This article is part of the Here. Now. essay series, which seeks to de-stigmatize mental health treatment, and improve accessibility to treatment and support for teens and parents in metropolitan New York.
This year, I took my kids out of private Jewish school and enrolled them in public school. Immediately, little things really stood out for me that others didn’t even seem to notice. For example, the office staff frequently wouldn’t look up from their desks when someone would enter the school, and anyone who looked like a parent would get access immediately, without even a, “What’s the name of the teacher you’re supposed to meet?” to clarify that they were indeed supposed to be there. ID badges are provided, but rarely enforced for visitors. Anyone can pick up a child from campus, and no one would notice if it’s a person who shouldn’t be taking on that role.
I vocalized my concerns to another mom, also with three kids. Her big, beautiful blue eyes stared back at me, and with pure honesty she replied, “I never thought about it that way.”
The more I talked about it with other parents, I realized that the moms who nodded their heads in agreement with me were all Jewish; the ones who didn’t give it a second thought were of other faiths.
When I became a mom, I didn’t just give birth to a beautiful little baby. Along with my milk supply came a generous accumulation of anxieties. Some were small, like, “What if I cut his skin when I trim his nails?” and others bigger, like, “If I let him cry it out, will he develop trust issues that will leave him sitting on a therapist’s couch twice a week?” At the time, the women in my life who had experienced raising children assured me that it was just new mom jitters, and the nervousness would pass.
Eight years and another two kids later, I now know that those women were wrong. While the anxieties over screwing up my kids are still there, I can handle the worry with parenting books, guidance from the pediatrician and teachers, and many other tools I’ve gathered on this journey of motherhood. But what I’ve come to realize is that my upbringing trained me to constantly live in an anxious state.
Both of my parents are Israeli. On my maternal side, a lot of family perished in the Holocaust. My father grew up RIGHT ON the border of Israel and Jordan. I grew up hearing stories of being on the last boat out of Poland, or ones of rocks being thrown at my dad and his siblings by the neighboring Arab children. The experiences of my family shaped who they became, obviously, and in turn, I inherited some of their coping mechanisms.
With frequent visits to Israel, suspicion became a way of life. People there are constantly aware of their surroundings, suspicious objects, or a variation in the patterns of the people around them. I’ve witnessed my fair share of “Hafetz Hashood” (suspicious object) procedures and even lived on Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem when the Sbarro around the corner was bombed in 2001.
After graduation, my first job was at a Jewish non-profit, where the director instructed us that whomever was the first to arrive had to walk around the perimeter to look for broken windows, unidentified bags/packages, etc. As a matter of fact, my entire career has been devoted to the Jewish non-profit world, where heightened awareness was expected and most certainly never questioned.
But now as my children’s new school has reawakened these anxieties, I wonder: Have I really allowed fear to be the driving force of my life—and my parenting style? I want to find value in my worries, but I struggle with letting go a little. Fear is at the core of my education; persecution is talked about in detail in our religious texts and interpretations, and that’s without the personal experiences of my family members. And yet, I see a lot of reasons to hold tight to my suspicions (or is it a vicious cycle?). The media makes it hard. ISIS is making it hard. Stories of anti-Semitism, school related attacks, viral videos on social media of bombings, random kidnappings, the list goes on—they all make it hard.
I don’t have a solution, as it turns out. There isn’t a quick fix to end this story with. What I do have is an amazing recipe handed down to me from my grandmother, inherited from her mother. As the Jewish proverb says, “Worries go down better with soup than without.”
Matzah ball, anyone?
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.