70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

Mirjam Roth, the storyteller

By Krisztina Politzer Maymon - 2018-03-04

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

Good night, Boribon and Roni-Ron!


Despite all the efforts - retaining the mother tongue outside the home country is not an easy task. In vain we take the Weöres Sándor volumes in the suitcase, Cini, cini music, and the many Boribon; by the time the baby goes to the nursery, or attends a kiddie group, all are slowly replaced by the rhythms and rhymes of the verses in the local children's books. So it was with my kids - the poems and tales of my own childhood still on my mind - in turn, through my children, I have learned to recite the verses and tales of the Israeli kindergartens by heart. Lea Goldberg’s Pluto the dog who escapes from the kibbutz, the animals of the House for rent with their human virtues and vices, Meir Salev's Louse-girl jumping from the heads of nursery kids onto the hair of the ministers, and Naftali who becomes freed from his diapers in the Bilikönyv [Pottybook] - but first and foremost the books of  Mirjam Roth have become an enduring staple of the bedtime-reading-ritual .

Mirjam Roth (1910–2005)

Mirjam Roth was one of the most well-known authors, experts and researchers of the modern Hebrew children's literature. She, the child of Jenő and Helena Roth, was born on 16 February 1910 in Érsekújvár, then part of the then Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.  Her father, who had been a soldier in the First World War, was the director of the Jewish school in the city. Mirjam graduated with a diploma in psychology and pedagogy from the Masaryk University in Brno and was an active member of the Socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair Youth Movement. In 1931 she moved to Palestine alone, without her family. She studied at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and in 1937 she was one of the founders of Shaar Hagolan Kibbutz and its first nursery teacher. Her parents and three older brothers who remained in Europe visited her in Eretz several times, but did not want to emigrate and returned to their hometown - none of them survived the Holocaust. Mirjam's letters sent to his family between 1931 and 1935 are kept in the Hungarian Jewish Museum of Safed.

"I grew up in a family that has enriched my childhood with countless stories. Three people introduced me to books and tales: my mother, my father and my grandfather. My mother was a veritable storyteller. She told me, not only about her childhood in Hungary, but about the heroes of Hungarian folk tales, Hungarian history, the rich world of Hungarian classics, which she had heard from her parents. She was full of folk rhymes and verses; everything had a story. The Hungarian rhymes are still echoing in my mind today. My dad had also contributed to my becoming a story-teller. He mostly told Biblical stories, teachings by the Jewish wise men, from Hebrew and Jewish sources; also, he often told us about his experiences in World War I. He spent six years in Siberian captivity and returned from there as a Zionist. Later he worked as a teacher at the Jewish High School. My moving to Israel is mostly due to my father's views...  My grandfather was a butcher, a big, strong, muscular man with a warm heart - and he also had a great talent for storytelling. He was almost illiterate, slowly reading the newspaper with his lips moving ... His stories were full of fearsome figures - robbers, demons, ghosts - and there was always a fatal danger they had to overcome. The superstitions were the focus of his stories. We eagerly drank in his horror stories, with great enthusiasm."

 

In 1960, Roth obtained further degrees in New York from the Bank Street College, Columbia University and City College. In Israel, she taught and lectured in colleges, universities, while, for many years she was responsible for overseeing the kindergartens of the Kibbutz movement. She has conducted serious research and published articles on children's literature, articles and textbooks on the use of stories in pedagogy and child-rearing; all are part of the curriculum, even to date.

February 11, 2011 - Google's opening page in honor of Roth's birthday

Roth has become known and acknowledged by the wider public only in her old age. At the age sixty-four, when she retired from her kindergarten and teaching career, she began writing stories. In 1974, she published her first children’s book, The Story of the Five Balloons, one of Israel's most beloved children's story, which has sold more than 900,000 copies since then, and nowadays it is still being printed in nearly 35,000 copies for the young generations. This story was later followed by nearly twenty others that have also become classics; all of which have been rendered complete and unforgettable by illustrious Israeli graphic designers (Hot Corn; House of Yael; Let’s say ...). Roth received several honors for her work, including the Israeli Wolf and Bialik awards and UNICEF Children's Book Prize. She died at the age of 94 at her kibbutz. She has bequeathed her unique, over 3,000-volume collection of children's books to Oranim School of Education of the Kibbutz Movement, where she is remembered today by a library and research center.

"The book is like a child, they name it; the book is like it is alive - it breathes."

There is no Israeli child who does not recite the books of Mirjam Roth by heart, and no Israeli who would not say "a kaddish" to a burst balloon - "Don’t be sad, Roni-Ron, ‘tis the end of every balloon…” The Story of the Five Balloons is about five young children who receive colored balloons: Ruti Blue, Ron Yellow, Lilla (Sigalit) lilac, Uri gets green and Alon red. Of course, none of them can take good care of and all eventually lose their balloons, but each of the balloons has a different fate: one lands in the rose bush; one bursts in an all too fervent embrace; one is blown up by papa too hard and one is stolen by the cat and is burst by its sharp little claw. Only the last one, the red balloon has a different fate because it is caught by the wind and swept away - the kids who have been consoling each other for the scare of the explosions and the losses suffered, follow the red balloon’s flight with their eyes and say goodbye to it: “Shalom, shalom balon adom” "Bye, bye, red balloon!”

 

"I didn't want to teach children about colors. I wanted to take them back and forth between sadness and happiness, so they could learn about overcoming sorrow, and the fact that when someone lovingly hugs a balloon, he can pop it. This range and diversity of feelings is a lot more important than learning the names of the colors."

From the seeming simplicity of the five balloons, the repetitions, the recital of "this story has been going on and on, without a break for many years at home" also gave rise to additional games and deeper insights and interpretations. Is it possible that each of its child characters represent a special attitude to life and a character in our society? Uri's wildly chasing his green balloon is an adventurous, hedonistic type; Ron, who would keep blowing up the yellow (golden!) balloon more and more, is a capitalist, and a rampant globalist chasing bigger and better results; Ruth is a neurotic, depressive type, overly anxiously clutching her balloon; while the free-spirited liberal Lilla lets go her balloon naively, just to let it fall victim of the harsh laws of nature (cat)? And Alon with his red balloon? He is a free spirit living in harmony with nature, but not sacrificing his self, who is seeking equality and community - just like his creator, the Zionist founder of the kibbutz.

 

Perhaps because the image of the children waving good-bye to the red balloon has almost been seared into the Israeli collective memory - the next possible fate of this balloon was the theme of an interesting exhibition announced in 2014 for the 40th anniversary of the release of the book. Graphic artists and painters have drawn the place where Alon's balloon was blown since then: there were childish, playful, and nostalgically sorrowful illustrations among the illustrations, but the mourning, a painful part of Israel's history was caught up in the red balloon.

"The balloons are dreams, and dreams become scattered, only one remains: the red balloon; and I do not know where it is gone. Gone by the wind - literally. And it keeps floating. Where the wind blows it, I will also end up there."

- Mirjam Roth

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