Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


This Postcard frm Israel was originally written on 14 May 2005.

Ah, junior high. A whole different world is opening up to you. So close to teenager-hood, you can practically taste it. No longer in the same class of students you've been with since first grade, you're meeting new people, and getting better acquainted with some students you already know. You're attending an unfamiliar, bigger school filled with students who seem an awful lot older than you. You have new classes, new subjects to study. In addition to the usual Hebrew, math, Bible, English, and history, suddenly you're learning "technology", Arabic, and... genealogy?

Seventh grade is when many Israeli students prepare a year-long project called Shorashim (roots). They are given a packet with pages of instructions for this assignment, which is worked in segments, then handed in, checked and revised as necessary. The finished product, sometimes over 100 pages long, is bound into a book (many choose a cover made from wood, as in the photo above) and handed in just after the Passover vacation. Next week, the Shorashim Project will culminate in a ceremony for the students and their parents, held in a theater downtown. This is not just another homework assignment. The Shorashim Project is a Big Deal.

And that's as it should be. At a time in their lives when these young people are struggling to develop a sense of identity that fits with their emerging adult selves, an investigation into their family's past is reassuring. When the students interview their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, they begin to see the connection between the past and the present. Familiar people begin to take on a new appearance: the grandmother who is in ill-heath is revealed as first a spirited, even willful, child and later, a strong and determined woman. The cranky grandfather is rediscovered as a former member of the British police in the Jewish communities of pre-state Israel, and later as a member of the Palmach*, a soldier who fought in the war for Israel's independence. The students come to see that the history of individuals in their families is part, not only of family history, but of the history of this country.

This look into the past shows the students who and what their family members were; at the same time, it teaches them something about the passage of time. They come to realize that who we are is an on-going process. Time keeps moving on, and we all keep changing, and hopefully, growing. Who the students are now will have an impact on who they become, but it will not define their future selves.

The seventh graders also must write about their siblings, which brings home to them the point that those brothers and sisters are people, too (something kids sometimes, inexplicably, prefer to ignore). Stopping to think about their siblings' likes and dislikes, abilities and qualities, paints those siblings in a whole new light.

Finally, the students write about themselves. To me, this is the beauty of the Shorashim Project. Along with learning their family's history, the seventh graders are reminded of their own place in that family. This project is not only about the past, as vital as that is. The Shorashim Project, written by the students themselves, becomes their guidebook for finding their identities as individuals, members of a family, and citizens of Israel. And perhaps one day, a seventh grader will come to them and say, "Grandma, tell me about the time..."

* The Palmach was a unit in the Hagana (literally, Defense), an underground army formed before Israel was given statehood.

(c)Amy Samin

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