'The School Was Something of a Cult. So I Incited My Students to Rebel'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A psychotherapist lays out the advantages and disadvantages of raising kids in Italy, and an educator moving back to Israel from Pennsylvania tries to figure out what's next

Noa Epstein
Noa Epstein
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Tamar Selby.
Tamar Selby.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Noa Epstein
Noa Epstein

Tamar Selby, 74; lives in Tel Aviv, flying to Rome

Hi, what awaits you in Rome?

Weekend banner.

My two sons, Dan and Tommy, live in Italy, and also my grandsons, and I have a home there, too. I already lost out on three flights because of the coronavirus, and I swore that enough is enough, this time I was going.

Why do your sons live in Italy?

Because we moved there 30 years ago. Before that we lived in England.

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What did you do there?

I was a psychotherapist, the same as I am today. After my brother was killed, in 1973, I went to England and studied under Ronald [R.D.] Laing. He was very famous in the 1970s in the anti-psychiatry movement. The idea was psychotherapy, but by a different means.

Meaning what?

Without all the complicated diagnoses and talk about processes. A person sits opposite you and talks, and you listen and try to help him swim in this sea of life. It’s psychological treatment, but without twaddle, with more of a philosophical orientation.

Then what’s the most important thing in the treatment?

The only thing that works, according to all the studies, to my personal intuition and also to everything I know, is the relationship between the therapist and the patient.

In other words, reconstructing the relations with one of the parents?

Yes, exactly. Generally a reconstruction of the relations with the parent with whom things were difficult, to make a correction, cover up for the deprivation.

What sent you from England to Italy?

We lived in Queen’s Park in London, with the boys. But in the wake of Thatcher, suddenly our neighborhood, where Indians and Blacks and Irish lived, filled up with yuppies, all kinds of actors, journalists and directors.

Not good?

Definitely not. They trampled the working class, and I was a member of Matzpen [a socialist, anti-Zionist organization in Israel]. It didn’t suit me. I became restless, I didn’t have the strength for that middle-class life. One day I saw a want ad for an educational psychologist in the Seychelles. My husband was a clinical psychologist, so we said: Yallah, we’ll go for it – and got the job.

You moved to the Seychelles?

We dropped everything, packed and I took my leave of the patients. And then, at the last minute, the educational program was canceled. Our suitcases were all packed with summer clothes, so we said we had to travel.

Italy?

Italy. We wanted to move near Florence, to enjoy all the art, but we found ourselves in Mercatale, in central Italy, on a hillside near Perugia. We found an old house, renovated it and turned it into a wonderful home.

And the boys?

Dan was 13, Tommy was 7.

Not easy.

Don’t remind me.

Why not?

As my ex-husband used to say, “To grow up in Italy is not the direct way to Oxford and Cambridge.” And they did grow up in Italy, and for 20 years they made reggae music, the two of them, like hippies, but they don’t have a red cent to their name. But we lived wonderfully, with chickens in the yard and working the land.

But that’s not what you made a living from.

No. We found work in an American school for troubled children; we were both psychologists there. But the school later turned out to be something of a cult.

In what sense?

There were very rigid, odd laws. There were 36-hour therapy sessions, and the more the children cried, the more they were supposedly cured. My husband and I looked at that and said, “This school has to be taken apart from within.” And that is what we did.

What do you mean?

There was a kind of therapy there in the “touch-feely” style; the teacher would touch you on the head, hug, caress. The pupils needed to accept this as part of the treatment. It drove me crazy – why touch a child at your initiative? One morning I saw one of the therapists, Marvin. Sitting on him was a 14-year-old pupil, Elizabeth, wearing shorts, and he was caressing her thigh. I went up to the administration and said that things could not go on like this. Afterward I incited the pupils to rebel.

Rebellion?

The children understood that I was different from the other therapists, that I respected them. One day they called and said, “Tamar, Ron won’t let us into the tea room.” Ron was one of the therapists. I asked how many of them there were. “Eleven kids,” they said. I said, “And how many is he?” “One,” they replied. So I said, “Well?” They got it and forced their way in. That’s how things started to fall apart. A month later there was no school any more. I’m still in touch with a few of them – good kids.

Adi Poran.
Adi Poran.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Adi Poran, 35, has been living in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania; arriving from New York

Hello, what is that symbol on your bag?

I’m returning from three years of studying and living at the Camphill School, a community of people and children with special needs. It’s a village with a school in its center. There’s a live-in plan and the children are divided into houses. It’s part of a network of anthroposophic villages that engage in healing education. You learn to work with children via the anthroposophic approach. I lived with the children for three years.

What kind of children?

Children of 6 to 18 with so-called special needs – even though we all have special needs.

What are the houses you mentioned?

They are [made up of] children whose parents decided – not an easy decision – to send the child to us so that we can support him better through the surroundings we create, which is far better than what they can give him at home. Each house also has adults who live or don’t live there. I lived in a house with five children. In the first year my room was next to the living room, in the heart of the ruckus. After that I lived outside the house but spent one night a week there.

What did you do there?

I was a mother to five children with special needs. We taught them how to eat at the table, how to communicate with people – everything, 24/7. Besides that, one day a week I studied at the academy there, and I taught eurythmy in the school.

What’s eurythmy?

It’s an art of movement from within anthroposophy. I studied it in Jerusalem and I also taught it in Israel. Overall, anthroposophy is like glasses – the moment you put them on you can do everything based on that approach. So eurythmy is how to see movement through the anthroposophic approach. It goes into the depths of the origin of language and working with consonants and vowels. You can take it to the artistic side – let’s say, put on a performance with it. The Waldorf schools [which are based on the anthroposophic philosophy] have classes in it, and I use it in my work in special education.

How?

It’s part of seeing the child’s needs in order to self-fulfill and grow. It’s a way to enter your body, to feel it, experience it, find its essence.

Explain.

The children I teach often have a hard time grasping things, but through movement they can experience things instead of learning them the usual way, and that way internalize them. Most of us internalize things through reading or speaking, because that’s most immediate for us, but obviously there are many ways to communicate, and spoken language is only one of them, perhaps the most basic.

How does it work?

If someone doesn’t speak, you start digging and digging, in an attempt to get to him. It’s the same with learning. If someone is unable to learn from explanations – either his life experience doesn’t allow him to internalize things, or he lives only within himself and doesn’t find the connection to others – another way has to be found. There are many there with autism; they are like an island in the ocean. It’s hard for them to understand that they are part of a group, but movement makes that possible.

If I were enter a class of yours during a lesson, what would I see?

You might see us simply breathing in and out in a circle. Maybe you would see us doing exercises with copper rods, see us moving to music or finding someone’s rhythm. Or maybe jumping or singing songs with movement, removing the consonants from it.

Can we have an example?

I play music with segments that sound like convergence and segments that create a feeling of distancing. If I can bring them to a state in which they will all go to the center of the circle during the convergence segments and move away from one another in the distancing segments, that is very deep. That’s all you need. That way they might feel like part of the class even though nothing else gives them that sensation.

What are you going to be doing now in Israel?

I need a year of grounding, so I’ll probably go back to work and maybe also get a teaching certificate. But before all else, I’m going to Kibbutz Regba, to my parents, for a period of solitude.

You mean isolation.

Right. Actually, maybe some of both.

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