Explaining terrorism to children

The New York Times has a video feature about how a French children’s newspaper responded to kids’ questions about the recent Paris attacks by explaining terrorism to children. You should watch this if you are a parent:

This is something we deal with more and more here in Israel. Terrorism has become an almost daily occurrence here in recent weeks and months and kids are increasingly aware that there is something going on. There are different ways to respond to kids’ questions and I think this is probably a better one.

“I feel, in a way, like I am destroying the childhood of my children by exposing them to …

“Yeah, but they don’t live on planet Mars …”

Our kids have asked about the terrorist attacks here and we explain it to them as best we can without vilifying all Palestinians (in the context of the attacks in Israel) but, at the same time, they need some understanding of the underlying politics, animosity and dynamics between Israelis (specifically Jews) and radical Palestinians.

It is not easy and I wish we didn’t have to have these conversations with our kids but this is the world we now live in. The world has changed and there is no “Undo”.

When not knowing more Hebrew than your kids do can hurt them

Even though you could probably get by just fine in Israel without learning much Hebrew, it has been really important to me since before we even arrived that we learn this ancient language. Besides being practically useful as a day to day language (being both an ancient language and in common use in modern times still astounds me), Hebrew is a key to integrating better into our new home and understanding Israeli culture. At least, that’s how I see it.

We placed our kids straight into a Hebrew language school, despite them only knowing a few scattered words, instead of an immigrant school which teaches in English and Hebrew. It was tough for them in the beginning but, after a few months, they started speaking and understanding the language at a remarkable rate. I’m so envious of their sponge-like brains!

As immigrants, the Israeli government gives us a number of absorption benefits that include free Hebrew language classes (called “ulpan” classes – not to be confused with “kibbutz” which is a different activity altogether). For adults it basically works out to 5 months full-time (mornings or evenings, 5 days a week) or 10 months part-time (I go to class 2 evenings a week for about 3 hours each class).

It is an incredible opportunity to learn and, as tiring as it is working full-time and then still going to classes and returning home late, I generally love going and make a concerted effort to do my homework and learn as much as I can. Unfortunately my older brain doesn’t absorb nearly as much as our kids do (or maybe I have more insecurities and inhibitions that get in the way) but it’s all slowly sinking in.

The challenge is making sure you use Hebrew as much as you can instead of defaulting to –

אני לא מדבר עברית

(“I don’t speak Hebrew”)

… and then switching to English. You get to a point where you can’t say you don’t know the language when you clearly know a little so procrastination takes the form of –

אני מדבר קצת עברית

(Roughly, “I only speak a little Hebrew”)

My latest is asking the person I am talking to to speak slower because the primary challenge now, besides my limited vocabulary, is that Israelis speak really quickly and have a tendency to blend distinct words into something that sounds like one word. One example that always comes to mind when I think about this is, ironically, –

מה אתה עושה

… which, instead of being pronounced “mah attah oseh” (“what are you doing”), sounds like “matta-oseh”. There are many other examples and, as I learned, also many contractions that are legitimate parts of the language. These are wonderful reminders about how little patience Israelis have for drawing things out any more than is absolutely necessary.

Anyway, as much as I am learning, my Hebrew is roughly comparable to my son’s (I know this because I can just about help him with his homework) but not as “advanced” as my 5 year old daughter who even has the accent down. While this is fine for homework purposes and talking to teachers who are accustomed to speaking slowly and using small words; it doesn’t help our kids advance their Hebrew.

We had a meeting with our daughter’s teacher who told us that our daughter works hard, has learned a lot in the short time she has been here and excels in most areas of her classes. Her concern is that our daughter’s Hebrew is still underdeveloped, relatively speaking, and this could hamper her progress in school (I was assured that language alone will never be a reason to hold her back). The teacher basically told us (this was all in Hebrew so it’s an educated guess on my part) that our little girl needs to be exposed to more advanced and varied Hebrew than the Hebrew she is exposed to at school and when she is with her friends.

There are things we can do to help her, for sure, but what this discussion highlighted for me is that being unable to speak more advanced Hebrew than our kids is hampering them. Our friends are native Hebrew speakers and can guide their kids like we do in English at home. It is obvious when you think about it but when our kids study in Hebrew and are also new to the language, not being able to correct their grammar or read story books at a normal pace and with fluent inflection is problematic.

