagging. After walking a few blocks in the wrong direction, we reoriented ourselves and grabbed the No. 19 bus, which would take us back to my uncle’s apartment in Rishon. I was exhausted. My mother was exhausted. My son? Still running high on his seemingly endless supply of energy. It must have been the three extra falafel balls he scarfed down at lunch.

I pulled out a notebook and pen, hoping they would keep him occupied on our 40-minute ride. The bus quickly filled up, and the seat next to him, the one across from me, was taken by an older woman who looked kindly at him. Over the next 40 minutes they formed an unlikely bond as she gave him sweets and he showed her the math tasks he’d given himself. They chatted — a mixture of halted Hebrew and English — until she got off, a few stops before us.

“I made a new friend,” my son told his grandfather later that day. “I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.”

Welcome to Israel.

The following day we decided to do it all again, because one cannot get enough of shopping in Tel Aviv — at least according to my mother. Not wanting to be too much of a burden, we had my aunt drop us off at a bus stop somewhere near Tel Aviv on her way to work. We managed to get on the right bus, but weren’t quite sure when our stop was coming up. My mother and I tried to keep an eye out for it, but an excited boy who wanted to point out every last thing made it difficult. The bus rapidly filled up the closer we got to Tel Aviv. It stopped in Yaffo, and I was fairly certain the time had come to debark.

“This is us,” I shouted as my mom and son gathered up their things. We attempted to weave through the thick crowd toward the closing door. We weren’t going to make it. But suddenly, “Nahag!” [“Bus driver!”]

One voice shouted, then another, then a few more. People were calling for the bus driver to stop and open the door for us. As we got off and made our way to the shuk, the market, I wondered how this same scenario would have gone down back home in Massachusetts.

In Israel there’s a real sense of “It takes a village to raise a child,” which I experienced over and over, and which was much more action than lip service. Most instances were helpful, sweet, kind. There were some unsolicited parenting moves by others, but it felt part and parcel of the deal. If they’re going to be there for the hard parts, then they get their two cents in when everything goes smoothly as well, no? “Careful or you might get hurt climbing up that wall!” “Hurry up and finish your turn; there are kids waiting for a chance at the slide!” “Quiet down. This is a restaurant, not your home!”

My son took it all in stride and amazingly listened to complete strangers as they randomly parented him.

I had an event for my book, “The Good Mother Myth,” in Jerusalem. A nice crowd came out, and after the reading, a conversation bloomed. Women explained that parenting and motherhood were quite different in Israel than in the States. I absorbed everything they explained about their strong sense of community, which sounded as if it was birthed out of a necessity to support each other in a country of Jews surrounded by many enemies.

Consequently, the village mentality is more than a slogan. All children are children of Israel, and there is a responsibility to raise them in the best way possible. Many of the women did not relate to the notion of the “Mommy Wars.” When everyone is mommy-ing everyone else’s kids, it truly becomes a group effort, and you work together instead of fighting with each other. This has been no clearer than in the past few months, as mothers throughout Israel have been too busy securing their children in bomb shelters as rockets fly overhead to worry about being “Pinterest perfect.”

Someone brought up the “Children of the Dream” which are the children raised in communal children’s houses in kibbutz settings. Israeli kibbutzim began more than a century ago, on the bank of the Sea of Galilee with Kibbutz Degania. They are usually rural settlements based on democratic management and shared ownership, in true collective and cooperative fashion. While these traits are connected by many to production and consumption, they also applied to the children of the kibbutz who would go to live in the communal children’s house after turning 6 months old. Days were spent playing and eating together with all the other children. At 4 p.m. they would spend a few hours with their parents before returning to the children’s house for bedtime. A rotating shift of night guards would be on hand to handle anything that came up.

Author Noam Shpancer, who wrote about his childhood as a kibbutznik in the 1960s, reminisced about all the various positive aspects, such as unfettered playtime in a safe setting that allowed young children the opportunity to flex their creativity. His memories quickly took a melancholic turn as he also remembered the downsides, from the pressure to conform to the suppression of emotional expression.

While this style of stringent communal upbringing isn’t in practice today as it once was, the spirit of it all remains in Israel.

Back home, many of my friends don’t even know the names of all their neighbors, let alone trust any of them to keep an eye on their kids as they play outside. Here we live in fear that allowing our children to play unsupervised by a parent will warrant a call to Child & Family Services. In Israel, it feels like everyone is a parent of every child, shouldering the responsibility — for better or worse. I wonder if there is a way to infuse our more individualistic society here in the United States with traits of those found in Israel. Are we too big? Too different? For now, I’ll hold on to the memories of how villages can play out, and do my part to bring a little bit of Israel back home.

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer and editor of “The Good Mother Myth” (Seal Press, 2014). Contact her on Twitter @TheMamafesto


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