Fifth Grade  (Banned)

Etti Hazan

© Copyright 2021 by Etti Hazan

Photo of a a little girl with a big pack.

Last fall, my daughter turned 10 and began attending the fifth grade, mask and all.

In Italy, where I grew up, fifth grade is a big deal because it marks the end of elementary school. Students who complete ‘quinta elementaretake a test to qualify for middle school. The test is not very difficult but the prospective middle schoolers develop some anxiety around it. When I was in 4th grade, my friends and I  looked up to the 5th grade kids who were preparing for the test. They seemed so much more mature, with a foot in the next chapter, which in our small school just meant a different classroom on the same floor, with many more teachers and secret middle school conversations.

Once in middle school, you are not in 6th grade but in ‘Prima Media. This is a very big deal. You upgrade from little-kid notebooks to serious binders, always trying to patch the holes in your loose papers. Your textbooks are heavy and your school bag drags you down as you carry the books home to prepare for your periodical oral interrogations in geography, art history, and so much more. 

I did not get to experience quinta with my friends though. When I was ten years old, I traveled to Israel to attend kita hey, the fifth grade,  at my uncle’s school in Ashdod, a large coastal city which at the time was still very much developing. 

My parents had moved to Rome from Brooklyn, New York in the late 1970s. They belonged to the Chabad Lubavitch sect, an orthodox Jewish group that follows the teachings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and his predecessors.  Lubavitchers typically  encourage other Jews to increase their religious observance and some of them settle in far flung places to provide spiritual and material help to Jewish communities the world over.

That is how my parents ended up in Rome as a young couple expecting their first child.

A few years later they saw the need for their children to be around other Lubavitch people, which is how some of us ended up leaving home at early ages in order to go away for school, living with other Jewish families in Milan, up north, and later in other places.

Which brings us back to Israel in the early 1990s.

I arrived in Israel soon after the gulf war.  My cousins enthusiastically showed me their gas masks, which were stored in the simple cardboard boxes they came in, and told me all about the sealed room, which happened to be the room I was going to share with my cousin. 

During the Gulf War, Israelis feared there would be gas attacks from Saddam Hussein in Iraq, therefore they were instructed to prepare a room that would be sealed with plastic sheeting and tape during missile attacks.

During the war sirens would sound when missiles were about to attack, with commentator Nachman Shay on the radio announcing “nachash… tzefa, nachash... tzefa…: (code words translated literally as ‘venomous snake’) when a scud missile was on its way to Israel. 

I had already heard the siren because my friend S. in Milan had a brother who came home from yeshiva in Israel with a tape recording of the entire thing. We’d listened to it over and over, marvelling at the short war that had occured a mere three hour flight’s distance from us.

So there I was, in a new country with a new language, a makolet (grocery store)  downstairs that charged your lechem shachor (bread) and chalav (milk in a bag) purchases to the family account, thin brown notebooks, cornflakes with Hebrew letters on the box, and thin Israeli foam mattresses. 

It was going to be an interesting year.

I spoke only rudimentary Hebrew, having picked up here and there from a passing visitor, and Israeli Hebrew studies teacher, overheard conversations. Improving my language skills turned out to be simple, thanks to the advice of my American aunt, who had arrived in Israel with my uncle at least 13 years before. 

They both spoke excellent Hebrew with strong American accents. My aunt told me to start reading the baby books and move on from there. She knew it would work because I was an avid reader, as were here children. Not only did I need the language for the school I was going to, but I was also itching to read the many impressively thick books my cousins owned, which were all in Hebrew.

My aunt’s advice yielded fruit and I was fluent in no time at all, also thanks to my lifetime experience as a multilingual child. I had grown up speaking Yiddish at home, followed by English, and had learned Italian from the many visitors who frequented our home, which was open to all members of the community.

At the time, my uncle’s school was small so the city of Ashdod provided him with some emty classrooms to use in the building of a larger school. My cousins and I walked the 10-15 minutes to school while my uncle personally drove his old and rickety formerly-yellow van around the city and brought other students there and back. 

Most of the students at the time were recent immigrants from the former USSR. Jewish immigrants had been trickling out of the Soviet Union for years, but once the iron curtain fell all bets were off and Jews traveled to Israel, the United States, Germany and a few other countries. 

Even as the latest newcomer I had it very easy compared to the Russians students, who were all going through difficult adjustments. The math we learned was dumb and easy in their eyes, but they struggled with grammar and other subjects.

One day I walked home with a girl named Lena and she confided in me about her father’s struggle to find a job that matched his actual profession and the various other difficulties her family faced on a daily basis, the discrimination and bewilderment facing immigrants the world over. She told me something I will never forget:

In Russia, we were Jews. Here, we are Russians.”

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