The Teachable Moment

Sunday night my son returned from his eighth-grade school trip rafting down the Delaware. He’d obviously had a great time, but, before turning in for the night, he sat down with me to tell me about something that was troubling him.

One of the river guides got on the bus transporting the boys from the boating company to the water and made the following joke:

“I was wondering why when you guys got on the bus it reeked so bad, but then I realized that you guys probably are afraid of showers — because last time your kind took a shower they were killed.”

And then he laughed.

The timing of this event in these boys’ lives makes this a highly “teachable moment” — but as a father, I am struggling with what the most valuable lesson might be.

The very next night, Monday, the same boys displayed the results of the yeshivah’s “Adopt A Survivor” program. The boys had been assigned to each select a survivor and study their lives, to personalize the implications of the churban. The goal, according to the survivor who started the program is for our children to become “surrogate survivors” for future generations.

In my generation, in my neighborhood, this was a far simpler matter. We all were children of survivors. When I was in eighth grade, almost everyone we knew over the age of 35 was a survivor. There was no global current event, no personal triumph or tragedy large or small that wasn’t considered against the backdrop of the war and resonant with the notions of survival and loss — and of many other very dark thoughts and emotions.

We heard people talk passionately about the importance of never forgetting, but it was utterly unimaginable that such things could ever be forgotten. It was the lens through which all our lives were viewed. And yet, did we succeeded in transmitting the right messages? Are we even clear what they are?

The survivor my son chose was my late grandmother, a 19-year-old bride when the war started. He interviewed my mother — herself born in Poland in 1940 and hidden for four years. The stories he heard were many and miraculous. They were painful but also inspirational. Testimony of the improbable survival not just of body, but of faith.

And so it was, I am sure, for all his classmates.

So this particular unpleasant encounter comes at a time when the boys are uniquely aware and sensitive. It is, as they say, a “teachable moment” that deserves to be used wisely.

But the question that plagues me is: What exactly do I want my son to take away from this?

Here in no particular order are suggestions that have been made to me and how they strike me:

Ought we take a stand and protest to the company? Or threaten a boycott unless an apology is forthcoming or action is taken? Is the message that the response to offensive speech is punishment or public shaming?

I’m not inclined toward that approach and think it’s far more counterproductive than helpful. Nobody is convinced, the gap is widened and the zealot has delusions that he’s defended some principle. And, as much as we distract ourselves from this profound truth — no matter how comfortable or even powerful we want to feel — the fact is, we are in galus.

Do I want my son to realize that he’s been blessed to live a cloistered existence but that Jew-hatred and other bigotries abound? To be suspicious of the world and take nothing for granted?

On one level, I do think those are important truths — but I feel that the unpleasant encounter already made this clear to him and, sheltered as he is, his worldview shouldn’t be to assume the worst of humanity, of those different than him. In any event, I daresay there are few yeshivah boys anywhere in the world who are not painfully aware these days that being a Jew makes one a target. And, on balance, I don’t think it’s helpful to say “Esav sonei l’Yaakov — v’idach peirusha” — after all, someone, some family, put themselves at risk for four years to protect my infant mother.

And was this encounter even about anti-Semitism? Maybe he should realize that most Americans — most Westerners — are brought up on movies and video games, and perhaps that creates a sense of unreality and emotional disconnection. Maybe it wasn’t an intended offense, just awkward witticism from a stunted imagination.

Maybe the approach is to reach out with a distinctly non-threatening letter from me and my son asking for a meeting or a call to try to explain the hurt. Maybe even offer to find the right book and send it, if the owner of the company would try to help the jokester understand.

Or maybe the lessons aren’t about other people or the outside world at all. Maybe the experience should be just about remembering how awful it made him feel and committing to always try to have empathy for others, no matter how much or little you seem to share on the surface.

Maybe it is about not tolerating offense, or maybe it’s about learning to endure unpleasantness. Or about teaching others, or about shutting them out.

Or maybe it’s all of these in some measure. And about the wisdom to know what you can and can’t change.

In short, I don’t actually know what to do for my son, except perhaps to share all these competing and conflicting lessons with him.

But the lesson for me seems far more clear. It is just one more reminder that no matter how much we want to protect our children, we can’t keep out the world, and so we’d best prepare them for it.

And that is no comfort at all, because I remember the one lesson my grandmother passed along to me from her mother — who was murdered at age 46 along with her husband, all her other children and almost all her extended family of hundreds of innocent souls — about preparing for the world: “When you run,” my great-grandmother told her teenage daughter, “take a sheet. It will be a washcloth when you are dirty, a towel when you are wet, a blanket when you are cold, a dress when you are exposed and a bandage when you are bleeding.”

That isn’t just a lesson; it’s a legacy.