Last Friday, I hid out in my daughter’s preschool classroom. It truly seemed like the only sane thing to do. Friday is Shabbat, a morning when the Rabbi—a young woman in her thirties my daughter adores—sings and prays and tells stories and dances around the room with the kids, and families are always welcome. When I saw a new friend, one with whom I’ve spent the better part of the last few months in candid, worried conversations about the state of the world, walk in with her husband—it was their son’s day to have their family participate in Shabbat—we both began to cry. She’d been listening to the inauguration speech on her way to school and was beside herself. (I haven’t and won’t listen to any of it.)
The kids begin each Friday the same way, sitting around in a circle on the brown carpet, singing: “We’re so glad that Shabbat is here,” and they genuinely are—every week, when I remind my daughter that it’s Shabbat, she screeches, practically jumps out of her skin. “Will the Rabbi be there?” (Yes, yes, she is almost always there.) There is something profoundly reassuring about the ritual; something so powerful about the act of simply acknowledging your gratitude—that you made it through the week, that you are surrounding by friends and family, and that you have the gift of slowing down and feeling that gratitude. That we are meant to eat and drink and share in our humanity together. That we know, no matter what, we will gather. (Sometimes I think, what else is there, really?)
A few parents were there, clearly shielding themselves from the outside world. One woman had been at the parents’ board meeting I went to on November 9th; a gathering we all sobbed our way through, a picture of Hillary staring back at us from the pre-printed agenda for the morning. Before I knew her name, I knew she had gotten a pedicure with a white H and an arrow through it. I stared at her toes all through that meeting, wondering how long the meticulous artwork had taken, when she’d have the courage to take it off her body; whether she’d just let it slowly chip off over time. For weeks she kept it on and finally said to me, “I haven’t had the heart to do anything about it.” I didn’t blame her. Our Hillary sticker is still on our fridge, a pin on my tote bag. I wear my T-shirts to bed. Today, we sat across the circle from each other and I couldn’t bear to make eye contact with her—the one time I did, I could see her eyes brimming with tears as our kids sang joyfully on our laps. I buried my own face in my kid’s hair.
I’ve stayed for Shabbat before, but they have a new ritual, perhaps because the children are now old enough to really participate. After the rabbi has left—after the singing and praying and gallivanting around the room is over, after the “Torahs” have been put away—they sit back down in their circle. One child distributes change from the Tzedakah box—one coin per child—and slowly they pass the box around. (Tzedakah officially means justice or righteousness, but is usually translated as charity.) As a group, they sing “Tzedekah, Tzedakah, we should always give,” followed by: “Danny gives Tzedakah, Tzedakah, Tzedakah, Danny gives Tzedakah for…” and each child, in slow succession, finishes the sentence: “I give for people who don’t have shoes, food, homes, medicine.” (One: “I give Tzedakah for people who don’t have pools!”) They all spoke with so much confidence and faith. The child whose family is participating brings other items to donate—food and toys. The kids know why. I feel so grateful that this is built into my daughter’s education. That my child is learning that, as a citizen of the world, as one who can give, this is simply what one does.
Is it naive (and cliché?) of me to think that children are much, much wiser than us? Having been through the Viennese childcare system, which is highly subsidised and free or cheap to all, I’ve spent the last little while obsessing about our early childhood education problem in this country—and the belief that if we offered free, comprehensive, masterful preschool teaching, we wouldn’t end up with monsters in charge of the country and the world. (I’m not delusional, and I know there are, as my grandmother used to say, people who are “piece goods damaged,” but not that many.)
What these kids are learning—to be kind, compassionate, to listen, to share, to speak out, to love—is more vital than anything they learn subsequently. It is foundational, and something that we are now learning in the most horrifying way, cannot be taken for granted (and cannot be learned so late in life?). And as my mother learned while writing her books about children with challenging behavior, you need to intervene with these “problematic” kids at two or three years old. By the time they are being sent to the principal’s office or kicked out of school or sent to jail, it is too late. It starts this early. And yet: how can we make it affordable for everyone?
Anyway, I digress. This moment is forcing us all to think a little bigger, isn’t it? To see all we’ve been lucky enough to take for granted, and the things we can do to make this world what we know it can be for our kids, for ourselves, for people across the way, for the planet itself. I keep coming back to my Rabbi’s (!) TED talk, in which she references an old Jewish piece of wisdom that reminds us of an important truth (I’m paraphrasing here, so forgive me; one of you real Jews can correct me): That each of us is both an infinitesimal spec in the universe, and an almighty powerful force. We are all both. We must be both, we must acknowledge both: Our irrelevance and our relevance. Our humility and our power. Our interconnectedness and our individuality.
***Women’s Rights poster by Mary Lundquist.