Ten hours before the start of Yom Hashoah, I drove my children to school. They attend a Jewish school, which was important to me as a secular Jewish woman without the time to invent a million craft projects to squeeze in between a secular school's Christmas and Easter related activities. Their Lutheran father is completely on board with this decision.
As I pointed the car towards down the street, wondering to myself whether or not I’d have the emotional energy left in me this evening to take them to our local Jewish community’s Yom Hashoah observance, one of my precocious six year olds asked about the news on the radio.
“Did that woman just say she doesn’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?”
“Yes, that woman doesn’t want to vote for either of them.”
“Does she want to vote for Bernie Sanders?”
“No, she doesn’t want to vote for him either.”
I sighed. “She says it’s because she’s Christian, and there are a lot of Christians who wanted Ted Cruz to be president.”
“Because Ted Cruz wanted to make it so our country was really only for Christian people like them.”
“No, not like Daddy. There are lots of kinds of Christians. Daddy’s the kind of Christian who believes you should always be kind to everyone, even if they disagree with you. Ted Cruz, and probably that lady, are the kind of Christians who believe that everyone should be Christian, and that everyone should follow all the things the Bible says, even when those things are wrong.”
“Like what things?”
“Like that women shouldn’t be allowed to do all the things men do, or be in charge of their own bodies. They think everybody should have to say Christian prayers in school, and follow Christian holidays. They believe that the Bible is exactly what God said, and that it’s their job to make sure everybody thinks so too.”
“What about Jewish people?”
“There are lots of different kind of Jewish people, too. The kind of Jewish people Mommy is believe people wrote the Torah, but it was God’s idea. So that means there are lots of mistakes in it, and it’s our job to spend our whole lives studying it, and figuring out what it really means. Like at Passover, when we talk about how many plagues there actually were in Egypt, and the one rabbi said there were three hundred plagues.”
“You’re Jewish, and Daddy’s Christian, so we’re Christian AND Jewish!”
I sighed. We had finally come to this moment, now, thanks to Ted Cruz.
“That’s not really true, sweetie.”
I’ve had this conversation in my head a thousand times. With every person who’s tried to tell my children they’re “just as” Christian as they are Jewish, and know nothing about what it means to be Jewish. And now here I am, ten hours before the start of Yom Hashoah, and I am having it in the car.
“Being Christian is a choice. Every person who wants to be Christian has to make the choice to believe that Jesus Christ is God, and that Jesus is the messiah. Jews don’t believe that. They believe that God is Hashem, and that the messiah hasn’t come yet. They believe that when the messiah comes there will be no more war and suffering, but there’s still war and suffering in the world. Christians say Jesus said he’ll come back, and THEN there won’t be war or suffering, and Jews say that’s not how it’s supposed to work. But to be Christian, you have to decide that you believe it, that you believe Jesus is God, and that you want to do what you think he said to do. But being Jewish is different.
“Being Jewish is about knowing your family history, which is much bigger than your family. It’s a whole culture, a whole ethnicity and race. Being Jewish means being Jewish even if you don’t believe in God at all, because you come from a people who are defined by other people as much as by themselves by their history.
“Being Jewish means your family were slaves in Egypt, just like we talked about at the seder. YOU and ME and our whole family, we were slaves. And then our family, we spent forty years wandering in the desert. And then our family, we built a kingdom in Israel for hundreds of years. And then our family, with Esther and Mordechai, made the Persian Empire a safe place for Jews to live in, and that’s why we celebrate Purim. And then your family, your people, fought off the Greeks when they tried to make us all be Greek and worship Greek gods, and that’s why we celebrate Channukah. And then your family ran away from the Caliphate and moved into Spain, until the Catholic King and Queen decided no Jews were allowed anymore. And YOUR FAMILY, great-grandmommy’s family and great-granddaddy’s family, moved into Poland and Germany and Russia. And then the people from those countries decided they didn’t want to have any Jewish people living there- not because of what Jews believe, but because being Jewish is being born a part of a people who are different from most of the people around them, and that makes us a different race of people. And the people in Germany and Poland and Russia made a war against the Jewish people, and YOUR FAMILY were captured by the Nazis.”
