Photographic memories

Photographic memories

I have two roles in my professional life. Daytime, I am a teacher who happens to be Jewish and afternoons and Sundays I am a Jewish teacher. The roles, while different, are never in conflict. Each morning, I head over the George Washington Bridge in some kind of carpool, creeping toward the Bronx, where I am a Title I teacher assigned to a Catholic parochial school. Two afternoons, after retracing my path, I head to two different New Jersey synagogues, where I am a Hebrew school teacher. (On Sunday mornings, I teach at only one of them.) The afternoon students are quite familiar with my day job, but not the other way round because Title I and religion do not mix. My Bronx students do know that I am Jewish, as it does come up in conversation, particularly in late December. They are not totally sure what that means. One first-grader said, "You’re Jewish?" A split second after my affirmative response, he countered with, "Are you a vegetarian?"


All of my students and schools are familiar with my other major role in life: mother of a young adult son who lives in Israel and is married to an Israeli. Ironically, it is that last fact that gives me a bit of status in my Bronx school. Most of my students are Hispanic, and every once in a while, I am asked which Spanish-speaking country my family is from. Previously, I would twirl my globe and point to Ukraine and Lithuania. The inquiring student would then nod and ask whether my family speaks Spanish. So, I would try to explain about Yiddish. No longer. My Israeli daughter-in-law’s father’s family is Sephardic, originally from Spain and they speak Ladino, a sort of Spanish Yiddish. So, now I tell my Bronx students that although I don’t speak Spanish, my daughter-in-law’s family speaks Ladino and I explain what Ladino is. The kids are happy, my status is raised, and my daughter-in-law’s father is duly impressed with his family’s impact on Catholic kids so far away in the Bronx.

My role as mother does often intersect with my role as Hebrew school teacher, and I frequently travel to Israel, often combining teaching (ESL in Holon one recent summer) or visiting teachers and schools (several times both alone and with other teachers from my federation) with visiting my own kids. While I realize that teaching is similar even in different settings and different subjects, my most recent visit helped me to note some less pleasant connections.

While at a school in Nahariya, I passed a wall of black-and-white photographs several times, not really looking at them until right before I left. That’s when, upon inquiry, I was informed that those are pictures of students from that very school who had died in Israel’s various wars. Then I really looked and I saw them, young people in the first promise of youth: girls with waving pageboys from the 1940s and short pin-curled bobs from the 1950s, boys sporting the mustaches of the 1970s. Some smiling, some serious, and all dead. Lost forever to this world, but captured for eternity during the unfulfilled days of their brief youth, before the mature years that never came. And I realized that everyone in that school passes those pictures every day and they probably almost never notice them either. And the fact that early death in war is so unremarkable is the saddest thing of all. And I thought that at least here in America, none of my students pass a wall like that each day.

But then I remembered that there is another wall that I pass each day and never see. The first floor of my Bronx school has a memorial display as well. And I promised myself that when I got back from Israel, I would really look at that wall and see it. And I did. There are photographs and articles and notes about alumni and parents of students who died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Some were hero firefighters who died trying to save others and some were unlucky folks who died in the pursuit of the mundane — going to work, starting a seemingly normal day on a lovely September morning that ended the world that so many of us had thought would last forever. And when they left home that morning which now seems to belong to a time called "before," they had no idea that there was already a war that was coming here and that they would be casualties of something that they didn’t even know existed.

So here I am, the teacher who is Jewish and the Jewish teacher and I think of all of my kids and all of the kids everywhere, in Israel, here in America and in so many other places, who pass walls of death and don’t see them because what’s the big deal? And I think of the universality of murder and terrorism, things that I didn’t know much about when I was a child, but which today’s kids can’t escape anywhere. I remember the woman sitting next to me on the plane home who said that after 9/11, she stopped worrying so much about her kids in Israel. I remember feeling the same way. It wasn’t that I thought that Israel had become so safe, it was and still is a feeling that nowhere is or may ever be safe again.

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