Graduation Israeli Style

by Brian on June 22, 2007

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Only in Israel

Fifteen-year-old Amir’s school held a graduation party last week. Parents were invited. The event epitomized everything I both love – and hate – about living in Israel.

First of all, the evening, which wasn’t limited to just the graduating class but included every year from 7th through 12th, was called to start at 7:00 PM. “But we don’t have to get there until 7:15 at the earliest,” Amir duly informed us. “Nothing ever starts on time in Israel.”

Which is of course true. Punctuality is not one of the Jewish State’s assets. Most of the time it’s mildly amusing – a bar mitzvah is scheduled to start at 8:00 PM but the guests don’t arrive until 9:30 PM – but sometimes I wonder what kind of message we’re giving our kids. If they had to catch a train in a place like Switzerland, they’d be left yodeling in the station half an hour late.

7:15 PM, it turned out, was being generous for Amir’s party. When we arrived, students, teachers and parents were milling around in the school courtyard. There didn’t appear to be any organization at all except for a table of boisterous 12th graders hawking “Persian Rice,” a concoction that was mixed with raisins, carrots, potatoes and appeared to have been deep fried – at NIS 5 (about $1.25) a plate, it was delicious!

The evening was supposed to be divided into two parts: presentations by the students and a festive concert. A printed schedule told us to go to the main study hall at 8:00 PM for the presentations. Foolish immigrants, we did as we were told, only to join just a half dozen other parents. After 20 minutes of waiting and wondering how the school was planning to cajole the growing crowd in the courtyard into the study hall, the students began their talks…to a mostly empty room.

This was especially disappointing for us because Amir was one of the presenters. He had been working on a very important project all year interviewing two Holocaust survivors and writing up the results. He and his partner Shai answered questions and their proud teacher highlighted a copy of their transcript on the overhead projector.

Amir didn’t seem to mind. “I’m not much of a public speaker,” he had told us sheepishly beforehand.

“What a strong presence your son has,” our friend Maya told us after the presentation as we shepped unexpected nachas.

By this point, people had started to take seats for the main performance – Moshe Lahav was presenting his “Big Tisch” show – a non-stop medley of classic Israeli “standards” – folk and rock songs from the 50s, 60s and 70s. We sat down and after another infuriating 20 minutes of waiting, the show got underway.

Now up to this point, the disorganization that is inherent in Israeli events had been mildly annoying. It would have been more so, but after 13 years here, you almost forget that things could be different. OK, maybe not forget, but forgive a bit.

The goings on at the performance, however, exacerbated my already fizzing frustration. Not the show itself – that was fine and fun. It was the audience. Rather than sit politely in their chairs enjoying the music, on which the party organizers had obviously spent a lot of time and money, the mass of teenage boy energy in the space (Amir goes to an all boy’s school) erupted into a near frenzy of circle dancing, whooping, waving, male bonding, chanting and singing along at the top of their lungs to the music (most of it written 20 years before these kids were even born but somehow they knew all the words to anyway).

Students, parents and teachers alike all took the stage to boldly croon a few lyrics or an out-of-tune melody, tuning the show into a chaotic karaoke party with the musky air of Israel bravado. Song leader Moshe Lahav took it all in stride – but then I suppose he knew what he was getting into when he agreed to perform at a high school graduation in the first place.

About half way through the show, as Lahav was nearly drowned out by the cacophony of merriment encircling him, my wife Jody turned to me and said “It would never be like this in the States.” I started to sigh in empathy when she added unexpectedly, “Isn’t it great!”

And that was the point, wasn’t it? Because, despite all the aggravation, it is Israel’s chronic spontaneity that gives culture here its verve and spunk, an in-your-face intensity that you may love or hate but you can never ignore. The kids dancing and singing and enjoying life to the fullest – not the least the graduating seniors many of whom would be heading to the army in just a few months time – were a joy to watch, and a reminder of why we put up with all the crap: for such moments of sheer abandonment that only a society steeped in disorganization as an organizing principle can generate.

Will Amir be part of the graduating class of chaos in another two years? We can only hope so!


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