The "Ha-Ha-Aha" Connection
Maureen Kushner's mission is "to teach imaginations to leap, to soar, to reach that place where dreams are born."
Larger than life, Maureen Kushner waved a hello to latecomers to her slide presentation in Jerusalem last week.
"Come on in," she enthusiastically called across the hall. But then everything about the redheaded, fifty-year-old native New Yorker is enthusiastic. She has enthusiastically taught inner-city New York elementary-school children for twenty years. These children, whom Kushner sees as also living in a war-zone, passing armed drug-dealers on their way to school and living with constant danger and fear, provided her with the original base for her slide presentation, "Peace Through Humor."
The presentation comprises the work of elementary-school children across Israel, from the Haredi to the secular Jewish sector, from new immigrants, from Arabs, Druze and Beduin.
"In 1994, the Ministry of Education selected the theme, "The Peace Process in the Middle East" for the year. Professor Moshe Caspi, the founder of the Institute for Experimental and Creative Education in Israel knew of my work with children in the States and he suggested my name to Dalia Goren, the director of Theme of the Year at the Ministry of Education, to have me give workshops here. Most of the children here didn't know how to get beyond the symbols of the white dove, rainbows and flowers. I stayed from the fall of 1994 until the summer of 1997.
"Most of it was by word of mouth. The school principal from the Metzada School in Jerusalem liked what I was doing with the children and she told her colleagues and other principals, and I subsequently went from one school to another. I ended up with a waiting-list of about 200 schools in Israel."
Indeed, Kushner has crossed the entire country in teaching Peace Through Humor, working in various Jerusalem schools, schools in Ma'alot-Tarshica (the only joint Jewish-Arab municipality in Israel) in Jaljoulia, near Petach Tikva, in Majd-al Kroom, Deir Hanna, Rama, and Tel Sheva, the first Bedouin town in Israel. She has also worked with the children of schools in Tiberias, Be'er Sheva, Nahariya, Rishon LeZion, Rehovot, and the Druze village of Peki'in in the Galilee.
Kushner says getting children to do such creative work "doesn't happen all at once. It's a process. Very often, the spark ignites only after an hour in the classroom. It's the 'ha-ha-ahah' connection. I'll walk into a classroom, and first of all we'll brainstorm about words connected to war, and then words connected to peace.
"The Arab children usually have 'separation' and 'starvation' in their lists of associations of war. The Jewish children have suicide bombers and violence in theirs. For the Arab children, associations of peace include open borders and economic stability. For Jewish children, the words include tranquility and happiness and kindness in addition to the usual flowers and doves of both cultures."
Kushner uses cartoons, plays on words, antonyms and synonyms and roots of words in Hebrew and Arabic in addition to associations in order to stretch the imagination of the children. They even play with the letters themselves, turning them into objects of design. In one of the paintings, the word 'B'rogez' (Anger) is a fiery red with sharp teeth, the word 'Heres' (Destruction) has crumbling letters, and the word 'Levaya' (Funeral) forms coffins, while words of peace shake hands or hug each other.
"Where did you learn Hebrew and Arabic?" I ask.
"I came to Kibbutz Beit Hashita for six months when I was seventeen. I worked in the grapefruit orchards and vineyards and I learnt enough Hebrew to get by - and the kids help me out, too - and I spent a few weeks here and there teaching art in Gaza that gave me a smattering of Arabic. One thing all the kids have in common is laughing at my Bronx accent.
"We also play with words that are similar in Hebrew and Arabic, for example, 'Ahad-Wahad' (One), 'Shemesh-Shams' (Sun), 'Rahamim-Rahman' (Kindness) One of her slides portrays these similarities: two giant ladybugs in the corner, one with legs that spell 'Shalom' and the other with legs that spell 'Salaam'.
Her exhibition was first shown in the Knesset, opening on February 19, 1995, the day after two number 18 buses were blown up in Jerusalem.
"We didn't know if the opening would take place after the bombings. Shevah Weiss, who was the Speaker of the House, changed the name of the exhibition for the day from 'Peace With a Smile' to 'Peace With a Tear.'
"He said the opening should go on because the exhibition was the antidote to terror, the flip side of the coin. I didn't know if the children would come from around the country because of the terrorism, but before you knew it, busloads of children with their teachers, principals, parents and mayors drew up. It was amazing. I had tears in my eyes. Arab, Druze and Jewish children were walking arm in arm up the path."
After six months in the Knesset, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C. brought the exhibition to Oklahoma State Capital in Oklahoma City because of the bombing at the Federal Building as an official 50th Anniversary presentation. From there it has traveled to more than forty cities.
One of its central pieces is a huge collage mural, "The Happy Tree," created by the third-graders of the State Religious School in the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem. It gives an imaginative interpretation of the prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekiel.
"Look," said Kushner at the slide presentation, "its branches spell 'Shalom,' and not only does the lion jump rope with the lamb, they're picnicking together and eating straw. The cow and bear are playing together, the snake is playing tag with a nursing child and that's an angel riding a bicycle," she points out on the slide.
Maureen Kushner's mission is "to teach imaginations to leap, to soar, to reach that place where dreams are born." She helps all children, whatever their cultural background, to reach "the inside of the inside of their hearts," to discover the best part of themselves and to believe that through their thoughts and efforts, peace need not remain forever but a dream.
This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, 11 January 2002