Saturday, March 24, 2012

144 Languages, Nations, and Faces

Dream box
A week ago I had the pleasure of joining a group from PURSUE on part of their trip to Israel. For my part, I was in charge along with my fellow fantastic teacher in crime, Alyssa, of leading two art projects with the trip volunteers and the children in a very special school in southern Tel Aviv. This school is no ordinary school. Housed in the Hatikva neighborhood, the Yarden School has gone through a fascinating transformation. When it first opened about 60 years ago, it was a school for Israeli children. Now, following the Russian immigration of the 90's and the most recent influx of African refugees, asylum seekers, and foreign workers, the school serves quite a different population.

More dream boxes
Walking through the hallways of the school one could easily hear a minimum of four languages twirl through the air. Looking upon the faces of the children and one sees tan, toffee, dark chocolate, ebony and all the shades of skin that come in between. There are Filipinos and children from Ghana, Sudanese and Eritreans, Japanese, Russians, and more. Each of the children has a unique story of how they came to be there. And while for the past few years these children have had to endure  protests as they come to school each day, yelling for them to return to where they came from (ignoring the fact that many were born in Israel and only had the bad luck to be considered "other" by virtue of their parents' story) the beauty of this school is that once they enter the doors, none of that matters. All that matters is helping anyone who arrives at their doorstep.

Writing notes
The first day we met the a group of 25 2nd grade students who were part of a special extended day program much like the moadoniyot that I work at in Jerusalem. Alyssa and I gathered the children and Pursue participants in a circle and asked the children what their dreams are. One little girl said a doctor. Another said a hairdresser. Still another said a teacher. And the ultimate dream? To be in the army. Only then will they be considered true Israelis. As the short talk commenced, English, Filipino, Russian, and Hebrew intermingled and I watched as one little girl from Ghana leaned against her best friend from Ethiopia. Here they were just friends, nothing more. We decorated boxes to hold their greatest possessions and in which they could hold their dreams.

Finished boxes filled with notes
There was great fun and laughter as we all worked together on a plastic tarp under the Israeli sun painting, gluing down decorations, laughing and talking. And then each adult wrote a special note for each child to keep. They jumped, clapped, and squeeled as they placed their precious well-wishes into their boxes for safe keeping. One little boy hugged three boxes to his chest, beaming ear to ear. At the end of the session I told the children that this is just the beginning of a place for them to think about their great potential and the opportunities of the future. Some of the little ones pulled me into a slanted group hug thanking me for their boxes of dreams. For many of these children their fate remains unknown. Some may be sent back to their troubled countries and others will stay here struggling to integrate into Israeli society.

Final touches
I left the children and their dream boxes with mixed feelings. On one hand, I thought about how proud I was that there are schools like this that do everything and anything to help these children, that they represent the true meaning of love and gemilut chassadim to me. On the other, the reality of what may happen to these children and their families down the road, and what has already happened to bring them here both alarms and disheartens me. Like one of the little girls said to me, "why we cannot all just get along, like us here together."

Another finished box

The pep rally/soccer/basketball game
The second day began with an inspirational tour at the Bialik-Rogozin school, made famous by the Academy Award Winning documentary, Strangers No More. Because of the publicity they have received since the movie, there are one of the four places in the world to have a special Google Maps interactive touch screen station and every child at the school was given a chance to enter and zoom into the street level view of their family's hometown. We took a tour of the school, went to a kindergarten, watched a music class of swaying children, and the end of what seemed like a soccer game and basketball game simultaneously happening on the same court, to the backdrop of a huge, colorful pep rally. The same issues as the other school exist here, but like the other, once the children enter these doors, they are just children who deserve all the love, education, and kindness of any other. My favorite site was watching children of all different nationalities gather around a bulletin board of gorgeous Purim masks.
People waiting in line to try out Google World

Purim Masks
Interesting mural at Bialik
After our visit at Bialik we returned to the Yarden School from the day before to take part in another project with a group of 40 first graders. Before the project we had the chance to play with the children in kindergarten out on the sand-filled playground. I keeled over with laughter as Jimmy, one of the JSC fellows who happens to be very tall, was immediately jumped on by an adorable African boy. Jumped is probably the wrong word; it was more like the child saw him, broke into a run, and catapulted himself onto Jimmy's shoulders. After that, there was no way to stop it. I watched as children of all different shades and nationalities piled up into the air and sprung at him from every direction. And then it was my turn. I felt a confident tap on the shoulder and before I knew it the most adorable little girl sprung up into my arms. She had soft, flowing braids tied up into a ponytail and a laugh that made me want to squeeze her and take her home with me. Her name was similar to mine, just a few letters' difference, and her Hebrew was laced with an incredible African accent. She wouldn't let me go, even when I was being pulled away by two more little ones.

