Israeli Children’s Books: Forming a Bridge Between Cultures?

by Charlene Klassen Endrizzi, Westminster College, New Wilmington, PA

forming a bridge between culturesI can’t wait to get back to a country where they speak English,” announced my exhausted eleven year old son, while we stood in line at El Al, the Israeli national airline, preparing to board our plane back home from Tel Aviv. This natural human desire to remain within familiar territory is an emotion I frequently experience along with Bryce. Spending days eating none of his favorite foods, navigating multiple hotels and historical sites, missing baseball tournaments… could cause angst for any pre-teen. Nonetheless his statement urges me to continue exploring the learning potential from our family vacation for years to come.

This week, I cautiously focus on unfamiliar territory that I will not understand as an outsider. Just as non-Americans do not comprehend our nation’s current turmoil with the educational testing mania or fracking dilemmas in Western Pennsylvania, I acknowledge my status as an Israeli outsider, an educator seeking to enlarge my lens on the Middle East. I do not understand the cultural mosaic comprising Israel today, that of Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze citizens, alongside Palestinians, all caught in the century old Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

Through thirty-three years of learning with elementary and college students, I witnessed the power of global children’s literature. So I will consider the bridge of understanding available through book conversations with global children’s literature for Israeli, Palestinian, actually all children.

Janet Mendolsohn, our tour guide, took me to a Hebrew Book Week outdoor bookfair. As we perused books, one text quickly evoked an emotional response. How the Shark and the Fish First Met (Kshe-ha-Karish Ve-ha-Dag Nifgeshu Le-Rishona) (Shalit, 2006) is not merely a children’s book. This parable written by an eleven year old Israeli before he became a soldier, prisoner of war, and now sports writer, offers a child’s response to the complexities facing Israelis and Palestinians. I presumed her tearful reaction reflected her heartfelt sympathy for another parent who endured a son’s five-year-long captivity.

The author, Gilad Shalit, born in northern Israeli in 1986, began his compulsory military service at the age of nineteen, like most Israelis. Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, ambushed Shalit’s army post and abducted him in June 2006. For the next five years, he remained a prisoner of war, somewhere in the Gaza Strip. Negotiations between Israeli, Egyptian, French, United States, the Red Cross, the United Nations, and Palestinian leaders broke down repeatedly. Finally on October 18, 2011 Shalit returned home in exchange for 1,027 Hamas and Palestinian prisoners. Britt, the children’s librarian in the Israel Museum’s Ruth Young Wing Illustration Library, described for me this deeply emotional time for her country. She vividly recalled how no one actually worked the day of his liberation but instead remained glued to the TV or computer, watching Gilad’s every step toward freedom.

Nine years before Shalit’s abduction, while in fifth grade he penned a fairy tale about peace. “The story is about a shark and a fish who become friends, who continue to play together despite parental pressure to remain natural enemies, and who ultimately forge peace between their two species.”  One year after Shalit was captured by Hamas, his fifth grade teacher re-discovered his story. Gilad’s parents had already launched a national campaign to keep attention focused on their son’s prisoner of war status and chose to publish his children’s story using illustrations created by 28 Israeli artists.

My initial response as a mother was one of bewilderment, as I contemplated the tumultuous life experiences of an Israeli (or Palestinian) youth that evoked this reflective tale, a longing for peace. This summer my eleven year old is worried about finding time to play baseball or watch Everybody Hates Chris videos on his iPad. What a contrast to Israeli or Palestinian pre-teens today, caught in a never-ending conflict.

Creating a Bridge of Coexistence

During five and a half years of captivity, Gilad Shalit remained in a basement cell, catching a few rays of sunlight each day. Just recently he became a sports writer for an Israeli tabloid, Yedioth Ahronoth. In his first column, he explained how his childhood sports pursuits kept him sane while confined to a cell. “I drew a lot of strength from sports activity, despite the conditions I was under there… It granted me a break from the reality I was in.” His Palestinian captors eventually allowed Shalit occasional access to a radio and TV. Shalit explained further. “We could talk about sports… It was a bridge, something similar.”  My thoughts turn to the thousands of Palestinian, Bosnian Muslim, non-Arab Sudanese (to name a few) prisoners of war and wonder about the potential bridges of compassion available to them while in captivity.

