Thursday, December 27, 2012

Playgrounds and Highway Hazards: The Up and Down Sides of Risk in Israel

We spent much of our first day here in Tel Aviv walking on the promenade that runs along the course of the beachfront from Tel Aviv to Jaffa.  It's a fantastic hike with children, because there are playgrounds strategically stationed all along the way.  As a result, you don't get anywhere too fast (at least not with Jonah, who LOVES to climb) but you enjoy the journey a great deal.  And on a gorgeous winter day, 70 degrees and bright sunshine, it's really all about enjoying the journey.

Israeli playgrounds are terrific--much more entertaining to the kids than their American counterparts (again, this is Jonah's  first-hand endorsement rather than my alter kocker's pontification).  There is, I think, a reason for this: Israel is a much more risk-tolerant society than America.  At home, playgrounds are, above all, safe.  This is essential, because Americans are litigious.  If a kid gets hurt on the monkey bars, there is a good chance that the parents will sue someone.  So. . . we take away the monkey bars.  Americans believe in the myth of absolute, perfect safety.  This is, of course, a delusion.  Life is messy and there are no guarantees.  But we do, mostly, mange to make things very, very safe--at the cost of simultaneously decreasing our tolerance for risk and diminishing our (or our children's) pleasure.

Israelis are, by virtue of where they live, immune to this myth of perfect safety.  They dwell in a very dangerous neighborhood.  They know that one can not litigate away all threats and dangers.  So their kids get playgrounds that are really, really fun.  That means you can spin on wildly turning metal platforms, hang upside down high off the ground, climb without safety nets.  American parents find it nerve-wrecking.  But the kids love it.  And it is, I think, pretty true to life.

That said, there is a downside to Israel's tolerance for, or even propensity toward, risk-taking.  You see it the minute you get behind the wheel of an Israeli vehicle.  To put it succinctly, most Israelis drive like maniacs.  They use their horns instead of their brakes, and pay little attention to lanes.  They are extremely impatient.  Hoards of motorcyclists weave through traffic as if they believed they were immortal.  Israeli drivers tend to take crazy risks--and in doing so, endanger everyone on the road.   Many more people here die  from traffic accidents than wars and terrorist bombings, and from the moment that you get behind the wheel of an Israeli vehicle, it is not hard to see why. People drive as if there is no tomorrow--perhaps because in their existential reality there is a very real possibility that there will not be a tomorrow.

We Americans live in a huge, powerful, and secure nation in a very safe neighborhood.   The sense of safety and security that this engenders infuses everything that we do.  Israelis live with lots of risk--which turns them into gamblers in many aspects of life.

Risk and safety both have their pros and cons.

I'll take the Israeli playgrounds any day.  But God help me when I get behind the wheel here.

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