When my husband was a small child in what was then Yugoslavia, he contracted mumps, which left him deaf in one ear. So, we understand the power diseases have to alter the course of a life, a fact my husband has witnessed more than once as a pediatrician. With that in mind, we have had our sons vaccinated against mumps, as well as measles, whooping cough, polio, and the other ailments for which there is a shot.
But protecting our children from other threats is more complicated than scheduling a doctor’s appointment.
While traveling to Romania in the 1990s as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s desk director for Central and Eastern Europe, I met the avuncular Nicolae Cajal, who became the official leader of the Jewish community there after the death of longtime Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen. Cajal was an esteemed physician and scientist, who led the virology department at Bucharest’s University of Medicine and Pharmacy. Yet he quipped that he had failed as a virologist because he did not succeed in his quest to develop a vaccine against the world’s two greatest diseases: ignorance and anti-Semitism.
Unfortunately, there will never be a simple shot to eradicate them, nor a way to inoculate our children against anti-Semitism in the complete, medical sense of the word. But I believe that we, as Jewish parents, can help our children develop a sense of psychological immunity that will at least protect them from some of anti-Semitism’s harmful effects.
The first step is to allow them to come into contact with small amounts of anti-Semitism, even if our parental instincts are to preserve our children’s innocence indefinitely and to shield them from such fearful things. Medical vaccines introduce the body to disease antigens in their nonthreatening, weakened state, training the immune system to remember the illness so that it is ready to quell it the next time we are exposed. In the same vein, any vaccine against anti-Semitism starts with exposure.
Growing up in the northern New Jersey suburbs, I was aware of anti-Semitism, but it was indirect, reflected against the retrospective mirror of the Holocaust, through the news, and in coded talk about Israel’s security. Only twice did I feel its frontal lash. The first time was the day my mother pointed out the shadow of a black swastika beneath layers of white paint on our shul. The second came later, when anti-Jewish epithets were painted on several other synagogues in town. My parents made sure we attended a rally to publicly condemn those desecrations. Though I’d spent summers at Jewish camp, afternoons and Sundays at Hebrew school, and Shabbat at shul, that gathering was a watershed moment in shaping my Jewish identity, on a par with our first trip to Israel. It was at the rally that I first chanted “Never Again” and learned that several of the elderly couples from shul were survivors (all four of my own grandparents were American-born).
The world has since regressed, becoming increasingly hospitable to anti-Semitism. In response, my maternal viewpoint has become that of a frightened innocent in a Grimm tale, from which I see the trees as many-armed monsters inside the dark woods, on CNN, and on the pages of the daily paper. Anti-Semitism is palpable in our lives, in both overt and subtle ways, and the statistics confirm what we sense in our kishkes. Last summer, a passing skateboarder gesticulated at us offensively as we entered the Touro Synagogue on the eve of Tisha B’Av. More recently, when our youngest, who attends a New Jersey public middle school, engaged in an intense dialogue with a peer over the coolness of their respective sneakers, the other boy tossed out a reference to Hitler.
When our children witness such anti-Semitism, and we discuss it with them, they begin to build up their defenses. With good reason my mother showed me that swastika, and we, too, let our boys know, as early as we thought they could process the information, that there are those who curse us for who we are, and that the manifestations of that loathing range from deprecating humor to vitriol to violence. Immunity is a kind of memory. Denial may be comfortable in the short term, but it can only make them more vulnerable in the long term.
Next, we try to bolster our sons’ Jewish immune systems, by imbuing them with high regard for their heritage and personal history. We encourage them to stick out their chests with Jewish pride and with loving awareness of Israel’s centrality to us as a people. We fill hamantaschen and kreplach with the taste of their birthright and give them both a formal Jewish education and the comforting framework of rituals and holidays. These also help to wrap them in a shield of armor that keeps wafting negativity about Judaism from entering their bloodstream, enabling them to separate truth from fiction. Most important, we fight our own urges to kvetch about communal and religious obligations, whether financial or time-bound, focusing on the joy rather than the burden of membership in the tribe.
Family history helps us along, too. We share the stories of the boys’ namesakes, so they will know whence they come. We visit the cemetery, seeking the wisdom of our ancestors in conversations that are not one-sided if we listen carefully to the personal experiences they whisper from the grave. And we look at photographs of the family we never knew, anchoring ourselves in the past while wondering about the fate of those for whom there is no grave to tend.
On the other hand, as a step toward herd immunity, we battle the narrow-mindedness that would result if they were focused entirely on their own community. To the best of our ability, we offer the boys a panoramic view of the world outside their daled amot, their quadrant of personal comfort, dragging them to museums and prying their minds open by piling our coffee tables high with books and periodicals about culture, history, and current events, alongside the Sports Illustrated and the seforim. We take cross-country road trips as often as we can, for it is hard to remain insular when you leave your village behind. Between stops at baseball stadiums, we touch down at memorials, from the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial to the battlefield at Gettysburg, to witness what it means to live, fight, and even die for beliefs—and for the freedom to believe at all. On a trip to Croatia a few summers ago, we visited my mother-in-law’s non-Jewish war sister, who saved her from Nazi claws when the two blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls passed as twins during WWII. Broad exposure, even administered in small booster doses, can steadily widen their perspective.
Next, we tell our sons—now adolescents—to let prevention be their GPS in limiting the direct impact of anti-Semitism on their lives, as much as that can be within their control. They’ve already been exposed, and we continue to bolster their Jewish immune systems, but we’ve also tried to sharpen their Jewish radar, to help them know when to duck out of unsafe situations. Properly attuned, their inner voices can alert them when to keep their heads down and wear a baseball hat over their yarmulkes, and which places to avoid altogether.
And for those times when confrontation is unavoidable, we can stir in them the fight to defend themselves physically—although it’s not always clear what this entails, how they’ll react in the moment, or if it will make any difference at all. As with many medical conditions, there’s no easy cure when disease strikes, and no treatment offers a guaranteed outcome.
Still, we are able to arm ourselves with articulate responses to many affronts by other, less obviously dangerous kinds of anti-Semitism—the types that appear in print, in jokes about presumed Jewish wealth or proclivities for frugality, and in anti-Israel barbs. We can also stand up straight when we notice a stranger has picked us out of the crowd, clued in by our features or what the boys call their Orthodox day-school uniform, or my skirt and head covering. But it is some challenge to simultaneously thicken their skin—though sometimes the only response is no response, there’s pain in knowing you are the object of hatred—while allowing anger to bubble inside them, letting them be true to themselves and keeping them vigilant, unwilling to endure a penny rolled in their direction.
I am not deluded to think my sons will internalize every component of our master vaccination plan, though I see signs—interest in a news story beyond their comfort zone here, hanging an Israeli flag in our window there—that encourage me to plod on. For now, they remain adolescents, quoting Family Guy and inappropriate comedians, sharing jokes that make my eyes spin like marbles in my head. My motivation is the hope that they will emerge on the other side of adulthood with the antibodies they will need to battle anti-Semitism in their lives.
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