A Note From Noah

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Pittsburgh six weeks ago, I received emails from many early childhood organizations with advice and resources for teachers and parents. They cohered around the central notion of protecting children from the burden of tragedy. They offered two categories of advice: how to talk to children (simple messages, don’t answer more than they’re asking, etc), and how to shield children (attend to your own grief in non-child spaces, turn off the news when they’re around, assure them you are here to protect them, etc). Protecting children from the burden of tragedy is certainly a goal I wholeheartedly agree with.

But yet, I was left uncomfortable with the passive role all this advice leaves for the child: something fragile to be guarded, something brittle that needs a hero. At the JCC, this does not describe the students we know. I wasn’t sure what to do with the dissonance between the advice I was reading and the power and agency that I know children bring with them in the world. And anyways, there were more important things to consider – our collective adult-grief and outrage in the aftermath of the shooting.

With some time to reflect, I’d like to offer a more assertive role for our youngest citizens that reflects their agency as our nation, and our city, deal with rising anti-Semitism. Our children need to be showing up at Jewish events and celebrations. We need to re-dedicate ourselves to showing children the public joy and pride of being Jewish and doing Jewish things.

Yes, we can and should continue to shield our children from the burden of grief. And, concurrently, the advice in dealing with tragedy must include the idea that in the face of those who would deny our Judaism – those modern day King Antiochus-es – we must show our children, and include them in our actions, that we respond like the Maccabees. Rising anti-Semitism is not only something that we should be shielding our children from but also something we can all – our children included – push back against simply by showing up.

When two large swastikas were spray painted on a professor’s office last week at Teachers College, Columbia University, the college responded by having it’s President light the menorah in a large public space. I attended the lighting (I am earning my doctorate at TC) and was overwhelmed at the supportive crowd. Over 200 people filled the room, including many of my professors. I emailed one afterwards saying it was nice to see her there, and she responded by telling me that while she was not Jewish, her husband’s parents were both Holocaust survivors and she felt the need to be there. I replied to tell her that while her in-laws were on the ground in Europe, my Zaydie was flying overhead, conducting bombing raids as part of the US Air Force. Her in-laws and my Zaydie, all those decades ago; and here we both were, again seeing swastikas, in 2018.

The following night, I lingered in the JCC lobby to see something truly amazing: the live performance of Fiddler on The Roof…in Yiddish. I remember my mother collecting words and phrases on napkins from her parents in their elder years. Given that my generation knows of Yiddish as something from the Old Country, as something lost amidst the massive global Jewish migration in the 20th century, I never would have imagined the scene in the lobby. Every chair was packed, the overflow crowd was standing room only. Grandparents were singing along. Nursery school students and alumni sat on their parents’ laps. For me, this was a shocking expression of Jewish continuity, strength, and pride. Here was a room full of Maccabees, holding on tightly to our Jewish pride and heritage. Refusing to let go.

Today, I received an email from Emunah Garfield, associate teacher in room 3, reviewing a talk she heard last night about Chanukah. She wrote to me what she learned:

While the Greek conception of fire was as a basic element, an unalterable, essential part of the world, the Jewish idea is that Adam found flintstones on the first Saturday night and rubbed them together to create fire. She [the speaker] elaborated that in havdalah [the ceremony to mark the end of Shabbat], the blessing isn't borei ha'eish (creator of fire), but borei me'orei ha'eish (creator of the SOURCE of fire). Her bottom line was that when you think about fire in the Torah, it's a provocation to humanity to take action.

With Emunah’s email, I realized what all the advice-emails were missing in how to interact with young children in the aftermath of Pittsburgh, in the face of anti-Semitism. It is not only to protect them from grief. It is also to kindle them together, to make fire, to take action. To celebrate and show our children the strength of our community.

Shabbat shalom and happy Chanukah,