Real Israel: School run

A graduation celebration turns into a trip down the lane of past and future memories.

July 11, 2013 12:57
The quaint Lev Smadar movie house in Jerusalem's German Colony .

Lev Smadar movie house in Jerusalem 521. (photo credit: Liat Collins)

I had expected my son’s graduation from elementary school to be a moving experience. I hadn’t been prepared for it to involve two and a half hours running through the streets of Jerusalem on a hot summer’s night with half a dozen preteen boys all in festive spirits and competitive mode.

I have only myself to blame. I volunteered for it.

When they asked for parents to accompany a Thursday night treasure hunt, I readily offered my services. I saw it as an opportunity to chat to other mothers and fathers while our offspring let off energy – a last chance also for the adults to mark the parting of ways after six years of parents’ evenings, shows and school activities, often balancing on chairs made for smaller behinds.

“You know you’ll have to run, Mum?” asked my nearly 12-year-old son, aware that my strengths do not lie in physical prowess. I could have backed out then but I didn’t understand the possible hint.

Before we left the house I checked the list every participating pupil had brought home – comfortable shoes, water bottle, a backpack, some sandwiches and a T-shirt in the color of pre-selected teams.

Foolishly, I ignored the Oxygen Mask rule – the lifesaving instruction on airplanes which stipulates that in the event of an emergency, parents should first put on their own masks and only then help their children.

I should have listened to my inner voice, and my son’s very doubtful-sounding audible one.

I made sure Yossi had everything he needed, including good shoes, but I left the apartment in a hurry, wearing a new pair of sandals, ideal for standing around in.

And I did stand around, for about 10 minutes.

That’s the time it took to explain the rules, make sure the more than 90 kids were divided into equally numbered small teams, and receive the sheet of clues and instructions.

Treasure hunts in the age of reality TV are not what they used to be when I was school age. Every one is a production. This is a generation growing up on programs such as The Amazing Race (Hamerotz Lamillion, as the wildly popular Israeli version is known).

“The idea of the Treasure Race is to ask people on the street to help solve the clues, to really get to know the neighborhood and its history and to have fun,” explained Dorit Graiver, one of the owners of Yerushalmit, a company that specializes in personalized tours and events, and the brains behind the evening.

“The game is a great opportunity to get to know the area and surroundings, stop and look at the streets and the buildings, be interested in discovering new things and speak to the locals. They definitely can help,” she urged.

Since we live in an era of smartphones and clever kids who know how to use them, the assignments were aimed partly at preventing cheating by simply Googling the question and finding the answer.

We were set on a course of eight stops, where the group – by now a team – had to pose for photos or make short films reflecting the nature of the site.

I had barely taken in the meaning of the instructions than we were off.

This clearly was not a stand-around-and-socialize evening. This was a fly-through-Jerusalem’s-streets-as -fast-as-you-can-run night.

Very quickly fear set in – fear of losing the group I was meant to help protect, fear of losing face or falling flat on it, fear of embarrassing my son and fear of losing the competition. That’s a lot of barely contained panic, and it provided the adrenaline that kept me going and going.

I ran for all I was worth – and then some. Motherly love and ego are a powerful combination.

ONE OF the clues was a Yehuda Amichai poem: “The city plays hide and seek between its names Jerusalem, Al Quds, Shalem, Jeru, Yeru.

“It whispers: Jebus, Jebus, Jebus in the dark.”

The city was not whispering – it was vibrant, shouting and suddenly full of children weaving among tourists (the stars of another well-known Amichai poem) and those veteran local residents who were indeed happy to help as the group of boisterous, sweaty boys bounced up to them yelling clues.

I’m not sure how much the children learned in the two hours or so in which we raced through the neighborhood, but even as I tried to impress on the group that if they didn’t cross the road safely the team would lose for sure, I took in the special surroundings – so close to home, so many worlds in one small radius.

The race took us from their school in the German Colony to the small nearby Natural History Museum, which houses dinosaur statues and a remarkable range of stuffed animals. The beautiful building was originally built by a wealthy Armenian merchant at the end of the 19th century and later served as the home of the Turkish governor. A performance was just about to start in its grounds, but with determination we managed to complete our mission.

We also took photos outside the small Smadar movie house, a cinema with a special style, celebrating its 85th anniversary. It served German Templers as a clubhouse (until they were thrown out of the country by the British for openly sympathizing with the Nazi regime); the British used it as a cinema for officers, and today it is an artsy movie theater and bar (constantly under threat of real-estate development).

We raced to the Khan Theater, where the boys made their own short movie in the courtyard as quietly as they could, as the show inside had to go on. The attractive compound originally served as a silk factory and was later used as a hostel for pilgrims, we learned.

Other sites, without giving away all the clues, included the windmill in Yemin Moshe, where a period costumed actress explained the how the British Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore had provided the first homes for Jerusalem’s Jews outside of the Old City’s Walls in the 1850s.

On our rush back to the schoolyard, we passed the old Hansen Lepers’ Hospital, slated to become a multimedia center. The last live-in patients only moved out in 2000, which seems particularly remarkable when you’re chaperoning a group of 11- and 12-year-olds past its gates in the summer of 2013.

Jerusalem’s hills and stones feature in prayers, poems, psalms and songs.

They suit the dreamer as the June moon suits lovers.

For a mother in her early fifties wearing inappropriate footwear and carrying a big backpack while weighed down with the heavy burden of responsibility of not wanting to shame her son in public, the topography, heat and streets simply added to the challenge.

Nonetheless, I put my best foot forward (the one that had never suffered from a stress fracture) and then my second-best foot forward – very fast.

I entered not only the spirit of Jerusalem but also the spirit of the game.

I gave it all I could and was rewarded with the best thing a mother could hope for.

“You did all right, Mum,” said my son, sounding surprised in a way that was pleasant but not flattering.

Not only did we make it back to the school safely and in high spirits: We came in first place! “Not many mothers would have done that,” enthused his friend (a kid with whom I hope he stays in touch).

Indeed, not many mothers – or even fathers, far younger and fitter than me – had volunteered. They don’t know what they missed.

The blisters and sore muscles gradually healed throughout the following week. The memories of a remarkable evening remain.

Farewell Yehuda Halevi School. Even if we have no reason to return to the old schoolyard, we’ll run into memories on Jerusalem’s streets.

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