The bus driver approached us menacingly on the main street of Ein Kerem, a woodsy village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. I clutched our 2-month-old daughter tightly to my chest as he jabbed a thick forefinger at me. I wondered, Had I cut him off during our drive into town? Was our car blocking his bus?
"Hey you," he growled. "Put a hat on that kid. This isn't summer, you know."
As I would soon find out, in Israel child rearing is everybody's business and everyone is a Jewish mother, including--especially--the grizzled vet behind the wheel of a tour bus.
Our daughter was born shortly after we arrived in Israel on a study sabbatical. At the time, I was completely unprepared for the education--in pediatrics, in nutrition, and, most of all, in letting go of American definitions of personal space--I was about to get on the streets of Israel. Our two older boys had been born in Washington, D.C., and I don't remember strangers there giving us advice on discipline and breast-feeding. I don't remember a store clerk offering to hold either one of them so we could shop unencumbered. And I definitely don't remember a down-and-out deliveryman, in a pair of tattered overalls, peering intently at a reddened eyelid and diagnosing conjunctivitis.
But in Israel, these were daily occurrences in the parks, on the buses, and, in the case of the deliveryman, in an elevator at the Jerusalem Shopping Mall. Old Zionist and socialist myths may be dying often and painfully in Israel, but Israelis still see the raising of children as a public, even patriotic affair.
Israelis families have an average of 2.7 children, compared with the American family average of 2.07. In part, the Israeli statistic is inflated by the existence of many extremely large Orthodox Jewish and Arab Muslim families, but in our experience Israeli families simply seem to have one kid more than families in similar circumstances in the States.
The kid-friendliness of Israeli Jews is much commented on, even romanticized. Social critics trot out a familiar list of reasons for it: a life-affirming response to the Holocaust, a historic state of siege, the effects of near-universal army service, and a nationalist- religious imperative to "spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south" (Genesis 28:14) that persists even among the otherwise secularized majority.
Whatever the reason, the attentiveness of complete strangers took some getting used to on the part of relatively reserved Americans like us (a stereotype enshrined in the Israeli nickname for all English-speaking Jews: "Anglo-Saxons"). Americans are adept at respecting the blanket of private space with which others wrap themselves in public, especially in family matters. We're more likely to offer a passerby advice on starting his car or grooming his dog than we are to suggest how he dresses his child. A perennial question put to advice columnists is whether you should intervene if you see a mother striking her child in public.
The upside of this live-and-let-live attitude is that it allows America to more or less function in all its multicultural diversity. In all honesty, I don't appreciate having to defend my child-rearing choices to strangers. Israelis tend to overdress their infants, but you never saw me telling a mother to "let that kid breathe." Besides, if we were to allow complete strangers free rein to stick their noses in our private business, we would have to invent a new role for mothers-in-law.
What we miss out on in our American reserve is the sense of connectedness that turns city streets and suburban cul-de-sacs into neighborhoods. By creating a cult of privacy, we make it harder to weave webs of attachment with our neighbors. I feel this every time a stranger's kid asks me to push her on the swings. Would her mom interpret this as a helpful gesture on the part of a fellow parent, or a prelude to a kidnapping, or worse? It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes one awful tabloid story to remind us of our vulnerability.
For all its own headline-grabbing violence, Israel is a remarkably safe place to raise a child. Elementary-school kids ride public buses by themselves, and we thought nothing about letting our 6-year-old son wander around the corner to buy candy at the local market. You could argue that it is this level of comfort that allows strangers to offer unsolicited advice. I suspect, however, that the reverse is true: A society that encourages a degree of busybodiness is a safer, saner, and more livable one.
We're back in America now, and a few weeks ago a neighbor to whom I'd rarely spoken caught up to me in the stairwell of our apartment building. It seemed that the day before, she had found my daughter, now 3, all by herself in the lobby, having escaped from the brother who promised to escort her to the mailbox. The woman said she kept an eye on Kayla until her brother showed up.
"I hope you don't mind," said the woman, "but I had a little chat with her while we waited and told her she shouldn't run off by herself."
Mind? Of course, I didn't mind. In fact, I was positively grateful. And did you happen to notice, I wanted to ask, how was she dressed?