The View From Here: On Being a Jewish Mother

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This post was originally published on Jen Hall’s blog, Dancing in the Rain,” on August 28, 2014. The terrorist attacks over the the last two years – Paris, San Bernadino, Orlando and Nice, to name just a few – had not occurred when this post was written, and thus they are not referenced.

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I worry about the sensitive soul we are raising, the little boy who is scared of bugs and wants them gone, but who cries if I kill them. My heart is in my stomach most mornings as I scan the headlines. I am horrified by the recent election results in several European countries illustrating just how much of a political uptick in anti-Semitism there seems to be.  The violence in the Middle East, the anti-Semitism that feels more visible daily, rattles me.

I began the converting to Judaism at age 35.  The basic tenets of the religion called to me, despite having been raised in a non-religious household.  It seemed a natural progression and proved somewhat prophetic, as I married the love of my life, a Jewish man, at age 38.  Had I not already been nearing completion of my conversion when I met him, I would likely have seriously considered conversion for him.

I am now the mother of a young child, a six and a half year-old boy, who is also a Jew, and I worry daily about the rising tide of anti-Semitism. My son’s surname is distinctively ethnic, and simply by answering a question or filling out a form, he identifies himself as Jewish. I am uneasy that his very identity will mark him for hatred and violence throughout his life.

As much as it never occurred to me when we were naming our son, I find myself breathing a small sigh of relief that my husband vetoed my initial first name choice and that we chose much more neutral first and middle names that could take their origins from any number of ethnicities or religions. I am glad we gave him a middle name that could easily be used as a surname, and a fairly common one. I want him to be proud of his ancestry, and I teach him to be proud; simultaneously, I worry about how his heritage influences his future.

When I imagined having a child, I envisioned sharing the world with him.

I long to show my child the world, in the same way my parents showed it to me, and to spark his curiosity with tales of my own experience.  I grew up taking road trips to New Hampshire and Maine and Cape Cod. As a young adult, I fell in love with travel and the ability it gave me to flex my independent streak.  To keep me safe from myself, my parents always kept my wings lightly tied, loosening the knots just a bit when they sensed I was ready to take that first solo flight. They didn’t want me to tumble out of the nest before I had the skills to keep myself aloft.

I discovered and invented myself through travel adventures. I spent vacations solo in Europe, with with friends to sunny islands in the middle of oceans, or to far-flung parts of the United States. At first, I went just for pleasure, but soon I traveled for work, as well.

I thrilled to immerse myself in local cultures, not giving a moment of thought to what different foods I might be eating or whether there were certain neighborhoods I shouldn’t explore. Even as a woman traveling alone, I never gave more than a cursory thought to my safety. I took for granted my status as an ambiguously religious, American woman traveling the developed world in a time of peace for a great portion of the world. I felt invincible. In the days before the internet and before blogs, I journaled my experiences longhand in a series of notebooks that to this day sits in my attic.

When my husband and I imagined the things we would do with our child, travel, and exposing him to different cultures and different experiences, were high on the list. However, now that our child is a reality, I ache for the loss of peace that seemed to stretch out far and wide through the world. Perhaps because the news cycle was not then constant as it is now, it is merely an illusion that there is more violence, more anger, more war in the world in general. Perhaps it is not the news cycle, however, but instead the tendency I share with so many others to worry about our children and the future those children will inherit.

In retrospect, I grew up in a tolerant and liberal area of the country, virtually unaware of the vitriol that human beings were capable of flinging at one another simply because of religion, skin color, sexual identity or preference, or any other random single facet of what makes one person different from another. My friends and my family’s friends were from all walks of life, and that was wonderfully regular for me. Until the busing crisis in Boston during the 1970s resulting from school desegregation, it simply never occurred to me that anyone in the world treated people of other races or religions differently.

I covet what calls to me as a simpler time. Perhaps I am like every other person, feeling the longing for the familiar, the “good old days” of childhood when things seemed simpler. Or perhaps the world really has changed so dramatically as to make a return to that sense of innocence and feeling of safety, even within childhood, impossible.

I am not naive enough to believe that anti-Semitism ever truly vanished. I am utterly aghast that humanity seems to be ignoring, even unlearning, the lessons of the last century; the bubbling cauldron of violence and bloodshed is an abyss into which we must not fall, but from which escape may well be impossible if swift action is not taken.

I want to show my child the world. I want him to meet new people and learn empathy, to understand that not everyone is like him. I want to teach him to embrace the differences he finds in people, to celebrate them, and to thrill at new experiences that arise from those differences. Still, I fear I won’t be able to share the whole world with my child, but instead only a portion.

I meditate on how I will be able to explain to him that there are people who would harm him or kill him simply because of the way he relates to God. I brood over the necessary circumscription of his world due to ignorance and fear. I ask myself how I will be able to explain to the inquisitive little soul who snuggles next to me at night when he is falling asleep that he may never see the land of his ancestors.

I question how I will be able to tell him that we may never be able to visit his friends, the children of my close friend from college, who live in Europe with their parents. I despair over how I will ever describe to my child that his religion, something so fun and exciting and meaningful to him, makes him a target. I wonder how I will explain to him that his inquisitiveness about the world and different cultures, which I have always encouraged, may remain unquenched so that he will stay safe.

I ask myself how, and whether, I will be able to impart all of this to him before he becomes an adult, able to take care of himself and protect his heart and soul from the brutality of anti-Semitism. Most importantly, however, I anguish over how I will explain all of these things to him without turning my sweet, sensitive, soulful little boy into a fearful and angry one.

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Filed under Just Life, Parenting, The Beauty of Living, Uncategorized

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