So, I’m Here to Learn from Israeli Toddlers, Right? By Bekki Wyss

Bekki is a sophomore majoring in English, minoring in History and pursuing a Creative Writing certificate with hopes of becoming a civil rights attorney. She is spending 4 weeks in Israel this summer.

Aharon and Eilam take a quick picture while waiting for hummus at Hummus Ashkara, a favorite lunch spot of Tel Aviv’s locals. Although Lonely Planet does praise the establishment, Aharon says the book’s short paragraph does not even begin to do it justice.

I have a theory that being a good study abroad student is really all about reverting to a toddler’s instincts. That is what I’m telling myself, anyway, as I spend my first day in Tel Aviv playing on the beach with Eilam, age 2, and Yali, age 3. I think I’m supposed to be the responsible one, making sure the two young cousins aren’t run over by joggers (who periodically pass by on their way to the boardwalk), scared by the dogs (which aren’t allowed on the beach, but dash along the water’s edge after their owners anyway), or getting sunburnt (even though it’s 5PM, the sun is incredibly hot). Honestly, though, I’m having fun making sand castles with Eilam and Yali while their parents, the Israeli friends I’m staying with for the first night, do the harder work of going through my Lonely Planet travel guide to Israel, sorting out the book’s helpful and horrid advice from experience. As Yali and I pat down our fortress’s walls around Eilam with a layer of white, powdery sand, Lihi and Aharon argue whether Lonely Planet has rated the restaurant Hummus Ashkara highly enough.

Toddlers like Eilam and Yali eat what is offered. I know, because I have been tagging along with Lihi and Aharon all day, watching Eilam snack on raw vegetables  now (something I couldn’t do until I was at least sixteen), clean his plate of hummus at lunch, and try his best to feed himself the oatmeal Lihi makes for him at breakfast. So when my student apartment opens the next day, Lihi and Aharon drop me off at Tel Aviv University, and I realize I will have to switch to a diet comprised mainly of salad, chickpeas, and Turkish coffee for the next six weeks, I do not cry in front of my glamorous Italian flatmate. Instead, I take the cezve, and try my best to learn the art of brewing Turkish coffee, spilling grounds and brown sugar everywhere in the process.

Lihi lifts Eilam onto his feet so he can explore the northern center of Tel Aviv with us.

Lihi never goes anywhere without Eilam’s sippy cup, a habit he encourages by pointing to the cabinet it is kept inside whenever he wants to go outside. Eilam is a smart young man; in this heat, 91°F and humid on a cool day, I can’t leave the apartment without a water bottle (or several) tucked in my bag. If only I could convince someone else to carry it for me the way he does.

Eilam is a professional in matters of communication, though he can’t even string together phrases. He gestures, garbling random syllables, the way I say “Zat, zat, zat,” at the food court later in the evening, using what I hope is an approximation of the Hebrew word “זה,” meaning “this,” to point out salad ingredients, most of which I don’t recognize. When he messes up, accidentally saying something that sounds vaguely like a Hebrew curse word instead of the noun he meant, Eilam stares, wide-eyed and contrite, the same way I look when I unthinkingly say “Entschuldigung”. What I mean is “סליחה,” pronounced, “Slih’a,” the Hebrew interjection meaning “pardon me,” but I’ve slipped into my high school language training and used the language of the Nazis, which makes the Israelis around me glare until they see my expression. Mostly, though Eilam succeeds with Smile-Diplomacy, evading reprimand and expressing his delight at a world he doesn’t quite understand yet— all  through a cautious grin, the same one I wear as I stroll down the streets of Tel Aviv, ready for a month’s adventure in this strange and beautiful city whose customs I am only beginning to understand.

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