Friday, November 16, 2007

Please don't bring the children

Some time ago, a person with whom I had once worked invited a group of news professionals to his home in Tel Aviv. He wanted to tell us about his research for a book he was writing.

He told us he was not seeking publicity. Rather, he explained, his aim in telling a bunch of colleagues about his book-in-progress was to put himself under pressure to finish it. With other people knowing about the book, he said, he would be embarrassed to leave it unfinished.

Not long after that, he was found dead.

Nothing suggested foul play. It was a natural death, people said. I found the sequence of events spooky in any case and continue to think about it. If there is such a thing as a curse on writers who blab about work which they haven't completed, this could be one form which the visitation would take.

That is prologue to the following confession: For years, I have failed to finish writing a children's story titled, "Please Don't Bring the Children."

The idea for this story came to me after someone I know in Israel received an invitation to a wedding in the United States, accompanied by a telephoned clarification: "Please don't bring the children."

This was an understandable request, according to a coworker. He and his young family had recently come back to Israel after a few years in the states, where he discovered much different attitudes toward children. Israelis in the United States tended to show up at social events with little children in tow, he said, while the local folk practiced segregation between children and grownups. It was only natural that someone inviting Israelis to an event might fear that the whole family would arrive, little kids and all.

What brings this to mind is an experience last night in a small Tel Aviv restaurant. Three of us entered and sat at a table for six. A server came over immediately and asked us to move to a table for four. I told her we were waiting for someone to join us, and there might be more than one person.

Her response was less than gracious. Instead of the-customer-is-always-right, she argued that if we took the smaller table we could still pull up an extra chair if needed.

Just then our fourth grownup arrived with her year-old baby in a stroller. It didn't take long before the restaurant staff were coming around to admire the baby. In a few minutes the baby was standing on the tabletop, smiling and doing a little dance. Our server, no longer grumpy, invited us to move to a bigger table. The baby continued to attract attention from the staff during the meal.

If you want to see an Israeli melt, bring a baby or small child along. It's acceptable here to show unabashed affection for little kids. Children sense that they are welcome to be seen and heard. The others at our table last night could testify to this Israeli trait. They had just arrived from New York after a sleepover in London, two cities where restaurants don't exactly welcome customers who let their babies dance on tabletops.

This reminder of the contrasting attitudes toward children encourages me to take another crack at rewriting "Please Don't Bring the Children." The first draft didn't work. A second version took a different direction, also unsatisfactory. Some day I'll probably try again to finish it. Meanwhile I hope that this post does not bring a curse down on anyone's head.

--Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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