My family has grown up with terror. On Sept. 11, 2001, a plane soared above my head as I was walking near my home in Greenwich Village, inexplicably flying so low. Moments later it barreled into the first Twin Tower. I watched from an NYU roof as the first building burned, incredulously asking others nearby, “Is there really a plane inside?” Running back to my daughter’s second grade classroom, 25 blocks north, I saw the second tower implode. As I doubled over, breaking into sobs, a stranger put his hand on my shoulder to console me. For months afterwards I had panic attacks and difficulty sleeping at night.
My 7-year-old kept asking if she was safe. I’d say “yes,” for the first time knowing I couldn’t always protect her. She drew pictures of planes crashing into buildings. Her classmate’s uncle was a firefighter who died that awful morning. In creative writing classes in college, she still reflects how that day impacted her life. She recalls her city of birth turning into a nightmare: showing identification to enter our neighborhood, wearing masks while walking through polluted streets, sleeping on the floor of the living room to minimize the burning smells for months. Then, defying some predictions, New York City evolved into such a safe place that my teenage daughter took the subway home alone late at night. She’s not used to looking suspiciously over her shoulder, fearing terrorism in a temple or kosher store.
I grew up during the air raid drills of the 1950’s, when we were diving beneath our desks. My daughter was privy to school lock-downs during more than 20 school shootings nationwide since Columbine. I fret over whether to let her feel confident in our unsettling world, or to instill enough fear to make her afraid enough to be cautious. This protective parenting conflict was always a bit abstract—until Paris.
She fell in love with French in middle school. Later she studied Arabic, which I encouraged, committed to the idea that our global world problems might be better addressed if more of us shared the same languages. A friend who is the child of Holocaust survivors had a different opinion, initially bristling when I mentioned my daughter’s Arabic studies.
Now just hours after the Paris terrorist attacks and minutes before the scanners would examine my daughter’s carry-on luggage, I blurt out, “Have a few sentences ready in Arabic just in case you ever feel threatened.”
Although France is on its highest terror alert, I’ve been on high Jewish mother alert since last summer, when anti-Semitic incidents became prevalent in Paris and other parts of Europe. “Maybe you should think about studying abroad somewhere else,” I suggested.
“I’ve dreamt about the Sorbonne since ninth grade,” she said. “And you worry too much.”
I was afraid she worried too little. “Don’t go into any synagogues,” I said, feeling guilty asking her to hide her religious background, even though she was raised as a secular Jew. She has always lived peacefully among a multitude of races, religions, and gender identities. But my friend tells me that today’s anti-Semitism in Europe is chillingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
“Don’t tell your host family you speak Arabic,” I warn my daughter on the airport security line. “Not until you feel out their opinions. There’s a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment right now in Paris.”
I don’t want her to hide her Jewish roots or abandon her quest to understand Arabic culture. I do want her to continue to embrace her open-mindedness toward people who don’t look or act like her. It’s a gift to be young and eager to understand—rather than to be suspicious and even hateful. But I’m also a mother who wants my child to be safe.
And so I follow the advice of the U.S. Embassy in Paris that it’s fine to travel, convinced the Air France jet will land on runways that had just reopened after taking precautions during the shoot out. I throw a kiss to my daughter, hiding my tears of excitement and terror.
Our last exchange before take off:
“Thank you for sending me on this amazing journey,” she texts.
“I’m proud of you,” I message back. “But look over your shoulder.”
Candy Schulman is a writer whose essays have appeared in many publications. Follow her on twitter @candyschulman.
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