With the Fourth Graders, after Pittsburg

This writing needed to sit for a while before I was ready to share it here. The events happened in late April, and I wrote most of this over the summer. Now finally posting today.

The director of my temple’s religious school comes into my office a few minutes before I am due to go downstairs and lead our fourth graders in their weekly prayer service.

“I just heard from the fourth grade teacher,” she says, rushed. “The children definitely have questions about the shooting in Poway. And they just read a picture book about Kristallnacht. So they have questions about the Holocaust, too.”

I raise my eyebrows, and nod with a slight frown. Ok. Not what I was expecting on a Tuesday afternoon. Not only do my fourth graders need to process the second shooting at a synagogue this year, but they also happen to have just started learning about the Holocaust. A case of terrible timing you couldn’t make up if you tried.  

The director and I agree that, if possible, I will keep the students on track to have a regular prayer service, and not answer more than a few questions. The music will be comforting and routine is important, especially in hard times.

In the hall, a flash of memory surfaces. I am eight years old in Newton Girls Soccer, on a field bordered by pine trees. The team’s coach teaches us about Happy Feet – a cute name for the best practice of staying on the balls of your feet during a soccer game by taking little constant steps. If you do it, you are ready to run in the right direction when needed, and able to change course in a split second.

In two minutes I will face twenty souls brimming with unanswerable questions. I head down the stairs, on the balls of my feet.

The students are seated with their teachers around a U of tables. I ask them to write their questions down on slips of paper. As they pass them into me, and return to their seats, hands shoot straight up. Eyes are wide and unblinking. The idea of a normal prayer service after a few questions is unviable. Happy Feet saves me and I change course quickly, offering them a choice to stay with me and discuss their questions, or leave the room to sing and pray with their teachers. The class divides almost exactly in half.

The children who stay sit with me in a circle on the floor and I look at their slips of paper.

The timing of the Poway tragedy and the planned fourth grade curriculum on the Shoah has brought up a cacophony of associations at once poignant and gruesome. The slips of paper with their penciled handwriting, some round and neat, others scrawled and slanted, essentially alternate between the two topics, mixing collective trauma with the frenzied quest for details of the American news cycle. “How many people died in the shooting? Was anything destroyed? (like a Torah)?” “What is a concentration camp? How many people were killed in the Holocaust?” “Why did Hitler target the Jews?” “Why do people target us?” “How fast would the police come to our temple if we push the emergency button?” And the once that stuck in my heart like a piece of dry bread in the throat: “How to I overcome the fear I have?”

The slips of paper have been torn hastily by one of the younger teachers. The edges are rough, with paper fibers fuzzy on the sides when I look closely later. Holding them of paper in my hand, my heart, too, comes apart.

I first sort the pile of questions into two – carefully disentangling historical genocide from this week’s deadly hate crime, teasing apart the flavors of an ancient hatred. I want to do anything I can possibly do to avoid more connection in their minds between the Poway shooting and state sanctioned mass murder, if only to ease their nerves the little bit that I can.

With tears brimming behind my own eyes, I do the best I can to follow the instructions I have been taught: answer only what the children ask; answer as concisely as possible; be honest when I don’t know an answers; remind them that incidents are very unlikely; articulate that the grown ups are doing lots of things to protect them.

One person was killed. I don’t know if anything like a Torah was destroyed. If we call the police from our Temple, they would be here in just a few minutes. Please remember that these incidents are very scary but incredibly unlikely. People target us because when human beings are scared, they like someone to blame. Most hatred comes out of anger and fear. Throughout history, it’s been easy to blame minorities, even though they are not the cause of the trouble. Just remember that anti-Semitism has nothing to do with Jews. It has to do with the troubles of the society that feels the anti-Semitism.

 

Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Yes, people other than Jews were killed too.  I won’t tell you what a concentration camp was other than to say it was bad. You will probably learn when you are older and there is no need for you to know now. Hitler targeted Jews because his society was hurting badly, and he needed someone to blame to help him rise to power. There was a history in Europe of anti-Semitism.

Feeling afraid is normal and ok – it is a feeling that will come and go. Try to feel it a little, and then come back out of the feeling and do something that connects you to here and now. Sing, read a book, cuddle with your parents, play with a friend. Sometimes life is scary, but we are not ever alone. And the grown ups in your life are doing everything possible to keep you safe, and these incidents are very unlikely.

The conversation is something like having my heart go through a Vitamix.

They look to me for answers, and they appreciate all the information but only want exactly the right amount. One little girl goes to sing with her teachers as soon as I’ve answered her question. I silently commend her for knowing how to take care of herself. When I tell them I won’t describe a concentration camp, I see relief in their faces, and trust. We wanted to ask but we didn’t want to know, their silence said. Then I notice my own ten-year-old self sitting there in front of me - frightened, slightly fascinated by the drama and attention the Holocaust gets, furious that this conversation needs to happen 26 years in the future. When I was in fourth grade, the Holocaust was fifty years ago and seemed like ancient history. Now I am 36, it’s been 75 years since the camps were liberated and sometimes it feels to me like 1945 was last Tuesday. These children do not need to be warned that anti-Semitism is real.  These children do not need be taught any content about the Holocaust.

What they do need is grown up partners to walk alongside them in the beautiful and unsafe world they live in. They need people who will respect them as warriors of honesty, and who will not try to hide from their questions. They need people willing to be held us up to the light, insistently, to hear the questions that need to be asked. They accept “I don’t know” as an answer. They do not accept false certainties. They accept grief and honesty. “I am sad too. Yes, it is scary that this happened.” They reject platitudes like “It can’t happen here.”

 At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, it is someone’s job to sweep up all the notes that fall out of the cracks onto the ground. No one proof-reads them to see if they are holy enough to merit special treatment. They are all treated as sacred fragments, and buried in a geniza instead of recycled or thrown away. I haven’t yet been able to let go of the bundle of notes that hold my students’ questions on them. Maybe I will take them with me the next time I go to Jerusalem, and carry them to the Western Wall. Or maybe I will bury them here, on American soil, planting the wholeness of a broken heart into the land of my own beloved and gravely wounded country.