On the Gunman at the French Preschool: For Toulouse, With Love

5 years ago

Toutes mes condoléances.

Toutes mes condoléances.  Please accept my deepest condolences.

A few days ago, a gunman in Toulouse, France opened fire on a Jewish day school. A preschool. An elementary school. A safe place for parents to bring their children to learn, and worship. A place where the most difficult storm to weather should be someone throwing sand on the playground, or saying "I don't want to be your friend anymore."

The gunman killed four people. A rabbi and four children. The suspect, also suspected of killing three soldiers of North African descent, is currently under siege by police.

Toutes mes condoléances.

TOULOUSE, March 21, 2012 Flowers are seen at the gate of the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, southwest France, March 20, 2012. A gunman shot dead four people, including three children, outside the school on Monday morning. (Image: © Wei Wei/Xinhua/ZUMAPRESS.com)

I dropped Max off at Jewish preschool this morning.

We sat in the car for a moment together, Max yelling out the window "Hi fwends! I come to pweschool today!" I watched the mommies in their workout clothes shuffle toddlers in winter jackets through the front gate. Mrs J, our amazing director, greeted each family by name. Children hopped and skipped into their classrooms as parents tucked lunch boxes and extra "big girl panties" into cubbies.

An ordinary morning, at an ordinary school.

But it's not an ordinary school. Not our school, and not the school in Toulouse.

It is a Jewish school. For Jewish children and Jewish families. That in itself makes us a target for hate.

I'd be lying if I said that it didn't cross my mind when we made the decision to enroll Max in a Jewish preschool, that this could possibly put us in harms way. Living 33 years as a Jewish woman has made me painfully aware of what anti-semitism looks and feels like. My neurotic alter ego whispered in the back of my mind that going to a Jewish preschool "outed" us. It screams "here we are!" It defines us. None of which is bad. None of which we are not proud of. But being proud and being open, can make you a target. It's a risk that we willingly take, but when it's my two-year-old taking it, as he runs through the preschool courtyard yelling "I Buzz Lightyear!", it makes me a little sick to my stomach.

Because what happened in Toulouse could easily have happened here.

Hate is universal.

I've seen it up close. When I was 21, I traveled with a performing arts group called Up With People. Yes, that Up With People. We were a singing, dancing, love-spreading group of 150 hope-filled young adults from over a dozen different countries. We had serious goodness to share, y’all. When we went on tour with our show, we stayed with host families, because it was the best way to see a new city up close. One afternoon we pulled up to a tiny military town in New Mexico. Five of us women were greeted by a small group of young, handsome "host dads," who were stationed there and working for the German Air Force. They had asked specifically to host young ladies, and somehow (somehow???!!!) their request had been granted.

It was a party before we even got out of their beat-up, circa 1985 VW van and walked into their house. Their refrigerator was stocked to the gills with beer. And ketchup. They had a hot tub overlooking the city, and threw a party for us that night. We soon realized that they were pretty harmless, and jumped headfirst into getting to know these gentle souls who loved American pop music and lovingly made us breakfast each morning. They were respectful, and doting, and treated us like little sisters. And as luck would have it, a little mutual crush between me and one of my "host dads" began to spark. We sat together in the hot tub one night and I asked him about his life in Germany.

"I lived on the wrong side of the wall," he laughed. "When the wall came down, things were even worse for us. The Jews made things worse." He went on to say that the Jews caused his family's poverty. That as a teenager he had joined the Neo-Nazi movement, and found comfort there. My face burned as he spoke. He obviously had no idea that I was Jewish. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to not be wearing a bikini in a hot tub with a guy who had a German accent. I couldn't stop thinking about my Baubee, and how ashamed she would be if she knew I was having a conversation with a Neo-Nazi German soldier. A drunk one at that. I felt the weight of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, on my shoulders. Get OUT of here, I was screaming to myself. But I was captivated. Anti-semitism had a face; anti-semitism was wearing swim trunks.

For the record, I never hooked up with Host Dad. I made up excuses so that I could avoid him for the rest of our stay. And on the last night we were there, each student passed around a host family journal for the "dads" to sign. Host Dad spent quite a while writing me a note. He told me that he thought I was pretty, and that he loved our talks in the hot tub. He said he hoped that we could see each other again sometime, and that he had loved watching our show and getting to know me. And when he finished, he looked up at me and said, "Hey ... I never asked you your last name. What’s your last name?"

"It's Silverstein," I said. And I looked him square in the eye.

The silence fell on us like stones from the sky.

"That's a Jewish last name," he said.

"Hmmm ..." I said. Softly. Clearly. "Yes, it is." I met his gaze and smiled, took my book, and walked away.

Anti-Semitism has a face. Jewish children have faces. Young blonde girls in bikinis and chiseled German Air Force guys can meet up in the night and dance through a conversation about Germany and the salty wounds of hate. Beautiful babies walking to preschool can become targets for a gunman with Neo-Nazi ties. Hate is not always clearly labeled, but it destroys just the same.

I am Jewish. I have a Jewish family, and my son goes to a Jewish preschool. I am proud that we are "out." I am proud that we embrace our right to worship.  I know that experiencing anti-semitism should make me bold, and angry in all of the right ways. That I should teach my son to hold his head high when he yells "Shabbat Shalom" across the classroom as he greets his little friends.

I do. And I will. I will also be asking our preschool's security guard this afternoon if he carries a gun. Because even though I am a very liberal, anti-gun, pacifist momma, I think that without a doubt Policeman Bob should be packing heat. This is my son we're talking about.

So I would be lying if I didn't tell you that I kept him in the safety of our warm car for an extra few minutes this morning, and breathed in the sweet smell of his hair, and watched his little pouty lips pursed in thought. I gave him an extra long hug before we walked into the building, and said a silent Toutes mes condoléances prayer for the mommies and daddies in Toulouse who couldn't walk their own little loves into school today.

Toutes mes condoléances.  I am so sorry for your loss.

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