April 30, 2018

Garden of Children

In the mornings when I walk my dog, I pass a gan. Gan is a preschool in Hebrew, yet it also means garden. In this ‘garden’ of children, I usually hear the energetic sounds of toddlers creating, learning, sharing, and of happy shouts in the playground.

Yet this day, the school yard was transformed. The small children were standing quietly and still. Upright. Focused. They were dressed in blue and white, the boys wearing white shirts and blue shorts, the girls with white tops, blue skirts and a white crown of flowers in their hair.

One ganenet (the preschool teacher) held an Israeli flag. Another teacher led the children in song. The children stood proudly. They knew the words to the songs, poems celebrating the founding of this land and the building of this country. Such small children are part of such a big vision.

And now, seventy years later, these poems are still alive, beating in the hearts of this young generation.  Then they sang HaTikvah, the national anthem of Israel.

This mini ceremony was created for the children in anticipation of Yom HaZikaron le Chayalim, Israel’s day of mourning for lost soldiers and victims of terror. This day of sadness is immediately followed by a day celebrating the country’s independence. Sorrow and sweetness. Heaviness and dancing. Such is life here in Israel.

I know of no other country like this place. Perhaps it is a shared Jewish narrative of survival and sorrow combined with an unceasing threat of destruction. This dark undercurrent forges family-like bonds. It encourages people to appreciate life and to live life to its fullest every day.

I looked again at these children and thought about what their futures would look like. One day they would wear army uniforms and many of them would see combat. They will feel joy and sadness, jubilation and mourning like no other people. These highs and lows sculpt this nation’s heart.

I too feel intense emotions living in Israel, but as an immigrant, I am on the outside looking in. I still do not know the words to the songs and poems these children are singing; poems expressing love of the land by Naomi Shemer (who wrote Yerushalayim shel Zahav), Hannah Senesh and Hayim Bialik. 

I stood there listening to the singing with reverence. I did not grow up here and I have no family ties to those who were pioneers and who risked their lives to build Israel. Yet I try to imagine what it is like for these young children brought up in a world where exuberance turns to tragedy in a heartbeat.

And so I cried together with all Israelis on the eve of the Memorial Day Ceremony for lost soldiers and victims of terror. The next day I visited soldiers’ graves, including many 18-year-old boys. 

That same evening, I experienced how low spirals to high, and sadness turns to celebration. In synagogues, we flick the switch from a day of mourning to a celebration of independence with the blow of a shofar.

We hold our breath.  The primal call that blares from the ram’s horn, our religious symbol usually heard during the Jewish New Year, is also the ignitor proclaiming that we're back in our homeland living freely and democratically.

The shofar stops. Fireworks burst across the sky. Sandaled feet stomp the ground in dance. 

The children from my neighborhood’s gan are all staying up late and celebrating. Some are perched on their fathers’ shoulders as their parents dance holding hands in a circle. Others are waving blue and white flags in the park, eating candy floss, wide-eyed as they watch the fireworks.

They are all growing up in a vibrant country. Israel is 70 years young and these sweet children of the garden are already playing an integral part of our history.

 A tree rustles in the wind
In the distance there's a shooting star
My dearest wishes are being wished right now
Please guard all these things for me
And over my beloved ones
Over the quiet the tears and this very song

Al Kol Ele by Naomi Shemer

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