Last year, when she was in 4th grade, Maxie got into a little tiff with a classmate. After this kid kept taking her best friend’s LEGO pieces, Maxine muttered to her LEGO-bereft friend, “We should sue his parents for dropping such a turd-bomb.”
The LEGO-snatcher lost it. He started screaming about how Maxine had just called his parents terrorists and how everyone hates his family because they’re Muslims. He had to be sent to the office to cool off, and Maxine sobbed when the substitute teacher asked if she’d really called this kid’s family terrorists. I had to talk to the sub, the principal, and Maxie to understand the full story. And then I had to explain to Maxie that just as we don’t make jokes about bombs in the TSA line at the airport, we don’t call a Muslim classmate a turd-bomb. (Well, we shouldn’t call anyone a turd-bomb. But Josie, my 12-year-old, informed me that Maxie had been repeating a line from the TV show Parks and Recreation. Apparently this was funny in context.)
Even though Maxie hadn’t said the word “terrorist,” the other kid heard it from his own defensive and angry place; he’d talked himself into believing she’d said it. Ironically, it was Maxie’s best friend, an Arab-American kid whose family hails from the Middle East, who got Maxie off the hook.
Now, in light of what’s happening in Gaza, and in light of news reports about anti-Semitic incidents on the rise around the world and in light of hatred of Israel bleeding into hatred of all Jews, I’m angsty about my Jewish kids being in secular schools in a way I’ve never been before.
What if the tiff in Maxie’s class last spring isn’t a one-off? What if bias incidents against different groups become even more common here? And what if I’m not crazy to feel, for the first time, anxiety about my kids’ Jewishness as I send them out the door in the morning?
Living in a diverse world is complicated for kids as well as grownups. I’ve written about my Jewish-day-school-vs.-public-school ambivalence. And I’m delighted that my kids’ experience of the world is broader and deeper than mine was at their age.
I went to an Orthodox-run Jewish day school until 8th grade. I prayed behind a mechitza and listened to my male classmates thank God for not making them women. My Conservative Jewish mother made sure I was exposed to feminism, but my world was nevertheless almost exclusively white and Jewish. Maxie’s elementary school, on the other hand, is majority non-white (though this is changing rapidly as the East Village gentrifies) and there are only a handful of Jews. My kids go to shul, Hebrew school, and Jewish overnight camp, but their daily experience is as a distinct minority.
Fortunately, we live in New York City, where a certain cluefulness about different faiths and skin colors and languages and cultures is as much of a given as traffic on the FDR. My friend Rebecca Einstein Schorr recently wrote in Kveller that her kid’s school scheduled Meet the Teacher Night on Rosh Hashanah. That would never happen here. A place that suspends alternate-side parking for Idul-Fitr, Shemini Atzeret, Diwali, and the Solemnity of the Ascension does not have school on the High Holidays.
But bits of cluelessness always slip through the cracks. Last year, Maxie’s teacher emailed parents asking if anyone would mind if he read The Polar Express to the class, pointing out that even though it has Santa Claus in it, it’s not a Christian book. I was the fun-sucker who wrote back that uh, yes it is. Santa Claus is a Christian dude. Just because he’s become associated with nebulous free-form wintertime “Happy Holidays” gift-bringing “spiritual but not religious” good-will-to-all-men cheer doesn’t mean everyone sits on his lap. And I still remember one of Josie’s classmates in 2nd grade exclaiming, “You’re Jewish? I thought you were normal!”
So yeah, Santa feels exclusionary to us. I want no religion at all—no menorah, no electric-nosed reindeer, no Kwanzaa kinara candles—in public school. Thomas Jefferson is my homeboy.
Thankfully, Maxie’s teacher immediately backed off. He did not pull the clueless routine of the teacher in the middle-grade novel Penina Levine Is A Hard-Boiled Egg, who insists that the Easter Bunny is not a goyish symbol, and therefore Penina has to do the Easter-Bunny-themed assignment or get a zero. (I adore this book, by the way. The question of how much Jews should go along to get along in a secular world is a good one, and not every Jew in Rebecca O’Connell’s novel agrees with Penina’s decision to dig in her heels. It’s a great conversation-starter with your kids when Passover and Easter roll around.)
I very publicly have struggled with my own ambivalence about Israel. Our people are pretty divided about Israel ourselves. Yesterday, I unfollowed two Jewish acquaintances on Facebook: one who only posted things demonizing Israel, and one who only posted cheerleader-y Israel-is-awesome things demonizing everyone who criticizes Israel. And in the past, I wrote that the word “Zionist” made me skittish. It doesn’t anymore. I understand now that Zionism merely means “believing that Jews should have a homeland” in the way that feminism means “believing that women are people.” Being a Zionist doesn’t mean you hate Palestinians, just as being a feminist doesn’t mean you hate men.
I am still dismayed by Israel’s current leadership. But I am much more clueful about Israel’s own citizens and activists who work for peace. I’m more educated about Middle Eastern history (thank you, Simon Schama) and Hamas’ military tactics and strategy. And perhaps because I am a contrarian, the more the world turns on Israel, the more confident I am about calling other liberals on their naivete and blind spots. I am like a Jewish, middle-aged Taylor Swift, the girl who didn’t want to call herself a feminist until someone explained to her what the word meant. (I wish I could be the Beyonce of owning one’s Zionism. Don’t we all.)
Something feels different now. I don’t worry about Maxie’s best friend turning on her, but I worry about other 5th graders saying disparaging things about Jews. Comments that used to feel like an inevitable-but-not-unbearable burden of choosing to live in a non-homogeneous world—hey, let’s read a Santa book in class; oh, I thought you were normal—start to feel more ominous when people around the world start getting more comfortable letting their hate flags fly: Banning kosher food from London supermarkets, attacking Jews strolling on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, screaming anti-Semitic slurs at a bus full of Jewish schoolchildren in Australia and threatening to slit their throats.
At their Jewish camp, my kids have met Israelis with a range of political perspectives. I’ve talked to both girls about the challenges facing the Middle East. Their schools, despite occasional conflicts, work hard on teaching kids to hear opposing views with respect. And they’re old enough to know that the problems facing Israel are not like the ones on standardized tests, where all you have to do is fill in the right bubble and make no stray marks.
I have not talked to them about people increasingly hating on Jews because I have no idea what to say, or what utility the scary news has to their lives. Be more paranoid? Go through your daily life knowing that more people hate you than hated me when I was your age?
I don’t want them to be fearful or ashamed. I love that Maxine draws Jewish stars all over her artwork, and that Josie wears the T-shirts from camp friends’ bat mitzvahs to class. I don’t want to tell them to keep their Judaism on the down-low. But I also don’t want them to become targets. And I don’t know what to do about that.
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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.