The Hayarden school in Tel Aviv's Hatikva quarter looks on the surface like any other elementary school in Israel. This week there was an explanation posted in a classroom about the Fast of Esther next to the official state symbol, the seven-branched candelabrum, and a picture of the founder of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl.
The children in one first-grade class are sitting around a table in silence, intently eating their sandwiches. The calm is broken, however, when I ask what they will be dressing up as for Purim. The boys are going to be Ninja Turtles (one boy, of African descent, says he even has a sword ) and Power Rangers, while the girls for the most part are celebrating the holiday more traditionally as Queen Esther. In a class of older children, however, a girl whose family is from the Philippines announces that she is going to be a sexy policewoman.
The best laid plans for Purim, as described in a flier sent to parents, went awry at the school, however, because the parents didn't understand what was written on the flier. "It's hard to explain it to the parents," says one teacher. "Ninety percent of the students here are children of foreign workers and refugees."
With Purim songs playing in the background, I ask a little boy names Jinosa where his parents are from. At first he claims he doesn't know, but when the teacher gives him a prompt, asking whether it's Nigeria or Ghana, he mumbles that it's Nigeria. His classmates aren't so eager to volunteer where their families are from either.
"We have gone crazy over Purim. Every day is a party," grumbles one teacher, "but it's their only chance to be happy. We have given them the state elementary curriculum [for the holiday]. The experience, but not necessarily the Jewish part."
It turns out, however, that these kids are living the story of the Book of Esther, of the attempt to escape a decree based on race. When I ask little Jermain about the story of Purim, he sums it up thus: "Ahasuerus said he would kill the Jews and Haman turned into hamantaschen."
"Mordechai," he adds, "was the nicest. I love him."
"Do you want to be Mordechai when you grow up?" I ask him.
"No, I want to be the prime minister. Actually, no, I want to be Obama, because he's from America. He can help people in trouble." he answers.
A classmate of Jermain's interjects: "I want to be Mis'hak Rabin." Turns out she meant Yitzhak Rabin.
The children's excitement over the distribution of mishlohei manot, Purim holiday baskets, knows no bounds. When their teacher pulls out packages of cheetos and Israeli bamba peanut snacks, cheers go up for every item, as if they were each pure gold. "And here is a snack that begins with the Hebrew letter 'bet,'" says the teacher. "Bisli," everyone yells.
A college student volunteer tells me she gets so many hugs from the children that it is hard to walk. And then she whispers what no one else at the school actually says: "Just as long as they're not deported."
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