Although this year wasn’t my first family Passover in Israel, it was my most special. I watched Shalev, my 27-month-old grandson, shyly, but determinedly, say enough of the Four Questions to know he will have it under his little belt next year – and I would so like to be there.
Visiting Israel as a father and grandfather is a chance to catch those precious milestones. And staying with family in a family neighbourhood provides insight on a slice of Israeli life. Far removed from tourist stops, I lived daily life in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Kiryat Hayovel.
Canada’s tough real estate market for first time buyers helps relate to a relatively worse situation in much of Israel. Jerusalem’s sky-high prices force young professionals, with two incomes and young children, to lower their expectations significantly. If living in Jerusalem proper is what they want, it often means buying small condos in buildings with no elevators constructed in the early-1960s. There is no reserved parking either, as, back then, there were so few cars that parking garages weren’t on anyone’s radar.
With the explosion in the number of Israelis now driving, the narrow streets further complicate things. The only way to park is by encroaching on sidewalks. Walking a baby in a stroller can mean navigating around and between parked cars. Coming home with groceries to buildings with no elevators can mean managing the baby, the stroller and the groceries while climbing five flights of stairs.
Most condos don’t have a place for dishwashers and, often, only have showers because bathrooms are too small for bathtubs. There is no griping about it. There is a stark awareness that reduced living space is a fact of life for most Israelis.
In Kiryat Hayovel, children share bedrooms. As children get older and genders are different, physical dividers are sometimes used. Parents sometimes give up the master bedroom to make more space for children to share.
Many of the condo owners – lawyers, teachers, young doctors and high-tech experts – came to Israel from the United States, Canada, France, Great Britain and Russia. Many are married to Israelis of many cultures, customs and skin colours. Modern day Israel is a tremendously diverse blend of Jewishness.
Residents in the neighbourhood range from very religious, to observant, to not observant. The one truly unifying link is the Hebrew language. People from different countries tenaciously speak to their children in their mother tongues, but, almost always, they speak to each other in Hebrew.
It was strange to see my daughter speak Hebrew to an American Israeli from Boston. On a bus, he was speaking to his children in English, but when he talked to my daughter, they spoke in Hebrew. Afterward, I asked Emmanuelle why. She told me he hadn’t been in Israel as long as her and, at the beginning, she didn’t want to discourage his efforts to speak in Hebrew. Now, she says, it is hard to make the switch.
My daughter’s mother tongue is actually French. She speaks French to Shalev, while his father and everyone else speak to my grandson in Hebrew. While it is now commonplace to hear French in Israel, especially with rising numbers of olim from France, it is most unusual to hear an Israeli toddler with a Québécois accent. The Israelis from France get a real kick out of my grandson. You can see them “take in the show” in a restaurant as they strain to listen to his soft voice.
To alleviate small living quarters, Israel has lots of beautiful parks with high-end innovative play structures. There are four parks in my grandson’s neighbourhood. He knows them all by name and he enjoys each of them. All four have one thing in common: a stunning number of young children running around playing.
It’s amazing to sit on a park bench and watch. It makes you feel that you are in a young country. You can’t help but feel it. The sounds of playful banter of toddler and pre-teen exuberance overtake you. I have no recollection of Ottawa parks being that active when my children were young.
And, clearly, when my children were young, I never thought I would see the next generation being French-speaking Israeli-Canadians with Québécois accents.