I’m in Israel. Tel Aviv to be specific. We’re staying in the fancy northern part in a shiny new apartment with views of both the ocean and a big dirt hole where another tall white tower is about to rise.
My kids are jet lagged and go to bed at midnight and sleep until noon. I’m getting a taste of what it will be like to have teenagers though for now they are 5 and 2. My husband and I are decompressing on the balcony, drinking Goldstar beers and bites of borekas. When I look up, I’m terrified to discover a red laser beam on my husband’s forehead. A second later we hear rapid-fire machine gun. Bratatat.
It takes me a moment to get oriented. My 2-year-old, Romi, has fished out a toy gun from the toy bin in the apartment. She is commando crawling on the floor in her purple Sophia the First nightgown and pretending to slaughter her sister, her mother, and her father. She is joyful as she does it. “Let’s go, let’s go,” a recorded man’s voice shouts out of the gun as she aims the red laser at my face.
The sound of the gun is obnoxious—and on top of that it’s horrifying to see my daughter hold an automatic weapon, albeit a fake one. When I finally yank it away, I ask her what the toy is. “Um, I dunno,” she says. Her big sister chimes in, “Is it a sword?”
It occurs to me then that my children have never seen a gun. In their everyday life in Brooklyn, they don’t see soldiers. They don’t play video games. They don’t even own water guns. In Israel, you see machine guns everywhere, slung around the necks of young soldiers in green uniforms.
A few days after my daughter’s trigger-happy incident, a friend from Los Angeles invited us to visit her on the moshav where she lives with her Israeli husband and two young sons. They live in a beautifully renovated house surrounded by pecan orchards that looks like it belongs on the pages of Apartment Therapy. The living room opens up to a large wooden deck with a kid-sized picnic table where the kids paint and eat dinner in their underwear while parents eat fresh salads.
To escape the crushing July heat, we head to the swimming pool where we snack on cold slices of melon and the kids splash around. When I ask our friend about life in Israel—she has been here now for almost a decade—she says that it’s great. “But last year,” she says, “was crazy.”
She’s talking of course about the Gaza war. “It’s crazy to not be able to drive anywhere with your kids because you’re afraid that you won’t be able to get to a bomb shelter in time,” she said. As she says this, I start to tense. My 5-year-old is incredibly sensitive. She is scared of everything, from the den mother in the book “Madeline” to Swiper the Fox in Dora. She curls up into a ball and screams when any “bad guy” appears on screen. If we have the news on in the car, days later she’ll ask about a story in which she sensed something bad happened to someone.
This is all to say that when our friend started talking about “bombs” and “death” and having to explain war to her 1.5-year-old, I instinctually made a hand gesture to suggest that we cut off the conversation. And then I slowly moved away into the deep end of the pool with my daughter. As I swam on, I heard our friend say, “In Israel, we don’t have a choice. We have to talk to our kids about these things.”
I’ve been thinking about this for the past few days. I’ve been thinking about that decision to shield my child from something I thought would scare her. I thought I was doing what I needed to do to parent my child. I hadn’t thought about what a privilege it is that my children have no idea what a gun is or what it’s used for. And it’s a privilege that I’ve never had to explain to them that we can’t drive to the grocery store because there might be a rocket attack.
So, I guess my question is, was it wrong to silence the conversation about the war? Is it OK that I think my kids are too young to know what a gun is? What do I do about what I’ve come to see as my American Jewish privilege when faced with the realities of Israel?