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Monday, December 06, 2004

Kitbag Questions

The other day we packed all the kids into the car and set out for the Malcha Mall in Jerusalem.

Zahava had a long list of things we needed to find, but one of our primary missions was to buy a pair of gym shoes for our daughter Ariella.

We went to an incredible number of shoe and sporting goods stores in search of something that would be both comfortable and functional. She tried on all the high-tech running/cross training shoes (all of which seemed to employ NASA-level engineering and materials), but she has a very narrow foot (like her mother) and none of the stores seemed to stock narrow sizes in the ‘more expensive than gold’ category of sneakers.  Maybe a lifetime of wearing sandals tends to widen the foot somewhat.

This left us to ponder the old fashioned flat-bottomed, canvas sided, high-top sneaker of my youth; Converse All-Stars. Sure, some kids in the 60s wore Keds and PF Flyers… but all the really cool kids wore Converse. I seem to also remember that the girls used to write on each other’s canvas sneakers (feel free to set me straight on that point).

Anyway, in the end she settled on a pair of purple high top canvas Converse All-Stars. Ariella was delighted with the selection (purple being her favorite color) and the style looked adorable on her. 

But, when we got home Ariella began worrying that her gym teacher (who is very strict) might not allow her to wear her new sneakers for gym since they looked so different from the typical modern sneakers. She informed me that he routinely yelled at kids with inappropriate footwear and made them take gym class bare-foot!

I assured her that these sneakers were perfectly appropriate for gym class. I patiently explained that generations of grade school, college and even NBA athletes had played in these sneakers, and that if her gym teacher took issue with her new footwear I would have a talk with him. This seemed to settle things for her and she skipped away, happy as a clam (I constantly wonder about the origin of that expression), in her new purple sneakers.

However, within a few minutes she was back with a statement which indicated to me that perhaps her integration into Israeli society isn’t quite complete: She said, “Since I have gym class tomorrow, maybe I should show the teacher my new sneakers today and ask him if they are OK.”

Up until this moment I’d assumed that the kids were much more ‘Israeli’ than either Zahava or myself. They spoke the language with unaccented ease… they effortlessly navigated the clerical nightmare of the Israeli schoolday… they even blended perfectly into their youth groups. But this statement revealed a remnant of Ariella’s American upbringing that was sure to mark her as an outsider.

There’s an old joke making the rounds that has been attributed to the late Henny Youngman:

A Jewish man pulls up to the curb and asks a policeman “Can I park here?”
No” says the cop.
So the man asks “What about all these other cars?”
To which the policeman answers “They didn’t ask!”

I have no idea if Henny Youngman ever uttered this bit of humor, but the joke offers a deep look into that most Israeli of concepts; ‘The Kitbag Question’.

It seems that during army basic training soldiers are asked to do a fair bit of walking. Long marches up mountains and through valleys are the preferred method of gaining and holding a young soldiers attention… and as the training progresses, the distances and pack loads are steadily increased.

While the forced marches are often used as punishment for real or imagined transgressions, the unspoken truth is that they provide the best sort of conditioning available, and force untested soldiers to constantly redefine their self-imposed limits of endurance.

Within this framework of nearly endless marching in every sort of heat and inclement weather comes the inevitable simpleton who, when informed that the unit is about to embark on a particularly grueling trek, raises his hand and asks the commander, “Are we going to march with or without our kitbags (the pack that holds all the soldiers gear)?

A stunned silence usually follows, followed by the commander smiling cruelly and barking, “Yes, 20 kilometers WITH kitbags.”

The fate reserved for bright young soldiers who ask such silly questions is not even worth contemplating here.

Since the overwhelming majority of Israelis share the common experience of military service, an aversion to asking ‘kitbag questions’ seems to carry over into most other areas of their lives… and even becomes a basic lesson they teach to their children. The Henny Youngman joke perfectly illustrates this mentality.

As I explained all this to Ariella, a little lightbulb seemed to come on over her head.

Both our big kids have frequently complained of feeling frustrated at the way some of their classmates do things without asking… and get away with breaking rules. As much as I am ashamed to have taught my child this lesson… I gently explained to her that it is often easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.

I made it clear that this didn’t give her license to disregard rules willy nilly… especially rules that involve safety, discipline or manners. But it did give her more latitude to observe what other kids are doing and, within reason, become more assertive.

I hope I haven’t just opened a Pandora’s box!


Posted by David Bogner on December 6, 2004 | Permalink


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Ahhh, Converse. As we speak my feet are snugly encased in a pair of dark blue All Star. Cheap, cheerful, and very, very COOL...

Posted by: ashley | Dec 6, 2004 12:15:22 PM

...just hopefully your daughter won't take the (probable) yelling to her heart (like all Israeli children - they're immune). On the other side, childrens' bones are still growing and "soft", so that is maybe a reason why the teacher pays attention to good foot gear that stabilizes the foot and comes with a proper "bedding". Sneakers just don't do/have either of it.

