When We Were Once 'Free to Be You and Me' - in Israel

How much promise there was in the new feminist world imagined by Marlo Thomas and friends, and how much disappointment since. No wonder it reminded me of Israel.

My partner and his family left New York and emigrated to Israel in 1973, a year after the album "Free to Be You and Me" was released. The record came with them. In 1974 the album was turned into a star-heavy television special gaining thousands of reruns and a mythological status in the childhood of anyone growing up in the U.S. in the 70s and 80s.

Like most other Israelis, I was completely unaware of the phenomenon until last week. My husband's parents, visiting us in New York, noticed a newspaper advertisement for a special screening of the TV special to celebrate the show's 40th anniversary. My mother-in-law was really excited: I was too, and I thought it would be nice to dip into a little sweet childhood nostalgia. There was no way I could have guessed the emotional shock that was in store for me.

Dozens of families had come to the theater, in the heart of Midtown. In the darkness I looked at the audience. There were grandmothers and grandfathers, for whom the show was a time-machine trip back to their days as young parents. With them were their children, holding their contributions to the next generation on their laps. The theater suddenly seemed compressed, as if the passing time had turned into something tangible and solid. Sweet as the fading smell of childhood foods, bitter as the wrinkles on a betraying, aging body. The first song, sung by Roberta Flack and a young, not-yet-off-the-wall Michael Jackson, only intensified this feeling.

Just from hearing the name, I assumed that "Free to Be" was a kind of Israeli version of "Hakeves Hashisha Asar" ("The Sixteenth Sheep"), songs and recitatives written by Yehonatan Geffen in the mid-70s (and probably inspired by "Free to Be"). Those songs have become Israeli classics, and pioneered the idea that instead of needing to preach state-building or trying to teach them manners, Hebrew children's songs could simply speak to children in their own language and enabled them to express even their darker feelings, such as jealousy or anxiety. That's what I expected before the screening. An hour of gentle caressing for a child's tender soul, spiced with a pinch of tolerance of those who are different and a handful of self-compassion.

So I was very surprised to find, just a few minutes after the house lights were dimmed, a clear feminist manifesto roiling the screen that preached against gender stereotypes and for a woman's right to pursue her career ambitions, confronting the Cinderella myth that prepares girls their entire lives for a "happily ever after wedding" and a lifetime of brushing with Crest toothpaste, one of the show's sponsors.

The captive audience sang along with the choruses of each song, the children were won over by the zany humor of Mel Brooks and I attempted to dissolve the lump in my throat before the tears welled up. In my head I kept hearing the reason for the gathering: The 40th anniversary of the show. Forty years, an entire generation, maybe even two, since the actor and producer Marlo Thomas and her friends at Ms. Magazine who were behind the project, recognized that the real meaning of a "grassroots revolution" was connected to the height and the age of the rebels.

How much winsome optimism there was back then, between 1972 and 1974. How much hope for a better world, for the idea that if we just sing a few songs and tell a few stories we'll have a new generation of sensitive men who know that it's okay for them to cry, of women who know no one will be counting how many eggs they still have left if they decide to conquer the world before raising a family, of parents who allow their children to follow their hearts irrespective of gender and of fathers with a deep concern for their children's dental hygiene. And that's even before the radical message of "Ladies First," about a "girly girl" who pays with her life for insisting on being a "little lady," with all the imagined privileges that entails. You want to be a lady and you want to be first? Be my guest. There's a price to pay. It's a message that more than a few of today's feminists would need a glass of water in order to swallow.

Perhaps on another day I would have settled for being happy that my children were watching this and getting a little injection of pure feminism. But at the time, all I could think about was how much time had passed and how we really hadn't come such a long way. Forty years and we're still here, with the gap in wages between men and women, with women's Sisyphean triangulation of home, kids and work, with men who instead of picking up the gauntlet tossed to them by feminism put in another two hours of overtime at work. With images of women's bodies overwhelming our public spaces. Not to mention the special challenges faced by Jewish women, such as men who refuse to give their wives a divorce decree and the issue of women's role in religious practice.

How much potential there was in that 1974 feminism. How much promise, and how much disappointment. I recognize the sour taste of having missed out, and I can't remember where it came from.

At the end of the screening we find ourselves outside. The kids are already whining about lunch. We make our way to the nearest subway station when I suddenly manage to put my finger on my mood. It's the same wave of longing mixed with bitterness that takes hold of me every time I glimpse the early days of Zionism or of the State of Israel. Of that great excitement, the certainty that this is a historic moment, of that creative drive focused on building and on creating a just society. And then the clock strikes midnight, and I return to reality. With Bibi, the Hebron settlers and the shocking statistics on violence against women.

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York a year ago.

AFP
Ilan Assayag