Thursday, May 15, 2003

Scouting the Normal Life

Scouts. Blums.

Growing up, these weren’t words I would ever have imagined using in the same sentence. It’s not that I have anything against the Scouts. It was just that I never seemed to fit into those institutions that were so much of the American mainstream. I always preferred playing the rebel. I had my own drum to beat.

And now, here I am, all grown up and in Israel, and my daughter is a full-fledged patriotic Girl Scout.

It’s not the same, of course. In Israel, youth movements are a much bigger deal. Nearly everybody joins one.

In addition to Scouts, there’s Bnei Akiva, Hashomer Hatzair, Ezra, and I’m sure many more I’ve never heard of. Some are entirely secular. Others all religious. Scouts has branches for both and is the fastest growing youth movement today: membership in the Israel Boy and Girl Scouts Federation grew 60% from 38,000 in 1997 to 60,000 in 2002.

And nine-year-old Merav loves it. Twice a week she goes to meetings. Jody and I have no clue what goes on. As far as we can tell, there seems to be a lot of singing. And chocolate. They had a contest for best performance which they invited the parents to, and Merav’s grade won. They sang about falafel. And chocolate.

A month or so ago, the Scouts went on their first camping trip. That’s what Scouts do, after all. But for Merav, it was her first overnight outdoors. Under the stars. Sleeping bag with rocks under your tush.

Mind you, I’m no stranger to camping. It was part and parcel of my childhood as well. At Merav’s age, I went to a full-fledged overnight summer camp. We slept in cabins, but the experience was still packed with the requisite camp singing (“Who Built the Ark? Noah Noah!”), oatmeal (they forced us to eat it in order to get to the doughnuts), and confused hormones (Dear Abby, Is it OK for a fifth grader to ask a fourth grader to the Friday Night Dance?).

When we went for our big overnight hike, it was along the banks of the Navarro River, a lazy tributary flowing through Mendocino County into the Pacific Ocean. It was scenic. It was pleasant. But it wasn’t infused with meaning.

When Merav’s scouting troupe headed out for their hike, though, their destination was the infamous Burma Road.

That’s the thing about Israel. Even if you find a nice wooded campsite in order to have fun, it’s still dripping with history and symbolism.

It was days before the first UN-brokered ceasefire of the 1948 War of Independence, and the main road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem had become unsafe, subject to Arab snipers aiming down into the valley. According to the ceasefire agreement, any roads that had already been built would be allowed to stay. But no new ones. The result of this would have been to effectively cut off Jerusalem from the rest of the country.

So the Israelis, working in complete secrecy, built an alternative road going up from Sha’ar Hagai towards the Shoresh region through seemingly impassable mountains. Then, hours before the ceasefire was to take hold, they unveiled their feat to a reporter, thus creating unchangeable facts on the ground. The story became part of the 1966 film Cast a Giant Shadow starring Kirk Douglas.

The message to the newly initiated Scouts, I hope, was clear: you can do anything you put your mind to. Or have to. If life throws you what looks like an insurmountable lemon, turn it on its head and brew up some sweet lemonade.

What better way to kick off a lifetime passion with camping and hiking? And of connecting to their new homeland.

Participating in activities like camping is also an essential part of living a normal life, despite all the madness around us. There's nothing like it, really, for helping to build a healthy personal - and group - identity.

When I look back at my childhood and try to put my finger on what made the difference, what provided the spark that would eventually put me on a path towards Israel and aliyah, I can only point to my formative camping days (sorry mom and dad, it really was your fault that I got interested in Israel).

Maybe it was the fact that it was the first time I was in an all-Jewish environment. Or maybe it was the camp nurse’s cute daughter, Audrey.

Merav, of course, doesn’t need that kind of identity building. She gets it daily just by living here. But if camping out under the stars with her Scout troop strengthens her resolve, how can I complain?

Here’s one more element of only-in-Israel Scouting:

Since the trip took place during the time when the Israeli Home Front Command still deemed it necessary for law-abiding Israelis to carry gas masks, those poor Scouts had to hike for miles on end with their regular backpacks slung over one shoulder, and brown cardboard boxes encasing their gas masks across the other.

The image of some thirty nine-year-old boys and girls out in the woods with gas masks is both wickedly amusing and profoundly disturbing at the same time.

“It didn’t bother us,” Merav explained. “We used the gas mask box to block the thorns from the bushes.”

Now that’s the sort of positive can-do ever-prepared attitude I’d expect from a Scout.

My nine-year-old Israeli Girl Scout.

No comments:

Post a Comment