Hanging books at tashas in Rosebank, Johannesburg, South Africa
Hanging books at tashas in Rosebank, Johannesburg, South Africa

As a writer, my limited Hebrew is frustrating. I can use the English language considerably better than I can use Hebrew so, on one hand, I look forward to a day when I could write an article like this as clearly in Hebrew as I can in English. On the other hand, it really bugs me that I am still trying to figure out past and future tense and my kids ask me to stop reading to them in Hebrew because there aren’t enough hours in a day.

Learning Hebrew (and any other language) isn’t always easy. It has different rules and forms, most of which are very different to English (which is a pretty bizarre language too, if you think about it). I’ve discovered that I am really interested in the language and have a strong desire to learn it well and that helps on days when it seems like I can’t string two words together (I call those days “bad Hebrew days”).

Returning to the discussion with our daughter’s teacher; if anything, it highlights the importance of not procrastinating and just throwing myself into the linguistic deep-end. I’ve started forcing myself to use Hebrew when I know it and throw in English when I don’t (no idea if that confuses people I speak to – probably does). Like anything new, it requires persistence and I’m still working on that too (although, as Yoda famously said: “Do or do not, there is no try”). I also really like something my ulpan teacher often says; that to learn Hebrew we need to –

לקרוא ( (to read)

לכתוב (to write)

לדבר (to speak)

And to love it

Bottom line: knowing more Hebrew is probably just as much about being able to help our kids adapt better and live up to their potential in a new country as it about being able to order decaf coffee and pay with correct change.

Captivating high definition video of Jupiter

I’m a sucker for cool science stuff, especially space imagery. This captivating high definition video of Jupiter based on imagery from the Hubble telescope is a great addition to my virtual collection:

I just followed NASA’s Hubble Twitter profile and there is even more great imagery there:

Image credit: Hubble Catches Jupiter’s Largest Moon Going to the ‘Dark Side’ by NASA Goddard Flight Center, licensed CC BY 2.0

Where are my words, dammit?

Argh! Why is it so difficult to keep writing? For someone who considers himself a writer (that would be me), I am consistently inconsistent about writing. I return to my blog now and then with the intention of writing so much more and regularly. I’m too embarrassed about my most recent undertaking to write every day that I won’t even link to the post.

When I think about writing I just feel this little hurdle in my way and I turn right and do something else. I don’t really know what that hurdle is, exactly. Some days it feels like writing is too much hassle because I have to –

  • load my blog,
  • log in,
  • create a post,
  • write it,
  • populate the SEO plugin fields,
  • find a featured image,
  • publish the post and then go make sure the article shared neatly on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.

I am almost certainly over complicating the process here so that also feels like a hurdle at times. Did I mention none of this is rational?

Other times, I think about Medium and how nice it is to write there. Then, just as that thought forms fully and starts to inspire my hands to starting typing the url in my browser, another part of my mind gets outraged because, after all, I wrote a pretty long article about how you really shouldn’t trust your beloved words to some floozy 3rd party platform like Medium. At this point the inspired impulse to go write on Medium with its beautiful interface just sighs in disgust and drops the whole idea of writing altogether.

Every time I think about publishing my work on a platform that is not my free-standing, self-hosted blog, I feel like I should apologize to Kevin Marks for betraying the Open Web.

I don’t know when I made this writing thing so absurdly complicated. People manage to maintain a blog over time. Others just write on Medium or other services and live contented lives. Somewhere along the way I managed to lose sight of the simplicity of adding text to a page (virtual or tangible) and became snared in a self-critical/creative feedback loop that forced Inspiration to start drinking heavily and snarl at the world.

I love writing, I really do. I love the Open Web and want it to thrive. I also really like Medium because it actually does simplify the writing process. I just haven’t figured out how to reconcile it all and not feel like I’m giving in to the Man and Screwing The Open Web Guy while selling my soul down the commercial river.

Man, writing used to be simpler. Pen, paper, stuff comes out and you go out feeling creatively satisfied until the next time.

Where are my words, dammit?