Day 2's Project
The dichotomy between present and future realities of these precious children is almost too much for me to bear. They are sweet and bursting with possibility and have come from struggles that we cannot understand. The existence of these schools makes me proud to be an Israeli and a Jew. But this doesn't fix the overall situation.
Decorations for spring

I was surrounded by 144 languages, nations, and faces that day. It changes the face of Israel as we know it. But it is Israel nonetheless, and when a little girl from Eritrea ran up to show me the Jewish star painted on her arm, I was able to see it firsthand.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ashalim: ART IV

This week, we learned about Ernst and the process of frottage, where textured objects are placed beneath paper and used to represent an image. Once again, I was very impressed by the gorgeous results!:

Warming up with leaf rubbings

More leaves

We checked out materials at hand and then planned our landscapes.

We used all different textures to represent the things we wanted.

The final products in one moadonit!

The kids at the second moadonit practice with leaves.

Focusing on the subject of the composition...
Adding to the negative space, or background, and remembering all we've learned about line, texture, space, and composition. The finished product? Dazzling. And all created by a nine year old girl.

Do you see the faint leaf print fish in the background? When I asked him about why he didn't make them darker, he said they were in the distance, so he kept them lighter. I was so excited about his grasp of perspective! We used different textures to create the illusion of moving water, scales, and seaweed.

Close up of the finished board in the second moadonit.
This week and last week's work. The kids were very excited and so was I!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ashalim: ART III

This week, we learned about a new type of art from the far east. We looked at photographs of Japan's cherry blossom trees and talked about the ancient history of Japanese ink painting. Then we made Japanese Sakura paintings by applying a small spot of watered down black paint to a piece of paper and blowing with a straw. The beauty of it is that we don't get to choose where the paint will go; the paper and the paint direct us. The children had to come to terms that they couldn't control everything and had to just go with the flow. They also had to deal with turning a "mistake" into part of the composition. And what we come out with are incredible trees. We talked about painting real branches instead of the typical "lollipop tree" (anyone who went to elementary school with me will know what I'm referring to!) and how we can use line to create the winding patterns you see below. The more paint, the thicker the line, the less paint the thinner the line and more of a likelihood that there will be a splitting off effect. We also discussed how Japanese art typically hints at the whole picture by showing one aspect of an object that is cut off at the edge of the page. The children experimented by adding spots of paint and adding layers upon layers of intricate lines. Then they made balls of tissue paper and glued them down to capture the blossoms.

The best part was that there was a child from the moadonit whose parents are from Japan and he explained the culture of Japanese tree painting, cherry blossoms, and different festivals to the other children!

Check out the gorgeous work products:

The paint is watered down and goes where it wants

Adding cherry blossoms

The work in action

The finished product!

After the project, the kids went back to finish the pointillism landscapes they had begun weeks before. They enjoyed it so much that they have been taking their time to fill their pages with thoughtful, colorful dots. Here, we learned about patience, color, density of the dots to create spots of light and shadow, and composition. We learned that things can be represented in many different ways and that the space, volume, and substance can be captured with color just as much as the typical lines and shading in they are used to. They had to plan ahead about what color they wanted to stand out in each section but also take into account all the other colors that could add to the effect of the piece. They did a great job and love it so much that some even began a second piece!

I am SO proud of them and their finished work! These children are 6 to 9 years old and just look at the gorgeous artwork they have produced:


And after!!! Drawn by a SEVEN year old!!!!

Our finished display

Look at the bands of shadow!

Great choice of color!


A close up of the sky and sun
 And there are still more to come....

Monday, March 12, 2012

Mishloach Manot: What It Means To Give

Making masks
Flowers from the kids
I was recently at a Purim Seudah where one of the guests gave an interesting drasha on the significance of the word melech, or king in the megillah. He said that although the name of God does not explicitly appear, the word melech does many times. In that way, and through many other phrases, such as yavo for "he will come" and different literary devices, the name of God is in fact there, just hidden. He highlighted this to point out that maybe the hidden presence of God allows each one of us to shine as kings on this one day. In part, the job of a king is to drink and be merry and to revel in the wealth all around, which we all seem to do very well on Purim. But the other side is much deeper. It is the responsibility of the king to care for his people. As part of this concept, I have been reflecting a lot about the meaning of mishloach manot, mutual gifts of food and drink, and mattanot la-evyonim, charity to the poor in light of my recent experiences with the children at one of the moadoniyot where I work.

Last Tuesday I joined the children of Moadonit Afikim to go on a very special field trip. We painted each rosy face green for a witch and with the large cartoon mouth of a clown, with the long lashes of a princess and the triangular goatee of a pirate then headed off into the neighborhood armed with colorful totes full of fun ready-to-eat treats. It was hot and at first we couldn't find the building complex we were visiting and two of the children were complaining about their shoes. When we got there we were startled by two cats in a screeching fight and the doorway to the first apartment reeked from the smell of urine and spoiling garbage. The children threw their hands up in disgust and we showed them how to breath through their mouths and respect the people of the building by not complaining. We were there to give small presents of food and Purim decorations and to say chag Purim sameach to each of the elderly men and women we were about to meet.

Painting our masks
The children of the moadonit are always bickering, arguing and complaining. They have to be constantly be reminded to be grateful and thankful for the things we provide them and not to ruffle their noses at the color or flavor of a special candy we reward them with. We are always talking to them about using kind words and actions, for caring for others, and doing their best. Yet each day is a constant battle when combating so many external factors like their difficult home lives, poor backgrounds, emotional problems, anxiety, fear, anger, and for some, abuse.

