Last year, in Kindergarten, Sarah was learning about community heroes at school. She instantly fell in love with the idea; picturing the teachers, police officers, firefighters and nurses of our community all wearing secret capes under their uniforms and flying around town looking for people to rescue and save.
As I’ve come to learn through my adventures in parenting, children have the perfect perspective of life and their wisdom should be deeply contemplated by adults, not disputed, as they still see magic in the world us grownups have long since forgotten. Yes, my favorite book is still The Little Prince, so my worldview and real-world responsibilities can be quite disparate at times.
We were on our first ever trip to Israel last month. As we stood on the sidewalk below the towering walls of the ancient city of Jerusalem, a group of IDF soldiers marched by, weapons across their chests, neatly in a line, focused and purposeful in their cadence. Sarah’s forced smile for our family portrait suddenly burst into a genuine grin spreading up through her eyes as though the lamp of the world had just been illuminated. Delighted, she pointed and chirped, “Look, Mommy, the heroes of Israel!” I caught my breath deep in my chest, somewhere between admiration of these young Israeli citizens, sacrificing and contributing to society before they’ve even paid a single shekel in income tax, and pride in my daughter’s respect for the right kind of role models, not that Hannah Montana isn’t a delight.
My reflective moment was cut short when she yelped, “Look! A girl one! Mommy, do you see her?!!” Her enthusiasm caught the attention of the entire squad as they turned their heads and waved to my daughter with warm, welcoming smiles. Isaac, our precocious two-year-old, was determined to get in on the action and started waving and shouting greetings to the next squad as they were walking toward him in their training exercise. A few men even put their hands out for our little guy to slap as they walked past him on the road. Isaac has been known to let out a sweet giggle along with his high fives, but reading his sister’s reaction, he seemed to understand these were special people. He let out his happiest laugh, as they each turned up the apples of their cheeks with an unspoken greeting, and he grabbed their hands for a hearty handshake. After the first young man stopped the line to enjoy the exchange, others huddled around to admire our lovely offspring. Pinching Isaac’s baby fat cheeks, stroking Sarah’s long hair, patting our son’s cute mini-kippah, the soldiers and our children acted as though it were a family reunion, not some cladder of tourists posing for a photo op.
It was in that perfect moment that our extraordinary new friend, the most gifted photographer in all of Israel, Yonit Schiller, spoke to the group in flawless Hebrew. As her lovely voice carried through the crowd, I was reminded of an offhanded comment our Rabbi once made. “If you don’t know Hebrew, there’s no hope for you,” he said in the context of an upcoming class on the mysteries and meaning behind the Aleph-Bet. He might be right, as I had no idea what Yonit told these brave young ladies and gentlemen, but we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by the entourage of Zion’s guardians. Our children, by the sheer merit of their beautiful hearts, enticed the entire platoon to stop and welcome our little family to the homeland of all our people.
Overwhelmed with the spirit of nationalism and love, but sure not to miss the opportunity, Yonit’s talented instincts pointed her lens right toward the middle of this extraordinary moment. My husband and I caught one another’s eye with an expression of shock and gratitude, as we knew this was a one-of-a-kind experience. After the group glanced toward the camera for Yonit to turn this memory into our next Rosh Hashanah card, the soldiers proceeded to hug, kiss and shake hands with our precious babies. As they returned to formation and continued to their training, the new bounce in their step could be seen from the top of the ramparts walk to the end of the Damascus Gate. It was a heartwarming interaction for all.
Sarah ran up to slip her hand in mine, skipping as her inquisitive mind began to spin. She asked me how many girl soldiers were in the IDF, how old someone has to be before they can become an Israeli hero, if they were allowed to have a cat in their soldier houses, and if they ever got hurt when they were helping other people. I stopped our procession and knelt down to answer her eye to eye, holding her hand over my heart. “Yes sweetheart, sometimes they do get hurt trying to help other people. It’s very sad when it happens, and they are very brave to be willing to take that chance to protect all of Israel,” I attempted to explain while choking on the sadness of learning she thought about such morbid truths, even in such a happy moment. Her mood turned serious as she processed my response. We continued through the opening of the Old City walls and down a narrow passageway, below the sign marking entry to the Jewish Quarter.
“Are we near G-d’s wall, Mommy? I need to do something,” Sarah asked pensively.
“It’s not far from here, if you would like to see it,” Yonit said.
I pushed Isaac’s stroller up and down the cobblestone road, trying earnestly to hold my tongue and let Sarah share her schemes with us when she saw fit. As we arrived at the Western Wall Plaza, Sarah requested a pen and paper to prepare her prayer. She began to scribble furiously, only looking up to ask for assistance here or there. “How do you spell smoking, Mommy?” and my restraint collapsed! “Smoking, honey? Why on earth are you putting smoking in your note for G-d, sweetheart?”
Rather matter-of-factly, my seven-year-old mini-doppelganger looked me squarely in the eye and said, “because I want G-d to help the heroes stop smoking so they won’t get hurt when they are helping the Jewish people.” I was rendered mute with humility, but managed to get out the letters she requested to help her complete her prayer.
As I watched my sweet, American daughter-of-our-matriarchs swing her arms happily as she approached the sacred wall to find a nook or cranny for her note, I couldn’t help but reflect on the differences in our cultures. Israeli Jews and American Jews share so much of our history, our hearts and our hopes, but thereafter very little else. In our town in Texas, where smoking is so thoroughly prohibited, Sarah’s only exposure has been through health education where she has learned to equate it with harm, illness and death. She has also learned the comfort and security of living in a place free of the daily threat of war, terrorism, and civil unrest. For her, the biggest danger these men and women face is from lighting a cigarette, not from the flint of an enemy rifle or the launch sequence of a rocket. Yet her compassion is so sincere and her loyalty so sweet, that her first concern is to ask for G-d’s help and protection of these capeless heroes.
So, I’m sorry to report my dear Rabbi was wrong. For us, for our children, and for the future of Israel and the Jewish people, even though I may never know what Yonit said to make the IDF soldiers stop and share an impactful moment with our family, there certainly is hope for us.
L’dor V’dor, Am Yisrael Chai!
Elisheva Freed is a self identified Artreprenuer living near Richardson, Texas, with her husband and two children. Originally from Squirrel Hill, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and deeply effected by the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018, one week before her grandfather’s yahrzeit, a member of the very same congregation, Elisheva’s pilgrimage to Israel restored the family’s dormant interests in pursing aliyah. IYH, they will settle in Ra’anana in 2020 where they look forward to both HOPE and learning Hebrew.