Born in Berlin in 1920, Malka (neé Hilde) Haas rejected her parents’ assimilationist attitude, embraced Zionism, and soon after Hitler came to power left for the Land of Israel. She eventually settled in Sde Eliyahu, the religious kibbutz where she still lives, and went on to become the leading figure in Israeli early-childhood education. Her central pedagogical theory can best be summed up by the phrase “junkyard playground.” Matti Friedman tells her story:
The people who built Sde Eliyahu, many of them German Jews who’d escaped the Nazis, were kids themselves: on the day in 1939 when the first tents went up on these steamy flatlands by the Jordan, Haas was nineteen. There were no adults around to give advice on how to raise a family. Their own parents were in Europe, where many were later murdered. They were on their own.
Like the rest of her comrades, Haas never had the chance to finish high school, but she’d attended a teachers’ seminary for six months, making her the kibbutz’s closest thing to an authority on education. She took charge of the kindergarten.
The children were part of a community of workers, Haas thought. They should play with discarded objects from the fields, workshops, and kitchens, putting them to whatever use they desired. They’d build together with no instruction, and what they built didn’t have to make sense to adults. As she explained much later, after her ideas became celebrated and were taught to aspiring teachers, pieces of junk “do not represent the broken, rusty, dirty remnants of human activity, but rather all the multifaceted richness that life has to offer.”
Some people asked Haas, for example, if it was a good idea to let children work barefoot in the yard. The answer, she wrote, was obvious: “A barefoot child learns faster to take care of himself, because the feelings he gets through his feet sharpen his understanding.”