In 1985, my family’s synagogue in Vancouver, B.C., was firebombed and burned to the ground. Public figures, including the mayor, expressed shock that such a brutal act of anti-Semitism could occur in a city that, even 30 years ago, prided itself on multiculturalism.
But while they were deeply shaken, I don’t think my parents shared the mayor’s sense of disbelief. At the time, the cloud the Holocaust had cast on my family was not so far in the past. I was 9 years old, but I knew the stories well.
I knew that three of my four grandparents were German Jews who escaped the Nazi regime and ended up in New York. I knew that the fourth, my Opi, had been a German Christian who gave up his citizenship to immigrate to the United States and marry my Jewish grandmother.
I knew that my father was named Christopher after the explorer they (somewhat ironically) credited with discovering the country that saved my paternal grandmother from genocide. I knew they had raised my father and his four siblings in my grandfather’s Christian faith, partly as a way to assimilate. I knew that, when she heard my mother was engaged to my father, my maternal grandmother said, “He might not consider himself Jewish, but he will always share your fate.”
My maternal grandmother was familiar with fate. The non-Jewish man to whom she had been engaged in Germany had left her under the pressure of the Nazi rule. She left the country soon after that. But in doing so, she had to leave her parents behind to perish in Auschwitz.
In many ways, my maternal grandmother was right about my father sharing my mother’s fate. Never fully comfortable with Christianity, he was drawn to Judaism. A month after our synagogue’s destruction, and coinciding with my youngest brother’s bris, my father underwent a Jewish ritual of readmission. That synagogue, the one to which he still belongs, was by then as much his as it was my mother’s.
I also knew the story of the Jewish man my maternal grandmother married: Hans, a doctor she met in New York. After being arrested by the Gestapo, he escaped from prison, sneaked across the Czech border and lingered there until he could secure papers for America.
With all these narratives swirling around, it would have been unthinkable to limit discussions of anti-Semitism to the realm of adults. It was something that just came up regularly, say when we were talking about family history, or in response to a local event or personal experience. Now that we are one more generation removed from the horror, though, these conversations emerge less frequently in my home; when it comes to the more painful aspects of our history, I have largely remained silent. But I have begun to realize that this has left my children, now 12, 9 and 3, with some significant gaps in their understanding of the prejudice they could face.
There are probably a million reasons for that. For one thing, my older kids’ dad died suddenly six years ago, and I have wanted to make the world seem safe for them since them.
But that is only part of it.
It’s also that I didn’t want them to be scared to be Jewish. I recall nights spent lying awake as a child plotting where I could hide myself and my two little brothers if Nazis burst into our house and dragged my parents away. Could we all fit in my closet? What If I couldn’t get to them in time? Maybe if I had a fire ladder we could escape out my window. But could Jonathan, age 5, do it on his own if I held on to baby Jeremy? Maybe we should just aim for the closet.
I also had a different experience growing up Jewish in Vancouver 30 years ago than my kids are having where we now live, in Brooklyn. My brothers and I were the only Jewish kids in our elementary school, which had just phased out daily recitations of the Lord’s Prayer the year before I started kindergarten.
It was a place where a music teacher responded to my mom’s request for less overtly religious Christmas carols by saying, “This is one country. We all sing the same songs.” And a place where my high school psychology teacher, after I was absent for Rosh Hashanah, said, “Ellen, you’re Jewish right? If it could save your life, would you use a medical breakthrough discovered by Nazis during experiments on Jews in concentration camps?”
I also encountered my fair share of comments about Jewish noses or cheap Jews, and heard jokes about pennies and gas chambers alongside other offensive fare. Sometimes in those moments I would mention that I was Jewish. But oftentimes I wouldn’t. Neither option felt right.
But my children are being raised in New York, and they attend a school with plenty of other Jewish kids. We live in a city where I anguished over which synagogue to join because I had so many choices; where finding a challah on Shabbat is a no-brainer; and where they have never reported encountering anti-Semitism.
Of course, it’s possible they have encountered it, but simply haven’t identified it as such. Though I have talked to them about the n-word on multiple occasions, I have never mentioned any of the harmful words used to target Jewish people.
Not having those conversations has been a mistake, though, and it was only after the recent events in Pittsburgh that I broached the topic with my 9-year-old. I am glad that I did, even though he got very sad and had trouble sleeping that night.
I am glad for a lot of reasons, not the least being that I recently woke up to discover that someone had shoved a semi-political/semi-religious newspaper under my door. It wasn’t directed at me personally. All my neighbors got the same thing. But among other things, it included an article implicating Jews, or more accurately “Jewish Zionist imps,” in a range of hostile actions. I’ve seen plenty of this kind of stuff before. But I don’t think my kids have encountered it, and if I don’t lay any groundwork, they might not have the tools to process something that, as Jews in today’s world, they are bound to run into.
It has been said that anti-Semitism can be dormant for years, then reappear in times of political turmoil or stress. I became complacent during a time of dormancy, but I am realizing that I need to do more. I need to disabuse myself of the idea that there is no need to broach these topics, that we are long past that. I need to talk to my children about our history, and share family stories. If history has taught us anything, it is that ignoring small forms of hate isn’t the answer; we need to actively combat them, every day, to keep them from becoming something much worse.
Ellen Friedrichs is a health educator, writer and mother living in New York. Find her on Twitter @ellenkatef.