Explore Shalit’s powerful message by listening to people from five European countries read aloud his parable, complete with English subtitles. Before Shalit’s release, the Israeli Education Initiative, based in San Francisco, California, created a teacher packet of materials to help educators take full advantage of this story. One key objective is the Jewish idea of coexistence, “a state in which two or more groups live together while respecting their differences and resolving their conflicts nonviolently… Coexistence and dialogue are universal values and as such worthy of our attention as educators and of instilling their importance on our students.”

Resource materials in the I.E.I. packet offer examples of Israeli organizations actively exploring coexistence today, including one educational group of four schools in Israel. I visited one of these distinctive school in the Galilee region this June. Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel opened their first school fifteen years ago in 1997, in order to develop a model of multicultural, bilingual education where Arab and Jewish children learn as equals. The goal is to enable children to explore each other’s cultural background, experience and history while simultaneously enhancing their religious and cultural identity. A significant element of this experiment is the on-going work with children’s parents, teachers, and community. A recent book Hand in Hand – Jewish and Arab Families in Israel (Natour, Dayan, Haaasz, 2006) outlines the lives of twenty families, teachers and principals learning at the Hand in Hand schools.

These schools give hope to the country, the region, and the world, that people who have been wrenched apart by history can still find each other and try and put that history behind them in order to make history anew… The schools illustrate that reconciliation is not a simple fairy tale but an ongoing struggle to negotiate… and to translate the grand process of reconciliation into everyday mundane activity.” (Natour, Dayan & Haasz, 2006).

How can other children’s books besides Gilad Shalit’s parable become bridges that help to initiate conversations between wary groups in all classrooms?

I return to Miriam Roth, a classic Israeli children’s author, whose work I shared four weeks ago in my first blog post. Roth characterizes her vision of outstanding children’s literature and at the same time describes Shalit’s book perfectly. “Excellent literature educates… Children learn a lesson from the fate of others [Shalit] and expand their view of the world.” (Roth, 1969, p. 17) I am anxious to examine the unfamiliar territory of additional children’s books like Gilad Shalit’s in order to discover what my students and I can learn about developing our own critical bridges of understanding.

Works Cited

Natour, S., Dayan, A., Haasz, T. (2006). Hand in Hand: Jewish and Arab Families in Israel. Jerusalem, Israel: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.

Shalit, G. (2008). How the Shark and the Fish First Met. Kinneret/Zmora Bitan/Dvir.

I must thank my Israeli friends and parents Britt Lavi, Janet Mendolsohn, Yehuda Peled, Sima Shimony, Hagit Turjeman and Vered Vaknin-Nusbaum for graciously supporting my exploration of the possibilities available through conversations with global children’s books for students and families.

Please visit to browse or search our growing database of books, to read one of our two on-line journals, or to learn more about our mission.

Here is Gilad’s story:

“When the Shark and the Fish First Met”

A small and gentle fish was swimming in the middle of a peaceful ocean. All of a sudden, the fish saw a shark that wanted to devour him. 
He then began to swim very quickly, but so did the shark.

Suddenly the fish stopped and called to the shark: 
”Why do you want to devour me? We can play together!”

The shark thought and thought and said: 
”Okay- fine: Let’s play hide and seek.”

The shark and fish played all day long, until the sun went down. 
In the evening, the shark returned to his home.

His mother asked: 
“How was your day, my dear shark? How many animals did you devour today?”

The shark answered: “Today I didn’t devour any animals, but I played with an animal called FISH”.

“That fish is an animal we eat. Don’t play with it!” said the shark’s mother.

At the home of the fish, the same thing happened. “How are you, little fish? How was it today in the sea?” asked the fish’s mother.

The fish answered: “Today I played with an animal called SHARK.”

“That shark is the animal that devoured your father and your brother. Don’t play with that animal,” answered the mother.

The next day in the middle of the ocean, neither the shark nor the fish were there.

They didn’t meet for many days, weeks and even months.

Then, one day they met. Each one immediately ran back to his mother and once again they didn’t meet for days, weeks and months.

After a whole year passed, the shark went out for a nice swim and so did the fish. For a third time, they met and then the shark said: “You are my enemy, but maybe we can make peace?”
The little fish said: “Okay.”

They played secretly for days, weeks and months, until one day the shark and fish went to the fish’s mother and spoke together with her. Then they did the same thing with the shark’s mother; and from that same day the sharks and the fish live in peace.



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22 thoughts on “Israeli Children’s Books: Forming a Bridge Between Cultures?

