One of my early childhood memories is of the coffee table in the living room. I’m running around it and my mother is chasing me, with a belt in her hand. She is trying to catch me, unsuccessfully. Round and round I go. I don’t recall my crime, only the sentence. She raises the belt, and I hold onto the edges of the coffee table and manage to evade her.
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It’s a brown leather belt from the 1970s with a large, shiny silver buckle, and it belongs to my father. Like the belt that John Travolta wore in the opening scene of “Saturday Night Fever.” I can hear the sound of the belt piercing the air like a whip. She misses me by a few millimeters.
My mother continues to chase me. I flee with tiny running steps. Finally she reaches out and manages to catch me. She sits me on the sofa and whips my behind with the belt. I laugh and she whips. I laugh and she whips. I’m 3 or 4 years old. “Bad boy. You’re a bad boy,” she scolds me, and I laugh and cry.
It’s not a traumatic memory. I can’t be angry with my mother. Not really. I’m crazy about her. I don’t feel a need to settle accounts with her for things that happened more than 30 years ago.
If I wanted to dig deeper, I would go into psychoanalysis and ask the therapist to indict my mother for crimes against humanity. Children blame their parents for all their problems, so that later they can ask them for money in compensation. A fine to atone for guilt feelings. There are thousands of parents in Israel who pay monthly reparations to their kids, as though they were Holocaust survivors, only because the children have turned their memories into ugly scars. That emphasizes the distance I have come. The time that has passed. And the basic difference between me and my parents? I don’t wear pants with a John Travolta belt.
Over the weekend, I went to my parents’ home to celebrate my mother’s 70th birthday. From the moment my son entered the door he started running wild and making a mess. He opened the closet drawers, jumped on the sofa, chewed on the TV remote, threw grapes on the floor and almost broke some dishes.
That was the last straw. If there’s anything that’s off-limits, it’s touching the good dishes, made of porcelain and bearing hand-painted pictures, which Russian families brought with them when they immigrated to Israel in the late 1970s. “I’ll give you a potch on your butt,” my mother warned my out-of-control son, and in response he pulled off her glasses and fled to the living room. “Bad boy, come here,” she said, trying to catch him. “I’ll give you a potch on your butt.”
Just to make it clear: A potch on the butt is a combination of a resounding slap, a punch and a friendly cuff on the back. That’s how they used to educate kids. A child has to be an obedient soldier in the family army, and in the army as in the army – the orders don’t always do the trick. So you have to exercise moderate physical pressure, until the child’s spirit takes shape according to his parents’ requirements. The child is an instrument. He’s not a free and autonomic soul. Freedom is not a goal. It comes later. You have to earn it. Like a bird flying out of the cage for the first time.
After several such rounds, during which my son fled from my mother, and my father joined her in a chase around the coffee table, they became tired and lay on the sofa, red-faced and perspiring. My son celebrated his victory with a ninja jump from the armchair onto the rug.
“Why does he move around so much?” asked my father.
“Because he’s a child,” I explained. “I think that’s what they do.”
“I don’t remember you behaving like that,” replied my father.
“Because you beat me with a belt,” I told him.
“That’s why you’re a good boy,” he replied.
Afterward, he asked me to bring him a glass of water and an aspirin, and said, “I’m too old for grandchildren. It’s hard for me. Why didn’t you marry and have children at the age of 25?”
“I had more important things to do,” I replied.
“I’m tired,” said my father. “I don’t have the strength to run after little children.”
And my mother sighed and tried to take an empty box out of my son’s hands, after he had smeared his whole face with cottage cheese. She didn’t give him a potch on his butt.
By Saturday night, after two days of running around, my parents were totally worn out. Their clean and orderly home looked as though it had been hit by a tornado. My father dropped us at the train station.
“I feel as though I’ve been released from a work camp in Siberia,” he said before we got out of the car, “it will take me time to recover.” My father was in Siberia. He knows whereof he speaks.
A while ago we sent my son for two days to my partner’s mother. After he returned home, she said that she felt like she’d been released from prison. It turns out that our “little one” is a combination of a commander in the Gulag and a cruel prison warden. Spending time with him is a combination of torture and forced labor.
“We’ll talk on Skype or FaceTime,” said my father. “We need a break from him.”
Grandfathers and grandmothers don’t feel a need to pretend. That’s what differentiates them from us, the parents. They don’t lie and they don’t play games. They’re no longer at the age when they have to fake an orgasm and to pretend that everything is fine. If they’re suffering – they’re suffering. They aren’t addicted to a foolish idyll.
We returned to Tel Aviv, the city where children don’t get a potch on their butt. The city where you’re not allowed to make a child feel that he’s less than perfect, beautiful, brilliant and the best in the world, and never boring. What am I talking about? A child can’t be boring. He’s fascinating and amazing and terrific and every moment with him is a gift, and it’s a miracle and it’s the most amazing thing in the world.
And of course, “there are no bad children,” as someone told us, “because all children are good,” and you mustn’t say not-nice things when they’re around. They understand everything and you mustn’t insult them, God forbid, because otherwise they’ll cry and we don’t want them to cry, because then they’ll be sad and we can’t let them be sad.
Because a child is holy. He’s exalted. He’s a little Buddha. He gives you a sense of value and mission. You don’t raise him. You worship him. As though he were God. Secular people are looking for something to believe in. The child is the new god. We’re all believers in the religion of children.
Sometimes I think that many of the issues and problems facing young people, the place of children in their lives and the relations between them, could be solved with a potch on the butt. But I’ll never dare to say so out loud.