My two young sons are part of a minority group here in Germany, but no one will ever know unless they choose to divulge it. They’re blond, blue-eyed and (in my obviously biased opinion) absolutely adorable. They love playing outdoors and with vehicle toys, listening and dancing to music, spending time with their friends and families and helping out in the kitchen.
They also happen to be Jewish, and I want them to be proud of it.
As one might imagine, many people have sensitive reactions to hearing “Jews” and “Germany” in the same sentence. When I first moved to Germany many years ago, a lot of my Jewish friends and family were concerned, as the perception of American Jews about contemporary Jewish life in Europe is often a bit biased; there is this idea that every European country is a dangerous place for Jews to live.
In fact, modern-day Germany has treated us really well, generally speaking and also as a Jewish family. We belong to a liberal synagogue with members from Chile, Croatia, Canada and many other international locales, and my kids have shared Jewish holidays at their daycare with their classmates. The Jewish community in Germany today is definitely different than before World War II, as the bulk of the community comes from former Soviet Union countries who were granted entry into Germany primarily during the 1980s and 1990s. Germany’s contemporary Jewish community is international in nature, with a fair amount of American and Israeli Jews as well in cities like Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt.
I often find myself having a dozen conflicted thoughts at once when it comes to raising Jewish kids in our current era. Given the long and painful history of anti-Semitism on this planet coupled with an excessive surge in anti-Semitic acts in recent years, I can’t help but sometimes fall into a dark spiral of what-ifs: What if someone is mean to my kid because they’re Jewish? What if they try to hurt them, because they’re Jewish? Their Christian friends don’t have police cars constantly parked in front of their churches, nor do churches require passports or identification if they want to simply attend a guest service the way you have to do at most European synagogues. It can feel unfair and wrong, and I hate that it has to be that way.
However, I’m proud to be Jewish, and I want my kids to feel pride and positivity about their Jewish identity, with its thousands of years of rich traditions, artistic and literary accomplishments and amazing humans in so many fields who have contributed such treasures to the world. I’d love them to know that people who share their heritage brought the world the theory of relativity, blue jeans, klezmer music, drip irrigation systems, Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, side-splitting comedy, and pacemakers, while being such a tiny minority in the grand scheme of the world population.
I think it’s wonderful to have Judaism as an integral part of our family identity, and I’m excited to share all of that with my sons. They already enjoy celebrating the Jewish holidays throughout the year, learning Jewish songs and hearing stories about different religious traditions.
Then again, I also feel conflicted sometimes. I know that when they go off to school, they will learn little to nothing about Judaism or Jewish culture. Kids in Germany are divided into groups to learn religion based on their family’s religious background, and the kids without a Christian background typically end up in Ethics class. As a result, their peers’ primary exposure to Jews or Jewish culture will mostly be through learning about the Holocaust, instead of learning about a living and thriving community that still exists all over the world today. Ultimately, my kids’ friends’ knowledge of Jews outside of this will be from my kids. We already invite over non-Jewish friends to celebrate Shabbat or Hanukkah with us, and I’ve brought holiday-related books and treats into daycare and preschool for them to share.
It’s great that their peers might have this exposure to our Jewish heritage. But sometimes I do feel frustrated that it’s on our family’s shoulders to make it happen, and that there seems to be so little interest in embracing more of a multicultural society. When you’re part of a minority, by default you become an expert in the traditions and views of the majority. My kids will be experts on everything from Christmas to cathedrals, whereas their peers aren’t likely to learn about Passover or step inside a synagogue at any point during their childhood.
In the end, I don’t really have a definitive answer on how to balance it all: instill Jewish pride in my children while dealing with my concerns about anti-Semitism and discrimination. That’s okay, though. Something that I’ve always loved about Judaism is that it encourages questioning, analyzing and digging deep under the surface. I’m probably not going to have the answers on how to create a perfect balance of education, safety and self-love when it comes to not only my children’s Jewish identity, but many other aspects of their identities too, and how they choose to see themselves. I accept that. In the words of a famous German Jew, Anne Frank, “Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”