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Bedlam reigns in the Ramle kindergarten yard as the 5- and 6-year-olds await a visit by their peers from an Arab kindergarten in a distant neighborhood of the city. Their excitement is palpable as their diminutive guests finally enter the kindergarten gate, lined up one behind the other. The Jewish Bar Kokhba and Arab Danny Mas kindergartens will put on a play together, based on Ephraim Sidon's adaptation of the biblical story of Noah's Ark.

This is the children's first rehearsal of their roles as the animals that entered the ark in pair before the flood, roaring, yowling, making every sound imaginable. As they all run to take their places - children, parents, kindergarten teachers and one photographer - one girl leaves the line of children to practice her giraffe walk. On the tips of her toes, with chin in the air, she makes a futile attempt to attract her teacher's attention. But the teacher is no less worried than she would be if this were a premiere.

Little theater festival

The kindergarten rehearsal on a recent morning was the culmination of year-long activities to promote reading in Ramle kindergartens. More than 80 Jewish and Arab kindergartens in the city participated in activities that incorporated theater. The Ramle Municipal Library initiated and sponsored the project with a budget of nearly NIS 80,000.

The kindergartens recently celebrated the end of this year's activities with a theater festival in Ramle's Heichal Hatarbut cultural center. During the three-day festival, children took to the stage in front of audiences comprised of their friends, Education Ministry and municipal officials, to perform skits based on the stories and poems they read during the school year.

Some of the kindergartens incorporated social activities for Jewish and Arab children into the program. The Bar Kokhba and Danny Mas kindergartens chose the Noah's ark story because it is familiar to both Arabic and Hebrew readers. In each of these kindergartens, the teachers read the story to the children from the beginning of the year, explained difficult words and helped familiarize the children with the characters. Parents concurrently read the story to their children at bedtime in their homes.

In conjunction with the project, playwright and children's play producer Bilha Mas met weekly with children in the city's kindergartens, to transform reading into a "living process." She asked the children questions about the characters' actions, turning points in the plot, dilemmas and other issues. Mas finally rewrote the stories, integrating the children's answers to her questions and creating plays from their responses. She says that this process lends the stories new interpretation and deeper understanding, which is not achieved by superficial reading.

In the Noah story, for example, children were asked to define 'sin.' In the play, they did a fine job of illustrating their answers by cursing and fighting. In other kindergartens, which chose to focus on Haya Shenhav's eternally beloved Hebrew children's story Mitz Petel (Raspberry Juice), the children were asked why the story's hero, a mysterious rabbit who lives at the edge of the forest, fails to come out when the lion and giraffe on a quest to find him, beg him to do so. The children concluded that this is actually a story about those who are exceptional, and the play was rewritten from the perspective of an unpopular boy.

Mas was invited to work with the children by the city's chief librarian, Daniella Levkovitz. Levkovitz, who was born in Ramle and has lived there for most of her life, believes that promoting reading is vital to the progress of the city, in which many residents suffer financial and social problems. She says that dramatizing stories, mounting a festival and making use of theater as a visual tool to stimulate reading significantly broadened the circle of readers who frequent the library, and became the talk of the town.

Levkovitz does not rest on her laurels. When she was a middle school librarian in the city a few years ago, she developed a program in which children learned to write a proper bibliography and studied the international system for cataloging books. She does not believe that children should wait until university to learn how to find their way around a library. Since then, all the middle schools in Ramle have adopted the program. When Levkovitz was appointed chief librarian, she transformed the education ministry's 'Book Parade' into a municipal project (although the 'Book Parade,' which lists certain books as recommended reading for children, was criticized by some for favoring specific books.)

Levkovitz introduced a new element into the project by initiating an additional 'Book Parade' with books suitable for kindergarten children. In this context she included a list of books and stories in Arabic, chosen by librarians and kindergarten teachers. The list is dynamic, and 'elections' are conducted every year. Polling booths are posted in kindergartens, where children vote for their favorite books from those read to them during the year.

To honor the state's 60th birthday, most of the Jewish kindergartens focused on books by Miriam Yellin-Stekelis, Hamasa el Ha'I Oolai (The Journey to Maybe Island), Gingi and Perach Natati Lenurit (I Gave a Flower to Nurit). All of these were adapted by the children into plays for the festival. Gingi, the classic story of a freckle-faced redhead, earned the loudest applause.