The School of Hard Knocks

Time: A few weeks back. Place: A party site tucked in the heart of the Binyamina industrial zone. Goal: To sit back and absorb the action. Result: An awakening!

I leaned back against the bar seat and watched the action unfold. I was attending a Bat Mitzvah party populated by something in the range of sixty 11-12 year olds. I was one of five adults on hand to preoccupy the mother of the "bride," to keep her from worrying that the whole thing might suddenly get out of hand. The DJ was doing an excellent job. For over an hour he'd been able to keep most of the children jiggling, dancing, bouncing or, at minimum, busy staring up at the mesmerizing screen above the dais. There was a nice healthy vibe to the evening.

A dramatic shift of volume signaled a change of activity and within minutes the children were gathered into a small mass, seated on the floor and anxiously focused toward the elevated platform. Two tall bar stools were dragged in and lined up side by side. I wasn't really paying a lot of attention. After all, this wasn't my party. I was just feeling warm and fuzzy, happy to see the Belle of the Ball so happy: surrounded by friends, having fun, the life of the party. Nice.

The DJ called out two names. Two children, a boy and a girl, popped up from the mass and took up positions on the bar stools, back to back. The music continued to pound, having been restored to a headache-inducing volume. I took a sip of the wine that had been surreptitiously smuggled in to keep the adults happy and casually glanced over at the main action.  

I want to reiterate that until that point I was just taking in the scene--there for the ride.

BOOM! Within seconds my spine stiffened, my slumbering nerve endings ignited and stood at attention. My glance, previously unfocused, zeroed in on the action. After receiving a shy kiss from the boy, the girl had wound up her arm and let loose a hearty slap in response. The kids were roaring with laughter.

What was that? I focused more intently on the spot-lit area: what had somehow, within seconds, become an arena.

Before I could process what was happening another set of children had assumed their positions on the stools, teetering a bit as they settled themselves in. The DJ said something, then something else. I couldn't make out the words. I'm not even sure they were important. There was a swirl of arms and legs as the two hopped off to face one another and wham! Same scenario. But this time the slap was delivered with even more gusto, following what looked like a chase as the lucky lady tried to get away.

Whoa! What the hell?

As the game continued things began to spiral out of control.  The effort to lean in and take that kiss became complicated by the desperate attempt to turn tail and run. And those slaps? They got more and more vigorous, sometimes preceded by a full-wind-up, frequently landing in pairs or even a cluster. This was nothing short of violence.

I wasn't the only one to notice. Soon enough the DJ lowered the volume of the music dramatically and made an effort to calm down the crowd. No matter. Within moments the game was up and running again in the same horrific manner; creepily resembling those Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots.

The next day I still couldn't get that bloodless carnage out of my head. Admitting ignorance regarding local cultural traditions I consulted an expert, not by chance the mother of a child who'd been among those both delivering unwanted kisses and receiving the consequent beating.

"Oh, that!" She said almost dismissively. "That's a classic party game."

Apparently I'd observed nothing less than a "harmless" (not my word choice) social exercise: a primitive mating game akin to 'Spin the Bottle' or maybe, 'Truth or Dare.' My friend laughed off my consternation. I tried to step back and think like an anthropologist for a moment. Maybe I could classify this as some kind of innocent ritual, just one more aspect of growing up in the Middle East. I dug deep, searching my Israeli side--after a few decades here I know I have one. It didn't work. I remained unconvinced. The game I'd witnessed, this so-called party game, was far more visceral and brutal than anything I recognized, stretching the limits of acceptable behavior.

That doesn't mean I don't recognize its significance. While I'm never quite going to forget the brutality of that so-called "innocent" game, I've come to see it as a distillation of life here in Israel. Its emphasis on the "raw," the kiss and the slap, two opposite ends of the normative spectrum of human behavior, is a stark reminder of the emphasis on "truth" in Israeli culture, that attempt at "genuine" that's frequently mistaken for crude, vulgar and unsophisticated. In truth of fact, there's much to envy in that group of pre-adolescents, already ingrained with a respect for honesty and the resilience to take it, characteristics that will stand them in good stead for the realities that lie ahead. The School of Hard Knocks no doubt serves a purpose.