Thursday, January 15, 2009

Conversations at the Preschool, and a Very Painful Root Canal

There's a teacher at the preschool named Mazal who treats me as though I was a Hebrew speaker. While other teachers sometimes choose not to talk to me because they know I won't understand everything, or they practice their English with me, Mazal, who is very chatty, pretends not to notice that I don't always understand what she is saying. We've talked about her family and mine, about education, about child psychology... all in my very stammering and hesitant Hebrew and amidst the noise and interruption of the preschool classroom, in between commenting on how terrific childnrens' drawings are.
Sometimes, Mazal says things that surprise me, and I'm not sure if I just didn't understand her. She is very opinionated and often expresses ideas with which I am uncomfortable, but I am powerless to contradict her because I simply don't have the language to do so. Also, I wouldn't want to get into a conflict with her because I like her so much and I appreciate that she talks to me and is so patient with me.
She loves the kids, and when they produce things that she thinks are good, she acts as thought they are miracle-children, well beyond the scope of their years. She'll often show me a picture that a student drew and say, in front of him, "can you believe that he did this? and he's only three!" She's also much stricter than I am used to. She yells a lot at kids who are not doing what they are supposed to, like cleaning up areas that are messy, and is very hard on them. If someone talks during circle time, she pulls them out of the circle completely. She has high expectations. Craft projects have to be done the way she wants them - if someone leaves a blank space on something that is supposed to be filled with color, she does not see it as an artistic choice, but as laziness or a mistake, and she corrects it in a way that seems to me to be rather stern.
What's most striking about the conversations that I have with Mazal is the earnestness of her opinions and her desire to share them with me, and also her lack of knowledge of the US. Many of the people I speak to, even if they are Israelis, have been to the US, speak some English, etc. Mazal has done neither. She has one son who is Haredi and has studied in Brooklyn, and that is her experience of the US. She doesn't understand really how big it is and how many differences there are regionally. She'll say things like, "Do you know this singer of Jewish children's music? He's from the US" and not realize how silly that statement is.
Today we talked about three topics that each seemed rather striking to me. First, we talked about men, and love. She was joking about how after the wedding men are no longer interested in the women they are with, whereas before the wedding they are very attracted to their partners and life is good. She was talking to another teacher about it but I was nearby and she put her arm around me and said, "That's right, isn't it Jessica, it's good to be living with a boyfriend!" It was all in jest but it brought out to me the way that gender is in some ways much more strongly delineated here than in the US, even though here women are also in the front lines of the army. There's a strong masculine identity here in Israel that is complex and I don't really understand it. I only know that in Hebrew class I often find myself in arguments with the teacher when she talks about gender, I've even found myself close to yelling at her about it, and I get very frustrated because there are some women in my other class who claim to "hate feminism" even though feminism is what brought them to university in the first place....
The second topic of interest was when Mazal asked me what people in the US think of the situation here in Israel. I'm being asked all the time by friends at home what people in Israel think of the situation, but this is the first time I've been asked the question from the other side. I didn't know how to answer, and it was hard because of both the language barrier and the situation - in the middle of a group of kids, while helping them put together puzzles. I said something about how the US is a big country with many different people with many opinions. Mazal said that she was worried about Obama becoming president. She asked if there was any way for him to be taken out of office if he proved to be bad for the country or anti-Israel, and was disappointed when I told her that there's no vote of no confidence in the US governmental system. She told me that she was concerned about Obama because he is Arab, and Muslim. I told her that he was Christian, but that it didn't really matter what his religion is, just his beliefs. She said that even if he says he's a Christian, he isn't a real Christian because he is of Arabic background. I told her that perhaps in the US it is different from here insofar as peoples' political beliefs are not necessarily connected to religion. This was an inaccurate statement both in the case of the US, where religion is often very tied to politics, and in the case of Israel, where religion does not have to be the biggest factor in deciding politics, but again, it was a hard conversation to have for a number of reasons. In any case, the conversation ended soon because one kid hit another, who started to cry, and that was the end of that.
Later, Mazal talked to me about violence in the schools. She said that it was very hard to teach kids not to hurt other people, and then know that when they grow up they will have to hurt people when they are in the army. She also talked about how big a problem violence in the Israeli school system is, and during circle time she asked the kids to talk a bit about times when other kids hit them, and how it made them feel, and admonished them never to use their fists instead of their words.
I don't have time to analyze these three conversations as I have to run to class, but I just thought they might be interesting glimpses into the mind of one Israeli preschool teacher.

On a more fun note, let me tell you a little anecdote about preschool. I was building with blocks when a kid came up to me with a little plastic crocodile with an open mouth and a giant plastic saw with a yellow handle. "I'm cutting his mouth," he said. "Why?" I asked, "did he ask you to?" "Yes," he replied. "I'm cutting his mouth because there is a problem with his teeth." Let's reiterate the picture: tiny crocodile, giant plastic saw. Dentistry.


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