On Thursday, for the first time in your life, your mother, father or both will take you to school. That day is unforgettable. I for instance remember the teacher Yehudit who greeted us 62 years ago. I even remember her dress, striped in pink and white. My son, I discovered, hasn’t forgotten his first teacher, Atara. They taught us, each in his generation, the most important thing one learns at school: to read and write. We arrive illiterate and after a semester or two, thanks to the teacher, we can read and write. Even though reading and writing have become part of an industry in which it isn’t clear whether today’s children texting with both thumbs on their smartphones in broken language are slaves or just prisoners, this moment is a precious one. What comes afterwards doesn’t matter. What does really matter won’t be there.
Did you like to draw in preschool? The state doesn’t need your imagination. It will therefore crush it through decoration: lulavs (palm fronds), the Patriarch Moses, tanks, Hanukkah menorahs, the seven species of Sukkot and, of course, the Israeli flag. Red skies, yellow sea, blue-eyed dogs, cats with serpentine tails – that, no. And you don’t get to see Degas, or Soutine, or Moshe Gershuni or Tamar Getter. It isn’t that there aren’t any art teachers. There are tons of art teachers. It’s that the state simply doesn’t want them.
If your family hoped that school would teach you to play music, they were mistaken, naive. Music is only for children whose parents can pay. And you won’t ever just listen quietly to music, and won’t sing in three voices or even two. There are music teachers. Lots of them. But who needs them? Learn the holiday songs – that, yes. On Rosh Hashanah sing some stupid song for Rosh Hashanah, during Sukkot sing Sukkot songs, during Hanukkah sing Hanukkah songs, the teacher singing loudly and you quietly, until you learn to yell. And “Hatikva,” of course (the Jewish anthem, once sung with a lot of hope). Nothing beautiful will come of this. Our state does not like beauty.
Nor does it need teachers. It needs agents, and on the cheap. You too, children, will become agents by virtue of reading and writing. That is the worm in the apple: The state teaches reading and in exchange one has to read its texts. And when you learn literature you will read again, like in bible lessons, like in nature class and in geography lessons, the same thing. The separate strands will wrap around and together thread the budding Zionist.
You will read all the texts, each year, and the principal will bang on about the heroes and the victims – you. Always. In every lesson. And what the soldiers did in the night to the children of the refugee camps on the West Bank? You will not know that.
From time to time your parents will hear on the news how the ultra-Orthodox children aren’t being required to take core studies. They will be angry, but also feel pride. “What are core studies, Daddy?” “What we learn, and they don’t!” But everything you will learn after the reading and writing can be learned in the last three months of high school in 12 years’ time. What cannot be learned in three months is this patriotic thing – to declaim slogans, to be blind and deaf to human suffering, to be a trooper.
Here is another part of the deal: School is a storage space where you are held for 12 years because your parents have to go to work. The price of storage – patriotic cultivation. It is for that that you will be entering the gates of school on Thursday, to turn into dolts and to love the state that has made this land ugly.
Yet this moment, when you enter the school, is entirely one of hope. Here is the world, very soon it will become explicated in written words, it can be read in one way or another. And possibly even changed.