But that Tuesday the kids forgot to be sad, accusatory, and to bicker the moment the first door at the first apartment opened. We sang out a cheery happy Purim and walked into a cozy, sunlit living room and piled onto to dusty sofas. One of the children held out a bag of mishloach manot and was immediately smothered by the old woman's excited hug. All around us were framed pictures of family and the woman greeted us with a smile so happy it could break your heart. Then, in a broken Hebrew laced with traces of the Spanish of her Argentinian upbringing, the old women began to make up an elaborate story full of color, laughter, and many different character voices. The children chuckled and smiled shyly as the woman's face stretched into silly expressions and she threw her chin up into the air with an animated chortle. She grabbed each of their cheeks as we filed out and thanked us for making her day.

The finished masks, peeled straight from their faces!
The next apartment was that of a cancer patient, ringing of the smell of medicine and cobwebs. The room was dark and cramped and at first the children were scared. But then we decided to sing a Purim song, which lifted the old woman temporarily out of her suffering to the point where she pushed herself away from her walker and joyously spun two of the children round and round. "I used to dream of being a ballerina, you know," she told them. "Thank you, thank you for reminding me."Another child handed her his mishloach manot and was also wrapped up in a hug.

At the third apartment, we sat and drank mitz petel, a popular Israeli children's drink and picked through candies as the grateful woman looked through her mishloach manot bag. "No one has ever brought me anything like this," she whispered over the din of an Israeli soap opera on the TV. Then she said something in Russian and one of the children's ears perked up. We discovered that the woman knew the little girl's mother and they exchanged a few excited words in Russian. We talked a bit about her childhood in Russia and ate a few more treats and then sang another song before saying good bye.

The fourth apartment was brimming with colorful paintings of large towering ghostlike figures, the scene of a village from way-back-when complete with a mule and cart, and another lovely sketch of the hills of Jerusalem. Peculiar cigar-thin hamentaschen were baking in the oven and there were pictures stacked between every painting. I was sitting on a rocker with one of the children cozily sitting on my lap when the madrichah of the moadonit asked the woman what her favorite Purim costume growing up had been. "Costume!?" the woman frustratingly exclaimed, "from what did we have time to wear Purim costumes? By the time I was eight I was an orphan of the Holocaust; I watched my parents and my brothers and sisters get loaded onto the death train and then I was alone. We didn't have time for costumes." she spit out. One of the little ones leaned forward with wide eyes. "What was the death train?" she whispered. The woman twisted the handle of her mishloach manot as she explained to the children about the way the Jews were packed into small, dark trains like sardines, into a box with no air or light, no water or food for eight days straight. How they rode back and forth on the rails until the people died, and the people who were still alive were then thrown into a deep ditch and shot. The children wanted to know how people could do that to other people. One little boy said because there are some evil people in the world. Another girl, who usually spends her days bullying this same boy, squeezed a hand on his shoulder and said, well, don't worry you're safe here. Then we went around and discovered the rainbow of nations that were represented in that one living room: the woman was from Romania. I am from the United States. Their wonderful, beautiful, energetic madrichah is from Yemen. And the children are each from a different place--Ethiopia, India, Russia, Ukraine, France, and Japan. They all went around and said hello in their native language. The woman hugged each of us with tears in her eyes. "You are all wearing lovely costumes," she said as we left.

That day our mishloach manot cheered the lives of the old, alone, and sick in a poor, disheveled neighborhood block. But what it did for us and the children was so much more. There are many explanations about the significance of this Purim law. We give mutual gifts of food and drink in order to bring us closer to one another, to help the poor without making them feel embarrassed, and interestingly, in contrary to our normal interpretations of charity where the highest form is from an anonymous giver seeking no reward, the mitzvah of mishloach manot may only be fulfilled if the giver is known so that a bond of friendship may be formed. But I think that the children's mishloach manot went far deeper than that. They reminded them of what they have. They taught them what it means to give unto others, to listen and learn, to appreciate, be humble and thankful. At the end of the trip, I would have liked to be able to say that the children walked back hand in hand, laughing and sharing candies and smiling. Instead, they snapped back into their default modes of bickering and complaining, but when we got back and shared our experiences with the second group, I saw the joy of their experience swing around the circle once again.

We spent the rest of our day creating beautiful masks by layering pieces of wet plaster on one another's faces, working together and waiting for them to harden, peeling them off, then painting them in bright, dancing colors. In the spirit of Purim, we had masks to hide our faces to symbolize how God worked from behind the scenes to manifest the miracle of the Jew's survival on that day in the month of Adar. So we also wore masks to remember the inner workings and the beauty of the small miracles that can happen every day, especially watching a child experience the divine gift of giving.

Some pictures from my own Purim celebrating:
A puppet show on Ben Yehuda
Me and Orly with a wind-up doll

A real life talking flower!

The tree was very happy to be photographed

Fun in the sun at a street party