A Message to Our Jewish Children
Here are some horrible things that I and all Jewish parents must tell our children:
My child, come here, we need to talk. For a moment, put down your toys, your games, and your learning. Leave youth behind, for just a moment. And, with it, the innocence you had before you heard these words. What I have to say is very serious and very painful. Yes, that is a tear you see on my cheek now and more will join it — but just know that it falls down a face which will never look away from your security. That is why, in the midst of these tears, I tell you this.
You do not look Jewish. And, as such, you are given a painful ultimatum. My heart, you have the choice to display or not the modern markers of your identity. Be aware, however, if you choose to live by your religious or cultural pride by covering your hair with a yarmulke or your neck with a Jewish star, you are choosing to put a bullseye upon your head or before your chest. You will be harassed, berated, bullied, and possibly attacked.
If you make this decision, remember the following: if it is simple harassment: swallow your pride, walk away, fast but not too fast. Don’t look at the harassers but somehow don’t look away either. Do not make eye contact. Do not bow your head, but do not look up either. Stare straight, stay focused, and, if possible, deaf. Most of all, do not answer any questions, especially if those questions are: “are you too good to answer me? Why won’t you speak?” There are no right answers.
My daughter, do not think you will be any safer in a white community or a community of people of color. The Left and Right will squeeze you, darkness and light will shadow you, ignorance and education will teach you, rich and poor will rob you, white and black, religious and irreligious, democrat or socialist, progressive or conservative, will all find fault with your existence. So, my child, somehow, find the humanity to love those within the communities you travel, and offer aid to the stranger when you can even though you should expect no safety and no succor yourself. You will be as foreign as any foreigner wherever you roam, so prepare for that loneliness — and the vulnerability, the trauma across generations which it creates.
My Dearest, walk in groups. This way, should you be attacked, at least one of you can get away and seek help. Yell loudly. Be prepared to go to many to find help because most will first ignore a Jew in need. I am sorry to tell you this but do not run to synagogues — too many of them have been locked up — for safety, ironic though that may seem.
Son, I know the worst torture is feeling like you must renounce your religion, your beliefs, your family, history, hopes, dreams, your very essence. I am so sorry to say this but you might begin to feel like it is a choice between your life and your Life. Which will you choose?
Unlike others, you can remove the target on your back — but would a Black man remove his blackness even if he could? Would you ever ask him to? Should a trans person suffer in the wrong body to avoid persecution, or a member of the LGTBQ community pretend to be anything but what they are to avoid the hatred of the homophobe? You are right my son, we would not. We should all be safe in who we are.
As a proud father, I want you to represent yourself and to express yourself however you see fit. But, as a father, as your father, I want you to live, to thrive, to walk the streets safe and unmolested. I want to know that when you go out in the morning, you will return in the afternoon — and so, all that other stuff is just noise and I wish you could not look Jewish, at least for a little while longer.
But, then again, that safety is only fleeting. I want you to know that if you choose to not outwardly identify as Jewish, you will find yourself in places where they wouldn’t normally accept Jews. Because no matter how much you pass, no matter how assimilated you are, no matter how many white friends you have, no matter how many Black or brown friends, no matter how many anything at all, you will inevitably be in a room, or many, where a joke will be made. It might be simple, about money. Or worse, about control of the government, or worst about Hitler. Regardless, be aware. Be prepared. It will happen.
So, my child, what will you do then? What will you do when the artifice of unity has been ripped apart? Will you turn away from who you are to fit in or will you, and I know this is scary, announce yourself and wait for the consequences?
What are those consequences?
Let me speak plain and simple. Since the beginning of time, they have tried to kill us. Not us in this room, but all of us. Well, I guess that means us in this room — you and I. But also your Saba and Safta, cousins you’ll never know, those who were never born. And this hate is neither rational nor sane. We absolutely did not cause it — although, if you read enough, hear enough, fear enough, you might just start to think that we did. Because you existed and, for some, that is just too much. They are so triggered by the breath of one single Jew that they’re thrust into a frenzy of hate and bloodlust. How dare we breathe after they have tried so hard to choke us beneath their predation?
This will hurt even more, because I know you to be kind and trusting, but the “they” will hunt us, chase us, choke the breath from us. And it is the “they” you least expect. It is the they you have come to know. The they who hug you and gently place the knife into your back and those that whisper encouragement and justification around them. I myself didn’t believe this until the they revealed themselves. I saw them.
Listen to me. No, listen to them. I didn’t believe it either. It will happen. Every 50 years or so, they come for us. They announce themselves with boycotts, then slogans, then marches, then personal attacks, then they will come for us. Every 50 years or so and that clock is ticking loudly. Do you hear it? Do you hear time coming for you?
It will not be guns and bombs, nukes or clubs. It will be far more intimate. They want to choke us. I say choke because it is bare handed, visceral, and violent. I choose my words wisely. This is bloody in its paranoia but the hands you shake, they will seek your neck. We have spoken too much into this world so they want your breath.
I am sorry to plant such horrible thoughts inside your head and I lament the twisted, gnarled, bitter fruits it may grow, but I would rather you be alive, breathing free, than choked below ground.
My son, I am not a smart man nor a strong man. I wish I was more of both for you. But, I am a man who is aware. And I am honest. And I am prepared. And, now, so are you.
I am sorry we had to have this talk.
With thanks to Allison Josephs, who first made me aware of this truth in her Jew in the City blog on July 14, 2020, in an article titled: “You Know The Talk Black Parents Have With Their Sons: You Never Heard Of The Ones Jews Have.” After writing this and then re-reading her piece, I realize I was inspired not just by her idea but even by some of her phrasing. I decided to write my own because, as a more secular Jew than she, my “talk” was different, but I could not have done this without her brilliant insight.
Craig Dershowitz is the Executive Director of Artists 4 Israel.