“Oooh, Ima what’s this street called? And what’s that machine over there? And why are these women dressed all in black?”
I smiled apologetically at the two young nuns sitting next to us on the light rail train, and explained that “this street” was named Jaffa after the ancient road from Jerusalem to Jaffa Port, and that “that machine” we passed was a mortar that was used to break the siege on Jerusalem during The War of Independence, and that “these women” wear black because…
But before I could finish, my 6-year-old son was already jumping up in down in his seat, overflowing with new questions and insights. I sat there, explaining and pointing and sharing tidbits of information (and the occasional “please don’t fidget your way into other people’s seats”), and couldn’t stop smiling. I love living here in Jerusalem, where history brims just under the surface and diversity is more than a slogan. And I love riding on the light rail train, where both those qualities are always on display. And more than anything, I love sharing my passion with my son. But then his bell-like voice cut across my explanation, and burst my little bubble of contentment.
“So all the Arabs want to kill us, right, Ima?”
I froze, noting at once the Arab family across from us, and the raised eyebrows of the European-looking lady two benches down. But, despite my embarrassment, I forced myself to swallow the scandalized, “but of course not!” that rose automatically to my lips.
Four years ago, when my son started asking questions about the world, I wouldn’t have repressed my initial response. Even two years ago I probably would have embarked on a long “there are good and bad people everywhere” speech (in fact, I have. Many times.)
But nearly seven years of parenting taught me that questions like my son’s are rarely a mere bid for information: They’re a bid for reassurance. They reveal deeper anxieties and uncertainties, which recitations of facts and opinions would fail to address. Sometimes, the failure is merely comical, like in that old joke about the boy who asked his father where he comes from, and then interrupted the long and carefully worded answer about birds and bees with an impatient ,“OK, but am I from Boston or New York?”
Sometimes, however, our haste to answer a question as we understand it can actually cause harm. It can allow that which is raw and painful to fester and grow. Worse, it can discourage our children from trying to raise their deeper concerns in the future. Why bring them to us if they only get a lecture in return?
And so, looking into my son’s guileless eyes that day, I ignored the people around us and took his hand in mine.
“Why are you asking?”
My son blinked at me. “Well, they were our enemies in the story you just told me, no? And remember how you said we should run if someone attacks us with a knife? And Ima,” and now he lowered his voice and his eyes grew troubled, “What if someone attacks us with a knife right now? There are Arabs on this train, too!”
And this, I thought as I pulled him closer and sought the right words, is the crux of life in Jerusalem.
We live in an amazingly diverse city. We bump into people whose pasts and dreams and customs are completely different form ours whenever we venture out of our neighborhood, or board the light rail train. And while I usually throw myself into these encounters with relish, I would be a fool to ignore the danger they contain. The very history and diversity I was so excited to share with my son that morning can, and do, cost this city’s residence in blood.
What, I wondered, should I tell him? How can I address his fears and offer him reassurance, when the danger he fears is real, and any promise of security would be a lie? How can I dismiss them, when a young British woman was murdered by a terrorist on this very train last week?
And how can I preserve that joyous spark in his eyes when he meets new people, that openness to new experiences, when his survival may depend on a healthy dose of suspicious reserve?
These questions weren’t new to me, of course. They are part and parcel of life in Israel. Should we seek peace and risk our lives? How can we balance openness to individuals with careful policies toward potential enemies? How can we protect our humanity, and our lives, all at once? Yet somehow, they never struck me as powerfully, nor as painfully, as they did in a that beautiful morning on the light rail train, faced with my son’s trusting eyes.
People who live far away from here often interpret our fears and concerns as a form of racism. “You’re intolerant,” they scoff at us. “You raise your kids to hate.” Well, it’s easy to dismiss a child’s honest worry as xenophobia when you don’t have to fear for your own child’s life. It’s easy to scoff at a mother’s anxiety when you don’t have to look into your child’s eyes and seek an answer that will reassure him without breaching his trust and selling him a lie.
As I sat there looking for words, I thought about the tourist who once called me crazy. “Why would you want to raise your children in this dangerous place,” she screeched at me in her old-time New York accent. “It’s irresponsible!”
I looked at my son. “Do you know why the founders of Israel came here?” I found myself asking him. “Do you know why they even fought the War of Independence?”
“Because we wanted to come back here,” he said, and his tone turned the words into a question. “Yes, but it’s more than that.” I led him off the train and kept speaking as we walked on. “We wanted to be independent. We wanted to deal with the kind of questions and problems you don’t deal with when someone else calls all the shots.”
One of these questions, I thought as I walked with him, is the question your words raised between us today. You can’t grasp it yet. You can’t talk of “balancing openness and caution, diversity and safety” like an adult. But you will. And one day, you will have to find your own way to live with it, because this is what adulthood, and independence, is about.
I didn’t say these words out loud. In fact, I let my son lead the conversation in other directions, and threw myself into a long discussion about sovereignty, and who decides when to clean the streets. He is not ready for adulthood yet, after all. There will be time enough for that later, I thought. And in the face of the ever-present threat of terror in our lives, my thoughts took the form of a fervent prayer.