There was never even a discussion. We just knew that our boys would attend Jewish day school. But when our youngest, a self-determined soul from the very beginning, needed something different from what the yeshiva system could provide, we as his parents found ourselves staring down the tough decision we never thought we’d have to make. It’s been seven years since our son began kindergarten at the local elementary school, named for a Supreme Court justice, not a codifier of Jewish law.
We were not the school’s first Orthodox Jewish family, though we appeared to be the only one in the gym at back-to-school night that fall. My tichel-covered head found its place among bare as well as hijab-draped ones, and we discovered that our name was not alone in being hard to pronounce. Surprisingly, we fit in even as we stood out.
Yet it was a hard thing for me to talk about in our Jewish community. I feared the inevitable, though well meaning, “why” that hung in the air when I mentioned where my son attended school. At first, I tripped over the words, as if they were an admission of guilt or failure. It was only later, after deeper probing, that I built up the courage to pack them into a bold statement.
In his first year, my son was alone among a predominantly Indian and Asian, multiethnic student body of more than 600, but a handful of observant Jewish students joined him in time. Every family in our position has its reasons, ranging from specialized educational or behavioral challenges that are beyond the ken of the smaller yeshivas to skyrocketing tuition bills that are beyond the ken of the parents, and a range of situations in between.
We have been blessed thus far. Our son proudly wears his big yarmulke to school, and he only complained of being uncomfortable when the students flanking him during circle time played with his tzitzis. He had to remind them, “Dude! Those are attached to my body!”
Facing a tough go at his young age, he has nonetheless figured out how to straddle his two worlds, the one of school and the one of Jewish life. He taught his classmates how to identify kosher symbols when shopping for holiday parties. His determination even inspired one mother to bake her son’s birthday cupcakes in our home’s kitchen so they would be kosher.
My son’s daily leaps of faith have led me to fry latkes for his classmates every Chanukah and to bring in charoset just before Pesach. To explain why he could not attend the school’s Friday Family Movie Night, he had me lug in a stack of potato kugels and talk about the meaning of a day of rest. A kindly friend asked me why I’d gone to so much trouble when, after all, this was a group of children for whom Shabbos would never matter. I told her that I’d done it solely for the one among them to whom Shabbos already does.
Still, straddling two worlds means that my son has only one foot in each. Wonderful teachers and rabbis help us create a parallel Jewish educational experience for him, but logistically, his daily activities never intersect with those of his peers in yeshiva. To his enormous disappointment, he also cannot join his own school’s challenge team because major competitions take place on Shabbos.
Though he impresses me each day as he finds his way, even thrives, at school, this piece of us remains a wound that has healed on the surface, yet admittedly still stings in the muscle and tissue below. We have accepted that this choice isn’t really a choice for now, that it was predetermined by God, although there is a gaping what-if-things-had-been-different because it is, to be sure, a hard thing to be different.
Our son entered the sixth grade this September at the local middle school, named for a president, not a rabbi. There is no doubt that the lines we need to draw are getting harder to navigate, the social stakes are higher, and the chasm between my son’s distinct realities continues to widen.
On the first day of school, he experienced a sudden, heightened sense of social awareness true to a middle school student. He simply could not fathom telling eight different teachers to use his Hebrew name instead of the English one that appears on the roster, especially in front of all those new faces. When he reported this to me, I must have given him a pained look that revealed my every worry.
Fixing his yarmulke, he reassured me. “It doesn’t matter what name they call me, Mom. I know who I am.”
Indeed, he does.