Growing up deep in the rural, isolated Midwest, it’s hard to say what was more foreign to me–Judaism or the ever-elegant, art-filled Paris. Now that I’m middle-aged and living in a big city, I’m well acquainted with both.
I first visited Paris on my honeymoon. I was a new convert to Judaism, having completed my study just months before. Seeing Paris’ Museum of Jewish Art and History was as important as visiting the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.
I’d never experienced such intense security. An uneasy feeling from the searching, screening, separation into multiple, leaded-glass chambers, and pat down followed me into the first gallery. But my mood eased as the Jewish relics worked the magic of most art. Awash in a calm that swept out the agitation, I was awed at a menorah from the 17th century, a 16th century Torah scroll, a sukkah from early 1800s decorated with a town-scape rendered in still vibrant colors.
While wandering about, I spotted an inconspicuous door marked “Library.” I wondered what we could learn about my husband’s family’s Lithuanian shtetl. He was game. So we entered and quickly felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books combined with our very basic knowledge of French.
As we pored over books, I noticed a sweet-looking French couple glancing over at us. Both had shy smiles and gave off the air of having been together for decades longer than my husband and I had been alive.
We timidly eyed each other until the man broke the silence. He asked me where we were from. I told him we were Americans.
“Where in America?”
“Ah. Yes. Al Capone,” followed by a chuckle.
I learned he and his wife lived in the country a few hours away. They made occasional trips to the library to do genealogical research.
He asked me about the strength of Chicago’s Jewish community. We explained that there were many synagogues there. Ours, like many others, was swelling with members.
He nodded his approval and looked me squarely in the eyes. “Good. Stay there. We will need you when they come for us again.”
I felt as if doused with cold water, by the solemnity in his voice as much as his meaning.
As we walked out, I nervously said to my husband, “I don’t think that will happen again. That surely can’t happen again. We live in a different world and a different time.”
My husband, as a credit to his kind soul, just gave me a dark look and didn’t answer.
Twelve years later, I’m no longer newly-minted. I’ve lived the day-to-day life of a Jew. And, I have a couple of young Jews of my own now. My sons are 6 and 9. And, as they have grown, the old man’s words have echoed forward to me enough to know that it’s a lifelong call and response. Most recently, when my oldest asked us about a book that a non-Jewish friend was reading, he said, “It’s called, Who Was Annie Frank?”
“Her name was Anne Frank, honey.”
“You know about this?” He sounded surprised. “Well, in this book, Annie has to hide in an attic because she’s Jewish and there are people who want to kill all Jews.
“It’s Anne, sweetie.”
“Whatever. Did that really happen?” Both my husband and I took a deep breath, looking to each other, quite helplessly actually.
Our son knew the basics of WWII from school, though not the Holocaust. He knew about the evil of slavery and America’s lingering racism. We recently took both boys to a “Black Lives Matter” rally. He had been slowly introduced to the concept that evil does exist, as most kids are.
We’ve taken on this introduction to anti-Semitism bit-by-bit, in an ongoing conversation. We gave him an overview of Hitler and the Holocaust, not yet diving into the sickening details. We are honest answering his questions. Learning that people exist who dislike him, who would harass and persecute him because of his religion and culture, doesn’t seem to compute. He asks over and over again what would happen to us in Germany in the ‘40s.
“What if we lived in Germany and owned a business?”
“It would have been taken away.”
“How would they know I was Jewish?”
“You would have had to wear a yellow star on your clothes.”
“Would they kill us?”
In 15 years of working from home, I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve turned on a television during my office hours. September 11 was one of those times. The recent attack at the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris was another. I watched it unfold with a sickening familiar feeling–the terror of knowing that persecution is a reality. Would I tell my boys about the Paris attack when they arrived home from school? Of course I would, with the old man’s words in my head as I did.