Nostalgia Sunday – Back to school supplies
Shalom kita aleph! Tomorrow is the first day of school. The August date marks a break with a long-standing custom of school starting in September. Traditionally, school in Israel used to start on September 1st and run through June 30th, leaving a meager two months for summer vacation. But that was long ago and much has changed in the educational system since then.
One tradition that remains is shopping for school supplies and it is quite surprising to discover that a few relics from the old days are still in use. Most still hold their charm, except, of course, for Israeli cello-tape, which is still as annoying as it ever was.
As American children suddenly thrust into the Israeli school system, my sisters and I were forced to purchase and use strange and foreign writing implements. Even stranger was the fact that our schoolmates seemed to find these instruments normal. Pencils sans erasers, for example. But this drawback was offset by the amazing pliable gum eraser that combined the wondrous properties of Silly Putty with a practical application: rubbing out mistakes and getting the paper clean.
The paper! In America there was only one kind of paper with lines. In Israel, there was the kind with regularly spaced lines but there was also lined paper for Hebrew writing and graph paper for doing math. The latter was also excellent for doodling and figuring out embroidery patterns during classes.
So many strange customs… like being required to wrap your school books in paper. Having to carry a little tin pencil sharpener instead of the school providing a nice sturdy Chicago sharpener, solidly affixed to the wall in the front of the class for all to use.
And the cellophane tape! Why no tape dispenser? Indeed, almost 40 years later, I am still asking the same question: why just the tape? How many hours and fingernails have I — and everyone else in the country — wasted on picking away forlornly at a roll of cello-tape, just trying to get it going? And cutting it is even worse. Teeth won’t tear it. Use scissors, it snaps back and you lose the end… and you’re back to square one, picking in vain at the roll.
There were some pluses to buying school supplies in Israel, mainly because it introduced us to German stationery products, which are the best in the world, (as everyone who wasn’t boycotting German-made goods apparently knew). Aside from the aforementioned wondrous gum eraser, their magic markers — Israelis call them lordim, which I can only assume is after some brand name like Lord’s although I could not find any evidence to back this up — were top of the line. It kind of made up for the crayon situation.
As children who had grown up with 101 Crayola crayon colors — Sea Green! Magenta! Periwinkle! — Israeli crayons were contemptible. The box may have said “pastels” but you couldn’t fool us. These were sticks of wax with a bit of dye thrown in. They broke in half and then in quarters. The best and probably kindest thing you could do with them was drip-melt them onto a bottle (this was a big fashion in the 70s, kids).
And yet, I was heartened to find that some stores still stock Astra brand crayons in their flat blue and white box with its trademark globe. Heartened not only for sentimental reasons but also out of local patriotism because there are very few locally made school supplies left on the market; Israel, like everywhere else in the West, has outsourced stationery production to China.
The latest victim of the trend was Dafron, a lone holdout as the last manufacturer of the ubiquitous Israeli brown paper covered school notebook. In May, Ha’aretz reported that “Dafron sold to a foreign company the last of the machines that turned out the brown notebooks. It also sold its envelope-manufacturing operation, which in recent years constituted 80 percent of its output, to a private investor for NIS 10 million.
“The investor is expected to keep on a large proportion of the 40 production workers and move the factory to a different site [in Ariel]… There, a small department will continue to operate, manufacturing special products such as spiral notebooks and hard-cover writing pads. This is all that will remain of the splendid factory that at its peak turned over tens of millions of shekels annually.”
The real culprit, however, according to Dafron’s Joseph Dubrovsky, was not the Chinese but changes within the school system itself. He told Ha’aretz, “Fifteen years ago I sounded the alarm, when they gave children workbooks and books in which they did their homework directly, instead of in notebooks. In retrospect, that was small change compared to the transition to computers.”
And so we move from paper notebook to notebook computer… and still without a normal tape dispenser in sight.