  1. Shannon Grimm says:

    I am very shocked at how the worries of an eleven year old Israeli child differs from an American child. The book written by Gilad is so astonishing and heartbreaking to me. He just wants his parents and country to make peace and not fight anymore. An average American boy at this age is only worried about what movie he is going to watch or when he is going to play outside. If the education department at Westminster decides to finalize the trip to Israel next Spring,it will be an eye opener to me to see the daily struggles of the Israeli children.

  2. Leah Ritter says:

    When thinking about how an american child’s and Israeli child’s perspectives differ from one another it’s astonishing. But for me to use my own background to compare to Gilad’s history and even his story he wrote, would be like comparing an orange and a peach, they are two completely different things. My life to Gilad’s or many other Israeli children’s lives are two compeletely different lives that don’t have much of anything in common. My life, there wasn’t any turmoil or struggles even compare to what they face everyday. I think that it will benefit everyone, teachers and students alike, to read Israeli children’s books to start to understand what they are facing on an everyday basis. Gilad’s book is fantastic in showing that there can be peace, even when you are “supposed” to be enemies.

  3. Katie Grandy says:

    Like most others who read this, it amazes me how different the lives of two similar aged kids could be in diverse parts of the world. However, it really stuck with me how within all of the variations in culture, there was also a similarity. Sports kept Gilad going while he was a prisoner of war. Sports, also, were something that most American boys, like Bryce, use as a safe place. It shows that amongst all the war and struggle, there is a young boy that, although different in some ways, is still just a young man who underneath it all is just like all other teenage boys.

  4. Amanda Cunningham says:

    Coming from a small, middle to upper class town, I had never experienced very much diversity. Although I traveled to many different countries with my family, other childrens’ problems and worries ( such as Giliad’s) never crossed my mind. Now, as a college student, I encounter many more issues with diversity and how to include diversity studies in my own classroom one day. However, it is very rare that any professor or student brings up the Middle-East. I feel that it is important for American children to hear about other childrens’ struggles and to experience how other children, from all parts of the world, live, including the often overlooked or forgotten Israeli children.

  5. Kristin Virostek says:

    Wow. Reading this really made me take a step back. Learning about a Israeli child’s perspective opened my eyes to what they have to deal with on a day to day basis. Looking at the struggles Gilad went through compared to mine makes me appreciate everyday more. I think that exposing children and families to Israeli children’s books is beneficial to introduce and teach others about a life that is drastically different than their own. Learning something new is done by stepping out of your comfort zone so you are able to explore the world around you.

  6. Hope Schrott says:

    I loved that story. I think it is simply amazing how children depict different events and occurrences in their lives. It gives me joy to see that a mere eleven year old can see what is to happen with war when adults can not. To think that this boy, among others, are being capture as enemies to a war breaks my heart. How little are the typical worries to American eleven year old to those in Israel and other parts of the world. I think that reading different Israeli children’s books will do nothing but enlighten and teach us. I feel that it is so important to learn about other cultures. What an opportunity to learn through a child!

  7. Amanda Turi says:

    This article makes me think more in depth on how different everyone truly is. The struggles, worries, and backgrounds of the Israeli children compared to American children are unbelievable. Coexistence is a great way to break down the barrier and find those common grounds between two different views of the world. Gilad broke down those walls while in captivity and found the common ground of sports to help him stay mentally strong for those 5 1/2 years. Such a common ground as sports can bridge a relationship between cultures and that simply amazes me. People today think to closed-minded when it comes to making connections with people. Simple things such as sports con form bonds too even if you have nothing in common or are enemies.

  8. M. Hazeltine says:

    A concept that is reiterated in every education class is that we, as teachers learn from children. Gilad Shalit is not just teaching his parents and teachers, he is teaching the world. His parable, “How the Shark and the Fish First Met” is the epitome of loving one’s neighbor.

    As a personal opinion, I believe that we as adults forget how much children actually do understand about what happens in the world. Shalit was not only aware of his surroundings and the world around him, but he was motivated to write a story about how everyone can get along if they try. It corresponds to what Jonathon Kozol has said, “It is the very young whose luminous capacity for tenderness and love and transcendent sense of faith in human decency give me reason for hope”. Shalit’s story shows that children yearn for a peaceful world to grow up in, but because the world is run by adults, it has yet to happen.