My eyes stung, and in the moment it took for me to breathe through the urge to weep, through a surge of memories of conversations with the great-grandma who was my inquisitive daughter's namesake, and the day I went alone to the National Holocaust Museum, and the socks my grandmother left me, left to her by her grandmother, who had moved halfway across the world fleeing persecution and seeking out safety and landed in Chicago in the years before the Holocaust began, the inevitable followup question came.
“Mommy, what did the Nazis do when they captured the Jewish people?”
“They put them in places called concentration camps, where they wore rough clothes and had their hair cut off, and given almost no food, and made to work as slaves for a long time. And then, when the Nazis decided they were done working, they killed them.”
In my head I saw black and white footage of cannon fire, of airplanes exploding in the air, of tanks and ships, and above all, guns, but that was not the answer she needed. “Lots of ways, sweetie, but mostly with poison gas. They told the people to go into a room to take a shower, but instead of water, gas came out of the shower.”
“Did that kill the people?”
“Yes. Great-grandmommy’s cousins and Poppa’s Poppa’s family and six million people in your family were killed, because they were born Jewish, just like you. Even if they decided once they grew up that they wanted to be Christian. Even if they believed in nothing at all. Even if only one of their grandparents were Jewish."
"They killed kids?"
"Yes, sweetheart. Kids, and babies, and old people, and sick people. They killed six million Jews, and millions of people who were gay or Romani or who were also different from the Nazis. But some of your family ran away from the Holocaust to America. Here we’ve been allowed to be Jewish, and study the Torah, and pass along our history.”
"Mommy? Are you crying?"
"Yes honey. I'm thinking about all the people who were killed. People Ted Cruz and Donald Trump don't think should be treated the same as other Americans. That's never okay. It's never okay to be mean to people because they were born different from you. That's what we remember on Yom Hashoah. We remember the Holocaust, when so many people in our family were killed by the Nazis. When you and me would have been killed by the Nazis, no matter what we believe, because even if someday you decide you want to be Christian, like Daddy, to your family and most of the rest of the world, you are already Jewish. And as Jews, it's our job on Yom Hashoah to look around us and see if there's anyone who would want to hurt other people just for being born who they are, and to do what we can to stop them.”
There was a moment of silence in the car, while the children tried to wrap their heads around the Holocaust, and I contemplated having this conversation now, when I’m not certain I’ll have it left in me to get my coughing, snotty, tired children to shul to commemorate the lives and deaths of so many. I think to myself that I have to, after this car ride. I think to myself that between Ted Cruz talking about making this a Christian country, and Donald Trump talking about carpet bombing the Muslim families of suspected terrorists, it's my job to try to stop something very bad from happening now.
“Mommy? Does Daddy know we’re Jewish?”
“Yes, sweetie,” I say. “He didn’t really understand it when he and Mommy first got married, but he understands it now. And Daddy and I love you no matter what else you decide to be. I’ll love you if when you grow up you decide you’re Christian, and I’ll love you if you decide you’re nothing at all. But I want you to grow up knowing this part of you, this story of your family and where we came from.”
There were no followup questions. We drove the final blocks to school quietly, the children watching the flowers out the windows, and me, grateful that after so many long lectures about life, the universe, and everything while making this drive, they didn’t interrupt me or divert me from my purpose.
“I’m glad Ted Cruz won’t be president,” one daughter concluded. “I don’t want anyone to make me stop being Jewish.”
“No one can ever make you stop being Jewish, sweetie,” I cooed, ignoring the opportunity to talk about policy, checks and balances, and the role of state versus federal government. “No one can ever make you stop being who you are.”
Read more about how we should talk about interfatih parenting here: What My Five Year Old Taught Me About Jesus On Passover
Read my latest post here: I Was Flashed
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