When a Beloved Book From Your Childhood Brings Up Troubling Questions

I was thrilled when I found this book at the library in North Carolina. But after reading it, now as an adult, I discovered things that I hadn’t remembered, maybe because, at the time they were the norm ■ Post #42

Umm Forat
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Youth, wearing Black Lives Matter masks, hold a demonstration in New Jersey in memory of George Floyd.
Youth holding a demonstration in New Jersey in memory of George Floyd.Credit: ELSA / AFP
Umm Forat

I’m an Israeli-American lawyer, Jewish, married to a Palestinian resident of Ramallah, and author of the Hebrew-language book “Maqluba – Upside-Down Love,” which describes how we met and fell in love. This blog is about raising our two children, 7-year-old Forat and 3-year-old Adam, in the West Bank and more recently in the United States, where we’re spending a sabbatical year.

We are trying to lead ordinary lives in an extraordinary and unforgiving reality, one that I will share with you. I have changed people’s names to protect their privacy. My real name is Sari Bashi, and I’ve been writing this blog since 2019 under the pen name Umm Forat, which means Mother of Forat in Arabic. I invite you to visit my website: www.ummforat.com

Forat lay on her bed and lifted her eyes from the book in her hands. “Ima, why doesn’t the father know where the food in the kitchen is kept?” she asked. She was reading a book called “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” about the relationship between a nine-year-old boy and his three-year-old brother. I joined her in reading the chapter describing how the mother goes away for the weekend and leaves the boys with their father, who has no idea how to take care of them or the apartment.

“They want to show that the father doesn’t know how to take care of his children,” I told her. “As if he only goes to work.”

“But why?” Forat asked.

“Some people think that mothers should stay home with their children, and that men don’t know how to be good parents,” I told her.

“But you don’t agree, right?”

“Right.” I said, and then I added: “You know that there are people who will tell you that because you’re a girl, you’re not as good as boys or that there are things you can’t do. And they are wrong.”

I was thrilled when I found that beloved book, familiar from my childhood, in a little street library in Raleigh, North Carolina, where we have lived for the last year. After the conversation with Forat, I re-read it. The author, Judy Blume, is considered to have been a pioneer: In the 1970’s and 1980’s, she wrote frankly about children and teenagers dealing with adolescence, menstruation, their parents’ divorce and sex.

Now I discovered things in her writing that I hadn’t remembered, maybe because, at the time they were written, they were the norm for children’s literature in the United States: The characters were upper middle class and white. The mother cared for the children while the father worked in an office. The father’s work colleagues were men, except for a secretary, who was described as obsessed with her hair and makeup. In the apartment building where the family lived, there was an elevator operator who called the mother by her family name, ”Mrs. Hatcher,” while she called him by his first name, “Henry.” The mother was described as emotional, and the father was portrayed as disconnected from his family.

“We’re not like you, we don’t want to expose our children to complicated social problems,” Diana told me. She’s a white Israeli-American of Ashkenazi descent, living in the United States. “At this stage of childhood, they’re in a kind of paradise, and we’ll let them stay there for as long as possible.”

“They’re not in paradise, they’re living in an unequal world,” I said. “Your children observe, consciously or unconsciously, that most of the other kids in their private school are white, that the people who work as cleaners are primarily brown and Black women, and that most of the professors at the university where their father teaches are white. The question is what meaning they give to these facts.”

“I understand that it’s like that for your children, because of your circumstances,” Diana said. “But my children have not been exposed to things like that yet, and I want to protect them for as long as possible.”

We are a mixed family, Israeli-Palestinian, and we usually live in the Ramallah area. Diana is right that we couldn’t have avoided explaining to our kids what a checkpoint is, why their father can’t join us for an outing to the sea and why their father and mother are not allowed to drive the same car. Forat asks questions, and we answer them, because her life is directly impacted by the inequality and oppression in Israel-Palestine. We have to scramble to get permits for her father, take precautions on roads frequented by soldiers or settlers and buy two cars.

But since we moved to the United States, where we enjoy the privilege of being a “white” family, I have come to believe that it’s even more important to address the questions our children don’t ask, about the stratification that may seem less jarring to them, because in the United States, unlike in Israel-Palestine, they belong to the privileged social class.

Addressing stereotypes

Three years ago, we lived for a year in the United States and enrolled our children in a preschool in a racially diverse city. The director there relayed a story about how the teachers address stereotypes that even small children bring: A three-year old white boy saw a Black man approach the preschool and mistakenly thought he was a janitor.

In reality, the man had come to the preschool to pick up his son. The boy’s mistake was disturbing but also understandable. Children absorb what they see and hear and use it to put together a picture of our world, flawed as it is.

A week ago, I took Forat to the eye doctor. The woman who sat outside the clinic and checked our temperature was Black. The technician who checked Forat’s vision was a white woman, and the doctor was a white man. That stratification of roles according to gender and ethnic identity repeats itself in countless interactions. Small children notice who works in preschools, who drives trucks, who are their parents’ bosses and who cleans the public toilets.

Irrespective of her reality in Israel-Palestine, Forat does not live in paradise. I don’t think she’s unique in that. Few children are blind to the oppression and inequality that characterize nearly every human society. The question is whether they think that is how things should be, or whether we can help them develop the ability to think critically about that stratification and the motivation to try to change it.

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