“I need help with my homework,” eleven-year-old Merav announced after dinner the other night.
Normally I run as fast as I can from these requests. As an immigrant father, it's not easy to cope with homework in Hebrew which, while it may be one of Merav’s best subjects, is certainly not mine.
“It’s geography,” she clarified.
Ah, now that I could help with.
“I need to know the capital cities. Read from the list and test me,” Merav said and she handed me a sheet with some 30 countries written down.
The list itself was a fascinating slice of local culture. The countries picked – I don’t know if it was by Merav’s teacher or was part of some state curriculum – demonstrated in a very immediate way what was important to Israel...and what was not.
There were countries I had barely heard of when I was a kid. Growing up in California in the 1960s, who even knew where Yemen was, let alone Syria or Morocco? But they were prominent on Merav’s list.
On the other hand, Central and South America – the capitals of which we had to learn by heart – were barely represented...except apparently for countries which had large Jewish populations that had immigrated to Israel.
I began the drill. Merav sailed through the first few cities with ease. She had clearly been practicing.
Germany – Berlin.
Canada – Ottawa.
India – New Delhi.
We got stuck at Romania.
“Um...give me a hint,” Merav said.
I was immediately transported back to my own youth when, sitting with my father, we used to make up all kinds of rhymes and alliterations to make do when memory failed.
“OK, well, I’ve got some books and I need to put them down so they can rest,” I said to Merav.
Merav stared at me like I was insane.
“Books...need a rest.”
“Bookshelf? The capital of Romania is Bookshelf?”
“No, Bucharest. Book-a-rest...you get it?”
“What does that have to do with Romania?” Merav demanded.
I shrugged. I’m “Beats me. But you won’t forget it now, will you?”
“More,” Merav said, her eyes eager as if I were telling her a make-believe story before bed.
Merav got that easily. “From the Olympics. Athens,” she replied.
“Paris.” All those Madeline books had done some good too.
“No that’s the capital of Yemen. You want a hint?”
“Think of a Jim Carrey movie.”
“Me Myself and Irene?”
“No, starts with 'The.'”
“The Man in the Moon?”
“It’s the one where he puts this thing on, turns him all funny.”
“Right,” I said. “Da-Mask.”
“Da-Mask-us..oh, Damascus, I get it!”
We sailed through Belgium, Russia and Argentina, stopping at Australia.”
“Need another hint?” I asked.
“There’s a chocolate bar that’s like this capital,” I said.
“Snickers, Australia? Never heard of it.”
“Well, it’s definitely not Milky Way. Or Baby Ruth.”
“Try Cadbury?” I said.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“It’s a British treat. Cadbury...Canberra...nu?”
“You’re pushing it, Abba,” Merav laughed.
We got stuck only one more time: at Kenya.
“OK...you’re getting ready for bed. You take off your clothes and put on a nice...”
“Pair of pajamas?”
“Warm fuzzy slippers?”
“A nice robe....eeee!”
“What, is there a spider?” Merav said turning behind her. She hates eight-legged insects.
“No, it’s part of the hint. Nice-robe-ee. Nairobi.”
“What kind of name is that?”
“Do you think I’ll do OK on the test?”
“You’re going to ace it.”
“Yeah. I think so too. Thanks, Abba,” Merav said as she headed downstairs for bed.
“It was my pleasure. Now just remember, the capital of Syria is Jim Carrey, the capital of Romania is Book Shelf and what’s Kenya?”
“Fuzzy slippers,” Merav replied.
“This will be one test your teacher will never forget!”