In the nearly three decades I have lived in this country, many things that at
first seemed stupid, weird or rude to me, now make enormous sense.
instance, the Israeli habit of not putting screens on apartment and home
windows. In the beginning, I thought this was just plain dumb, something that
gave flies and mosquitoes free rein in domestic space.
the rationale, I was often told that screens block not only flying insects, but
also much needed air flow during the hot summer months.
originally dismissed this as nuts, I’ve come to accept that – yes indeed – if
you want to feel a breeze inside in the sweltering Israeli summer, keep the
screens off (or at least open).
I’ve also come to appreciate the
supremacy of the Israeli squeegee (sponga) to the American mop.
the mop just redistributes dirty water, the squeegee necessitates a constant
flow of clean water.
And I’ve come to recognize the beauty of being able
to ask friends and neighbors and mere acquaintances almost anything: from how
much they make, to whether they are pregnant, to why they are still single, and
how much they paid for their house.
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Not because that knowledge
necessarily serves any purpose, but just because it’s plain fun to
But one thing that still eludes me is the country’s educational
system. With two kids out of high school, and another two well ensconced
therein, Israel’s bagrut (matriculation) system remains a deep, dark mystery to
I don’t understand the point system. I don’t understand the magen,
the relative weight given to regular schoolwork as opposed to the bagrut test.
And I don’t understand the bonuses, or how the whole thing is scored. And all
that is only on a technical level.
I also don’t understand it on a
Raised in an environment where a premium was placed on
a broad – but shallow – liberal arts education (I know David Hume was a
philosopher, but I can’t tell you what he philosophized; I know Vasco de Gama
was an explorer, but don’t know what he discovered), the idea of teaching for
tests just goes against my grain.
But that is the norm here in the higher
high school grades. My third child is in 12th grade, and all he is doing is
studying for the test. Taking courses just for the sake of expanding his
knowledge? Forget it. It’s not that he isn’t learning anything, but it all seems
a bit too utilitarian, not exactly that old ideal about learning for learning’s
AND IF I can’t understand or appreciate the bagrut stage, the next
educational phase has me even more at wits’ end. No, I’m not talking about
college, but rather that interim phase: the psychometric test – the college
admissions exams, Israel’s equivalent to America’s SATs.
In this country,
the psychometric test really is another stage all its own. You have preschool,
elementary school, middle school, high school, the psychometric, and
I know all about this now because I currently have not one, but
two children studying for the psychometric exam: The Lad, a year and some change
out of the army; and The Lass, a couple months out of her national
And it’s not like they are studying for the psychometric while
doing something else; working, for instance. What they are doing is studying for
the psychometric – exclusively.
“What are you doing?” my father asked The
Lass on a visit last month.
“Studying for the psychometric,” she said.
“You know, the Israeli SATs.”
“That’s lovely, dear,” he said. “What
else?” Here I intervened, wanting to provide some cross-cultural translation so
my father wouldn’t think his granddaughter a deadbeat, and so my daughter
wouldn’t start having self-doubts.
“There is nothing else,” I said. “This
is just the way it is here. The kids take three or four months off, sign up for
a preparatory class, and cram for this test. It’s not like the way we used to do
The way we used to do it in the States was much simpler... and
cheaper. In the 11th grade, you would buy an SAT preparatory workbook and, in
your spare time, go over vocabulary words or brush up on how to divide
fractions. Those with money and higher ambitions took the Stanley Kaplan course,
but the rest of us just went in with our battery of sharpened No. 2 pencils and
minimal pre-test preparation, and took the test.
No more, or at least not
here. The single-mindedness with which kids approach these tests can actually be
an intriguing concept. For example, when people ask me now what my kids are
doing, I respond simply: “Studying vocabulary words.”
Well, not only
vocabulary words, both Hebrew and English, but also algebra and geometry. And
when I really want to dazzle those asking about my kids’ current vocation, I say
they are taking some time off to “polish up on their story problem
The whole experience has actually had a rather refining
influence on our home ambiance. Wanting to help them remember the thousands of
highfalutin English words they need to master, I have their word list at my
ready and try to incorporate those words into our everyday
If I ask The Lad a question and he replies with the much
overused “sababa [cool],” I correct him and say, “Not ‘sababa,’ son, but
‘stupendous.’” And if I want The Lass to clear the table, I don’t just bark at
her to remove the dishes; rather, I say, “It would dissipate my gloom, and add
to my overall tranquility and mental equilibrium, if you would convey our eating
receptacles to the wash basin.”
It’s breathtaking how well this is
working. The other day – just as I was looking over the day’s words – one kid,
annoyed, turned to the other and said, “Our direct progenitor is a zany
Are we ready for this test, or what?
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