    I want to believe that every child has the same understanding of humans as the understanding that Shalit had when he wrote his book. While most fifth graders will not have their stories published for the world to see, the people in the student’s lives need to appreciate and understand what these students write. If every educator (including parents) can learn from the students they teach, then the world be become a better place. Hopefully, the world will become as peaceful as Shalit’s ocean.

  9. Julia Trombetta says:

    You always hear people say “You don’t know what someone else’s life is like until you walk a day in their shoes.” I never actually realized how different my life was from the rest of the world until I traveled to several different countries. As Americans I think we are privileged in so many ways and it’s hard believe that not everyone lives like we do. It’s amazing to me that such a young boy can write a story where two characters go against their parents wishes and become friends. That kind of understanding is rare. I think that a lot of kids just go along with what their parents think and tell them to do. Not many children in the United States follow along with what is going on in the news, but it is something that Israeli children are face-to-face with everyday.

  10. Leisel Martig says:

    “Excellent literature educates… Children learn a lesson from the fate of others [Shalit] and expand their view of the world.” This is the part of this blog that really caught my attention and nicely summarizes how different our cultures differ from the rest of the world. When you put things into perspective, it makes our daily struggles seem so minor compared to Middle Eastern countries. I think sharing stories like Gilad’s in the classroom, especially younger children who tend to be egocentric, will help them gain new perpectives.

  11. Maggie George says:

    As I read this blog, I thought of what I do when I am having a bad day: I sit down, take a breath, and think to myself how bad is my situation compared to others in war-ridden areas like Gilad Shalit or who have serious illnesses. I could not imagine going through the struggles Gilad has endured and in my lifetime I most likely never will, which is where literature comes into play. Having books to bridge that gap of cultural differences is extremely important to introduce at a young age. By experiencing a story we can only begin to understand a small part of another’s culture. I feel introducing Israeli children’s books into a classroom will begin to break down possible misconceptions and misunderstandings of a culture very different than ours.

  12. Kayla Oliver says:

    I always say that one of the main reasons I love working with children is because of their innocence. Gilad’s story made me realize, not all children are blessed with an innocent and peaceful childhood. Some children have known nothing but war their entire lives, and not the war that we know in the United States. The war is actually taking place where they live. They see everything first hand, and something as violent as war takes away the innocence of these children. I feel so blessed with the childhood that I was able to have, but I do not want to be blind to what is happening in the world around me. This story makes me want to travel outside of the United States and get a feel for what some children have to go through and what that life is really like. I would love to do anything I can and help these children and families in anyway. I think everyone should get the opporunity to travel and see what life is like for some less fortunate then we were.

  13. Emily Tittiger says:

    As I read this blog, it truly opened up my eyes to the life experiences others have to endure. It amazed me how two young boys in different parts of the world could have a completely different perspective on the world in which they live. Gilad’s story is moving and clearly shows the contrast of Israeli children and children in America. To know that young children are captured due to a war is truthfully heartbreaking. By taking a look into the life of someone else, it can open up children’s perspectives and views on others. It can also act as an encouraging message and give all children hope. I believe that by reading Israeli books in the classroom, it will enlighten every child and make them more aware of the diversity that is in our society. Children’s literature is a powerful tool that can be used in the classroom to broaden children’s thinking, and understanding of the world.

  14. Kaitlyn Gida says:

    After reading this blog, it truly astonishes me the difference of life that children of varying countries may be facing. In the United States, young children are typically worried about getting picked last in gym class or who they would like to invite to their birthday party. However, Gilad was most likely worried about staying alive in a nation full of war and fighting. His story was truly amazing and shows the insights that young children may have but can often be ignored because of their age. I also commend his mother for publishing her son’s story while he was a prisoner of war. One day I hope that the world can be like Gilad’s ocean of peace.

  15. Jessica Tammaro says:

    After reading this blog, I now have a knew understanding on how your perspective of the world can be totally differenct depending on where you live. Gilad’s story gives us an inside look on what a child living in a country filled with war is actually worrying about everyday. It’s very sad to think that childern like Gilad are not just in Israel but all over the world. I’m glad his mother decided to get his book published while he was a prisoner of war because it is a true testament that his worries and stress about the war came long before he served in the military and continue throughtout his life.