The Israel-Palestine conflict is easy to explain

The Israel-Palestine conflict is easy to explain and here is a great video from Prager University titled “The Middle East Problem” to do just that:

I especially like the last two questions:

  1. What would happen if Israel laid down its weapons and said it would fight no more?
  2. What would happen if the Palestinians laid down their weapons and said they would fight no more?

What do you think?

Last night my son asked me to explain terrorism

Last night my son asked me to explain why it is unsafe “out there”. I spoke to our kids briefly about the wave of terrorism spreading across Israel a few days ago in fairly general terms so they would have some appreciation of a change in the status quo (the one that counts). Still, I was dreading this question from him. He is old enough to understand more of it but still far too young to need to know what it means.

As I tried to explain to him that there are Palestinians/Arabs hurting Jews in many cities, I realized that while the victims are usually Jews, these terrorists probably don’t conduct in depth research and can target non-Jews too. That doesn’t really matter a lot to them, I suspect. The goal is uncertainty, the sense of an ever-present threat to our lives. The goal is terror.

I told him that it is scary and it means we have to be more careful until this threat subsides and he asked me how that will happen. I remembered an article I read earlier that day titled “Children and Fear of War & Terrorism” and started telling him that our brave soldiers and police will protect us, because that is exactly what they are working to do. Then I told him that our real defence against this sort of distributed terrorism is each other.

Our security forces can’t be everywhere and the terrorists know it. These terrorists don’t wear outfits that brand them as terrorists, they look like normal people going about their business until they decide to strike. Short of Minority Report-style pre-cognition, our security forces can only act if they are on the scene when an attack begins.

This brand of terrorism is a cancer and there are two ways you fight cancer when it manifests: intensive, focused action (usually radiation therapy) and systematic treatments like chemotherapy. Our security forces are working to deter terrorists with their presence and respond to attacks with intensive, focused action designed to swiftly neutralize the terrorists.

That is only part of the solution. The other “treatment” for this cancer is the very community the terrorists are attacking. Rather than allowing these attacks to fragment our community, we Israelis need to (and as the citizens of Ra’anana and other cities affected have shown) unite and protect each other by, literally, watching each other’s backs.

My kids love the arcade game Whack-a-Mole and I wonder if dealing with terrorism isn’t a lot like that? A terrorist steps out with a weapon, attacks and Israelis, Jews, citizens who are able strike back and neutralize that attack. You’ve probably noticed that I’ve used the word “neutralize” more than once. It is, in a sense, a euphemism, and can mean the attacker is subdued and arrested. It can also mean the attacker has been killed. I believe in our shared human rights and the right of an accused person to a fair criminal process. At the same time, when someone picks up a weapon, intending to kill us and attacks, there isn’t time to negotiate and pacify. These attacks are brutal and need to be met with decisive responses.

So I sat with my son in his bedroom and explained these attacks to him in terms I hoped wouldn’t give him nightmares. I told him they are scary for us too and that he should talk to us if he has anything to say about it, ask us questions he may have and not to hold his fears in. As he thought about that I told him we love him and we will look after him just as we Jews, we Israelis should look after each other and protect each other from this terrorism, this cancer.

You see, the one difference between my cancer treatments and defeating terrorism using my cancer analogy is that, unlike chemical chemo, social “chemo” need not be poisonous. It can unite us even more and strengthen our nation just by watching each other’s backs because we are all targets to these terrorists. Why shouldn’t we respond by becoming the collective treatment for this disease and wipe it out each time it surfaces?

עם ישראל חי


Photo credit: Bil’in Riot, Jan 2011 by the IDF, licensed CC BY NC 2.0

Neil deGrasse Tyson and I’m thinking about the laptop bag

I became a Neil deGrasse Tyson fan when I watched the series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” which I loved. deGrasse Tyson has a really interesting YouTube channel called “StarTalk Radio” which I just subscribed to and which you may also want to watch if you are into astrophysics. Here is his introduction:

Small confession: as much as I was paying attention to what he was saying, I couldn’t help but notice his laptop bag in the background. I just kept thinking: “Hey, I have the same laptop bag!”.

Back to what I was writing about, you can also follow deGrasse Tyson on Twitter and Facebook:

Image credit: Hubble Sees a “Mess of Stars” from the NASA Goddard Space Center, licensed CC BY 2.0