The Complicated Choice to Raise My Kids Jewish

Photo by Sasha Brown-Worsham

Last week, my 6-year-old son had his name blessed as part of a first-grade Sunday school ritual at our temple. Thirty children and their parents spent the morning making stenciled shirts with Hebrew letters, playing games, eating pizza, and then, finally, heading into the sanctuary for this first step toward becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. It’s a milestone so poignant; parents were wiping tears as they raised their smart phones to record it all. 

I was worried about bombs.

I couldn’t get it out of my head. As the light streamed in through the stained glass sanctuary windows and the rabbi sang in Hebrew, the children struggled to stay focused and not to slide down the oh-so-tempting bannister leading to the top of the bimah (platform), I was thinking about someone hating them enough to kill them.

Maybe it’s because of what’s been happening in France. 

The January 7th Charlie Hebdo massacre that was followed by the January 9th shooting at a Kosher market, both in Paris, were just the latest. In 2012, a man opened fire at a Jewish school in Toulouse. In 2014, a pro-Palestinian French youth set fire to cars, vandalized Jewish stores and attacked two synagogues. And at the end of last year, a group robbed a Jewish family specifically because they were Jewish and raped a 19-year-old girl. It’s not new. France is notorious for anti-Semitism, but now it’s turned terrifying. 

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The French government has been sending guards and police officers to Jewish schools just in case. It’s become so bad, that French Jews are leaving everything behind. In 2014, 7,000 French Jews emigrated to Israel, the most from any one country last year. 

As a Jewish mom living in the U.S. in a heavily Jewish area outside New York City, I don’t feel isolated or alone. I don’t worry about attacks on our home or our bodies. My children’s Sunday school is huge, full of Jewish children just like mine. But I also know anti-Semitism is not just a French thing.

When I was 7, my grandfather took me browsing at the funky little dollhouse store down the road from his house in Cincinnati, Ohio. The store sold rows and rows of miniatures. There were tiny apples, mini tables, itty-bitty beds, and wee sinks. It was a little girl’s dream. 

I found a sofa, a perfect replica of one I’d seen in his house. I was so excited. My 7-year-old heart was thudding. “Zaydee!” I screamed across the store. It is the Yiddish word for grandfather and the only name I’d ever called him.

"Never call me Zaydee in public,” he whispered loudly, pointing toward the man at the desk, a man I hadn’t noticed walking in. He didn’t explain further, but I knew he didn’t want the man to know we were Jewish. 

Seven years later, when I was 14, my family and I were all asleep in our rooms in suburban southern Ohio when something crashed through our window. A rock. It came with something else, too — swastikas, painted all over our garage and driveway with the message: “Jews go home.” 

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The same vandals also covered a neighbor’s new white Mercedes in tar and drew swastikas all over the street of our heavily Jewish neighborhood. “They are just jealous,” the police told us. “You have things they’ll never have. They want them, too.” 

Who were the cops sympathizing with? 

I went to school after that attack suspecting everyone. We lived on the very edge of the Bible Belt and I had been told with alarming regularity that I would go to hell because of my family’s beliefs. When I was six, a babysitter told me that my parents seem super nice, “but it’s really sad that you all are going to burn in hell.” I didn’t know what “hell” was. 

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Photo by Sasha Brown-Worsham

The vandals could have been anyone. And I know this better than anyone. Members of my own family on my mother’s side (she was a convert) have scrawled “Zionist pigs,” on Facebook. They’ve disparaged the Jewish dating site JDate as being a “nightmare” for nightmarish people. They have been completely unaware of why those words might sting. I don’t speak to half my family because of it. 

Why would I ever want to raise my children in a world I am so aware can and might hate them?

My children are 8, 6, and one. They go to Hebrew and Sunday school, celebrate Hanukkah and Passover, and attended Jewish pre-schools. They gather tzedakah money in little piggy banks and give it to people in need. They know their aleph-bet and can sing the prayers better than I can. 

And I worry. 

We live in an educated, diverse area that is heavily Jewish, but it won’t always be that way. I know exactly what it’s like to be hated for being Jewish. It took me a long time to enroll them in Hebrew school because I was afraid to give them that identity. I was afraid to tell them that they were “other” or that they were part of only .2 percent of the world’s population. I was afraid to make them feel the way I often did growing up. 

Being Jewish isn’t immediately obvious unless a person is really religious. We can hide it. And sometimes that comes in handy. Like when I was out to dinner with a group of kids from my elite Northeastern college and one boy turned to us after receiving the check and said, “I don’t mean to be a Jew about this,” before itemizing what he owed. 

I laughed along with him. He had no idea I was Jewish. My husband grew up Christian and although we agreed to raise our children Jewish, he has questions about it, too.

We both wonder: Why would we choose a life where our kids could be marginalized? 

It’s a good question. One I was especially wondering as I stood there, watching my son last Sunday. 

When my mother died during my junior year in high school, I had switched to a Jewish day school. She died early in the morning on November 17th, just a few months into the new school year. But they came anyway. Every kid in that high school (all 50 of them) piled in my basement, holding me while I cried and sharing every story they had about loss and love. They had pizza, flowers, ice cream, cake, prayers, and supportive words. I was part of something. I wasn’t alone in my near-overwhelming grief for my mom.

Family went home. They stopped calling. They went on with their own lives. But I had my spirituality. I had my group.

There is another connection in Judaism, too. A connection to suffering. It helped me pull myself through some really dark times. After I lost my mother, I found myself reading obsessively about the holocaust and knowing that what I was going through was small by comparison.

So much of who I am and what I love has been shaped by my cultural connection to Judaism. I can’t escape that. I wouldn’t want to. And I don’t want my children to, either. I don’t want to make their lives harder. I want to make them richer. 

And so I find myself standing at the bimah, watching my blond son make faces and try to pay attention as the rabbi says things he doesn’t fully understand and sing to him in a language he doesn’t know, while I worry about bombs and anti-semitism. 

Later, as we are leaving the temple and he has eaten his fill of celebratory pizza and claimed the green bouncy ball replete with the Star of David painted white on its surface, he tells me: “I really love being Jewish.”

I smile. “Oh yeah? Why?” 

“Don’t know,” he says, bouncing the ball, distracted by it rolling into the bushes. “Just do.” He runs after the ball, chasing it down and I watch him, thinking: Yes. Exactly. 

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