  16. Emily Wiest says:

    The realization of the variations between cultures in this article was almost mind blowing. I couldn’t believe the differences in Bryce’s life vs. Gilad’s life such as Bryce having to worry about which sports team is going to win tomorrow night,or Gilad worrying about staying alive until then. After reading the article,I got a deeper look into Gilad’s life and his coping strategy, sports. Reading Israeli children’s books can help children learn to understand cultural differences, as well as, teach them to be thankful for what they have. After reading Gilad’s story to the classroom, it might be a neat idea to do a service learning project that helps children who grow up in a war zone (even as simple as writing them cards/letters).

  17. Kristina Tissue says:

    After reading this article, I was stunned. It is mind blowing to know two young boys in different parts of the world have completely different lives. Gilad’s story of being captured due to war shows that he had to live a life of worry and wonder what was going to happen next. His worries are so much bigger than a young boy in the United States who worries about which sports team to root for or what pair of stylish tennis shoes to purchase next. This blog makes me very sensitive to the fact that each student will come from a completely different background and they will each have their own unique story to share. Some stories will be sad and share many great life lessons. Some stories might not be as interesting, but will still offer valuable information to the rest of us.

  18. Amanda Marlow says:

    It amazes me how two kids can lead two such very different lifestyles.The daily struggles of our lives in the United States compared to their lives, seems to have a very slim comparison. Gilads story of being captured for 5 years in the middle of a war, then having the whole country watch as he stepped towards his freedom again; amazing. Reading this blog you open your eyes and realize there is so much out there in the world then what we experience everyday.

  19. Lauren McClinton says:

    Before reading this post, I really did not know anything about the Israeli culture. I am truly amazed at how different the life of an 11 year old in Israel is from an 11 year old in American. I cannot even begin to imagine the kind of fear that they live with on a daily basis. It definitely reminds me that all children come from a diverse background. Gilad’s story is absolutely phenomenal. I am glad his parents decided to publish it while he was still captured. Even when he was a child, he was still able to recognize the need for peace and understanding. This example shows just how insightful children can be.

  20. Lacey Pickens says:

    It’s impossible for me to even try to wrap my mind around how it would feel like to be abducted and kept as a prisoner; I can only think that this is how I might feel. I might feel terrified, mad, and upset because I wouldn’t know if I would be killed or if I would be kept alive or how they would use me and when they might let me go. When I think about these things such as abduction of someone’s child, I try to imagine as if it was my younger sister being abducted and I ask myself many questions such as how would I feel, what would I do, could I find her and save her, and am I that brave? These are hard questions to ask yourself because then you are putting yourself in danger as well as the other persons. To think of it as my sister getting abducted points me in the right direction to try to put myself in someone else’s shoes.
    I enjoyed reading Gilad Shalit’s story because children face all sorts of people and some parents drill their child on who to play with and how they feel about other people that may not look like them or have the same morals as them. I think that if the child is brave enough to say let’s just make peace and play anyway and defy their parents like the fish and shark did in the book, then they are gaining so much more than the parents who hold back from knowing people because they judge them too quickly. This just goes to show that my students will always be smarter than me because I can be very stuck in my ways of doing things and my students are much more adaptable than I will ever be.

  21. Melissa Blose says:

    In the past, I have never really explored the life of an Israeli child. After I read this article, my heart broke for Gilad. I could not imagine being eleven years old and having to face the struggles that he had to. As teachers, we grow from our students. They are able to learn from us, and we can learn from them. It is sad that an eleven year old has to deal with wanting peace instead of just living his life like a typical eleven year old in the United States. His book really got me to open my eyes and reconsider how important it is for students to learn about other cultures. Our childhoods are not even merely close to what Gilad had to go through. This can get students to be thankful for what they have, and to get them to realization that not every child in the world has similar experiences. This article allowed me to discover how perceptive children can be, and I would like to share Gilad’s story in my own classroom someday.

  22. Jordan McGee says:

    After reading this post I was speechless. I always realized that Americans were for the most part very privileged people, and different from most of the world but I never realized how different these two worlds really are. Most Americans complain about the things they lack, most of them being material things. I feel that we take for granted though how good are lives really are compared to those of others. I feel that if more people were taken out of our comfort zones, and opened up to a different world, our world may be a better place. Gilad’s story made me rethink my life and evaluate everything I take for granted. I feel if more people read things like this it would open their eyes as well. I loved the story that he wrote about the shark and the fish. I feel that it would be a great bonus to a class, and you could use it to help children to recognize their differences and put them aside and become friends. This story just truly shows how insightful children can be, and how much more they may know than adults give them credit for.

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