Our Motherhood Around the World series continues today in the ancient city of Jerusalem. Three years ago, Dasee Berkowitz and her husband, Leon, moved from the States to Israel with their three young children. Here, she tells us about desert camping, her trick for sneaking in dates with her husband and her favorite Jewish ritual…
Part of the wall around Jerusalem’s Old City.
On deciding to move to Israel: After graduating from college, I made aliyah, which is the Hebrew word for immigrating to Israel as a Jewish person from elsewhere (in my case, the U.S.). I lived here for 10 years and met Leon. We moved back to New York, where he became the rabbi at the oldest synagogue on Long Island. But it was always my dream to return here to raise our family. I think that contributing to the modern state of Israel is the most exciting project of the Jewish people in my lifetime, and I wanted to be a part of it. Now, we both work in Jewish education: Leon runs the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies and I’m the director of ‘Becoming a Soulful Parent’ at an organization called Ayeka.
Dasee’s daughter Yael strolling in Baka, near their neighborhood of Arnona, in Southern Jerusalem.
On first impressions: The raw beauty of this place is condensed in the fresh, dry smell of the Jerusalem air. At night, you catch the scent of lavender and rosemary bushes that grow wild in many neighborhoods. In the morning, there’s whiffs of sunshine and dust. Whenever my family comes back from a trip, we immediately feel at home when Jerusalem air hits our noses.
Quiet Jerusalem streets on Shabbat.
On weekly rituals: My favorite part of the week is Friday night, which we call erev Shabbat in Hebrew. [Shabbat, observed from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, is the Jewish day of rest.] Stores close early and people hustle home, leaving the streets quiet. There’s always the smell of something good cooking in our building’s hallways. My husband makes fresh chicken soup, which we have with challah bread, salatim or salads, hummus, a sesame dip called techina and other spreads. We love picking fresh rosemary, chopping it up and mixing it with olive oil and good sea salt for dipping the bread. A siren goes off at nightfall in the city, announcing Shabbat. My kids are usually in the bath and we love to listen for it. Then, before heading off to synagogue with the older kids, I light candles and offer a short, quiet personal prayer about something I want to work on in myself or as a mom.
On giving kids space: In general, Israeli parents aren’t helicopter parents. My husband and I take measured risks in order to help our kids grow. I came home recently at 8 p.m. and saw the kind of scene that I love: my eight-year-old son Tamir and six-year-old daughter Yael were on their scooters in front of our building, with no adults in sight, playing with a friend they had just made. It’s a subtle shift to let them have those unsupervised moments. The most rewarding thing was when my son came home from his first overnight camping trip with his scout troop. His hair was slicked back with gel (some funny initiation rite) and his scalp filled with sand from the desert. He had the brightest, wildest eyes and biggest smile — clearly, he had had the time of his life — but said, ‘Imma, I missed you so much.’ That kind of independence — pushing yourself to try something new, combined with a longing to be in the nurturing cradle of home — is the Israeli recipe for happy, resilient children.
Dasee’s daughters, Yael and Shalva, playing goomey at home.
On playing: Kids are always playing outside here, and there are parks and playgrounds in every neighborhood. Goomey is all the rage at the moment. It’s a version of jumprope that involves holding an elastic around your ankles, knees or hips while your friends bounce over, under, around and through it. My kids can derive hours of entertainment from a piece of elastic that costs about $1.50. And, like in the States, kids adore their ‘corkinets,’ which is the word here for scooters.
On personal boundaries: In Jerusalem, the divisions between professional and personal are porous. If your child is sick, your boss will assume that of course you’re taking the day off. By contrast, in New York, I sometimes felt that to be taken seriously as a professional I had to hide the fact that I even had kids. And most people feel compelled to help strangers. The other day I was at the bank to get money and realized I’d left my wallet at home. That meant I wouldn’t have any cash to pay for parking or anything else. The teller’s response was, ‘Do you need some money?’ She was immediately ready to give me money from her own pocket.
Schoolchildren dancing in the Old City.
On raising children amid political strife: From an early age, kids here have some grasp on politics and war. It always amazes me, having grown up much more obliviously in the States. I sometimes wonder whether our previous family life in Long Island, New York, was too sheltered, or if we are now on the opposite path, exposing our family to topics that are too difficult for children. On Memorial Day in the U.S., for example, you might go to a parade or do some sale shopping — probably not thinking much about the root of the holiday. But here, Memorial Day is intensely personal. There’s an ongoing war — everyone knows someone who has been killed in a battle or terrorist attack. A siren goes off throughout the city for two minutes on Memorial Day, honoring fallen soldiers while children stand at attention. At age six, my eldest daughter said, ‘We aren’t allowed to smile today. It’s a sad day,’ and then nudged her four-year-old sister to stand at attention properly.
An Independence Day celebration in Jerusalem.
On difficult times: We arrived during a war time between Israel and Gaza, and it was very tough. We were trying to acclimate our kids, who didn’t yet speak Hebrew, and get settled in our new home. My girls were too young to understand what was happening, but my then-six-year-old son was in summer camp and would ask to wear his Israeli army T-shirt every day. He would say, ‘I am going to take off this T-shirt only when we win the battle.’ I tried to talk to him about what was happening in a way that was sensitive, hopeful and not too scary. Everyone has mandatory military service when they turn 18 — three years for males and two years for females — so children learn about it from the time they can talk. It’s seen as a natural step at that stage in their life. Eighteen is not so far off for my eight-year-old son, so I’m definitely hoping and praying for peace in the next decade.
The Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv.
On dating your husband: Our trick is to book ‘date days’ as much as possible — we’re often too tired for date nights. On a Friday morning, we’ll go to our favorite health food store for a buffet breakfast of fresh juice, veggies, bread and spreads. When we sit down, we lock our eyes on each other, so that all the passersby we know (Jerusalem feels like a small town) get the signal to give us some private time. A couple of times a year we’ll take a whole day off together. We drop the kids off at school and then jump in the car to Tel Aviv for the day. We love going to Neve Tzedek, an old neighborhood with beautiful narrow streets filled with cafes and shops. We’ll each hop on a Tel-O-Fun, a municipal bike, and ride around. Leon and I also have a joke about the perfect ‘two-minute vacation,’ which in the summertime amounts to floating on your back in the ocean by yourself while the other parent plays with the kids in the sand. It’s the most relaxing two minutes!
On desert camping: Family camping is a big part of the culture here, and we’ve embraced it. The awesome but somewhat strange Israeli tradition is smoking cans of tuna fish on the campfire. You take the lid off, pour out the oil, and then cover the top with a piece of toilet paper! Then, you light the paper on fire and it smokes the fish. It’s really delicious, once you remove the bits of unburned toilet paper from your meal. (Roasting marshmallows is also a big hit, although our last camping trip was during Passover. S’mores made with matza are just not the same!) We also love to visit a kibbutz, or rural community, called Ketura. It’s only a four-hour drive from our apartment, but it feels like a different world. We sleep in simple cabins and use all the open outdoor space for running and playing.
On appreciating water: Summers in Jerusalem are scorching. You spend a lot of time with water — either drinking it, submerged in it, or intensely sweating it out. Our Israeli apartment is built for heat — with stone walls and tile floors — which is a blessing in the summer. Because fresh water can be scarce in the desert, nobody complains about rain. ‘It’s a bracha!’ (a blessing), they will say. Drinking water is basically a national pastime and, as a mom, I take it to an extreme. If anything is bothering my kids (stomach aches, bloody noses, mosquito bites), my response is always, ‘Drink some water!’
On work/life balance: Israeli parents are pretty tired, like parents everywhere! Most adults work half days on Friday (and spend the afternoon preparing for Shabbat dinner) and take Saturdays off. Sunday is a work day, though — my biggest regret of moving here as an American is missing those true Sundays! But everyone in Israel takes the last two weeks in August off, as well as the weeks of the Sukkot holiday in the fall and Passover holiday in the spring. These are family times, with everyone united around the same traditions and observance.
On managing motherhood: Israeli families tend to have lots of kids — often three or more — and the culture encourages that. Excellent fertility treatments are covered by national insurance. Working mothers get income tax breaks based on the number of children they have, and mothers get up to 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, which can be shared with the father. Most families have two working parents, but the work day is shorter than in many other countries — usually 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., ending in time for school pick-ups. When we first arrived, I tried to copy the model I had in the States, which was to have a consistent afternoon sitter for my kids. But that proved out of sync with everyone else. Now, we rely more on friends to help out if Leon or I aren’t available, or we’ll hire a teenage babysitter when we go out at night.
On childbirth and breastfeeding: All my children were born in the U.S. before we moved here, but here are couple differences I’ve noticed: In Israeli hospitals, most births are run by a midwife instead of a physician. You have to make a special point to hire a private doctor for delivery if you prefer one, and it’s not covered by insurance. In the U.S., I remember pumping being a huge part of the transition back to work after childbirth, but mothers I know here seem more likely to switch to formula once their maternity leave ends.
On raising Israeli kids: We speak English to our kids at home, but, more and more, when they’re playing with each other, they speak in Hebrew. ‘English!’ I often shout, because I want them to be proficient in both languages. Sometimes, when it’s time for them to do their English homework, they resist. ‘Imma,’ my son said recently, ‘We live in Israel now. Why do we need to know how to write in English?’ Once, I pulled out the globe and said ‘Tamir, try to find Israel on the map. See? It’s really small. It’s only here that everyone speaks in Hebrew.’ I felt myself slowly deflating his Zionist dream in that moment. But, overall, it’s been amazing to see our kids become so Israeli after just three years.
Shopping in the Old City.
On staying indefinitely: My great grandparents could never have imagined that someone from their family would be living in Israel. This is the ancient homeland of our people, but we experienced 2,000 years of exile before it became the Jewish state in 1948. Without sounding too grandiose, it’s a miracle. There is something about the quality of relationships that we have with people here that really draws us in. It’s a place saturated in meaning and where life is lived so vividly. How could we leave?
Thank you so much, Dasee!
(All photos courtesy of Dasee Berkowitz, except: Dome of the Rock from Real Jerusalem Streets, the Old City wall by Sharon Zobali, Shabbat by Uri Baruch, schoolchildren dancing by Ariel Schalit/Associated Press, Independence Day via Jerusalem Post, the Neve Tzedek neighborhood from Vladale, and shopping in the cobblestone streets via Smithsonian.)