Hal Stern // Livingston, NJ
I arrived at the Ben Gurion Elementary School in Bat Yam, Israel and was immediately instructed to complete the sentences on page 105 of the English workbooks with three rambunctious fifth grade boys.
The boys had learned spoken English from watching “Drake and Josh” on TV, which also gave them cultural knowledge of American sports and music. Y and AC, two of the boys, are fairly recent Ethiopian immigrants.
After a long discussion of American pop culture icons, AC announced loudly that he is very proud of musicians who are “African like me.” While his music interests center on New York, some more discussion revealed that AC is a Red Sox fan.
I took this as a cue to teach English, sports and geography all at once.
My first English lesson: “Kevin Youkilis shel Red Sox yehudi” and repeated in English, “Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox is Jewish.” Their eyes were wide with amazement. I had to repeat myself, “Kayn, kayn, hoo yehudi” (“Yes, yes, he is Jewish”). Suddenly these boys were connected to an American star not solely by the color of his skin, but by his religious identity as well.
“Kevin Youkilis does not eat bacon with the team,” AC exclaimed in English.
His teacher was going to be scratching her head over that one for a while, as it had very little to do with the English workbook characters Guy and Mary who would brush their hair and their teeth in the morning.
I tried to explain that Kevin Youkilis isn’t Orthodox, but didn’t know how to go down the path of the religious variety, where being Jewish in America means everything from being modern Orthodox to being aware of your Jewish identity when the matzah comes out in the supermarket.
In Israel, it’s hard to find pork products, and while the religious spectrum is quite broad, aversion to pork is much more universal. My three fifth graders identified being Jewish with some basic elements of keeping kosher. The image of Kevin Youkilis shunning bacon at the team buffet worked for them, and will stay with me the way that Sandy Koufax’s decision not to pitch on Yom Kippur colored our parents’ generation’s view of Jewish baseball players in the 1950s.
The boys taught me “One State, One People,” Israel’s tag line for its hugely diverse population, and my lesson learned was seeing it in action, with or without bacon.
This story was adapted by the author from a posting here.