As a mother, I have always tended to shelter my children and keep secret from them the horrors that exist in the world. As an educator, a historian, and Holocaust and genocide expert, I will tell anyone about the multitude of books they should read, the abundance of articles they need to sift through, and the programs, museums, and speaking engagements they should attend to learn about tolerance and understanding. This is clearly a conflict.
Recently though, world events and my fear of a future for European Jewry, in fact my fear for the future of Judaism as a whole, has made me rethink both my roles–that of mother and protector from all evil, and that of Holocaust educator.
As the events unfolded in Paris last month I watched in horror, along with the rest of the world. I love Paris. I love the culture, the architecture, the food, the museums, and of course, the wine. Yet as much as I love Paris, I also know all about its ugly past. Sadly, my love of Paris is marred by its known acts of anti-Semitism and collaboration with the Nazis.
That Shabbat, as we lit candles, I cautiously told my 9 and 7-year-old, while my 4-year-old half listened and played, that some “bad things” happened to Jews and others in Paris that week. My older son said, “But Paris is a good place, I can’t wait to visit Paris.” My immediate reaction was for my role as protector to go into high gear. I quickly brushed him aside and said, “Of course Paris is a good place, sometimes bad things happen in good places.” Then, seeing the fear building in my somewhat more timid 7-year-old, I quickly added, “Don’t worry, though, that won’t happen here.” And we immediately went on with our evening.
Later that night, after I put them to bed, those words came back to me and I grew angry at myself. To anyone else, my husband, my family, my friends, my peers, my colleagues, even to the world of Facebook, I would have shouted at the top of my lungs how awful, horrible, frightening the events in Paris were. Not just to the French or the Europeans but to us as American Jews. And that yes, in fact, I do think something like what happened at a kosher market in Paris could happen at the kosher bakery down the street from us in New Jersey. But to my own sons, I lied. I admit it. I completely lied. And I felt awful about it.
As the past few weeks went on and the news of the Paris attacks faded into the background, I often thought of the disservice I did my children that evening, but did not really know how to change it..
Until yesterday morning, in a freezing Vermont hotel room, when I woke up and learned of the attacks in Copenhagen. Admittedly, I know very little about Copenhagen. In fact all I do know is that the Danish saved their entire population of 8,000 Jews during the Holocaust by smuggling them to safety in Sweden via fishing boats. I spent one Shabbat there 15 years ago learning very little about the city or the nation itself, except for its saving of Jews. I have a soft spot for Denmark, unlike my love of Paris, simply because of its role during the Holocaust.
So this morning when I read the news, I reacted differently. I didn’t put my mommy hat on. Instead I went into Holocaust expert mode. And I told my 9 and 7-year-old the history of Denmark in the Holocaust, and what recently took place. This time, when my older one said, “Why does everyone hate the Jews?” I said, “Not everyone does but many people do, and we need to know about that and try our best to stop it.”
I saw in their eyes that I placed a little bit of fear. I then took them downstairs to breakfast with the rest of the group we are traveling with and said nothing about the events of the last day. I kept quiet. I spoke of the frost outside and debated whether or not to let the children ski. At this point in time I wasn’t the Holocaust educator, but the mommy on vacation with her children.
And so maybe my children are a little more fearful now about the hatred of Jews around the world. But I realized that I need to play both my roles a little differently at times. My children need to be my audience more often, and educating the rest of the world can wait a little, or at least until I leave Vermont.