Twenty mothers. Thirty children.
That's the scene at the English language story hour that six-year-old Aviv and I attend every Monday afternoon at our neighborhood library. Aviv has always adored anyone reading him a book. And I enjoy the father-son bonding experience.
Patronizing a library with books in English or an English-language story hour is an important way for us "Anglo" immigrants in Israel to socialize. At least for the mothers and their children.
As the token male, I kind of stand out. Maybe that's why I usually take the role of silent bystander, sitting in the back of the room while one of the twenty mothers takes her turn reading...and bonding with the other parents.
So when Debra, who's in charge of the program, asked me to read, I was hesitant.
"What if they laugh at me?" I asked. "Or they don't like the stories I choose?"
Aviv, overhearing my trepidation, spoke up. "Abba, they never don't like stories!"
"I wasn't talking about the kids," I replied. "I'm worried about what the other mothers will think."
A room full of mothers is as intimidating an audience as I can imagine. In my mind, they are all best in their class, wonderfully nurturing, brimming with maternal compassion...and intensely critical of anyone not providing a stellar storytelling experience for their precious offspring.
What if I didn't measure up?
Still, how could I say no? I was a regular attendee. Not putting in my dues would be like coming for dinner week after week without ever offering to wash up or do the dishes. No wait a minute, that was me back when I was single...
I had two weeks to get ready. Debra suggested I pick a theme. Something I could relate to. That was a no-brainer: food and eating. And we had some wonderful food-y books, including one of my all time favorites "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," the story of the small town of Chewandawallow where instead of rain and snow, things like mashed potatoes and milk come raining out of the sky three times a day at breakfast, lunch and dinner time.
In one scene, a runaway storm of pancakes and melted butter blankets the town. That led to book #2 - "If You Give a Pig a Pancake." I rounded it out with "Strega Noga," "The Magic Fish," and "Sam and the Tigers," Julius Lester's politically correct retelling of "Little Black Sambo" which, incidentally, also ends with a pool of hot melted butter (in this case, the tigers).
I practiced diligently every night - I only hope Amir and Merav are as fastidious when it comes to preparing their Bar and Bat Mitzvah portions.
Finally, the big day arrived. Aviv and I got to the library extra early. The kids, as always, sat on the floor in a semi-circle with their mothers in the chairs behind them.
"Did anyone ever hear the announcer giving the weather forecast on the radio?" I began, addressing the kids. "You know, where they say 'tomorrow it will be cloudy with a chance of rain?'"
Blank stares all around from the kids. A few tentative nods from the mothers.
And with inauspicious introduction, I launched into my first book. When we got to a hailstorm of hamburgers pummeling the town hall, they started to warm up.
I got them laughing as I did a few kid-friendly impersonations for "The Magic Fish." By the time I pulled out "The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash," I had charmed them like the precocious snake in the title.
The hour ended. The mothers applauded. Enthusiastically. And then the most remarkable thing happened. That impenetrable wall of motherly protection I had so feared began to crumble.
"That was great!" one mother exclaimed.
"Please let me know when you'll be reading again," said another.
"I know we've never talked before, but I've seen you around. I think our older kids are in choir together." Heck, if I didn't know better, I'd say she was hitting on me.
No matter. I suddenly had twenty new friends. I was an honorary mother. Or maybe the heroic father who let his ego go-a-wandering in a den of hungry tigers...and survived.
And I didn't even turn into a pool of butter.