Posted by: mademoiselle a. | Dec 6, 2004 12:48:07 PM

Ashley... I can't tell you how many times I've been tempted to buy myself a pair, if for no other reason than to recapture a comfortable reminder of my youth. You may have just inspired me to take the plunge.

Mademoiselle... My understanding is that the gym teacher objects to kids wearing boots and other hard shoes, partly because they are not always safe for playing sports... and partly because they tend to scuff and mark the gymnasium floor.

Trust me when I say that generations of kids spent their childhoods playing all sorts of sports in canvas Converse 'All Stars' with nary a fallen arch.

Posted by: David | Dec 6, 2004 1:45:13 PM

When I was a kid in Malden, MA, we had our twice yearly pilgrimage to the Converse factory store for our sneakers and (occassionally) rain gear. Buying Miss Ari her spiffy purple high tops made me simultaneously yearn for the pungent smell of the rubber soles filling the endless supply of sneaker bins and my favorite pair of sneakers EVER: purple low-tops with a spice drop motif which (at the time) seemed so realistic that I fancied plucking them off the canvas and savoring their spicy-sweet confection.

As for that Pandora's Box you're now worried you've opened, THANKS for that! Cause what we really need are our kids saying, "But Abba said it is easier to apologize than get permission" with eager upturned faces.... For THEM it might be.......

Posted by: zahava | Dec 6, 2004 2:52:27 PM

I hope her first Converse school day goes without incident.

"Happy as a clam" originates from the fact that the line between the upper shell and the lower shell looks like the clam has a smile that goes all the way around. (|)

Would only a Jew who grew up not keeping kosher know that? I don't think so, but there it is. :)

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Dec 6, 2004 4:34:56 PM

Ha Ha!~
Wait until your kids reach their teens...the theme song for that age is "It's a lot easier to get Forgiveness than Permission!" You just gave her a head start...
And I can guarantee the youngers ones will pick it up even more quickly. Happy parenting!

Posted by: carol | Dec 6, 2004 5:10:04 PM

I am going to call my eema and tell her that the reason I never listened was that I have always been an Israeli. For that matter I need to tell my wife as well. Finally an answer to the question that has plagued me.

I think that I'll blog about this topic.

But in regard to Converse high tops, I always liked them but they never felt right to me so I never owned any.

Posted by: Jack | Dec 6, 2004 5:39:49 PM

Carol stole my line! I told my kids "It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission."

Speaking of Converse All-Stars, I just got my hands on a very hard-to-find pair of the new LEATHER All-Stars. Very cool stuff indeed!

Posted by: Jim | Dec 6, 2004 6:42:49 PM

Zahava... No need to thank me... I'm a giver.

Doctor Bean... ahaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! As to the whole kosher blind spot, I grew up eating everything under the sun so you think I'd have known that.

Carol... They may rebel as teenagers, but I want them to get through elementary school without a big bullseye painted on their back! The last thing I want is for them to constantly feel like 'Friers' (suckers) for not knowing how the system works.

Jack... glad I could help you get in touch with your inner Israeli. :-)

Jim... Doesn't leather kinda defeat the purpose? The canvas is so light and breathable.

Posted by: David | Dec 6, 2004 7:38:09 PM

Ahh, high top Converse All Stars. It's all Zoe will wear. The black ones I reluctantly got her in September finally fell apart and were replaced with some spanky red ones and another pair of black ones (because I reluctantly admit she looks adorable in them). Alas, what she really wanted were the ones with the flames on them, but they did not have them in her size.

When she was a baby (pre 2 years old) and I could dress her as I pleased, she had a pair of hot pink ones, and a pair of floral print ones.

And the forgivness rather than permssion thing: words to live by!


Posted by: beth | Dec 6, 2004 9:55:19 PM

correct me if I am wrong.. but didn't our fearless leader run track "BAREFOOT!".


p.s.- I will soon be re-instituting my medication regimen so-as not to admit knowing these arcane facts about Senor Treppenwitz...

Posted by: shabtai | Dec 7, 2004 12:57:42 AM

I couldn't afford cons I ad keds.
I would think that asking permission first was alot easier that taking a whole lot of heat before you got to ask forgiveness

Posted by: dave | Dec 7, 2004 2:20:01 AM

Beth... Glad to see your raising her right.

Shabtai... Extra points if you can send me a picture of myself running the bases barefoot in the big softball game at Camp Sternberg!

Dave... If you still think asking permission is easier then you missed the point of the post. Kids here learn early that the answer is only no if you actually ask the question. :-)

Posted by: David | Dec 7, 2004 9:37:37 AM

Oh. I forgot! A very happy Hanuka to you and yours. (also from Mrs. Bean who is a frequent reader)

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Dec 8, 2004 2:38:43 AM

In yiddish- "a shaile is treif"

Posted by: Shmiel | Dec 9, 2004 5:01:18 AM

Doctor Bean... And CHag Urim Sameach to you and yours as well.

Shmiel... That much yiddish I understand! :-)

Posted by: David | Dec 9, 2004 3:02:57 PM

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