Explaining the world view of Jews and Zionism to your children.
Jeffrey L. Bernstein
Special to the Jewish News
t is time to have "The Talk" with my
No, not that one. That one, I think I
can handle. Birds, bees, flowers, how babies
are made. Easy stuff.
The talk I have in mind seems a lot
more daunting. It's about being Jewish and
Zionist in a world that has minimal toler-
ance (if even) for either.
My oldest son is 8. He's really, really
smart and he's sensitive. He understands
the world, to a degree. From where he sits,
things are good (except when he has to
clean the family room); and the world is
basically a fair and just place (except when
he has to clear the dinner table). Being
Jewish is fun. We go to shul every Shabbos,
where he feels completely at home. He
sometimes gets to go up on the bimah and
lead Adon Olam. Jewish rituals at home are
enjoyable, and the communal celebrations
are special. What's not to like?
Oh, yeah, the fact that much of the world
wants your people's homeland eradicated
and that large numbers of people would
be perfectly OK if you yourself were to be
eliminated as well.
Take last summer's round of hostilities
in the Middle East. We talked about that
a little bit, about how Israel was attacked,
across its borders, by a group that isn't
even a country. We've discussed how this
group cares less about life for the Lebanese
people or even for the quality of life for
their own supporters — they just want to
kill Jews and try to get rid of Israel. How
hard it is to talk about this?!
He's got a simple understanding of the
world: "Shouldn't a country be allowed
to defend itself, Dad?" It seems logical to
him that if a group sits on your borders,
making plain its intention to wipe you out,
that you must take action to protect your
people and your land. How can I tell this 8-
year-old that the moral clarity with which
he views the world is greater than that of
so many others who are much older and,
theoretically, wiser than him?
Or, take the Holocaust. How can I ever
find the words to explain to my child that,
less than a century ago, a world leader took
Zachary, 8, and Jeffrey Bernstein
power, made clear his intentions to racially
cleanse the world of our people, and made
great strides in achieving this goal? How
could he live with the knowledge that so
much of the world, including parts of this
country we love so much, stood by and
watched it happen? How can a sweet, lov-
ing 8-year-old understand this level of
hatred and evil? How can he understand
that people today deny it even happened?
And, someday, we'll talk more about the
pogroms in Russia and the former Soviet
Union. More than the Holocaust, those are
the stories I grew up with. My late grandfa-
ther fled Russia in 1923, leaving everything
behind to escape through the snow in
the middle of the night. He, his younger
brother and his parents came to the United
States to join six siblings already here.
Two older sisters stayed behind with their
husbands and children and were killed in
pogroms. True to his nature, he professed
mainly happy memories of Russia ("Sure,
they tried to kill us. But when they weren't
trying to kill us, life was good!")
My grandmother was less forgiving.
Back when her memory was better, she
could clearly remember the soldiers taunt-
ing the Jews, even once taking her sister
out to be shot. Aunt Jean was blond, how-
ever, so they let her go, thinking she might
not be a Jew! As long as her memory was
present, Grandma always hated to be alone.
At every Passover seder, we read from
the Haggadah how "In every generation,
some enemy rises against us to annihilate
us." For some reason forever lost, Grandpa
always had me read that paragraph at the
seder. I remember being young (maybe I
was 8?) and tripping over the word "anni-
hilate." Now, as I write early on a Sunday
morning, with my son sleeping upstairs, I
trip over it for a different reason.
These words are, of course, true! I sus-
pect I've always known that. As I ponder
the family history, I realize the twist of fate
that sent my family members fleeing the
pogroms to America ("the goldeneh medi-
nah," the golden land) rather than staying
in Europe (where they almost certainly
would have perished in the Holocaust) or
heading to Palestine (where my ancestors,
and I, would have been on the front lines
of countless Israeli wars for survival). And,
as the current round of enemies tries to
go nuclear or devise schemes to fly planes
into tall buildings so they can kill the
inhabitants of them, the words of the seder
seem eerily prophetic.
Too Much Tsores
The text of the Haggadah continues that
In every age, God rose up to save us:"
My own theology takes comfort in this
fact; I suspect my son's developing theol-
ogy would as well. But I struggle with
the notion of why, yet again, we should
need to be saved, whether by God, by
our own actions, or some combination
of the two? What do I say when my son
asks why things cannot just be easy and
comfortable; even if we are saved in every
generation, why do we need all this tsores
I'm a professor, so thinking about larger
questions is what I do — it is interesting,
and sometimes even productive. My son
and I can, and should, consider questions
about justice for the Palestinians. How can
Israel weigh its legitimate security needs
against the human rights of the Palestinian
people to get to their jobs and live free
from harassment? How can Israel wage a
war that protects its military and security
interests with minimal cost to the enemy's
civilian life and property? Is Israel's moral
obligation to behave in a mentsh-like
fashion affected when its enemies strap
explosives to themselves and use children
as human shields?
I hope I can teach my son to think, and
think hard, about these questions. I look
forward to the day when he is old enough,
and wise enough, to have these discussions
In time, I hope my son and I can con-
sider other questions about this situation.
There are persuasive narratives on both
sides of the conflict — we need to hear
both, triangulate the narratives against
other data, compare the credibility of
sources and reach our own conclusions. I
hope I can teach him how to do this in an
intellectually honest manner.
And, once he reaches his conclusions, I
hope I can show him how to act on them
and become an activist for the vision of the
world as he sees it.
All of this is easy.
But the scary part is preparing him for
those segments of the world that shun this
rational debate. When Israel's opponents,
and Jewry's opponents, celebrate how the
death of their children took Israeli children
with them, I cannot find the words.
When an ideology expressly devoted to
the destruction of "the great Satan" Israel
takes over neighboring territory, how can
I explain how much of the world rejoices?
When Ahmadinejad in 2007 sounds like
Hitler in 1933, and much of the world
seemingly yawns, how do you explain that
to an 8-year old?
It's enough to make me almost want to
hear the question about where babies come
from. I may turn red in doing so, but at
least I can find words for that conversation.
Sleep late today, son. Dad needs some
time to think. II
Jeffrey L. Bernstein is an associate professor of
political science at Eastern Michigan University
in Ypsilanti and, religious affairs vice president
at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor. He
and his wife, Lisa, have two sons, Zachary, 8,
and Solomon, 3.
September 20 • 2007