Talking About Genocide on the Playground
Yesterday afternoon I woke up from my Shabbat nap to my eight-year-old daughter standing over my bed. Her face was scrunched up in confusion. Before I was even fully awake I mumbled, “What’s wrong?”
She replied, “Something happened.”
My husband helped tell the story. Apparently, they (my two children and my husband) had been playing in a local park when a little girl walked up to them. My five-year-old had been trying to play with her. Instead of playing with him, the little girl asked them, “What are those hats on your heads?”
He answered, “Kippot. We wear them because we are Jewish.”
“My mom hates Jews. We listen to music at home that says that we should kill Jews.”
Before anyone could respond, her father noticed whom she was talking to, yelled at her and pulled her away.
To not make a scene, my family played a little while longer and then began the long walk home through our quiet New Jersey town.
During the walk, a car full of teenagers drove past my family, and one kid stuck his head out the window. He shouted, “JEWWWW!” and vanished up the street.
Two anti-Semitic incidents in one hour.
By the time they got home, my daughter was distressed. “I don’t understand, Ima. Why would that girl say those things to us? Why would she say she hated us? We just wanted to play.”
I took a deep breath. I knew this conversation was long coming. We had begun it a few weeks ago when on Yom Hashoa we had a long talk about the Holocaust. I had begun to explain anti-Semitism then, explaining to her (as much as her age allowed) some of the horrors that our people faced because of that hatred. But she didn’t understand why people would hate us. Or what hate even really meant.
She lay her head on my lap, her eyes darkened by the shadows growing beneath. Seemingly exhausted with sadness. I struggled to talk, trying to explain primordial conflicts, clash of cultures and religious wars to an eight-year-old. Every so often I would check in and ask her, “Do you understand better now?” Every time she would respond, “It’s really hard to understand. I’m beginning to see, but it just feels fuzzy to me.”
For a few hours after our conversation, she seemed a bit glazed over. As Shabbat ended, she was curled up on the couch next to me. We sang Mizmor Li’David, and Yedid Nefesh, as a way to end that seemingly never-ending day. When we were finished, I could see she was still thinking about it. “Ima, what’s that word again? Anti, anti, semi-something. What’s that word?”
“Yes, anti-Semitism. I have to remember that word.”
And then my heart broke, for a small part of her innocence was stolen from her. Her clarity that kids are just kids, and playing is fun, was made murky. The thought that the world is safe, and if you extend yourself in kindness, kindness will be returned, is gone. Now there are children talking about genocide on the playground.
When she was young I could hide things from her. Terrorist attacks. Wars. Politics. I kept her blissfully unaware of the torrent of violence, familiar tropes of Jew-hating, calls for our people to be pushed into the sea. In the classrooms and message boards in my graduate program, social workers calling for the destruction of Israel. Headlines of rising statistics in the newspapers. Tiki torches in the night declaring, “Jews will not replace us.” Car rammings and stabbings in Israel.
I know that when we get to Israel, it will be far tougher. I will not be able to protect her from knowing anymore. Kids there are so aware of the geopolitical issues of their environment. It makes them resolute and tough. Israel-hating (meaning Jew-hating) is a matter of fact. It’s an issue to contend with, to understand, to stand against, and to protect from.
I know that this is a part of growing up Jewish. I know it’s getting louder than when I was a kid. Today, it’s no longer possible to ignore.
But as a parent, you want better for your child. You want them to be happy and safe. You want them to live holistic and emotionally healthy lives. But as a Jewish parent, we are swimming against the tide. There are realities we must contend with. How do we raise a child to understand where they stand in the eyes of the word, but still feel safe? To understand that goodness is still out there? To love with the strength to be able to carry the burdens and blessings of our people with pride? To carry it with dignity, and even joy?
Parents don’t have all the answers. Yesterday’s conversation felt impossible to me. Every historical event or challenging concept we discussed felt like I was adding fuel to the fire. But now that she’s been exposed to hatred face to face, there are things she needs to know. And I believe in her and her resilience. She, too, will grow to be resolute and tough.
We discussed how in school she was learning about the Brit Bein Habitarim, the “Covenant Between the Pieces,” the moment that God promises Avram to give the land of Israel to his children. Yesterday we connected the pieces that correlate her Torah learning and her life. She knows now that the journey of aliyah that we are about to embark on is a part of the fulfillment of prophecy. And she, like all Jewish children, is a counted grain of sand, and beloved star in the sky.
No matter what they say on the playground.
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.