The first time it happened was a month or so after we arrived in Jerusalem. I was at the makolet (neighborhood store) when a petite, dark-skinned woman in a hat approached me. She started speaking to me in hushed, though urgent, Hebrew, gesturing to my 14-month-old son in my arms, who was happily sucking on his pink-and-yellow swirl lollipop.
Since my conversational Hebrew is next to nil, it took me a little while to figure out what she was saying. Eventually I put it together - her pointing insistently at little Moshe Yosef, and a few of her words, like sakana (danger) and lo tov (not good). No good, she was saying,for such a young child to have a lollipop. She stood beside me for a good minute or two, patiently explaining this as her chocolate-brown eyes searched my naïve American blue ones. Finally I acquiesced, put my son down and yanked the lolli from his sticky, clenched fist. I was immediately met with earth-shattering screams of injustice that only a toddler can emit.
In desperation, I bought Moshe Yosef some chocolates and we continued on our way, with my 3-year-old daughter happily sucking on her lollipop and my son flinging the chocolates I handed him to the ground - one at a time for emphasis - as if I had just given him celery sticks in exchange for his beloved lolli.
Everyone was just so happy, I thought. Why did that lady have to get involved?
Of course, the lady was right. It is lo tov. Lollipops can pop right off the stick, God forbid, and get stuck in the child's throat. He's just too little for a lolli.
And this is life in Israel, where one's child is not simply one's child. A Jewish child in Israel, in a sense, belongs to everyone. Someone is always there to interject his ideas about anything and everything having to do with your offspring.
There are times, of course, when we all just want to be left alone. We don't necessarily want to hear from some lady who happens to think that it's wrong to send our young children to nursery school; they should be home with their mothers instead. We just want to go quietly about our business.
Despite how hard I sometimes found it to hear this unsolicited input, I believe it comes from a place of real concern. All Israelis seem to have a little bit of the overly doting Jewish mother inside of them. It made me feel like I was part of a huge, extended family, and even complete strangers cared about me.
I cannot count how many times during our stay in Israel, when trying to maneuver my double stroller up a gargantuan flight of stone stairs, that from out of nowhere, a young Israeli would appear and lift up the monstrous contraption - with the 50 pounds of my two children inside - and lug it to the top of the steps. Without a word he would run off - barely giving me time to say toda raba (thank you very much).
This desire to help and to be involved with each other's lives is not only demonstrated when it comes to children. When my parents arrived for a two-week visit and their taxi neared our apartment, the Tel Aviv-based driver didn't know exactly where our neighborhood was. So the driver pulled over and asked a man at a bus stop for directions. The bystander simply climbed into the front seat of the van and copiloted the driver right to our doorstep. When they located the apartment, the man hopped out and just walked away, headed in the direction from where he'd come. My father was stunned. “Can you believe he did that?”
I nodded, “Yes, I can totally believe it. That's something any typical Israeli would do.”
A couple of months ago, my family and I were walking down the street of a small Jerusalem neighborhood. As we approached a young girl relaxing on a bench beside a double stroller, I noticed that the two infants inside were positioned directly in line with the blazing Israel summer sun. When we reached the girl I stopped, pointed to the stroller, and shook my head. “Lo tov,” I said, pointing upward. “Ha shemesh” (the sun).
The girl jumped up, swung the stroller right around, and gave me a smile and an emphatic, toda raba. I was immediately awed by the fact that this girl, surely half my age, is far more developed than me in this area. There was no annoyance or defensiveness. She saw the truth, wanted to do the right thing, and was not in the slightest bit taken aback by my “intrusiveness.” It was totally accepted and natural as part of life in Israel.
As we walked away, I said to my husband, “Look what I did. I think I'm becoming more Israeli.”
He laughed and I thought: And that's a good thing.