Raising Jewish Kids: A Mother’s Story
My son’s name, “Ness,” means “miracle.” He’s six and a half. His existence, like that of many Jews alive today, is miraculous. And I know that sounds like hyperbole. But when you look at my family line, it’s clear.
My maternal grandparents survived the Holocaust. How? I’ll never know. Their stories of survival, having each lost their mothers to the war, was something they kept inside their entire lives.. In the nearly 100 years of each of their lives, they couldn’t ever utter their own stories. My father is a Yom Kippur War veteran who lost his best friends and first cousin fighting for Israel. He narrowly survived. When I say my life and my children’s lives are miracles, I mean it. The other miracle is that my son is steadfast in his Judaism, even though I often waver.
Ness is proud of his name. And his Judaism. He’s proud of his Sabba, my father, who speaks English with a thick Israeli accent. He is proud to celebrate Chanuka instead of Christmas. He has always been that way. He never seemed to struggle with religion the way I did and the way I still do today. (A very Jewish thing indeed. The very name “Israel” means to struggle with God.) I wish I had his conviction.
As a toddler, my son used to play with a small Israeli flag. Waving it and dancing. I don’t know where he got it, but it was his favorite toy. In May 2021, amidst ongoing fighting between Gaza and Israel, he sweetly tried to bring it into his Montessori preschool. I didn’t realize it before but when the pink-haired school teacher opened the door to greet us, I panicked. A week earlier this teacher felt like my people- progressive, liberal, wildly creative. And now, with the rise of blatant antisemitism on my beloved Left, this pink-haired young teacher could be someone who hates me, a Jewish woman of Israeli descent. So, I ripped the flag out of his little hand. He cried, and I joked, “the Jewish people have been through worse!” I was afraid for him, my then four-year-old.
At the time, during this flare-up in Israel, I was seeing on social media (where I do much of my work) what the world really thought of us: “colonizers,” “baby killers,” “evil Zionists,” etc., etc. etc. I just didn’t want my little boy associated with any of that. How would they treat him in school if they believed his family to be the absolute worst of society?
That year, we went to the craft store Michael’s to get art supplies. They had a Star of David Wreath, and Ness begged me to buy it. I did. His enthusiasm was so cute! But when he asked me to put it up on the front door of our apartment, I drew the line. I had to do this for our safety.
Nessy’s affinity for Judaism, Hebrew, and Israel has remained strong even when my own faith has wavered. In fact, his Hebrew school teacher confided in me, saying we may have a Rabbi on our hands. I think he may be right. The boy’s got charm and an understanding of life like he’s been here before. But most of all, he has Jewish Pride.
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I picked him up from school the other day. He goes to public school now. He pointed to a painting he made in class. A Chanukia (8 candles and the Shamash) with four Stars of David in the background. I asked him why he made it. “Because we’re Jewish!” he said as two assistant teachers passed wearing Kafiyas. The naches (a Yiddish word that means a special brand of heart-clenching Jewish pride and joy). And slight panic. I was raised on the stories of the Holocaust. I knew all about Chanoch, my father’s 19-year-old cousin who died in his arms in the Yom Kippur War. The television stayed on for weeks when Rabin was assassinated. There is enough Jewish trauma to last lifetimes. I know that Ness will find this out for himself in time. And when he does, it will be a shock either way, won’t it? I’m 39 years old and I still can’t wrap my head around antisemitism. It just doesn’t make sense, despite the fact that I know very well that it exists. There are parents, I know, who tell their kids early and often that people don’t like Jews. And they are so smart, and I envy their ease in that conversation. But for me, I’ll wait to break the news, which I know could take his innocence from him. For now, Ness is working on his foundation. His core. He is rooted in the love of his culture, and I’m just not ready to rip the flag out of his hand again.
One practical bit of advice I can relay is that I don’t allow Ness to wear his Star of David necklace anymore. The one my dad gave him. Or the necklace with his name in Hebrew. I’m not with him all day, so I can’t protect him from the crazies. And I haven’t told him why. I know some parenting experts might scoff at that but I’m not regulated enough around this issue to convey a sense of calm and safety. When I do I’ll let him know that antisemitism is a “them” problem. A sickness, like any deep-seated hate, that is not his riddle to solve. I’ll let him know that his love and pride, and joy in being Jewish is the important thing. And that he has in spades.
In the Vedas, the ancient Indian texts, I learned about something called “valid inquiry.” The teaching suggests not sharing precious knowledge until an individual expresses “valid inquiry,” meaning they’re ready, willing, and able to receive the download. In the case of antisemitism and my young children, I’d add, “is it necessary?” When they see cop cars outside of the synagogue, do they ask questions about our safety? No. We live in New York City. Cop cars don’t phase them. Ok. Well, what if they see antisemitic graffiti, and I’m visibly upset? Well then, perhaps it’s time to have an age-appropriate chat.
For the non-Jewish reader: first, thank you for your care in reading. You may not know the cellular feeling of having been hunted down like prey for thousands of years. Likely you do not. I do though. It isn’t present for me all the time. It turns on when I hear Hamas leaders tell the world of their mission to rid the world of Jews. And it’ll turn on for my kids when they learn of the Holocaust in their fifth-grade public school class. This is how epigenetics work. Epigenetics is the study of inherited trauma as well as inherited resilience. So I have a few years to marinate in the joys of Judaism with Ness. And since I know he is with safe adults at all times at school or camp, I’ll let him be blissfully ignorant. So that his brain and body can feel as safe in the world as humanly possible. That, I believe, will set him up for success in life. Not the awareness of threat but the solid sense of safety.